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Ferdi Moolman – The Strategic Leader

Ferdi Moolman – The Strategic Leader


The Nigerian private sector has assumed a leading role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, mobilizing private sector resources towards supporting the government’s response to the crisis. As the Chief Executive Officer of MTN Nigeria Communications – one of the key stakeholders of the CACOVID Initiative – Mr Ferdi Moolman, in this interview, talks about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on telecoms, and how he has joined the CACOVID initiative to limit the negative impact of the crisis on individuals and businesses.

On Leadership

In leading through difficult situations, just like the current pandemic, Mr Ferdi Moolman tells us how he seeks for out-of-the-box solutions that others don’t identify.

Let me start by saying that before you look outside the box, I think you must have looked inside it! Being well prepared, with well-established responses and systems in place is absolutely essential to quickly adapt to a change in circumstance and the COVID-19 was a very big change. If you are too focused or absorbed in having to do the basics, then you won’t have time to look outside of the box.

One of the things I was most proud of when the pandemic struck and lockdowns were imposed, was the speed at which our team were able to transition to the new reality, and the strength of the systems that we had in place to do so.

What that meant, was that I was able to focus on the type of out-of-the-box thinking that you are referring to, and I think you do that for one of two reasons; necessity, in that there isn’t something immediately obvious you can use as a solution (the box is empty) or disruption, in that you want to change the way a system or process is run, to make it better. 

As a business leader, you generally want to be ahead of the game, so necessity is bad. It means something has happened that you haven’t anticipated. What you want is to be focused on something disruptive, something new, and something better that will make your business work more efficiently, or present a proposition to your customers that they want. One of the unique things about COVID-19 was that it was probably a mixture of both of these things. Necessity because there were things thrown at us that it was almost impossible to prepare for, and disruption because you knew you were seeing the first wave in a change of customer behaviour that we needed to get in front of.

On Crisis Management

I think that going through a crisis is part and parcel of being a leader at a large company anywhere in the world. I must point out that most leaders, including myself, have never faced something like this before. This cuts across everything, not just economic or financial impact; lives are at stake. I don’t think anybody knows how to deal with this. However, in my experience, there are some simple steps that you need to follow when in a crisis situation, and the first is absolutely vital. You have to scope the nature of the problem you are dealing with. If you don’t understand it fully and have the information necessary to solve it, then your solutions are going to be misguided. Normally, in any crisis situation that is what I seek to do first. Once I have understood it sufficiently, then I can start dimensioning the response and start to think through the best way to deal with it. If you start from a poorly, or misinformed position, then you are going to get your response wrong. That is what makes this particular crisis unique. We have to continually evaluate available information and seek to take the very best decisions in the circumstance. 

In a fast-moving situation in which we find ourselves currently, I think it’s really important to carry people along and be clear and transparent in your communications. If you have done something wrong, recognise and understand that quickly, acknowledge it and seek a collaborative solution while ensuring you are taking steps to prevent a similar situation from ever happening again. If you have not done something wrong, and you believe strongly in your position, then take a stand, ensure your message is clear, well communicated and understood, and assess the engagement options you have to demonstrate that to the people that need to know.

On Joining The Fight

Here, Mr Fredi Moolan sheds more light on MTN’s role in the CACOVID initiative.

Our response to COVID-19 has been multifaceted, and so I don’t think it’s as simple as saying the norm is to give money to the government and walk away, that’s not how we operate. We have very well established structures for philanthropy, through our foundation, and we often work with government agencies to provide support through our network assets, on initiatives that we and our regulator think are worthy.

Having said this, I think that the way the private sector has come together to pool its resources and scale its response is very important. This challenge is not just one for the government, it threatens all of us as humanity, and so we can’t just abdicate responsibility to the government, we all have to work out the best way we can contribute.

Our contribution to CACOVID provides us with that platform to achieve scale. Alone, we could not have delivered an isolation centre in every state of the Federation, but that is what the coalition is able to achieve, and it’s a hugely important part of the response. The same applies to other aspects of the CACOVID response, including food supply to the most vulnerable. By pooling resources, CACOVID is able to ensure that vulnerable people in every state have access to food.

It’s also important to understand that while we are significant contributors to CACOVID, it is only one of the ways in which we have provided support during the pandemic. You will have seen that we offered our customers free SMS access for 3 months, and by the time it ends at the end of June we expect people to have sent more than 4 billion free SMS messages during that period. It has been incredible to see how many people have relied on this to stay in contact with their friends and family. We have also supported the NCDC directly, with telephones, airtime, data and toll-free numbers. Just last week our foundation delivered N250 million of PPE equipment to the NCDC offices. We’ve also provided connectivity support to state governments, and the Governors’ Forum, generators for an isolation centre in Abuja and free access to select health-focused and education websites, which millions of our subscribers are making use of.

