For a man who describes himself as a “former Marxist”, Mo Ibrahim has clearly made his peace with the forces of capitalism. The chairman of the fastest-growing mobile phone group in sub-Saharan African talks with relish of breaking down the Arab business world’s wariness towards his continent, of cellphones making the internet virtually redundant. Few inventions can boast as dramatic an impact on society as the mobile phone in Africa. Embraced there long before it became commonplace in the west, the technology allows Africans to communicate in spite of fraying landlines, and from areas that colonial-era networks never reached.
Mobiles have helped ordinary citizens free themselves from the grip of the state. The Kenyan farmer who was once obliged to sell his coffee beans in a fug of uncertainty can now check world prices; the small entrepreneur whose business depended on the whims of a government agency can now operate from any kiosk. Mobiles even play a role in the democratic process, as formerly corrupt officials in remote constituencies are confronted by the vigilant election monitor, phone in hand.
No wonder that Africa is the first continent where mobile phones outnumber fixed lines. Yet that revolution is still in its infancy. “When we started in 1998 there were two million cellphones on the continent. Now there are over 100 million, but a quarter are in South Africa,” says Ibrahim. “There’s still a huge amount to do.”
Ibrahim, who has British nationality but was born a Sudanese Nubian, had his brainwave in 1969. Rushing to a screening of Charlton Heston’s epic Khartoum, he jumped into a taxi and became intrigued by the cab radio. “‘How are you communicating?’ I asked the driver. ‘How does the signal reach the car without direct line of sight?'” This question became the focus of several degrees, and Ibrahim then joined BT, where he played a part establishing Britain’s first mobile network, before setting up an international consultancy firm. But Africa remained his passion, and he was appalled at the assumption among potential investors that the continent was a place where contracts would not be respected. “We said to ourselves, ‘Who’s afraid of Africa?’ and set out to do something different, to build a European-quality company with the best equipment . . . which said from the outset, ‘We will not pay a single dollar in bribes’.”
Today Celtel has more than seven million customers, employs 3,500 staff and boasts 120,000 points of sale. While dwarfed by Vodacom and MTN, it is the only mobile network to see the poorest of the poor as its raison d’etre. Such figures leave vast room for expansion and may explain why in May the Kuwaiti mobile operator MTC bought Celtel for $3.4bn, yet left the company free to continue operating as a separate entity.
Ibrahim, a pipe-smoking, compact ball of energy, aims to raise market penetration in Celtel’s target areas to 20 per cent by 2015. He enthuses over the opportunities represented by challenging countries such as poverty-stricken Ethiopia and war-scarred Angola. “Up till now everyone has focused on the cities, bypassing villages and hamlets. We want to focus on cut-off rural areas, which is why we are looking at solar energy.”
He does not underplay the frustrations of operating in Africa, expressing exasperation at governments’ love of red tape and their preference for trading with former western masters rather than one another, a damaging legacy of colonialism. He recalls how Celtel challenged the absurd system which dictated that calls between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, two capitals facing one another across the Congo River, were routed via France and Belgium, at international rates.
Interestingly, he is sceptical about the other great change that has swept Africa in recent years: the internet. “Computers are very expensive and they need power, and that can be a problem in Africa. SMS text messaging is replacing e-mail and, more and more, phones are carrying out the functions of the computer.”
Ibrahim’s success has given him a huge reach. He is finalising plans for a $100m personal foundation to fund development projects in Africa – “investment with a heart”, he calls it. For him, Africa’s salvation lies in private sector efforts, rather than the western-funded, more-aid-please approach favoured by Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa. “It’s great that Africa is on the agenda and Blair and Brown are interested. But I’m resigned to doing my own little things in my own little way.”