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Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

Updated: 2014-10-17 13:08
By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily Africa)

Offering low subscription prices and quality TV programs, cable provider finds success across continent

When Star Times was founded in 1988 in Beijing, digital TV was barely known to most Chinese. Since then the company has been highly successful in popularizing the basic and value-added services of digital TV and managing broadcast networks. These days it offers a broad range of services, including technology support, hardware and content.

Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

Pang Xinxing (center), CEO of Star Times, which is headquartered in Beijing, has provided low-cost digital TV services for several African countries. Provided to China Daily

In 2005 the company's CEO, Pang Xinxing, arrived in Africa on a mission to seek investment opportunities. What he saw in this vast continent reminded him of China in the 1980s: The digital TV industry was dominated by European and US companies, it cost more than $100 to install and $100 a month to receive programs, making it affordable to only a few.

In all of this Pang saw an opportunity to expand Star Times to Africa, whose consumers were ripe for the picking, and where competition was less fierce than elsewhere.

After two years of preparations the only Chinese non-state-owned company capable of doing overseas broadcasting and TV contract work established operations in Rwanda in 2007, and more were set up in other countries.

Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

Unlike Star Times' Western counterparts, the services it offered were cheap, the lowest price being just $6 for a monthly subscription. Liao Lanfang, vice-president and financial director of the Tanzanian branch, remembers how astonished local users were at their service when he first arrived.

"We really wanted to make it affordable to more people. But while our services were very cheap, there was nothing inferior about the quality."

Now Star TV has more than 800,000 subscribers in Tanzania. Its dominance is clear when you consider that there are about 5 million families in the country, of which 1.2 million use digital TV.

The company says that across the continent it has 4 million subscribers, making it one of the top non-state-owned enterprises in the field. It has registered companies in 23 African countries and has set up businesses in 12 of them.

Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

"Our services cover Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, and there are plans for more," Liao says.

In its overseas expansion, Star Times puts great store in the youth and training of its staff. Of the 800 Chinese staff, the average age is 30, and nearly a third have a master's degree or a PhD.

"Of our more than 330 staff in Tanzania, only about two dozen are Chinese, mainly filling administrative and tech support posts," Liao says. "The rest are locals. In some southern cities, we have only locals running the stations."

The academic qualifications of local hires are also high, 80 percent having an undergraduate diploma.

Star Times has comprehensive training for local workers, given that the technological standards used are all imported from China.

Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

"By doing so we not only build a professional staff team but also help local people obtain skills," Liao says. "In a way that's also a technology export."

Low prices alone are far from enough to attract African consumers. The TV programs on offer play a key role in determining Star Times' share of the market.

One big draw card is football, and the company has rights to broadcast games in several European championships.

Besides football and news, Star Times is a medium through which Africans are exposed to the daily life of China and the country's culture. Channels that broadcast in Swahili and Hausa carry programs mainly translated from Chinese.

The broadcast of one popular Chinese weekly drama series has been so popular that the station often receives calls from viewers asking for episodes to be repeated if they miss them. Programs about Chinese legends such as Kung Fu Warlords are popular, too.

Company popularizes digital TV in Africa

Star Times has introduced popular Chinese TV drama series to African countries. Zhu Qiwen / China Daily

Of course, much work has to be done to cross the linguistic bridge. "You need proper, high-quality translation," Liao says. The company has translation operations in China and Kenya.

One of the practical difficulties of a TV company in operating in Tanzania is the lack of electricity. Star Times has not given up on such areas, and plans to import solar panels to provide electricity to residents not just for the TV but to support their daily lives, too.

Tanzania's economy is growing at about 5 percent a year, Liao says, and that gives Star TV good reason to be optimistic.

"We hope everyone in the country can enjoy our service one day."


(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/17/2014 page20)

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