Up&Ap: Ghassan Azzi on choosing Western Digital and Sandisk-branded solutions for your data storage needs

With over 20 years’ experience successfully dealing in consumer electronics and durable products across the Middle East and African marketplace, Ghassan Azzi is an industry veteran with a wealth of experience in this space. During this time, he’s worked on extensive projects including multiple distributions, channel marketing program, setting up representative offices as well as developing partner networks in Africa.

Ghassan (pictured) currently holds the position of Sales Director for Western Digital, a global manufacturer of data storage products and solutions. In this role, he’s responsible for establishing and growing the business in Africa, as well as leading the team to set up in-country distribution and retail networks in the key markets in the continent.

We recently had an opportunity to conduct a virtual interview with Ghassan for him to share his thoughts and insights as relates to the data storage industry, trends in the market, Western Digital’s offerings as well as the firm’s plans for Kenya and the African market in general. Below are excerpts…

QUESTION: Give us an introduction about your current position and role at Western Digital

Ghassan Azzi: I work out of Dubai, in the UAE. So to give you a small brief about what we have, we have an entity (or operations) in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria (Lagos), teams in Morocco, and in Egypt. So this is where and how we basically operate in the continent.

QUESTION: And what’s your overall role at Western Digital?

GA: I’m the Sales Director for Africa.

QUESTION: Please give us an overview of the data storage solutions market       

GA: In general, Western Digital is one of the largest and major data storage solutions providers in the world. And I can proudly say that we’re the only company today that has two technologies – the Flash and the Hard drive. When I say two technologies, what I mean is that we not only do the manufacturing of the two products but also own the Intellectual Property for the two product lines when it comes to data storage solutions. We are also the only company that can provide end-to-end customer service from a consumer who wants a 16GB flash disk to an enterprise client who wants a storage solution of up to 2 petabyte of capacity. So that’s how much we can scale in terms of servicing all the way to types of clientele.

Western Digital has four types of product offerings – that is Consumer offerings (comprised of Flash and Hard drive products under the Sandisk brand), Embedded products (our client products for anything that goes inside the host or the device), and finally Enterprise segment offerings (for data centres, big solutions for surveillance which require huge amounts of data to be stored). So, in a nutshell, that’s what we offer the consumer in terms of data storage solutions.

Now coming to the African market, we offer all those solutions to the customers and to our Distributor network.

QUESTION: Now, when it comes to revenues, where does the bulk of your revenues come from and where do you put the most effort, as a company?

GA: First, let me emphasise that we put our efforts in all the product segments and categories. So, there shouldn’t be the misconception that we’re putting most of our efforts in one segment while ignoring the others. Today when we talk about Consumer Business (mainly comprised of Flash drive customers), we’re talking about a solid market share in the various geographies and regions where we operate. And this applies to the other product segments.

Currently, we have Distribution partners in about 18 to 20 countries providing very solid leadership and awareness for our products as well as the brands that we sell. That is for the Consumer Solutions segment, mainly external hard drives and Flash Disks.

Now, when we go to the Embedded Solutions, our greatest opportunity in the African market is in the Surveillance solutions segment. This is where we have our Purple Drive, a hard drive that is mainly manufactured to work continuously throughout the year – that is 24/7, 365 days – for surveillance. This is because we believe security is becoming integrated into our everyday lives. In the past, security wasn’t something to worry about within the household or SMEs, it was mainly an issue for large corporate enterprises. However, currently, most households have installed security cameras, it’s becoming a trend and the market keeps steadily expanding as everybody wants peace of mind guaranteed by the installation of these solutions in their premises. This is where our Purple Drive solution comes into play, and we’re pushing into various markets to establish our position as a brand with this product.

On top of this, we have an additional segment for Client SSDs where we have a huge range for different user segments, mainly for those keen to upgrade their hardware to higher storage capacity and better performance – from normal laptop or desktop, to gaming PCs. So we have products to meet the needs of each user in as far as upgrades is concerned.

Overall, the market is growing as we speak, as these are products and solutions which are being adopted by most users who are moving to SSD technology.

When it comes the Enterprise category, it’s important to note many organisations and corporates in our major African countries are updating or upgrading their IT infrastructure – from Corporate, to Government, and other sectors. And this is where we come in and where we’re focusing our efforts as we see great opportunities here.

QUESTION: When you talk about data storage, the next obvious question is the issue of data security. What trends are seeing in the market and what advice can you offer your customers as relates to their data and security?

GA: Security, as I said earlier, is becoming a very important aspect in people’s lives. And it’s not just security in some places but also issues to do with AI, so currently customers expect to get more from their surveillance solutions. When we take about a mall or supermarket, the client wants to have a breakdown of shoppers coming in at any time in terms of gender, which product shelves the majority of the shoppers preferred going to, product choices and so on. This means that a lot of analytics is now being drawn from the surveillance solutions installed within premises, and this can be provided by our Purple Pro surveillance solution as it comes inbuilt with the analytics capabilities to provide such data.

