Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 12:55 UK

Mo Ibrahim's mobile revolution

Workers pull in a fibre optic cable
Mo Ibrahim hopes Africa's new fibre-optic cables will entice big corporations

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

From humble beginnings in Sudan as the son of a clerk, Mo Ibrahim has had quite a journey.

Now worth over $2.5bn (£1.5bn), the entrepreneur and philanthropist is changing lives across Africa by using his money and influence to encourage clean politics.

He moved to the UK from Sudan in 1974 to study electrical engineering in Bradford before going on to do a PhD in Birmingham.

By 1983 he was technical director at BT Cellnet - now known as O2. But despite the benefits and salary that comes with a high-profile job, he wasn't happy.

Mo Ibrahim speaking at a press conference
Mr Ibrahim's foundation is trying to improve governance in Africa

"I had no ambition to be a businessman," he told Carrie Gracie on the BBC World Service's The Interview.

"I left BT out of frustration. I got fed up. When you leave you lose your job, your car, your secretary, your mobile phone - all the nice things. What do you do? You say: 'OK, I'm a consultant.'"

He went home and told his wife he would be setting up an office in the dining room. From here, he founded MSI (Mobile Systems International), which he sold to Marconi for $916m in 2000.

His next company, Celtel, was bought for a reported $3.4bn (£5.1bn at the August 2000 exchange rate) and now provides mobile phone coverage for more than 25 million people in Africa.

"The mobile industry changed Africa," he said.

"I must admit we were not smart enough to foresee that. What we saw is a real need for telecommunication in Africa, and that need had not been fulfilled. For me that was a business project, but also a political project."

Investing in Africa

The success of MSI meant that he could finally dip into his own pocket to invest in African telecommunications.

"Before we started, nobody really wanted to invest in Africa in general - mobile telecoms in particular, because it is very expensive projects with upfront major capital investment. Before you make a penny you need to invest a lot."

When people tried to tinker with the results, it was not possible
Mo Ibrahim

He accuses big networks of ignoring the opportunity of Africa, saying that stories of tyrants and corruption strikes fear into international investors.

"Africa is not that bad.

"Two or three terrible tyrants, which is still too many, but there are 53 countries in Africa. Corruption exists everywhere. Corruption exists in [the UK] also. We have to have a balanced view of governance."

"How would you feel if I came [to Europe] and all I talk about is Hitler and Milosevic - you had your bad guys.

"Let us be a little bit balanced in the way we view things."

Totally disconnected

Mr Ibrahim believes no country - especially in Africa - can prosper if it is disconnected.

"If you were a teacher working in Kinshasa and you got engaged - you want to tell your mother. You may have to really take a real journey: boats, lorries, horses, some walking. It might take you a week to tell you mother: 'Hey Mum, I got engaged.' By the time you got back to Kinshasa, your fiance probably found another girl!"

Politically, Mr Ibrahim says mobile communication is having a huge impact on stamping out corruption, particularly in Zimbabwe.

"When people tried to tinker with the results, it was not possible. For the first time, people were able to communicate with themselves, to photograph local results, transmit it around.

"Mugabe did not declare the results for two months because they wanted to find a way to deal with it. They couldn't, and they published the real results. Why? Because evidence was there, they could not do anything about it.

"That is a wonderful achievement."

Rebrand Africa

In 2008, he was named Britain's most influential black person. He has wealth beyond the comprehension of his family and peers.

"I'm the same African boy who grew up, came here and worked hard. And I was fortunate enough that things I have done worked. So there's nothing unusual or fantastic.

We need a scientific, objective basis for the discussion. We say: 'OK, what exactly have you delivered?
Mo Ibrahim

"I'm the same person. I still drive the same type of car. I live in the same house. Most of the money I made has gone back to Africa, or is going back to Africa. I decided the money will go into something really effective and worthwhile. That's what I hope our foundation will do."

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation is, he said, trying to re-brand Africa. The award for Achievement in African Leadership offers a prize of $5m (£3.1m) to former leaders who have promoted good governance, with $200,000 (£123,000) per year for the rest of their lives.

"We need to celebrate success," said Mr Ibrahim. "All the time we talk about failures. We wanted to reward great achievers."

He notes that in western countries, successful leaders make huge amounts of money when they leave office.

In Africa, this is not the case. He says that the money provides financial stability to allow great leaders to carry on their work once they give up power.

The winners for 2009's prize will be announced on Monday 19 October.

Measuring governance

The foundation also produces a yearly governance report, ranking Africa's countries on how well the foundation believes them to be run.

The Interview is a weekly programme broadcast on the BBC World Service .
It is broadcast on Friday at 1132GMT and repeated on Saturday at 0332GMT, 1132GMT and on Sunday at 0632GMT
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"I really believe that the essential requirement for Africa today is good governance. Without good governance there is no hope.

"We need a scientific, objective basis for the discussion. We say: 'OK, what exactly have you delivered? How many hospital beds, how many schools, for how many children? Are your people safe? How many violent deaths in your country? How many unemployed people?'

"The important thing is to get this information and disseminate it to the widest possible audience. So the citizens in every country know what the government is doing."

Mauritius currently tops the list, but Mr Ibrahim concedes it isn't perfect.

"We could not find any recent data in Africa about poverty. Everyone's screaming about the Millennium Development Goals - how are we going to measure that?"

World's libraries

Excited at the prospect of new high-speed internet access coming to Africa, Mr Ibrahim hopes it can tempt big corporations to properly invest in the area.

"Imagine what that will do to our schools and our universities. We don't have enough books. If you are connected, you have the whole libraries of the whole world."

He said he was surprised that major corporations like Google and Microsoft were not investing in the area, arguing that the potentially huge user base could provide massive revenue opportunities through advertising.

"I hope some of those people are listening to us now," he said.

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