While many in the West and the Far-East saw Africa as a vast continent rife with conflict, cheap labor/resources and infectious disease, Mo Ibrahim saw a land and people which were energetic, ambitious and ready for innovation.
Just nearly 20 years ago, Mo Ibrahim founded Celtel, Africa's largest mobile phone operator. In founding Celtel and building the telecommunications company into a global giant, Ibrahim would fulfill his life long vision of a connected and mobile Africa.
Keeping to his own Drumbeat
Dr. Mohamed "Mo" Ibrahim, born in Sudan but raised in a working middle class section of Alexandria, Egypt, received his formal university education at Alexandria University in electrical engineering. From there, he immigrated to England and enrolled at the University fo Bradford, where he received a Masters degree in electronics and electrical engineering.
From there, Ibrahim enrolled at the University of Birmingham, receiving a PhD in Telecommunications.
After his education and a teaching stint at Thames Polytech (now Greenwich University), Mo Ibrahim worked at various companies, including British Telcom in 1983 as an engineer, where he lead a team that created England's first hand-held mobile network. This promising project ultimately failed because of red tape.
Later, he worked at Cellnet (a corporate subsidiary of British Telcom) as a technical director. However, Mo, had his beloved Sudan and Africa in the back of his mind and was becoming frustrated with the bureaucracy of big corporations.
While many successful African immigrants would have been content with their progression up the European corporate ladder, Ibrahim kept to his own drumbeat.
Thus with each degree and position, Mo was not moving up the ladder, but rather on and closer to his personal and professional vision.
Leaping into Entrepreneurship
After his time in-house, Mo Ibrahim decided to break out on his own.
In 1989, he founded Mobile Software International (MSI), a software and telecom consultancy, which set up global system for mobile communication (GSM) networks in 5 different continents, including 50% of the networks in Europe. The company was sold in 2000 to the Marconi Company in $916 million.
Ibrahim was having fun, which as a natural academic was key. However, after the Marconi deal, he new it was time to take care of home.
With British Telcom, Cellnet and MSI, Ibrahim had done no projects in Africa. By the late-1990s, during which Sub-Saharan Africa, combined, only had roughly 600,000 cell phones.
After meeting with African government officials to discuss public infrastructure throughtout the vast continent (Jai Naidoo of South Africa in particular), Ibrahim decided to create Celtel, which he opened in 1998.
The Birth of CelTel. A new Dawn for Sub-saharan Africa
Within just 7 years, Ibrahim grew the Celtel company from revenues of $0 to $1 billion. In 2004, Celtel would become the first African company to be traded on the London Stock Exchange.
By the time Ibrahim sold Celtel in 2005 to Mobile Telecomunications Corporation (now Zain), the company was worth $3 billion and sold for $3.4 billion.
During a time when multi-nationals avoided any sort of market rate investment in Africa, Ibrahim took on tons of financial risk and toiled Africa's tough bureaucratic environment in order to increase network coverage for Celtel customers.
From just 14,000 African cell phone owners in 1990, Ibrahim and his competitors increased that number to 16 million, with 3 in 4 Africans now owning a mobile phone, increasing efficiencies for everyday consumers in the continent as well as various financial sectors, including commerce, agriculture and logistics.
His Vision Continues On
His work has helped to pave the way for a mobile first economy in Africa, including a host mobile-first start-ups such as M-Pesa, Ushahidi and iHub.
With his vision of a connected and mobile continent being fulfilled, Ibrahim allowed for his vision to evolve as he has taken on the issues of corruption and good governance.
Ibrahim's work has many lessons and extensions, including many in the various underdeveloped areas of the developed world. Professionals from and in cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Memphis should understand that many of the poorest markets are among the most valuable.
Bloomberg Africa does a great piece on Dr. Mo Ibrahim
Medvis Jackson is a web designer at Hindsite, curator at Kulchah and avid cricket fan. You can follow him @medvisjackson for his random thoughts.