It doesn't happen often but every now and then I see a book, and without opening it, the title just does it and I have to buy it. It happened again at the Mobile World Congress. While doing my book presentation at the Wiley booth, I spotted "Less Walk More Talk – How Celtel and the Mobile Phone Changed Africa" by Russell Southwood.
In an instant I decided that the only thing I knew about mobile telephony in Africa came from a number of stories I heard at conferences and read on some web sites. So I thought no matter which approach the book takes it's probably very interesting and I will learn a lot. I was not disappointed.
While I first speculated that the book would tell me about all the things mobile telephony has done for people in Africa, it is actually the story of Mo Ibrahim, who, with comparatively little money he made by selling his first startup company, founded Celtel to bring mobile telephony to Africa, his birth continent. What started in one country soon spread to many and the book has many anecdotes from Mo and others who have worked in Celtel over the years.
The book clearly shows that Africa is one of the hardest places in the world to do business. Although stories of finding oneself in a a war zone and waiting for British marines to fly you out to an aircraft carrier off the coast to impossible negotiations with governments to take a microwave link across the Congo river into service to link mobile networks in two countries instead of routing a call between people only half a mile away from each other via a satellite link to London and back, most of the stories have a good ending and show that with persistence and sometimes also luck, things can turn for the better. The book also deals with corruption and how Celtel always went out of its way to steer clear of it, because there was the strong believe that nothing good would come out of it.
Another thing that surprised me were the timelines. Celtel started with its first network in 1999. I still remember that time in Europe, GSM was still quite early in its success measured by today's standards and yet, Celtel and others took it to Africa. The book also tells the story of how difficult it was to find investors who were willing to bring money into Celtel so it could spread across the continent to compete with its rivals, MTN and Vodacom. Superbly written and it helped me understand the business world a bit better, not only concerning Africa, but also in general.
In the end, Celtel was sold to MTC for over 3 billion US dollars and since then it has been renamed into Zain. Mo Ibrahim has taken his share and has retired from the company, now operating networks in 15 African countries. He now heads the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which promotes good governance in Africa and has supporters such as Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton.
I've learnt a lot by reading this book, not only about how companies are created or about mobile telephony in Africa, but also a thing or two about Africa itself. It's changed my view on a number of things and I am very thankful for that. It has also triggered some background research which I will discuss in a future post or two.