Orange’s Intrapreneurship Start-Up Bizao allows local start-ups and digital service providers to get access to opco APIs across Africa

16 March 2018

Top Story

One of the major barriers to both fledgling African start-ups and established multi-country service providers is getting access to operator APIs. You need to be across operators in a market and across the vastly different countries of the continent. Bizao has set itself up as a cross-network hub for APIs to solve this problem. Russell Southwood talked to Aurélien Duval-Delort, Bizao’s Managing Director.

Bizao is one of Orange’s first intrapreneur projects and this makes it quite unusual. An intrepeneur is someone in a company who has responsibility for generating innovative products that are sometimes spun off as separate companies:”We are one of the first intrapreneur projects at Orange and we are part of the first intrapreneur studio. It’s a new way (for us) to build new businesses, whether as internal or external start-ups.”

So what’s Bizao doing? It offers three main APIs for SMS, USSD and carrier billing. API stands for Application Programming Interface and it provides the functions and procedures that allow apps to access the features or data of an operating system, application, or other service. For example, if a start-up or existing service provider wants to access carrier billing, it will need an API to do it.

Duval-Delort has already worked for Orange on mobile APIs where he says he had some successes with start-ups and larger companies:”It’s very difficult to go to scale.”He also points to the a familiar barrier which is that group may approve something and offer virtualized support but the local opcos are the ones who choose.

The other issue with access to APIs is that with SMS and mobile money, a great deal of the people who might want to use them are “more like OTT businesses.” They are large companies from Europe and the Middle East that operate over many different countries and often with many different carriers.

Bizao wants to be able to offer a hub that will offer access to API and not just to Orange opcos but to many different mobile opcos. Bizao will have licensing arrangements with multiple opcos and the start-up or service provider can get access to APIs in different countries through Bizao:” APIs can be delivered to international and local companies alike, resulting in consolidation of traffic and expansion of reach”. The company wanting to access the APIs can sign a single contract that will allow them to access multiple opcos.

To get to market, Bizao has signed a partnership agreement with existing API hub business Apigate whose strengths lie in Asia. The partnership will see Apigate delivering a Digital Enablement Hub to soon-to-be launched Bizao, as well as a hub-to-hub connection of the two operators’ API platforms to facilitate a single technical, commercial, and financial integration.

This will enable faster deployment for businesses to distribute and monetise their services:”It’s for people who don’t want to do all the signings and chase the income (from individual opcos). Local start-ups can be great customers, for example in East Africa and the francophone countries and we need to pilot some things to see.”

The integrated platform will address multiple operators across each of the operator’s respective footprints in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa:”What we’re doing is in line with the spirit of Apigate and it’s just a little bit in advance of us. It has 60 opcos signed and will soon have two more in Sri Lanka.”

So how many operators and opcos will the customer be able to access?:”It depends on the number of opcos I can sign. I will be signing with most of the affiliates of Orange and cover all of Africa and the Middle East. I will also sign up companies that are not part of Orange for the same process.”

So how separate is it from Orange?:”We’ve been given a budget. We will hire externally and the team will be like a start-up. We will use a lean start-up methodology…The vision is that this business with have nothing (directly) to do with the core telco business.”

“This is how telcos put their assets in common to stay relevant in the digital period. With things like mobile money, digital services, IoT, etc it makes sense for them to work cross-network. You need to have a big enough market. We compete with OTTs but we’re not providing the same kind of assets at all. They can be our customers, especially in emerging markets.”

Although talking about digital services themselves rather than APIs, this is very similar to what Zunaid Mahomed, Vodacom’s Group Digital and Fixed Services Officer told me in January:”For the last few years we have embraced a version of our digital service operating model where we are able to provide services; not just to traditional Vodacom telco service customers, but to all customers”.

So what will Bizao look like in three years time?:”Our objective is to extend the number of companies that are part of the Bizao ecosystem and extend our portfolio of APIs up to 10-20 of them. In Africa we might cover over eighty opcos.”

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