Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. What experience do you bring to StarNews?
In terms of my professional experience, I spent 15 years in a global consulting firm and was focused on telco, media, and entertainment. I served in a variety of roles within those industries from corporate strategy to launching new services or rebranding telecom operators, as well as interconnecting broadband networks between telcos within a country like the United Arab Emirates.
I did that work for nine years in Europe, three years in the middle east and Africa, and then three years in North America. I left the firm in late 2015 and wasn’t going to work for a while, but, just three months later, I got involved with my first startup, as one does here in Los Angeles. The startup was in the VR industry focused on monetization of premium music experiences, which got venture-backed. We did the Silicon Valley thing but, ultimately, it didn’t work out. Next, I got involved in a few other startups, and I currently give advice to six different startup companies. I also launched the LA office of a Dutch venture capital firm in 2018 and am still an advisor to that firm. So I am deeply involved in both the European and U.S. startup ecosystems.
At the same time (after leaving the consulting firm in 2015), I did some independent consulting work in Africa in 2016. This included two projects for MTN, which is now one of our biggest telco partnerships in the continent. I also did some work for the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC), which is comparable to BBC but for Africa.
What attracted you to StarNews? When did you join the team?
Around late 2019 I met StarNews Mobile CEO Guy Kamgaing at a demo day at Expert DOJO. I was actually there to sign an agreement with another startup from South Africa to serve as an advisor. I had also recently finished some consulting work in Africa. After having a conversation with Guy, who shared with me information on some interesting work that could be done for StarNews, I started doing some organization design and operating model design. This work would take StarNews from a fluid startup to something a bit more structured.
Guy then asked me to join in investor conversations because of my knowledge and experience in Africa; I kind of knew all the market metrics by heart. He was also interested in putting some more power behind business development because, at the time, he was doing everything – opening up and overseeing new markets, running all of the marketing, managing talent contracts, etc. So I took on his role which we labeled Head of Corporate and Business Development.
I found it interesting to see a company in LA so focused on Africa. I’m also just passionate about Africa. Personally, I’ve been traveling Eastern and Southern Africa for almost 20 years mostly because I’m madly passionate about African wildlife. In 2009 I pivoted from being a tourist to a conservationist and now run my own sustainability tech platform. In my first meeting with Guy in 2019 it was just nice to be able to talk with somebody who is African and always travels to Africa but who is also passionate about Africa, having figured out a business that could actually work in the continent.
What is your role? How does your position help the company grow?
As Head of Corporate and Business Development, the corporate development part focuses on all of the organizational and strategic elements. In terms of business development, I’m focused on opening up new markets. So I’m the first man in, typically, and then I set up local teams if needed. I also oversee all of the country managers for the countries in which we already have operations.
Within Africa, we are currently live in five countries. I set up the fifth country, Nigeria. We currently have a roadmap to start operations in nine other countries by 2022. I’m already working extensively on developing business in Ghana where we set up a separate company entity there because of what is required. We’re also currently working on establishing StarNews in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for which we hired a country manager and are working on bidding, assembling the team, and strategy. For the other seven countries, we are in other stages of development.
The other aspect of business development focuses on existing countries in our portfolio. You kind of have to see each country team as a mini company. Within it there is a country manager, a marketing person, content professionals, sometimes a legal expert, and someone who handles finances. I focus on how well they are functioning as a “company” and review and support their overall performance as a team. With this, I also deal with any staffing challenges or expansion.
What challenges are you facing and overcoming? Are there inherent differences in developing new business in Africa compared to other countries?
The business models behind enabling content consumption and monetization are substantially different in African and mobile markets in general. In Africa in particular, hardware is so disproportionately expensive and so is mobile data. So Guy really figured out a business model that addresses all of those challenges and, in having done so, it’s starting to become a gateway into Africa for companies that are successful in the west but want to penetrate the African market. We’re seeing it happen with the Sonys, Universals, and Twitters. They’re all looking at Africa and testing the markets, but are learning through StarNews how things work there and how to be successful. They soon realize partnering with StarNews is probably their best option.
It’s a blessing in disguise that we’re working through the telco operators but it also means there’s full on regulatory oversight, which imposes challenges for both our operator partners and StarNews. For example, in Nigeria, there are very strict regulations and there are four different parties mandated to be in the value chain, and no one party can be two players in that value chain. So we have to be very strategic in our partnership selection.
Additionally, doing business from the other side of the world doesn’t make things easier. What’s really interesting about Africa is that it is 54 different countries with thousands of different cultures. These country borders are historically drawn by colonial forces, not taking into account the underlying original kingdoms but those cultures from them still exist. Not being in those countries regularly makes it difficult to build strong relationships. That said, it’s crucial for us to hire the exactly right people who understand those cultures and can therefore navigate that and get things done.
It’s extremely difficult to do it from the other side of the world. But Guy, coming from Cameroon, is pretty fluent in doing that in Western Africa. We both have a good amount of experience in South Africa. However, there are 54 countries in Africa and we can’t know everything. So finding the right people in key roles is a huge challenge and is critical for our business.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the StarNews team?
It’s good fun to be doing this together with Guy and other very senior, experienced people who know what they’re doing. We’re literally in the process of building an entire company and it’s only upwards from here. It’s like a blank canvas; that in itself is exciting. Additionally, I’m combining my lifelong passion for Africa with my experience to be engaged on a professional level. I’m really looking forward to the pandemic being over because I just spent three weeks in Zimbabwe and stopped over in South Africa, but it was difficult to go anywhere else because I still can’t meet up with anyone in person.
What exciting project are you currently working on?
There is a whole new play around billing which is a very strategic choice in which we need to build new capabilities and service offering. This will put us in a new position in the market with different kinds of clients. So that’s an interesting project we’re working on. Other than that, we’re working toward establishing a home base in Eastern Africa. That presents an interesting challenge because it’s less working with the existing telcos we have Group level agreements with, and instead we’re now talking about development with other telecom groups that we have no existing business with.
As the head of corporate and business development, where, in your opinion, is the next frontier for StarNews?
This business model is predicated on having success in mobile-only markets. With that in mind, the other two regions in the world in which this specific model would be successful are Southeast Asia and Latin America. Depending on certain events and success happening that could rapidly accelerate our growth, I could definitely see StarNews reaching Latin America within five to ten years. If we’re working conservatively, we have 54 countries to cover on one continent (Africa) first, each of which require a certain degree of attention. That by itself today is a pretty gigantic operation.
There are three areas, roughly, that we need to tackle first: there’s Western Africa Francophone, there’s Southern and Eastern Africa Anglophone, and then there’s Northern Africa which is more of an Arabic culture than Sub-Saharan Africa. So we have to first focus on those three large chunks. We are getting a good headway in Western Africa, we’re just getting started in Anglophone parts like South Africa and Nigeria.
So the next big step forward is Eastern Africa which would represent another 137 million subscribers in the 5 countries that we’ve prioritized. Then, we’ll look at Northern African more closely in probably 2023.