Africa Calling

A Conversation With Mo Ibrahim

Mo Ibrahim

  • Country: Sudan
  • Title: Founder of Celtel
  • Education: Alexandria University, University of Birmingham
  • Website: Mo Ibrahim Foundation

Born in northern Sudan in 1946, Mo Ibrahim received a scholarship to Alexandria University, in Egypt, and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1968. After several years working for Sudan’s state telecommunications company in Khartoum, he left for the United Kingdom to study mobile communications, first at the University of Bradford, for his master’s degree, and then at the University of Birmingham, for his Ph.D. He spent several years at British Telecom before quitting in frustration, and in 1989, he founded his first company, Mobile Systems International, or MSI, which provided software and advice for cellular networks. His second company, Celtel, created its own cellular networks across sub-Saharan Africa and eventually served 24 million customers in 14 countries. After selling Celtel in 2005, he established the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which publishes an index of African governance and awards cash prizes to African leaders who leave office peacefully. Ibrahim spoke to Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Stuart Reid in November.

What are the most important qualities for an entrepreneur to have?
The initiative to try to do something that other people shied away from. That self-belief, that can-do spirit, that nothing is impossible. Then there’s focus: if you start the mission, you need to eat, drink, and sleep it.

Are entrepreneurs successful because of their own personal qualities or the context they find themselves in?
They complement each other. I left Sudan when I was 25 or 26 years old. If I had stayed, I would never have ended up being an entrepreneur. You can have the qualities, but if you don’t have the environment, you just wither away. It’s like a fish: take it out of water, it will not survive.

Why would things not have worked out had you stayed in Sudan?
It was a stifling society with government controlling all aspects of life. You could not get funding for any sort of project. There was no infrastructure to support you. And there were a lot of social pressures to

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