By Henry Kimoli
– For those born after the year 2001, Kencell Communications Limited rings no bell.
This however was the first privately owned telecommunications giant ever licensed in Kenya. It is this company that has mutated four times from Kencell to Celtel, Airtel and now Airtel Telkom.
Kencell was a joint venture between then Vivendi, a French telecommunications giant and Naushad Merali, then a filthy rich, blue eyed President Moi era businessman.
The firm was launched with pomp at Intercontinent Hotel by President Moi himself in 2001.
It’s sole mandate was to provide competition to the then Government owned Safaricom, which before partnering with Vodafone was a department at Telkom Kenya housed at Extlecoms house along Haileselasie Avenue.
The public face of Kencell was Phillipe Vanderbrouck; a polished French technocrat who lost the plot before he even started.
Once the two telecos were up and running, a vicious pricing war set on, based on billing mode, cost per minute and the price of mobile sets required for market penetration.
Kencell made two fatal mistakes. The fist was to market the lowest airtime top up card at 300. The other was to deduct a Sh.25 tax and their not so smart insistence on charging customers a flat rate per minute, even if the call lasted one second.
From the beginning, Kencell was targeting the upper middle class….CEOs, parastatal fat cats, the international community and other mortals domiciled in the leafy neighbourhoods of Karen, Spring Valley, Lavington, Valley Arcade and their corresponding peers in other estates.
Of course Merali and his French friends appeared to have engaged in futile and defeatist business idea that Safaricom fully exploited to run away with a critical market niche.
First the super rich never call. They only wait to be called. They considers call a bother and ts kept Kencell numbers at their lowest ebb.
When they finally appeared to penetrate the market, Safaricom introduced other innovative and value adding products such as Bamba 10, Okoa Jahazi, Please Call Me thank….all which kept then hooked. Kencell was doomed. But trust Merali, the Sameer group chairman to pool a fast one on competition.
Merali approached panafricanist Mohammed Amin and hawked his shareholding in Kencell…making a tidy some. This gave birth to Celtel. Nothing much can be written about this company, for it never destabilized the market until Airtel came calling and snapped the company.
Now Airtel and Telkom have merged to cumulatively control 30 per cent of the market. The 0733 prefix has been quite a journey. Is it over? Keep it Uzalendo.