Econet Wireless founder makes the social connection

When Strive Masiyiwa fought in Zimbabwe’s highest court for the right to launch a mobile telecoms business – a right contested by the state monopoly – he was armed with a killer statistic: 70 per cent of Africans had never heard a telephone ring.

It is a philosophy that has made Masiyiwa take risks few would dream of.

One of his boasts is that he was the first person to speak officially to Olusegun Obasanjo when he was elected president of Nigeria in 1999, after 16 years of military rule. “I told him it’s scandalous that less than 1 per cent of the population had phones,” Masiyiwa says. “He said, ‘I know it’s scandalous. What can you do about it?’”

Econet rolled out its mobile phone services in Nigeria in 2001, well before the country gained its reputation as one of Africa’s more promising economies. It cornered more than half of the telecoms market within one year. Risks have surfaced since – Econet is now engaged in a legal dispute with rival Zain over its original licensing agreement – but Masiyiwa remains philosophical.

“Risk is inversely proportional to knowledge,” he says. “Which is riskier: being dropped in the back streets of Moscow or Lagos? I’d be more comfortable in Lagos.”

As an entrepreneur in a capital-intensive business, Masiyiwa knows banks and bankers well. He uses Standard Bank and Investec in particular – two of the largest banks in South Africa, where he and Econet are now based. But it was a British institution, Barclays, that lent him the money he needed to start his own engineering company in 1988, when he gave up his cosy job with the Zimbabwe Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, the state telecoms giant.

He maintains close contact with London-based banks. “The people who deal with Africa from London are more knowledgeable than people who deal with Africa out of the US,” he observes.

It helps that his parents sent him to a Scottish boarding school when, in the late 1960s, they fled Ian Smith’s white-minority regime in what was then Rhodesia for Zambia. Having flirted with the idea of fighting for Robert Mugabe’s liberation army when he left school, Masiyiwa eventually returned to the UK to study engineering – a skill that would be needed to rebuild his homeland.

He remembers meeting a senior banker at HSBC who recognised him from the University of Cardiff. For Masiyiwa, such contacts are the essence of banking. “Even corporate banking is a very personal thing,” he says.

His connections in high finance are also vital to his increasing workload as a philanthropist. He spent much of the northern-hemisphere summer in west Africa, working for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an organisation chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, that is trying to boost African crop yields.

Masiyiwa recently persuaded Standard Bank to pledge $100m for agricultural projects in Ghana. He also won funding for farmers in Nigeria from the country’s central bank, aided by another killer statistic. “Forty per cent of Nigerians work in agriculture, yet it receives just 1 per cent of bank lending,” he reports.

Masiyiwa’s interest in philanthropy dates back to before Econet, when he led construction projects in the newly independent Zimbabwe of the 1980s. It was then – when he noticed how many of his staff were taking funeral leave – that he became aware of Aids and set up a fund to send the orphans of victims to school. Called the Capernaum Trust, the charity is now part of Econet.

“You can pay $200 a year for a child’s education and then suddenly they have a degree,” he says. “Education has a huge multiplier effect – for the individual, for the society, for everyone.”

For all his friends in high places and interest in social change, Masiyiwa tries hard to steer clear of politics. He has not been to Zimbabwe for a decade, but refrains from criticising the Mugabe regime. “If I say something, somebody will latch on to it for their own use,” he says calmly.

Instead, he points to his business interests in that country as evidence of patriotism. He says Econet invested $500m in the country last year – a sum he claims was responsible for half the country’s 4.5 per cent economic growth.

“I am an entrepreneur. I’m not a politician,” he says. “People associate African business with corruption and big government contracts, and there’s still a lot of that around. But there is also a growing number of entrepreneurs like me who can use business to do good.”
That was in 1993, when he was just 32. Now, he says, nearly 70 per cent of Africans own a telephone – with a good proportion of them tapping into networks provided by Econet Wireless, the company he founded.