Mohamed Ibrahim: Mobile chief who did more to unite Africa than any politician

Communications in the dark continent were a nightmare until one man went where others feared to tread
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The Independent Online

Africa's most successful entrepreneur leans back in his office in central London and reminisces about Bradford. "I did my masters at Bradford University," smiles Mohamed Ibrahim. "I have a great affection for the city."

That was 30 years ago when, as a 28-year-old engineer from Nubia ("the area between Egypt and Sudan - I come from the Sudan side"), he arrived in the UK to continue his studies. Since then, Ibrahim has gained a PhD, from Birmingham University, and rewritten the book on mobile telecommunications - not once, not twice but three times. En route he has helped create the company now known as O 2, contributed (unwittingly) to the financial problems of Marconi, and built the most successful company in sub-Saharan Africa - outside natural resources.

Ibrahim can claim to be one of the great innovators of mobile phones. He studied the subject in the late 1970s, before the mobile industry even existed, and was one of the team who created BT Cellnet (now 0 2) in the mid-1980s when he was the group's technical director.

He left in 1989 to create his own consultancy, Mobile Systems International, which was responsible for helping to design GSM systems across the world. Ibrahim casually reels off the names of places where MSI worked: "Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Japan, Germany, er Italy, oh, and Shanghai".

At MSI, Ibrahim and his partners gave out shares to all the staff, arguing that this would help motivate them and everyone would end up richer. It worked. In 2000 MSI became one of the acquisitions that turned Marconi from a boring, conservative company into a highly indebted basket case. The $900m (then around £650m) paid created over 30 millionaires - though buying a telecoms consultancy with little assets at the peak of the markets did little for Marconi's finances.

In the meantime, Ibrahim had started another venture. "Mobile communications was like the Wild West in the 1990s. Everybody was fighting over licences. But no one wanted to go into Africa. There was fear. There was ignorance. There were worries. Some of it was understandable. But most of it was exaggerated."

So MSI applied for a mobile licence in Uganda. When that business was up and running, it secured a licence in Zambia, then Malawi. Now it is in 14 African countries and is bidding for an operation in Madagascar. The business, renamed Celtel International, was spun out of MSI before the Marconi deal and, on the verge of floating on the London Stock Exchange last April, was bought by Kuwaiti mobile operator MTC for $3.4bn, so creating another 150 millionaires.

Ibrahim is astonished that nobody saw the potential of African mobile phones before Celtel, given the dreadful state of African infrastructure. "The equity in a mobile phone call is greater in Africa," he explains. "In the UK you can make a fixed- line call and get your fellow; you can send a letter and it is delivered the next day; you can take a car; you can take a train; you can get one of those lovely buses Ken Livingstone is giving us. You have so many ways of passing on a message. In Africa you have only a mobile phone."

He warms to his point with examples. A girl in Uganda who wants to tell her mother she is getting married might need to catch a bus and then a boat to visit her, taking over a week, when now she can make a phone call. Or a farmer in Zambia might be offered only a shilling a kilogram for his courgettes, but now can make a call and find that the going rate is four shillings.

"We can really help change the way of life," says Ibrahim. "We save time, save fuel, save money, save unnecessary trips. We create efficiency."

And make money, of course. Celtel is growing at 35 per cent a year, and is market leader in all but two of its territories. As billing is impossible in Africa, it is all pay as you go. "It is nice to get paid before you provide the service," Ibrahim laughs. "Imagine if you went to a restaurant and had to pay before you could eat."

The success has attracted the sorts of companies that shunned Africa before. Vodafone has just committed hundreds of millions into South Africa and Egypt, while deals have recently been done to buy Celtel's rivals in Ivory Coast and Malawi.

Ibrahim insists all this was built up without paying a penny in bribes. His company, he says, follows European corporate governance standards with the likes of Lord Cairns, the ex-Warburg banker, Sir Gerry Wendt, founder of Vodafone, and Sir Alan Rudge, formerly of BT, involved. "We had no lackeys or suits on the board," Ibrahim argues. "When you have those sorts of people on your board, nobody asks you for a bribe."

He argues that a bribe - like adultery - needs two consenting adults. If European companies do not pay bribes, Africans cannot ask for them.

With the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference in Hong Kong coming up this week, Ibrahim is keen for a deal on trade liberalisation to go through, though he is not confident a deal will be reached. He argues that investment from the private sector is what is needed to pull Africa out of poverty. "Private equity has trillions of dollars to spend. How much money is available from charities, the World Bank and do-gooders pales by comparison."

This is something Ibrahim feels that Tony Blair's Commission for Africa failed to realise. "It is wonderful that Mr Blair is interested in Africa - but what we need is investment and jobs, not white elephants."

Ibrahim argues that freeing trade would allow Africans to develop their own businesses. Worries that African governments will not welcome Western countries are out of date - "Africa has changed, it's the West that is living in the past."

In the end, just trying to help the continent is not going to work. "Charity is like giving aspirins and paracetamol to people who need a surgical operation."

With his billions, Ibrahim is setting up a fund to invest in African businesses. He is also setting up a trust to promote charity- with the aim of giving the fund to the trust when it is up and running. "It is important that it is sustainable."

As he says: "I am an African. I was successful. I had the chance to have a higher education and was able to leverage that into a successful business career. My friends whom I grew up with did not have that chance. So I feel I owe a debt."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 3 May 1946

EDUCATION

BSc in electrical engineering, University of Alexandria, Egypt; MSc in electronics and electrical engineering, University of Bradford; PhD in mobile communications, University of Birmingham

CAREER

1969-74: head of radio, ITU technical centre, Khartoum, Sudan PTT

1983: UK director of cellular engineering, British Telecom; technical director, Cellnet

1989: established Mobile Systems International, specialising in designing GSM networks

1998: founder and chairman of MSI Cellular Investments. Now called Celtel International, it has 8.5 million customers in 14 African countries, producing revenues of $1bn

2000: sold MSI to Marconi for $900m

May 2005: sold Celtel to the Kuwaiti mobile operator MTC for $3.4bn but remained as the chairman

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