London — As African mobile operators seek to reinvent themselves for a digital future, a key area for competition will be in social platform services. MTN accepted the challenge in 2019 when it launched Ayoba. Russell Southwood spoke with Burak Akinci, CEO of Ayoba, about how he sees the future growth of the platform.
I first covered MTN’s Ayoba platform in 2019, several months after its launch and it had 700,000 active users and 1 million downloads. Three years later, he claims 10.5 million assets, and Akinci says he has a goal of 100 million users by the end of 2025: “Our goal is to grow 50% every year and we’re pretty confident we’ll achieve that goal.” “
He points out that every time the numbers increase, it becomes easier to move to an ever-increasing number: “When you get a sizable amount of users, you’re good enough to be known as a service provider.”
Akinci was hired by Turkcell’s MTN, where he ran a similar platform called bip launched in 2014: “I took over its management in 2015 and it was spun off as a separate company.” It has 30 million active users and attracts users from the Turkish diaspora from as far away as Pakistan and Germany: “You never know where the OTT stuff will go. It’s not just used by Turkcell subscribers.”
Mimicking bip, Ayoba has established itself as a separate company: “You need a culture and a start-up mentality. But we are happy to have MTN behind us with their financial resources and ability to offer zero-fee services. We are running a lean operation and being in Cape Town is part of it.”
The Ayoba platform is a ‘super app’ with three elements: chat, voice, and story sharing: “Users can connect with their loved ones and express themselves. It’s also zero-rated for MTN users.” On the content side, it has music, media channels, and the latest news: “There’s high-quality, targeted content on topics you’d be interested in. It’s also free content.”
But what is the business model? “Content owners get reach and monetization comes later. We anticipate that monetization will come from one of two routes: paid premium content, for which there is some demand, and advertising, which we can sell”. In addition, payment transactions will remain commission-free during the growth phase: “In the end, when there are transactions and monetization, the amount charged will depend on the payment channel. We give the user flexibility.”
He believes that micro-apps from innovators across the continent will be the platform’s ‘secret sauce’: “We are becoming a platform that people know about and the game will change. We don’t yet know what the innovators will bring us. We have connections to the startup community and I’ve been doing hackathons”
Ayoba has been deployed in sub-Saharan Africa: “Local operators see value in it. The local community (Ayoba) creates value for them. We also have users from the Americas, but the focus will always be mainland Africa.”
The most used part of the ‘super app’ is communications, the equivalent of WhatsApp. But music is very important content for Ayoba and it is the second most used service in many countries: “In countries like Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville, messaging is in the lead, but in South Africa music is a very strong second.” .
Games are also picking up very quickly: “We are investing in the gaming side, changing the user interface and increasing the number of partnerships. As a result, usage has quadrupled in the last three months. Games are free. You create a community first and then think about monetizing.”
So how does Ayoba relate to MTN’s broader strategic ambitions: “MTN 2025 strategy is for the company to become a techco rather than a telco. Digital and OTT services are one of the pillars of that strategy and we are the executors of that strategy.”
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