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 subscribers, his nation must have seemed hopelessly ill suited for any investment in technology.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is about the size of Western Europe and has an estimated population 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 telephones, and no more than 10,000 people had analog mobile handsets.
In building his company, Conteh faced challenges unknown to communications executives from the rich world. Once, after equipment providers declined to send engineers to Congo during a particularly dangerous time in the country’s unending civil war, Conteh encouraged a group of citizens in Kinshasa 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 percent of the new company. By the middle of 2006, Vodacom Congo had more than 1.5 million subscribers, according to Vodacom’s annual report. Today, according to Conteh, the company he founded has more than two million subscribers. He claims that a recent offer 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 extraordinary 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 coffee 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 tolerance for banditry and corruption, and about how Congo needed very basic things: law and order, education, roads, and telecommunications. I was very impressed with that speech.
TR: You were inspired?
AC: I was. I started to think about telecommunications. I knew the reconstruction 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 government ministers and their staffs, the military, expats, and a few businessmen like myself. My phone cost me $1,200 and I paid $15 a minute for every call. I saw it as an opportunity.
TR: What did you do?
AC: Two or three weeks after Father Kabila’s speech, a friend introduced me to the minister [of post and telecommunications, Kinkela Vinkasi]. I asked the minister if I could submit 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 firm: he said I had to provide proper documentation. And as he walked me to the door, he said, “Mr. Conteh, you understand that to build a GSM network, it’s a lot of money!” I said, “If the government will grant a license, I will build a network.”