Q&A: Biju Nair, President and CEO of HYLA Mobile

Hiwot, the Editor of African Finance and Tech speaks to Biju Nair, President and CEO of Hyla Mobile about the work they are doing with Facebook, IoT in Africa and Smart Restart initiative.

Tell me about yourself and the work you do at HYLA Mobile?

I am currently the President and CEO of HYLA Mobile, a company that develops a range of technology solutions and services that enable carriers, retailers and OEMs to maximise the residual value left in mobile devices. Mobile operators can keep their customers happy by offering them monetary value for their old devices. HYLA monetises those devices by either reusing them for insurance warranty purposes or distributing them into emerging markets. In emerging markets, used devices can make a real difference to the life of a subscriber, who would otherwise be unable to afford such a device. What drives us as a business is knowing that we really can connect the “unconnected” and bridge the digital divide.

I have been working in the mobile communications industry for 23 years now. My career has been focused on solving the problems facing mobile operators by offering better and differentiated services to their customers. I have been fortunate to work alongside brilliant colleagues and to deliver great work during my career!

Can you tell me about the work that you do in Africa and how it fits into HYLA Mobile’s long term goal?

HYLA is currently involved in a number of projects across Africa, one of which is through our partnership with Facebook and the SmartRestart programme. As part of the SmartRestart initiative, Facebook purchases used devices (or accepts donations) which are then redistributed in emerging markets. HYLA is responsible for managing the device collection and distribution process, and together Facebook and HYLA are promoting connectivity in parts of the world where people are still unconnected.

One way the SmartRestart programme is connecting people can be seen through the work with Medic Mobile. With help from Facebook and HYLA, Medic Mobile can provide healthcare to people in remote parts of Africa with the aid of used mobile devices.

In addition to such programmes, HYLA operates the full lifecycle trade-in practice for many such stakeholders in North America. These operations are also a major source of potential devices that end up in the hands of consumers in emerging markets like Africa. Our experience has shown that economic expansion in Africa is creating a strong demand for capabilities of higher end devices. However, with affordability still an issue, high quality, used devices eliminates the cost-barrier and enables users in the continent to participate in the new connected age.

Our analysis also shows that high quality used devices survive better in the hot and dusty conditions prevalent in Africa, in comparison to low cost devices, which usually have cheaper parts and tend to break down. Those who gain access to a mobile device from our programme can be sure that they will stay connected for longer.

What are the main challenges you face when doing business in the continent and how do you solve them?

Although the West still views Africa as an under-developed market, in reality, many countries in the continent are growing fast, which means demand is high for high end used devices. In fact, the continent has adopted digital technologies in various areas to solve real-life problems. The most successful example of this is M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer service that processed around 6 billion transactions in 2016. The reason that M-Pesa has seen explosive growth is because it has transformed economic interaction and facilitated financial inclusion throughout Kenya, and now in other parts of the continent too. Despite M-Pesa’s success story, educating technology solutions providers about the opportunities in Africa remains a primary challenge.

Technology has enabled businesses to become digital-first businesses, which makes it challenging if consumers don’t have access to mobile devices. How does HYLA Mobile help businesses generate value and financial return when there is problem with access?

Our primary goal is to make high quality, affordable devices accessible to everyone in Africa. The market for used smartphones is growing faster than the market for new devices. By collecting, analysing and redistributing renewed devices to emerging markets, HYLA is able to promote the digitisation of the economy in these areas and provide essential services such as access to healthcare and information.

But it’s not just Africa that faces connectivity issues - many countries around the world are still unconnected because they don’t have existing fixed infrastructure. Without this precursor technology, the only these regions can become connected is by using a mobile device. Having access to high quality, functional devices is therefore critical for access and will be key to bridge the digital divide.

How do you incorporate data integration, automation and AI to deliver value in Africa?

HYLA uses data analytics, automation and AI in everything we do. Analytics are used heavily in setting Trade-in Values for devices by our customers as well as in deciding where, how and which devices to distribute around the world. We use automation by combining robotics, OCR, and analytics to test, grade and data clear these devices, which is mandatory prior to making devices available to consumers in Africa and other parts of the world.

Are African businesses ready to utilise IoT devices? What is the current market like?

IoT is emerging in all markets, and that includes Africa. In fact, consumers and businesses are already using IoT devices or used devices for IoT applications. The application of used devices in IoT solutions provides a cost-effective way for emerging markets to become more connected to solve these types of problems. For example, a low-end used device can easily be set up as a security device for homes, or as a theft deterrent in cars.

Given the dependency on agriculture in parts of Africa, there is also potential for IoT to have a huge impact on this industry. For example, IoT can play a significant role in environmental monitoring for optimal agricultural outputs, as well as on sensors for optimising power use.

Another fruitful area for mobile and IoT in emerging markets as a whole is for automatic identity management for citizens.

HYLA mobile has been recently appointed by Facebook to collect and process smartphones as part of its Smart Restart initiative. Can you tell us about the initiative and impact it is having?

The SmartRestart programme, and its work with Medic Mobile is allowing Medic Mobile to overcome barriers for accessing high-quality devices and provide better support to people on the front lines of global health. Smartphones are first collected and refurbished using environmentally sustainable practices by HYLA.

These devices are then collected through the SmartRestart programme and donated to 120 community health workers (CHWs) in Isiolo County, Kenya. Supported by Christian Aid Kenya and the Kenyan Ministry of Health, CHWs use the smartphones to register pregnant women, receive automated antenatal care visit reminders, report danger signs, and track deliveries. They can also register newborn children and receive immunisation reminders to ensure that children are receiving necessary and lifesaving vaccinations. All the data collected by CHWs is integrated directly into Ministry of Health reporting tools.


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