In the past, customers only wanted the surveillance, just for the security. But now, users first want security, then moved on to demand for Analytics capabilities as technology developed. This is a client segment that is growing rapidly in the Business sector, whether Retail or Corporate.

When we talk about security, and for those who choose our products, they want peace of mind. For example a customer may travel outside the country and want to be able to check their home security camera to check everything is OK while they’re away. This is very important to clients today as it gives them peace of mind.

Again, when you have the Purple Drive, you’re sure that your data is 100% secure and can’t be accessed by malicious third parties. The Purple Drive also works continuously throughout the day, recording all the incidents taking place in the homestead and household, ensuring that any insecurity cases are captured for appropriate future action.

QUESTION: Moving to Sandisk, give us a brief overview of this specific product line

GA: Sandisk is one of our most popular brands and products in Africa. Within the Sandisk range, we have various categories for USBs – from 16GB to 1TB capacity. Within the category, we also have different speeds for the read/write function transferring data from one device to the other – from 2.0, 2.1, up to 3.2.

On top of that, and still within the same category, we have something called ‘Dual Drive’, a USB for your phone (or tablet) to enable you share files with a colleague (or friend) or store it somewhere else. This device not only helps you share files but also enables to free up memory on your device as our mobile phones currently have memory (or RAM) between 128GB, 256GB or 512GB. Today, everyone is connected, and 70% of Africa’s population is between 18 and 25 years – so they’re young, eager to learn, connected and on the various social media platforms creating and sharing content which keeps multiplying by the day. That’s why they need to free up memory on their phones using the Dual Drive which is compatible with both Android and iOS devices.

On microSDs, we have a wide range. We have a microSD for a normal phone, another one for Gaming, a microSD for surveillance, another suited for endurance, another for performance, a microSD for Chromebook, a microSD for cameras, and a microSD for Drones. Our Gaming microSD cards are co-branded with Nintendo and range in capacity from normal entry-level up to 1TB.

Then, and still on the Sandisk portfolio, we have our SD cards for all professional cameras. All cameras currently need an SD card to function optimally and our high-end SD cards come in to boost the performance of cameras.

A growing trend is the use of portable SSD products, a new line of hard drives that are rugged and more durable. These products function even after being dropped on hard surfaces, in water, or through magnetic fields. We have a wide range in the portable SSD segment, with a growing market share.

On the other side is the Sandisk Professional segment targeted at media houses, content producers, and high-end professional photographers. Here we’re talking about customers can need to store petabytes of data and we have major organisations choosing our products including Netflix, NASA, and National Geographic, among others. This is a very niche area and appeals to customers who value the quality of their data and what it means to their work.

QUESTION: Away from Sandisk, do you have any other product lines within Western Digital?

GA: We have products for the Gaming sector and community – and here we’re talking about all games, that is Xbox, PlayStation and basically the entire computer gaming community. We have a full range from internal SSD to internal Hard drives, to external SDD to external Hard drive.

QUESTION: You recently launched new products in the local market. As a follow up to this, what plans do you have for this market and region, and which opportunities do you see here?

GA: The opportunity is indeed big. Here we’re talking about storage. Again, the population in East or Central Africa is very young, highly educated, and want to be updated about the new trends. We are building the market, and our distribution network. Our aim is to be close to the consumer as possible, not through our distributors or resellers, but closer to the end-user – be it a university or school student – so that we can provide them with our cutting-edge technology and solutions that we have today, and give them an opportunity to experience the latest technologies coming into the market. In this way, we’ll ensure that they’ve a peace of mind after using either a Sandisk (or any other Western Digital) products as they work properly, don’t fail, and give them the results they are looking for.

QUESTION: You have mentioned ‘peace of mind’. Related to this, how can customers be assured of this in terms of product warranty, customer support, and the distributor network?

GA: Our customers rarely report failures when using our products. Most of our products come with a warranty, and in case of a failure, we offer replacements (for Sandisk flash disks and hard drives). In some cases, and in various situations, we also have service centres where customers can be assisted to retrieve data from their faulty hard drives.

QUESTION: As a follow-up to the above, what’s your distributor network and which resellers do you work with?        

GA: In Kenya, we have two major distributors who work with about 25 big resellers who then distribute our products to about 5,000 smaller outlets in Nairobi. In Nigeria, we have 6 distributors supplying about 1,500 resellers in Abuja, Lagos and Onitsha. In Morocco, it’s quite different.

So basically, this is how we’ve set up our distribution structure, and organized it to be closer to the consumer and end-user.

Today, when talking about a USB flash for example, one doesn’t visit an accessory shop to buy it, it’s more of an impulse buying. It can be bought from Convenience Store, or from a Supermarket, or even a Grocery shop (selling both alkaline batteries as well as USB drives). That’s why it’s a mass distribution product and this means that we can’t settle in one place (like a standalone Consumer Electronics shop) and expect clients to stream in. Our distribution structure is set up to ensure that we cover the entire market as widely as we possibly can.


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