Home' Technology Review : September October 2007 Contents Q&A
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
Alieu Conteh, the chairman of
Vodacom Congo, created a
mobile digital communications
network in a country where none had
existed. In 1999, when he launched
what was then Congolese Wireless
Network (CWN) with just 4,000 sub-
scribers, his nation must have seemed
hopelessly ill suited for any invest-
ment in technology.
The Democratic Republic of
Congo is about the size of Western
Europe and has an estimated popu-
lation of 65 million. But it is one of
the least developed nations in the
world, with less than 2,000 miles
of paved roads. In 1999, fewer than
15,000 houses had land-based tele-
phones, and no more than 10,000
people had analog mobile handsets.
In building his company, Conteh
faced challenges unknown to com-
munications executives from the
rich world. Once, after equipment
providers declined to send engi-
neers to Congo during a particu-
larly dangerous time in the country s
unending civil war, Conteh encour-
aged a group of citizens in Kin-
shasa to collect scrap metal and
weld it into a cell-phone tower.
In 2001, Conteh and Vodacom,
South Africa s largest mobile-service
provider, formed a joint venture in
which Vodacom would hold 51 per-
cent of the new company. By the
middle of 2006, Vodacom Congo
had more than 1.5 million sub-
scribers, according to Vodacom s
annual report. Today, according to
Conteh, the company he founded
has more than two million sub-
scribers. He claims that a recent
o er for his shares valued Vodacom
Congo at more than $1.5 billion.
Technology Review s editor in
chief met Alieu Conteh by chance at
a technology conference in Tanzania.
In person, Conteh, who is 55,
appears optimistic, cheerful, vital.
He is also richly amused by his own
story. While grateful for his extraor-
dinary good fortune and proud of
his contribution to his country, he
also relishes the human comedy of
the founding of Vodacom Congo.
TR: Before this, had you ever
worked in communications?
Conteh: I exported co ee beans.
But during the civil war in Congo,
I lost everything in the countryside
to the rebels. When Father [Laurent
Désiré] Kabila took power [in May
1997], he made a famous speech in
Kinshasa. He spoke about zero toler-
ance for banditry and corr uption, and
about how Congo needed very basic
things: law and order, education,
roads, and telecommunications. I was
very impressed with that speech.
You were inspired?
I was. I started to think about tele-
communications. I knew the recon-
struction of the infrastructure of
Congo was going to need billions
and billions of dollars. Maybe the
whole world would have to help. But
I started thinking: I was one of the
few people in Congo who owned a
mobile handset. The people who
had handsets were mainly govern-
ment ministers and their sta s, the
military, expats, and a few business-
men like myself. My phone cost me
$1,200 and I paid $15 a minute for
every call. I saw it as an opportunity.
What did you do?
Two or three weeks after Father
Kabila s speech, a friend introduced
me to the minister [of post and tele-
communications, Kinkela Vinkasi].
I asked the minister if I could sub-
mit a proposal for a mobile license.
He asked, "What type of license?" I
said, "GSM." [The Global System for
Mobile communications---the most
popular standard for mobile phones.]
The minister was nice but rm: he
said I had to provide proper docu-
mentation. And as he walked me to
the door, he said, "Mr. Conteh, you
understand that to build a GSM net-
work, it s a lot of money!" I said,
"If the government will grant a
license, I will build a network."
What happened next?
Well, I knew zero about telecom-
munications. I asked my secretary,
"Mrs. Baba, do you know anybody
in telecom?" She said she did. This
man, Gilbert Nkuli, who became our
rst employee, went to the minis-
ter of communications and lled out
the for ms. I called another friend
and asked him, "Do you know any
telecom vendors?" He said he knew
a single vendor, Nortel. We phoned
Nortel in Paris. A Nortel execu-
tive said, "Send me a letter of invi-
tation; other wise I can t get a visa."
I did. A week later, he was there.
He was keen.
It seemed so. Well, the three of
us, we all went to see the minister.
We explain how we re going to pro-
vide cell coverage for Congo s main
cities. Four months later, the min-
ister calls me into his o ce and
tells me that the government has
approved the license, but before they
can issue it, I must pay $100,000.
For an exclusive license?
To tell you the truth, I didn t know.
I d never seen a telecommunications
license before. But the government
wanted $100,000 in American dollars
to be paid to the central bank. I found
the money. Three months later, the
minister calls me again. Now he says,
"Conteh, you have to pay another
$100,000." So I paid $200,000, but
I still did not have the license.
It was a shakedown.
Wait! It gets funnier. In January of
1998, all the big government ministers
Building a mobile digital network in Congo
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