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Why USSD and SMSC Technologies should be an integral element for any business’s Success in Africa

An interview with with Hemraj Mahabir – NG-VAS Solution Stream Owner at Adapt IT Telecoms

By Katucia Moussongo

USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is an essential technology alongside SMSC. A fair amount of transactional communication between businesses and customers in Africa revolves around it. In the same vein, Adapt IT Telecoms stands out in the industry with a one-of-a-kind product called “NextGen v.Services Framework” that includes USSD. Learn more about the future of USSD in Africa in this interview with Hemraj Mahabir, NG-VAS Solution Stream Owner.

An interview with with Hemraj Mahabir – NG-VAS Solution Stream Owner at Adapt IT Telecoms

By Katucia Moussongo

“USSD will remain a popular mechanism for communication service providers and businesses and end users in Africa.”

Tell us about your journey in the Telecommunication sector and what you are passionate about?

My journey in Telecommunications officially began in 2001 when I joined a large telecom-based corporation as a Support and Integrations Engineer. Since then, I have progressed to solution architecture, presales product portfolio owner & solution selling. During my time working for global companies in the Telecom industry, I have had the opportunity to work with both regional and international customers in many different countries.

My knowledge of the Telecommunications framework is extensive, as I have touched on most aspects, including radio access technologies, core network (operational and business support systems) and customer application services. This includes the various communication channels, access technologies, network and performance monitoring services, customer experience and value-added services. 

My passion lies in listening to our customers, keeping up with the fast-paced, evolving technological landscape, and delivering solutions that are relevant to their needs. I am also enthusiastic about engaging with technologies and promoting our products and solutions.

What do you specialise in at Adapt IT Telecoms and why is it the right place for you to be?

In my current role as the NG-VAS Solution Stream Owner, I am responsible for providing our customers with high-value products and solutions that are simple to use and manage. 

I focus on ensuring that our products and solutions evolve to suit our customers’ needs while also allowing them to generate revenue and improve their experience. I also strive to assure the best quality of delivery on all our solutions, and I am committed to offering value-added products and solutions that best suit the needs of our clients.

It is a privilege for me to be a member of the Adapt IT team because I am passionate about assisting our customers in achieving their goals, and I am glad to be a part of a successful company. I am centred on planning and constructing positive outcomes for Adapt IT and our customers. My commitment is to be an advocate for our customers and to guarantee that we provide them with growth and success.

Adapt IT is the ideal place to be as we strive to provide our customers with innovative and tailored solutions. Additionally, because of the ongoing digital enablement and digital evolution of the sector in which we work. Our commitment to customer satisfaction is unparalleled, and we are proud to be leaders in the industry.  For any person wanting to work and be part of the latest technology trends, Adapt IT is the right place to be. It’s a very fast-paced environment and you have to keep up with the changes that are happening in the world, particularly in the Telecoms industry.

What are your thoughts on USSD, SMSC as a technology? How do you position USSD, in the African Market ?

USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is placed as a value-added service that enables real-time interactive text-based communication between the mobile device, that is, the end user and a service provider application through a communications network, using a series of interactive menu options.

USSD is widely used for a variety of services, such as mobile banking, balance inquiries, information requests, two-factor authentication and more. USSD is advantageous in its simplicity and does not require Internet access or data and is available to all mobile users.

Furthermore, USSD use has remained strong in terms of communication between the end user and the telecommunications network. it is a popular method of communication between the end user and application service, and usage of the service has remained consistently high since its inception.

It is, even now an important communication channel from a Telecommunications network operator perspective. In some cases, in Africa, USSD is still one of the most widely used channel with regards to revenue-generating transactions in comparison to mobile apps or other channels available to the end user. Recent indications imply that Telecommunication network operators are not seeing a decrease in transactional revenue from USSD. In fact, USSD remains an essential channel for revenue-generating transactions for many mobile network operators.

When USSD services are interrupted or unavailable, mobile network operators are likely to experience revenue losses. This is due to revenue-generating services such as top-ups, airtime transfer and please call me services being unavailable via the channel, and can also have an impact on customer experience.

Moving on to SMSC (Short Message Service Center), it’s also part of the value-added service provided by a Telecommunications network provider, with the purpose of routing and delivering of SMS text messages. SMSCs are crucial components of SMS enablement and functionality since they store and forward SMS messages from person to person (P2P), application to person (A2P) and person to application (P2A).  Despite once being the most popular person-to-person messaging channel, SMSC is currently mostly used for application-to-person messaging. This includes SMS for advertising and notifying customers of transactions taking place at, say, banks or other financial services. It helps with two-factor authentication and provides notification on emergency and precautionary alerts. It has many other use cases. 

In summary, both SMSC and USSD are still considered important text-based communication technologies in the Telecommunications industry. They provide users with a real-time, simple, and interactive manner to access services and conduct transactions.

Do you think Africa or the African market will ever get rid of these two technologies?

Africa is considered a third-world economy, which means there aren’t many smartphones on the market. Smartphone technology is not yet being adopted by 100% of the population. Many of our end users regard feature phones as their prime method of using mobile services. As a result, USSD and SMSC remain crucial communication components for these users due to the high cost of data in the industry or the mobile Telecommunications network. It is also believed that users in Africa are not highly adaptable to utilising mobile data. This somehow prevents them from using applications to engage with their service offerings.

