TR: How did you feel writing a personal check for so large a sum?
AC: 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 champagne. I said I needed water. I told him, “The day my network is done I’ll drink something, and not before.”
TR: After you’d spent your savings, you still needed capital for staff, vehicles, offices, and so on. What did you do?
AC: I sold everything: my coffee 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.
TR: Tell me about how you finally launched the Congolese Wireless Network.
AC: The day before, tests had been going fine. 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 nervous. The switch isn’t working! CWN is due to be announced the next morning, at 11:00 a.m. [on February 20, 1999]. The engineers work all night; I had a Congolese grilled-meat dinner brought to them. But Saturday morning it’s still not working. The whole government has come to the ceremony at the Hotel Memling in Kinshasa. Every embassy is there. But I’m still sitting in my office. 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 a.m. I joined the minister and his delegation. Now he’s worried, too. He’s asking, “Should we postpone?” I say, “No, no. It’s going to work fine.”
So, at five minutes to 11, we go into the hall. We sit down on a sort of stage. The state minister representing the president of the republic is there. The Nortel representative is there. Journalists are taking photographs. The minister is hitting me on the shoulder and saying, “Conteh, can we stop this?” I think, if I panic, it is finished. And if I don’t operate the network today, it’s finished, too. Just at that moment, my GSM phone rings. I say, “Hello?” The Nortel engineer, 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 turn the phone off, stay on the line.” And I look at the minister, and I say, “I am pleased to announce today the very first 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 nervous, sweating blood. The minister 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.