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Military-run Vietnamese telco recalls missions to far-flung African markets

Thursday, January 26, 2017, 15:03 GMT+7

While countries like Burundi and Tanzania are not popular with Vietnamese travelers, employees of mobile network operator Viettel have previously embarked on missions to the East African nations in a bid to expand overseas.

Military-run Viettel, Vietnam’s largest mobile carrier, is now present in nine foreign markets, including Laos, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Cameroon, Haiti, Mozambique, Burundi, Peru and Tanzania, through its outbound investment arm Viettel Global.

Viettel staff and engineers assigned to work overseas have a lot to tell about their work to establish a Vietnamese footprint around the world, especially in far-flung markets like Burundi and Tanzania - places they had never heard of before receiving their overseas postings.

Threat of violence, abduction

Viettel is currently the No.1 mobile carrier in Burundi, offering services via their Lumitel brand.

Despite the difficulties of an unfamiliar culture and language, Viettel employees quickly adapted to their new environment and managed to settle and run the business smoothly in Burundi until 2015, when the country was shaken by political upheaval.

“It was like a war was happening then,” said Nguyen Anh Son, CEO of Viettel Burundi.

Son said in one riot, protesters pulled down one of Viettel’s transmission poles to use as an obstacle.

“Numerous Burundian residents attempted to flee to other countries, and many of our local employees left the company,” Son said.

“Employees of other telecom companies joined the rush out of the country, but Viettel people chose to stay.”

Seeing his employees facing the threat of being killed or abducted by protesters, Son said he was forced to reassure them that “no one would ever treat us badly while we are trying to serve them.”

For safety’s sake, Viettel Burundi put some measures in place, such as allowing employees to leave the office 30 minutes earlier in the afternoon and stipulating that they always go out in groups.

According to the CEO, employees were asked to stay at home after 6:00 pm, and the company also hired police to stand guard at its headquarters and stores 24/7.

Despite this, the worst case scenario still unfolded.

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At 2:00 am on a day in early 2015, a Viettel branch notified headquarters that four of its staff had been held captive by protesters, with only one of them managing to escape.

“We had to call the local special police unit to save our men,” Son recalled.

“We tried to text the captured employees, and luckily, one of them managed to reply.”

In the end, the military managed to send a truck load of soldiers to the scene and eventually rescued the three hostages by 4:00 am. “I could not have been happier knowing that all four were safe,” Son said.

During the conflict in Burundi, Lumitel was the only telecom that maintained its operations.

The upheaval lingered till the end of 2016, but the Vietnamese employees remained, this time having won the support and trust of their local coworkers.

These events enabled the Vietnamese company to become the Number 1 telco in the country, Son said.

Bringing changes to the Maasai tribes

Prior to his business trip to the Dark Continent, Hoang Trung Phong only knew that Mount Kilimanjaro was Africa’s highest.

It was only after receiving the official decision to send him to Tanzania that he learnt that Kilimanjaro, measuring 13,250 km2, is also one of the country’s 30 administrative regions.

Phong said he was then told of African names never mentioned in Vietnam.

Still, on September 11, 2014, the 36-year-old left Vietnam for Tanzania, where he was appointed head of a technical team in the Kilimanjaro region, tasked with speeding up the infrastructure development and beginning to offer Viettel’s service there, a market six times the size of Ho Chi Minh City.

Phong and many other Vietnamese employees in Tanzania still remember the challenges they had to overcome, from living and healthcare conditions to culture and lifestyle.

“Embarking on an overseas business trip also means building a good image and a positive impression of the Vietnamese people in the eyes of international friends,” one Viettel Global official said.

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The Viettel brand in Tanzania, Halotel, has brought about changes particularly to the Maasai, one of the most well-known tribes in Africa.

The Maasai people, living in parts of Tanzania and Kenya, are known for their distinctive culture and lifestyle, such as leading a nomadic life -- moving from place to place with their herds.

While the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have successfully encouraged Maasai people to switch to a more settled life, they insist on refusing to use any modern tools or devices.

However, thanks to Viettel’s efforts, less than a year after its launch in Tanzania, Halotel became the most preferred brand of the Maasai people in Arusha Province.

Instead of condemning technology, the Maasai tribe members have built up a habit of calling each other for community meetings via their mobile phone, using Halotel’s service. Just one call and all the villagers are present at the meeting.

Now that cultural differences have been conquered, Halotel has committed to provide its telecom service to the 3,000 villages that currently have no network at all in the East African country.

This requires that more Viettel employees be sent to these remote places whose names they have never heard of. However, they can feel motivated knowing that they are bringing joy to local people.

At the Namayuni commune in Lindi Province, for instance, Halotel has been welcomed and described as a ‘lifebuoy’ for villagers.

Ally Mpoi, one villager, said he used to have to walk 15km to a neighboring village and climb up a tree to find network signal for a mobile phone call.

On bad days, despite his effort, Mpoi’s phone would never be picked up.

Now Mpoi can stay at home to call via Halotel, and nearly 80 percent of the commune’s citizens are Halotel users.

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Viettel is already the leading mobile service carrier in Mozambique and Burundi. In Cameroon and Tanzania, the Vietnamese company is trying to become the No.2 telco.

Viettel has also begun to operate in Peru, a market of 30 million people.

The company’s next goals are to penetrate Nigeria, with 180 million potential customers, and Ethiopia, a market of 100 million.

The company has also obtained a license to offer its service in the Congo, and is eyeing such Southeast Asian markets as the Philippines and Indonesia, plus some in Europe.

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