What’s wrong with Africa? Poor governance, poor economies, poor relationships amongst different ethnic groups, poor leadership, poor political structures and the list is endless. But in the midst of all this poverty, there is a lot more hope and prosperity; we must never ever forget that.
One such example of hope and prosperity I came across a couple of years ago is Mo Ibrahim. Believe it or not, until 2 years ago, I had never heard of the man. “Why not?” you may ask. Well, let’s just say that at the time, although I was somewhat aware of his foundation and gifts to exemplary African leaders because my own was a recipient of his foundation’s prize (Former Botswana President Masire), I just did not have the appreciation of who this man really is in terms of where he started from. And how I love stories of people rising up from the grassroots. I was actually looking for a bit of inspiration from the engineering field. I myself am an electrical engineer, having a go at the daily grind in the hope that the work of my hands will one day be instrumental in the development of Sub Saharan Africa. My quest for inspiration lead me to notes from a seminar held at the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom. The seminar was entitled:
“Africa Works – with technology, good governance and a little help from our friends”
The talk was given by none other than Mo Ibrahim. Mo started out as an Electrical Engineer, having studied in the UK. He went on to work for British Telecoms (BT) and then on to founding two companies from his living room with £100 paid up in capital. These were then sold each for $900 million after 9 years and $3.4 billion after 7 years of operation! I don’t know about you, but when someone who has achieved so much gives a talk, you had better believe that he would command the attention of his entire audience, including me. Unfortunately I was not in attendance at this event, but from the post event notes, I have gauged that this man has got quite a personality. I would even say that he would have a form of crazes, albeit a crazes worth having as it has proved to have made a difference to countless lives and arguably the African continent itself.
How did he do it?
Not everybody was willing to place a bet on him, I can tell you that. He was almost failed by his professor in his PhD exam. During a time of frantic scrambling for licences in Europe on the back of the introduction of new cellular technology, no one was interested in Africa when he mentioned that licences there were virtually free. So how did he do it?
Based on what I have read about this guy, I will summarise as follows.
1. He chose a skill and nurtured it to the maximum of it’s potential, a PhD in Electrical Engineering focusing on mobile communications. At the time, mobile comms was just as unfashionable as building foundations out of brick and mortar. But that is what he did, that is where his crazes lay and that was the foundation of what he has achieved today.
2. Through his skills, he did networking, he made friends, he built good business relationships with allies who were there to help him when he needed a hand. Allies who would say, “Mo, we know you, we think you are crazy, but we trust you”.
3. He identified a gap, a void which needed filling and lives which needed to be impacted upon. And this is because he had to suffer to see this gap. He started as a student, a poor student as most students are, and he had to pay a little over 8% of his monthly stipend just so he could call home and speak to his family for 3 minutes; £10 for a 3 minute phone call.
4. He took a bet on himself, or rather, his business model because no one else was going to do it, but that did not stop him. Along with his partners, they recognised the weaknesses in the opportunity, mainly due to the problems with Africa’s image. Mo and his partners had to put all they had into their business as it proved difficult to raise money for any African business venture.
5. He positioned himself with good leadership, allowing himself to be accountable to his partners. He maintained this standard of business in order to be sustainable as a credible business. Good governance is what attracted support from his partners and subsequent investors. And the company would not pay a single dollar in bribery by making sure that no chief exec of any company could spend more than $30,000 without the board’s signature.
6. He remained BULLISH. And it was tough going, because after all this, right to the very point of sale, the banks would still not finance the company because it was an African company.
And what difference did this make to Africa? Mobile Telecommunications brought in transparency, a new way of living, and new way of staying connected, a new way of doing business along with bringing it’s own business opportunities. It even influenced politics as real time results were now broadcasted during elections faster than they could be faked which meant it became very difficult for an existing government to rig election results.
I really like Mo’s simplicity and bullish attitude on all things Africa. I like how he makes a stand for his continent, challenging any bad word said about Africa, pointing out that even Europe has its own problems with corruption and not apologising for any of it. Corruption does not exist until the opportunity to corrupt presents itself. The best thing about his story is how it can inspire you to find a way when there seems no way. When the media endlessly broadcasts that woe is Africa, Mo says, “Now wait just a minute! It really isn’t that bad!” And then because of this statement, it gets a little easier when you try to think about solutions for the betterment of Sub Saharan Africa.
This story is an example of how engineering and technology has been brought to the centre of society, and how it can help to change the face of Africa, and to spur it onto development. So if you have ever wondered how little old you could make a difference to your beloved land, this is a good example of how. Educate yourself, empower yourself, and engage in business and social enterprise and one day your efforts may create opportunities and inspiration for people that you couldn’t have dreamed of.
OK! So these are the 6 steps. Go out and do the same while I try to figure out how to replicate this model with electric power.