I think the really important thing to do in a situation like this is recognising what is needed, understanding what you can achieve directly and then working out how you can collaborate to deliver the things that you cannot achieve alone. That is what we have done.

On Meeting Demand

The ongoing shift to remote work will drive more demand for network infrastructure and connectivity, however, the demand on telecoms could also strain the system and lead to different perceptions if reality does not meet expectations. Mr Ferdi Moolman shares the further developments that have been made to ensure that there would be enough supply to meet the growing demand of consumers.

As you will have seen from our communications during this period, it is absolutely true that our network came under intense pressure during the early stages of the lockdown, as demand for data increased dramatically, and moved from office environments to the home. Our network has a redundant capacity that anticipates surges in demand, but this was a very large, and sustained surge that meant we had to think outside the box in order to solve it. We’d had to direct CAPEX towards capacity and ensuring that the network is able to deal with the increase in demand and data usage.

Thankfully, our regulator understood the challenge that we and our contemporaries were facing and moved quickly to provide additional backhaul spectrum in order to help us manage, while our own network teams were able to quickly move network capacity to where it was needed. I think you will find that our systems have been able to remain robust throughout this period, and that’s a good sign that we will be able to manage the level of demand going forward. We were already committed to a large programme of CAPEX over the coming years which would upgrade network capacity, and so we are confident we will have the capacity in place.

On Beating The Odds

Most companies are considering the idea of pay cuts, downsizing labour and other stabilising strategies to stay afloat. Mr Ferdi Moolman shares his plans to navigate the waters of the crisis in order to stay afloat and meet expectations for 2020 and beyond.

Our primary obligation at all times is to ensure the safety of our people and then, of course, ensuring that our network is up and running and supporting the millions of Nigerians and businesses that rely on it. That has been our focus. We have of course redirected resources to where they are most needed. 

We have not considered pay cuts or downsizing. We think that more than most, we will be able to survive this pandemic. The nature of usage on our network is changing, and so 2020 is definitely now about ensuring that the investments we are making are aligned to suit how future demand has or will change.

On Decision Making

People believe that big organisations can’t be adversely affected by the current crisis. But this is not the case as organisations of all sizes are making adjustments to stay afloat. Mr Ferdi Moolman talks about the values that  have guided his decision-making process so far.

The first thing we consider in a situation like this is our employees. How will they be affected, how can we support them and protect them? That’s the approach we took, and as I’ve said, I’m very proud of the way we were able to transition quickly to a work from home model while ensuring those of us who had to be on-site, were safe. Being responsible for the safety and security of thousands of employees is hard, and balancing the need to minimise their risk, while ensuring we fulfil our obligations to our customers, who often depend on us for their own livelihoods, is a challenging balance that we had to strike.

Then I think it is about being able to make informed decisions about the ways in which this crisis has changed our economy, and consumer demand, in both the long term, and the short term. Some of the most difficult and risky decisions that we have to make in normal times are to anticipate how those things will evolve. Well with COVID, that is even more difficult, and being able to assess what changes will be permanent, and which will be temporary, has been tough. We have to make investments now, to meet that need and so there is risk involved.

In terms of guidance, it’s always about two things for me. The first, as I have said earlier, is having access to as much information as you can, so you can make decisions embedded in data. But it is also about having an understanding of the consumer response directly, being able to understand the human, emotive response, or need as this naturally guides behaviour and so trends. As much as possible, I try and incorporate that into my decision-making process

Advice For Small and Growing Businesses

  1. Understand how your market is changing. Is this a temporary problem, or a permanent one?
  2. Focus only on what you do best and do it well. Preserve resources and give yourself time to transition to new services once you understand the market.
  3. Maintain relationships, this crisis will have an end, and the way that you ride it out and the relationships you have will determine how well-positioned you are to win in the post-COVID-19 environment.

A Call To Africans

I think it has to be about every individual doing what they can to help. This crisis is the biggest social and economic shock that the world has experienced since the Second World War. Governments and companies alone cannot address and solve all of the problems that will emerge. Look to your neighbours, and understand how they are managing. Help your communities. I think the response has to be highly localised. No one can sit in their community, and think ‘I’m ok, so I don’t need to do anything.’ Every single person needs to understand how they can contribute, however small. We need to stand together. Listen and obey the authorities. Whether it is wearing a mask, educating people about the disease, enforcing social distancing, providing food or water, or retaining employees even where it does not make short-term economic sense. We all have a role to play, we must all identify what it is, and if we do, we will be well advanced in our journey to eradicate it.

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