. . . says Vodacom Lesotho Corporate Affairs Manager
AT 27 years of age, Mpho Brown is one of very few young Basotho occupying a very senior position in a corporate giant such as Vodacom Lesotho.
Mr Brown is the company’s Corporate Affairs Manager and has since become synonymous with the Vodacom Foundation — the telecommunications firm’s corporate social responsibility arm, which continues to reach out to needy members of society, in addition to other community-based initiatives.
In this wide-ranging interview with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Rethabile Pitso, Mr Brown talks not only about Vodacom and telecommunications but also insight into his personal life.
LT: Who exactly is Mpho Brown?
Brown: I am an extremely ambitious professional, and very passionate about Lesotho’s development. I’m also hugely enthusiastic about partnerships between government and the private sector, as well as what formula could assist that relationship to grow. My professional interests aside, I am passionate about sport and music, and also like to read a lot. I am a nerd who reads almost everything —from personal development material to business journals and biographies; anything but fiction.
LT: We have seen the great work you are doing as head of the Vodacom Foundation, which is the corporate social responsibility arm of the company. How did this all start?
Brown: When I was doing my International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma studies in Hong Kong, we used to have project-weeks, where we would go to rural parts of mainland China for the projects. We would build houses, teach English and do other social projects, which I greatly enjoyed. I believe that is where the interest started. I had always known that I would come back to Lesotho; the country had invested so much in me and taken me to all those different places, so I always wanted to come back and use that knowledge to help in the development of my country.
And after two years in Hong Kong, and having successfully completed my IB in 2005, I came back home. But soon after, I left for the United States of America (US) to do my four-year undergraduate degree in Economics and Political Science at Columbus University, and stayed a further two years working for a technology company based in New York.
However, there wasn’t much social development in the company; it was pure technology and business so I knew I wanted to come back and apply my skills in a developing context. I had realised what technology could do for the development of a country so I believed if it was applied correctly with the right sort of policies to support it, then a process that would otherwise take 10 to 15 years would be accomplished in half that time. And that is why you see Vodacom trying to venture into education, health, and economic empowerment because we feel, through our technology, the company can make processes more efficient and amplify the outcome.
LT: If we could take you back a little . . . How did you end up in Hong Kong?
Brown: I did my primary education at Maseru Central and then went to Lesotho High School. I was fortunate to do well in high school and made the top10 list. So, together with another guy, we were fortunate to obtain IB scholarships from the World United Colleges (WUC) through NMDS (National Manpower Development Secretariat). We were given options to choose to study either in India or Hong Kong, so I picked Hong Kong and my friend went to India. This marked the beginning of an interesting journey for me, one which I hope would never stop for the benefit of those good students who are dreaming of going to other countries for study.
LT: What challenges did you meet when you came back home to join Vodacom in 2013, considering your stay in Hong Kong and the US?
Brown: It’s been a big cultural and professional challenge. But I think the biggest one is adjusting to the pace of how people do things here in Lesotho. In Hong Kong and New York, two of the biggest cities in the world, everything is fast-paced. You either do it now or you don’t do it at all. If you don’t do it now, someone else is going to do it and before you know it, you lose your job. Everybody is extremely self-driven, fast-paced, and ambitious so if you are there long enough, you adapt to that culture of doing things. So coming back home, one of the biggest things you will see is the change in pace. Everyone is kind of relaxed; nobody really cares about the essence of doing things promptly so it’s a huge shift which eventually turns to frustration both personally and professionally because things are not getting done, but mind you, I am not talking about Vodacom here, but the country in general.
LT: So have you been able to apply the skills you obtained overseas at Vodacom?
Brown: When I was working in the States, I started out as Project Manager and Business Analyst which is applicable here, but the role I am currently playing, only the interpersonal and managerial skills have come in handy. How do you interact with your team, how do you keep people motivated, are answers I apply and I think I have managed to do it very well because the company encourages it. Vodacom has motivated people, you hardly find staff who drag their feet. Well, every organisation has some negative elements but we try to keep up the pace of the company and those who fall short generally just decide to leave.
LT: You are one of the few young people I have seen in managerial positions at such big corporate organisations, and I have also realised that Vodacom Lesotho has quite a number of young managers. Does the company have a policy of hiring along someone’s age?
Brown: To start with, our Managing Director, Ian Ferrao, is a young guy and our middle management team also comprises of very young people. However, there is no policy about the way people are hired. Telecom is a fast-paced industry that is constantly changing; you need to know the next thing before it happens and have to adapt quickly and more often than not, it’s the young people who are able and willing to do so.
LT: What more can we expect from Vodacom in the near future?
Brown: The year 2015 is going to be one of the biggest for Vodacom, not just from a commercial point of view but basically, I am excited about the things that we are doing at the Vodacom Foundation. In December last year, we launched the ‘i-school’ programme where we are going into primary schools to introduce technology in the form of tablet computers. When schools kick off this term, we will be in classrooms with the teachers, and will be piloting throughout the year. Then, in about two months’ time, we will be launching a Vodacom Innovation Park, which is a business incubator not just exclusively for information technology businesses but companies and individuals willing to explore this industry; it could be textile or farming enterprises hoping to transform their businesses. It is going to be a physical space at Maseru Mall. We are designing it in such a way that it would have tables and computers, equal access to everyone and people would be given a chance to apply for the training and then come out with better defined business structures. We also have a project around HIV/AIDS in conjunction with the health sector.
LT: We know that Vodacom continues to give back to the community. However, there are some local artistes who were not impressed with the 2014 Vodacom Summa Feva show, which took place over the festive season. They claim the show is unfairly competing with them at a time when they are in dire need of making money themselves whereas Vodacom South Africa is not competing against its own artists. What do you have to say about this?
Brown: Vodacom is independent in every country it operates so the company functions according to how it views the nation. Vodacom SA does not have a Summa Feva concert but has other concepts which we are not implementing ourselves. Tanzania have their own and call it whatever they want. I am surprised that smaller artistes would see the Summa Feva as something that interferes with what they do because, when you look at the line-up, the ratio of artists from SA and those from Lesotho was almost one-to-one. We try to use that platform for local artistes to showcase their work. The turnout for the show was over 24 000 fans, the biggest stage any local artiste can perform on. All it takes is for these guys to prove themselves. We felt those who performed deserved to be there; the quality of their music speaks for itself. I would like to challenge those guys who are saying we are encroaching onto their space to work hard enough to be on that stage because there is no telling who could then recognise and invite them to record in Jo’burg tomorrow.
LT: What message would you like to send to Basotho regarding Vodacom Lesotho?
Brown: First of all, I wish to appreciate the opportunity the company has given me to drive some of the social projects I have the privilege to work on. I would also like to urge Basotho to embrace those projects; it is not many companies that do social investment the way we do. We don’t just write a cheque and walk away. We implement from the beginning to the end; we partner with communities because the company cares about developing the country. If I operate a business which is not relevant to the community, that means my customers are not developed and vice-versa. It doesn’t make sense to be a thriving company yet when you look at your surroundings, they are in a deplorable state.
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