Home' Technology Review : September October 2007 Contents 34 Q&A
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
went to a conference in Uganda on
pan-African concerns. When they got
back, the minister of communications
phoned me and said, "The Ugandan
government sold their GSM license
for $8 million, and Uganda is a small
country. So our license is $8 million"!
I kept my cool. I said, "Okay. Give me
a few days." A week later I went to the
minister and said, "Your honorable
minister ... $8 million for Congo?
In the future, maybe. Today, no." He
asked, "Why?" I said, "The war is
why. Everything is broken. Everybody
is leaving the country." Finally, he lis-
tens to me. He asks, "Well, Conteh,
how much can you pay? What do you
think the license is really worth?" I
have to be fair. I say $2 million. He
called me that evening at 10 o clock
to tell me I d got a 20-year license to
operate a GSM network in Congo.
Well, of course, that was just the
beginning. We asked Nortel to do
a study about the costs of creating
the network. We talked to GTE. We
hoped one of them would be our part-
ner and invest in this idea of a Con-
golese GSM network. But eventually
I had to be honest with myself; I had
to accept that no vendor was going to
put money in Congo. I went home; I
asked my wife. The only savings I had
was $1.5 million. She said I should
follow my heart. That was so dear, so
dear to me and painful. In the end,
I went with Nortel. I went to Paris.
I carried my checkbook with me.
How did you feel writing a per-
sonal check for so large a sum?
After I wrote the check, Nortel
threw a party with champagne. All
the Nortel executives in France were
there. They wanted to know: who is
the man behind this thing? Before
the speeches, the president of Nortel
tried to give me a glass of cham-
pagne. I said I needed water. I told
him, "The day my network is done
I ll drink something, and not before."
After you d spent your savings, you
still needed capital for staff, vehicles,
offices, and so on. What did you do?
I sold everything: my co ee
trucks, my personal car, everything.
We never had enough money in
the beginning. At
one point, I had to
tell everyone who
worked for us that
I couldn t pay their
salaries, but if we
stuck together we
would be all right
in the future. You
know, most stayed!
And today, they ve
all bought houses.
Tell me about how
you finally launched
the Congolese Wireless Network.
The day before, tests had been
going ne. I go to see the switch.
I d put it in a modern one-bedroom
apartment in Kinshasa, because
it would be safe there. But when I
walk in the room, the engineers are
very ner vous. The switch isn t work-
ing! CWN is due to be announced
the next morning, at 11:00 . .
[on Febr uary 20, 1999]. The engi-
neers work all night; I had a Con-
golese grilled-meat dinner brought
to them. But Saturday morning it s
still not working. The whole govern-
ment has come to the ceremony at the
Hotel Memling in Kinshasa. Every
embassy is there. But I m still sitting
in my o ce. I have a GSM phone in
one hand and an analog phone in the
other, and I m talking to the engineers
on the analog. It s 20 minutes to 11:00
. . I joined the minister and his dele-
gation. Now he s worried, too. He s
asking, "Should we postpone?" I say,
"No, no. It s going to work ne."
So, at ve minutes to 11, we go
into the hall. We sit down on a sort
of stage. The state minister repre-
senting the president of the republic
is there. The Nortel representa-
tive is there. Journalists are taking
photographs. The minister is hit-
ting me on the shoulder and saying,
"Conteh, can we stop this?" I think,
if I panic, it is nished. And if I don t
operate the network today, it s n-
ished, too. Just at that moment, my
GSM phone rings.
I say, "Hello?"
The Nortel engi-
neer, a French
guy, says, "Mr.
Conteh?" I say,
"Yes ..." He says,
"This is Sébastien.
It s working!" I
say, "Sébastien, for
God s sake, don t
tur n the phone o ,
stay on the line."
And I look at the
minister, and I say, "I am pleased to
announce today the very rst digital
telephone in Congo! The telephone
will never again be a luxury in this
country." Then the crowd goes pah
pah pah pah. Then I gave the phone
to the minister because I was so ner-
vous, sweating blood. The minis-
ter says, "Sébastien, Sébastien? The
whole Congolese nation is listening
to you! Thank you so very much!"
And then at last the minister gave the
phone to Kabila s representative, who
spoke to Sébastien. JASON PONTIN
I look at the minister,
and I say, "I am pleased
to announce today the
very first digital tele-
phone in Congo! The
telephone will never
again be a luxury in this
country." Then I gave the
phone to the minister
because I was so ner-
vous, sweating blood.
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