Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Building something from nothing – mobile phones in DRC

Alieu Conteh is a Gambian entrepeneur who has been deeply involved with the Democratic Republic of Congo, even during some of the nation’s darkest days. Under the Mobutu government, he was a coffee exporter, purchasing beans, roasting them in Kinshasa and flying it to London for export.

When the Congo descended into civil war (sometimes called the First Congo War, from 1996-7), Conteh saw this potentially rich nation in ruins. But when Laurent Kabila took power, Conteh saw the possibility to build a business around telecommunications.

He remembered spending five hours at a post office waiting to make a phonecall, watching people sleep at the post office so they could make phonecalls. When the first war ended, there were only about 15,000 fixed lines in the country, largely assigned to Mobutu’s ministers, bodyguards, and some wealthy businessmen. It’s impossible to overstate the need for communications, since there’s very little transport infrastructure in the nation to tie people together.

Despite having almost no experience in telecommunications, Conteh decided to bid for a wireless license. The government’s terms kept changing, eventually increasing to $10m for a GSM license. Conteh pushed back, explaining that the country was still at war and that no one would pay that price given the risk. He ultimately paid $2 million, and was granted a year to build a nationwide network.

But the main challenges were still ahead – no one was interested in funding the project, including equipment manufacturers. He ultimately chose to work with Nortel, using their Piconode system, but had to show 110% of available capital, as no companies would extend financing. Ultimately, he wrote a check for over a million dollars of his own money.

It became apparent immediately that there was a real market for mobile phones. Even before there was a prepaid billing system or international commections, people were queueing up to buy phones for $350 each. With some of the capital generated from those phone sales, he was able to purchase software and equipment from Massachusetts to support prepaid licenses. (It evidently took weeks to persuade anyone from the selling company to come to Congo to install the equipment given state department warnings.)

A major challenge to expansion throughout the nation was resistance from local rebel commanders, all of whom wanted their own licensing fees before allowing towers to be build. Jean-Pierre Bemba relented first, and eventually all four major rebel leaders allowed the towers without additional fees.

The punch line to Conteh’s story is that his company now has 3 million subscribers, half of the total subscribers in DRC, and was recently valued at $1.6 billion dollars. As Chris Anderson says, thanking Conteh for the talk, “There’s money to be made in Africa.”

9 Responses to “Building something from nothing – mobile phones in DRC”

  1. Henok says:

    EZ—very interesting speaking in your own language in this booming technology world switch and playing lanuage game.

  2. musa says:

    My name is musa touray, I am a Gambian born in Gunjur village kombo SOUTH District western Division ,I have a comment to say about our belove brother Mr Alieu Conteh.I think it is very important for him to understand that helping my his own people in Gunjur by buying 100 bags of rice for us every year for charity and taking People to Mecca though it is good but for looking in another way by helping us let him look at the educational sector for us because we have a lot of drop out students in Gunjur who are well determine to further their education to higher height but no financial support for this people and their families and education is the key to success in life development cannot go without education we need to learn and help ourself, as it says before briging fish from the sea show me how to fish then we all enjoy . I realy appreciate your contribution towards the People of Gunjur there are ways that your can help us easily by creating some funs for dropout students and build some skills centre for training young boys and Girls like computer maintainance centers, school for adult litracy centre and capentary workshops.I will like this message to be deliver to Mr Alieu conteh
    musa touray.

  3. sekou jatta says:

    Alieu Conteh my brother only God knows how proud I am today. May God bless you.I am from Gunjur as well.
    My name is sekou omar jatta

  4. peter ludolphi says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am anxious to get in touch with Mr. Alieu Conteh.
    I am a german businessman trading with rawmaterials from African origins. In the course of my activities I have been given the opportunity to obtain a Telecommunication license (GSM) for an african country. The GSM system is 800MHz and 1.900MHz. – I was wondering Whther mr. Conteh would be interested in a cooperation in order to get this matter off the ground.
    I look forward to your response.
    b/rgds
    Peter Ludolphi

  5. My dear brother, i’m extremely proud of you as a gambian.your contribution to build the congo GSM network from nothing is certainly a source of inspiration for all. This does not only ease for the congolese people, but contribute immensely to the socio-economic and political status of Congo.
    I hope and pray that one day you will partner with Gambia government to develop gamtel to a world class telecoms company like your company.
    May Allah continue to increase your knowledge.

    Thanks
    Mustapha conteh
    Gamtel

  6. Darboe Omar. says:

    Hi Alieu,
    It is indeed a pleasure and honour for me to express my gratitude and appreciation to you for the efforts that you are rendering to your native town Gunjur. We are very proud of you as a true son of Gunjur and the Gambia in general. We definitely appreciate all the good hearts that you are showing to us. Our prayers and much blessings are forever on you at all time. We pray for Allah’s protection and guidance to be on you at all time.
    Alieu, i would really appreciate if you could put the points stated by Musa Touray into consideration. Education is the only way we the people of Gunjur can live up to expectation so it would definitely be a great idea if you would consider building skill centers and providing funds for the drop out students so that they can also have a say in sharing the public cake.
    You are a son whom we are all looking at. You always make us proud and we always hope and believe that this is just the begining of all your great endeavours that you have in mind for your people in home and abroad.
    I’m saying a big thank to you and may Allah SWT always grant you long life, good health, peace, progress and prosperity with lot of foster mutual understanding and good co-operation between you and the entire world. We also hope that you will try and create more rooms for bilateral relationship to continue existing between you and the Govt of the Gambia so that you can contribute to the communication sector of the Gambia by making Gamtel one of the best in sub-region.
    I’m also your little brother from Gunjur.
    God bless you abundantly we love you so much♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

  7. Madi Ousman Jatta says:

    Dear Brother Alieu
    My name is Madi Jatta a native of Gunjur who lives a block from your family compound, you went to school with my brother Dodou Jatta, i guess you can remember him. I just want to say how proud i am to see my fellow son of the soil making such remarkable impact in telecommunication among other things.Its shows your true patriotism not only to the Gambia and Africa but to the human race,i wish to suggest that you spread your tentacles to this beloveth country of ours whose leadership is open to investors like you.Please keep it up. We ve met briefly in Gunjur some three weeks ago, you may not remember

  8. Augustin Guy Patrice KINZONZI kia KUMBI says:

    Keep up doing the good work and fight Chairman for the DRC Citizens Global Telecomuncations Solution. Always wishing you all the best with many others to come… B/R/GK

  9. ramla says:

    hello, my name is Ramla and I am an African migrant living in Australia, I am currently in university however i have a great interest in eventually starting business in Africa. This is a very inspiring story and I congradulate Mr. Alieu Conteh on his success.

    Warm Regards,

    Ramla

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Building something from nothing - mobile phones in DRC - AfricanLoft - [...] Original by Ethan Zuckerman (Blog: My Heart’s in Accra) writes from TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania. [...]
  2. technology and microfinance - CGAP Technology Program : » That was a great conference. So what? - [...] • The experience of Alieu Conteh, who started the first GSM network in the Democratic Republic of Cong.... [...]

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