Many customers will therefore view USSD in its simplicity and zero cost as the main choice of communication for the various services enablement, even though they have the alternative applications available for download or use. For instance, if a user wishes to reload their airtime or purchase data bundles, they will typically use USSD to do so. They will continue to use USSD to obtain service information regarding their data or airtime balances. This has been observed in countries like South Africa and Nigeria, where in some cases, USSD transactions are upwards of more than a billion a month for Telecom operators. This indicates that USSD remains the primary method of communication for mobile users in Africa. 

What type of businesses are you seeing adopting USSD? SMEs or big Businesses, which sector and why, and what will be value for them?

Businesses of all sizes are seeking for methods to connect and engage with their customers, and they do so in a variety of ways. With regard to the uses of USSD, the first is Self-Management Services. USSD provides customers with self-help services that are quick and easy to use. i.e., instead of call centre agents, they are able to conduct transactions, obtain information, and do much more.  For example, a case where USSD can be used as a call to action, is when the user makes use of the USSD code and follows the appropriate menus and prompts.

As a result, time is not wasted on unnecessary dialogue between the customer and a call centre agent. Customers are able to get all the information they need about the services or offerings they are interested in directly from the business application or services they are engaging with.

Then, USSD can be used for surveys; for example, businesses can invite users to engage in marketing survey campaigns. These surveys provide feedback from customers, or they are used to gather information for new products or services that they are offering. These surveys are useful because they collect responses that allow businesses to make better decisions and put in more effort to create more effective marketing campaigns.

And the other aspect which in USSD can be used by businesses is for enhancing Customer Experience. For example, mobile banking is a popular mobile financial service, especially in emerging markets and Africa. These mobile financial services can be complemented by USSD, which is available on any mobile device. In Africa, we see many mobile banking service providers using USSD which is used as the core transactional medium for mobile banking.

For information updates, businesses use USSD to provide their customers with value-added services through wireless application service providers (WASPs). This includes receiving news, sports, and other updates, as well as buying content and other services.

Furthermore, businesses are looking at ways to use USSD in order to improve revenue and profitability, as demonstrated by the following examples:  mobile advertising has shown to be quite effective when combined with other mediums. In other words, USSD provides businesses with a greater reach in terms of advertising. For example, with USSD code, users can invoke a “Please Call Me” message to another party, and the resulting SMS can be further monetised by advertisement injection into available white space. 

Using coupons or vouchers to provide free services or discounts is another strategy for attracting new clients. Businesses have the possible to use USSD vouchers and unique offers to provide potential buyers with a project code or an opportunity to test their products or services.

Finally, organising competitions that integrate USSD and social media is popular because USSD codes make it easy for potential customers to enter the competition. In this approach, USSD allows you to reach out to potential clients with whom you would not have otherwise interacted.

What is the future of USSD in Africa?

USSD has been present for a very long time. I would say over the past three decades, it has segmented itself into the Telecommunication industry as a simple, functional and powerful Technology.  The value lies in the fact that it’s the perfect way to connect and reach customers no matter what mobile device they have. Indeed, in Africa, we see everything from low-cost mobile devices to high-end smartphones. It also means that regardless of whether the consumer has data or no Internet connectivity or what network they are on, USSD is available to all of them, implying that it is entirely inclusive.

In Africa mainly, the use of USSD has not wavered. About 90% of mobile transactions in sub-Saharan Africa flow through USSD. This is a report taken from GSMA. And the African market generally uses USSD for a range of activities like transferring money, doing top-ups, buying data bundles, and getting information regarding the services they have. There has been a massive adoption of USSD because of the availability on feature phones and smartphones. This enables far-reaching capabilities to a broader audience compared to mobile applications. 

I believe that USSD will be operational for the next 5 to 10 years. In fact, we’re seeing customers or Telecommunication operators trying to find ways to use USSD over data which is ironic because USSD is not a data-driven technology. It is typically a technology used over the traditional  SS7 network, which does not require data or the Internet. Operators are seeking alternatives where the USSD service is enabled over the data network, for example, 4G and 5G. 

Over and above this, USSD will remain a popular mechanism for communication service providers and businesses and end usersin Africa because of its zero to very low transaction costs. In most cases, USSD is free, interactive, quick, simple, and user-friendly. In this way, especially in Africa, businesses can reach broader audiences at an incredibly low cost, regardless of their connectivity. This opens a wide range of opportunities and possibilities for businesses and how they can choose to use the USSD technology to the end users.

How does Digital Transformation empower the African Region today and in the future?

Digital Transformation has the potential to significantly empower the African region today and in the future. It is a powerful tool that can help to improve access to education, healthcare services, economic growth, governance and public services, and communication and connectivity.

In terms of access to education, Digital Transformation may help bridge the gap for people in remote and rural areas who may not have access to traditional educational institutions. This can be achieved through the use of online courses, virtual classrooms, and e-learning platforms. 

Healthcare services can also be enhanced through the delivery of telemedicine services, remote consultations, and remote monitoring of patients. This will be particularly beneficial for people in remote areas who may not have easy access to healthcare facilities. 

Moreover, Digital Transformation have the capacity to boost economic growth through the growth of e-commerce, digital payments, and online marketplaces. This will lead to the creation of  new jobs, increase productivity, and drive innovation.

In terms of governance and public services, Digital Transformation enables the delivery of online government services, the digitisation of public records, and the use of data analytics to make better decisions. Finally, Digital Transformation may help enhance communication and connectivity by enabling the growth of mobile networks, broadband, and Wi-Fi networks. This can improve access to information, promote collaboration, and enable remote work.

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