Ethiopia has been top of mind in my annual predictions for years, and so when I had the chance to go to Addis, I had to get a Safaricom Ethiopia Sim Card and experience the network firsthand.

Together with Tech Policy connoisseur and friend Mwendwa Kivuva, we share some of our thoughts on the experience of being a Safaricom Ethiopia customer, for a week.

For starters, the Safaricom ET sim was more affordable at 30 birr (KES 70) than the incumbent’s Ethiotel SIM (Ethio Telecom). I initially wanted an e-sim, but despite the offering in Kenya, the same isn’t yet available in Ethiopia. 

Status of Safaricom e – sim

I walked into a store closest to my hotel, presented my passport and they collected A LOT of my personal data, which bothers me especially because Ethiopia does not have a data protection law. Nonetheless, here’s Ethiopia’s Sim card registration directive.

I then loaded my SIM card with airtime, and had to take a picture of this to keep in mind. 

Safaricom ET scratch card

The network was generally okay, I didn’t have any connectivity concerns. 

I noted a lot of on-the-ground marketing and branding around Addis in typical Safaricom fashion but some of my colleagues didn’t and were for some reason exposed to more EthioTel branding.

Localized Safaricom branding in Addis Ababa

I also ‘interviewed’ (read had a chat) with a few Ethiopians to get a sense of the landscape ‘kwa ground’. Unsurprisingly, the uptake has been good, with the company recently hitting over 1 million subscribers

As expected, most Ethiopians have several sim cards given Sub Saharan Africa’s (SSA) peculiar telephony habits that have us use several prepaid lines dependent on the most affordable offering or one that has robust mobile money coverage (read network effects of mobile money). 

SSA’s device use habits also influence this and uptake of various sim cards as the region is not only mobile first but is Android first too. A negligible fraction of the population use Apple devices (which is generally translated as a show of prestige and wealth – a post for another day). As such, the majority of Android devices allow for dual/multiple SIM functionality and most devices sold in the market are often unlocked, are on Pay as you Go, and network apathetic, unlike in the developed world. 

My sense of the locals was a deep sense of patriotism and overbearance. At the airport, the attendants encouraged me to take the Ethiotel SIM. “Here is where you will get the best rates,” they said.

It has never happened to me that airports ever had the best rates in anything. I asked the attendant about the Safaricom ET, to which he said it had no good coverage within the city, and was not popular.

On praising the beauty of the path between Bole International Airport to Kazanchis neighborhood, the location of UNECA, my taxi driver added, “Addis is the Capital of Africa. Ethiopia was not colonized, you know?”

Furthermore, the locals I spoke to seemed to believe that Ethiotel was the best as Safaricom ET had no chance. What they may not know is the depth of experience and success Safaricom ET can tap into through the consortium of Safaricom Kenya, Vodacom and Vodafone, and over 15 years in ground zero of financial inclusion through the world-renowned M-PESA.

READ MORE: M-PESA Goes to Ethiopia to Compete with Ethio Telecom’s Telebirr

When Safaricom was starting up in Kenya in the early 21st century, it was the underdog – being under the stewardship of the then State Monopoly Telkom Kenya, and the GSM market leader Kencell (now Airtel). Safaricom was able to navigate the competition through populist offerings, innovation, efficiency, and generally better corporate governance. If Safaricom ET will replicate this in Addis, then Ethiotel has a lot to be afraid of and is likely to be a big success.

Now, my biggest issue with the network was that I couldn’t connect it to sign up for any local ride-hailing app which was the main reason I got the local sim anyway – to ease my movement in Addis for the week. When I contacted the customer service team, they informed me that integration was still on course. 

Trying to register for a ride-hailing app

Apparently, this was because I was somewhat tech challenged. (A fact that I strongly contest but because of the Constitutionally enshrined human right of Freedom of Expression, I elect to leave this in.)  

Some of my colleagues who were roaming on Safaricom were able to access the popular riding app Feres (apparently from Farasi – horse in Swahili), and activation details were sent through WhatsApp. Which, as I now understand meant setting up the ET sim to my WhatsApp. A third colleague, however, and strangely enough, was able to connect directly. I am not too sure what the position is on this. 

Ohh, and I saw Little e-taxis all over Addis. 

Little Cab in Ethiopia

Kenyan entrepreneurs seem to have a foothold in that market. The team working on physical infrastructure and connectivity was also Kenyan. At least those that I met and interacted with. 

You can use M-PESA while in Ethiopia, and probably anywhere else on earth. And this is not through Safaricom Telecommunications Ethiopia PLC.

I did some tests. The SIM toolkit, that old Safaricom M-PESA menu does not work because you have to be on the Safaricom PLC network – unless you are roaming, in which case, it will work.

But if you have the M-PESA App, it works just fine. I was able to send funds back to Kenya using the app. The only thing it needs to sniff is the internet to work (although it has an offline mode too).

When is Safaricom Ethiopia integrating with Safaricom Kenya to enable a one-network feel for its users? I don’t see why I need to change my SIM card while I’m just across the border.

Also, when roaming using Safaricom and Ethio Telecom, the cost is KES 40 per minute when making calls back to Kenya. But you can use online chat apps to skip that big bill, including the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram. Thus, nobody even bothers to check roaming rates anymore.

Courtesy – Safaricom Ethiopia

Safaricom is doing a number of things on the ground right. Firstly, the fact that branding is localized in Amharic, was great to see. Other multinational corporations in Addis Ababa are doing the same too and that is highly commendable.

Secondly, Safaricom’s well-known responsive customer service on social media was also commendable. I got all the information I needed on Twitter as I was on the move (their communication was also localized, NB: Selam!)

Thirdly, local representation and a reflection of the market it serves. At both Safaricom stores that I visited, the attendees were all Ethiopian and while they may have pooled together and whispered in undertones to deliver service on some of my requests, it was good to see local representation. I understand that’s the intention internally and at the top too eventually and that I must laud.

Is Safaricom about to eat Ethio Telecom’s food? Food for thought.

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'I speak legalese, understand the tech and hack the law.' June Okal is a legal professional in Technology, Media and Telecommunications Law Practice and Co - Organizer of Nairobi Legal Hackers. Her focus areas are Innovation, Intellectual Property and Internet Governance.

1 COMMENT

  1. Safaricom will be a success in Ethiopia. I however am cautious about the Ethiopian market as it is not fully liberal market, and the concept is quite new to them.
    All factors constant, Safaricom will come out swinging

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