Not many people have one defining moment that shapes what they do with the rest of their lives. Maxwell Nonge did. It came when he had to ask a stranger to help him make a phone call, because he had no idea how to use a public phone box.
Young people today have no idea either, but this was the pre-cellphone days, when Nonge was a village kid out of his depth with basic technology.
It’s a poignant story, with Nonge recalling how he had arrived in Durban to start university. “I had to call someone to fetch me and I realised I didn’t know how to use a public phone. I asked the person behind me for help. At that moment, I decided I wanted to study something to do with phones.”
In September 2016, Nonge became the chief digital officer for MTN, a new position created to ‘digitise’ the company and its customers. It’s quite a loose job description, and success will depend on devising a stream of ideas that persuade customers to use more data.
Such jobs didn’t even exist when Nonge, now 40, set out to study phones, but careful career choices gave him the perfect background for this new role.
All his moves were designed to give him specific skills and experience in networking, broadcasting, content, the convergence of those technologies and their commercial aspects. “That laid the groundwork for me to get the opportunity to be the chief digital officer for MTN. I planned it like that and stayed for specific periods with companies even if I wasn’t happy, because I wanted to gain solid experience in the fields I was working in,” he says.
He grew up in Vuwani in Limpopo and went to a village school with limited resources. “I was going to school barefoot and that type of thing,” he says. “It was very difficult because there was just no interest in schooling in the area.”
Things changed when he was sent to live with his grandmother. “As much as she wasn’t educated – she couldn’t read – she wouldn’t let you sleep if you hadn’t read a book. The change of school and environment and living with a strict grandmother changed me a lot.”
He developed an interest in mechanical and electrical engineering, and turned down bursaries that didn’t quite suit his determined focus. When a bursary from Vodacom came up, he grabbed it, and began working for the company in 1998 as a network operator. He remembers hearing about video on demand for the first time that year, and the idea of watching TV over the internet lodged in his mind as something worth exploring.
His next job was with Siemens, where he helped to roll out Vodacom’s networks in Tanzania and Mozambique. His interest in video on demand led him to a job with the content broadcaster Sentech. Then, after five years, he switched to e.tv to advise it on digital migration.
“At e.tv, we developed the concept of free-to-air satellite broadcasting, where a consumer buys a decoder and a dish and pays a once-off fee and then gets free content,” he says.
“My role was to design the set-top box and design and build the network itself and make sure we had a relationship with retailers and distributors who would install it.”
Initially, they priced the service incorrectly for the low-end market they were targeting and had to make various changes. That was good experience for his new role at MTN, where content and price will require a fine balance.
“MTN has seen the need to digitise our customers, and my role is to start this customer transformation journey,” he says.
“We need to come up with digital services that talk to people and give value and add convenience. There are things they spend money on right now that they could do on their phones without spending money.”
He won’t talk specifics, but mentions how some people still buy physical newspapers when they could get all the news they want on their smartphone. Other people still use such basic handsets that they don’t even know it’s possible to get the news on their phone, he says. When those customers need a new handset, they’ll realise they’re missing out on certain services that are more expensive, but that offer enough value to compel them to switch, he believes.
His favourite word is ‘relevant’ as he talks of developing digital services that are relevant to MTN’s entire customer base. His rural background influences the desire to make sure nobody is left behind.
“As you walk around, you see problems that require solutions, and that’s where you get your ideas," he says. “If we look at education, how can we use technology to make education better? And make health care better? These are the types of questions we need to be asking ourselves as a technology company and come up with solutions that make life easier.”
It’s the biggest challenge he has ever taken on, and the most exciting. “You’re wondering where to start, what to do, but, at the same time, you’re very excited to have the opportunity to do that. It’s unlimited – there’s no job description for what I can do if it takes us into this bold new digital world.”
His two sons, aged 12 and eight, are proving helpful. “When I think of things to help kids, I interact with them and ask, `would this work with people your age?’ I’m getting a lot of input from them, but they won’t get paid – they did ask!” he jokes.
His job may become harder as the #DataMustFall campaign sees users demanding lower data fees. “People buy data and spend time on Facebook and YouTube, but there is much more we can offer our consumers in terms of data,” he says. “I’m not saying they will stop complaining about something they see as a high price, but when we start offering services that are relevant to their everyday lives, they will appreciate the value and the effort we are making to deliver it to them.”