It is fair to say that most of the 50,000 concert-goers that rocked up to London’s Hyde Park in late June to wish former South African President and Nobel Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, a happy 90th birthday had never before seen the symbol of one of the concerts main sponsors. While the Mercedes star was a no brainer — even a Kazakh sheep farmer knows that one — the Zain Group’s mystical “swirl” might have proved problematic for cheery Londoners yet to experience the relentless march of what is arguably the most dynamic, daring, caring and innovative telecom company in the Middle East and Africa.
That the brand is not immediately recognized elsewhere is probably not of immediate concern to the Zain Group CEO Dr Saad Al-Barrak — known affectionately throughout the company as the “Doctor.” Formerly MTC, Zain only unveiled its new identity less than a year ago, initially to unite MTC’s five mobile phone operations in Sudan, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and eventually Iraq. (In Lebanon, where 650,000 Lebanese use a Zain line in the guise of mtc touch, the brand will not be rolled out as long as the company only runs the network for the Lebanese government.)
But Al-Barrak is not known for sentimentality when it comes to effecting change, and his steely ambition is to propel Zain to the very forefront of global consciousness — it is no coincidence that the Mandela concert was broadcast live all over the world — in the presence of other blue chip names. Using his ACE — accelerate, consolidate and expand — strategy, the charismatic CEO who took over the then MTC-Vodafone in 2002, wants to take Zain into the top 10 global telecom companies by 2011 and eventually into the 100 leading global brands.
This in itself would be a mighty achievement for a Kuwait- based company that only six years ago was a one trick pony with 650,000 Kuwaiti customers. Since then, Al-Barrak has taken the operation into 22 countries on two continents, serving 50 million customers. In 2007, Zain posted revenues of $5.9 billion, and the first half of 2008 notched up a robust $3.5 billion. In terms of geographic presence, it is the fourth largest telecom company in the world.
In line with the consolidate part of the ACE acronym, on August 1 all the African operations, which had previously operated under the Celtel banner, officially became Zain. Al-Barrak’s corporate wheels are now beginning to mesh, working as one finely-oiled mechanism, linking customers — he does not like the word subscriber — from Baghdad to Kano. This mammoth transcontinental branding operation was an emotional milestone for those who had seen Celtel change — and in some cases save — the lives of millions of Africans.
Sponsoring the Hyde Park concert may have been a canny PR move, but the reality is that Mandela and Zain have much in common. It was a message that Al-Barrak could deliver with confidence. “Nelson Mandela has shaped modern Africa,” he said after presenting the beloved South African leader with a gold model of a traditional Arab Dhow. “His contribution is well known and stands as an example to those who are embroiled in fighting oppression and injustice in the same way Zain, through its subsidiary Celtel and the innovative introduction of the historic One Network system, has changed the face of this great continent forever.”
It is no exaggeration. There was a time, not so long ago when, if a young man from the Congo wanted to talk to his mother in his rural village, he had to make a two-day roundtrip on foot. Similarly, if a Nigerian businessman wanted to arrange a meeting with a colleague on the other side of Lagos, he would have to send his driver with a note suggesting a time. The driver would have to battle the notorious urban gridlock just to return with a note suggesting an alternative time. In the event, it would take at least two trips to confirm the meeting. Finally, a plumber in Dakar might have spent all day making house calls before returning to a pile of messages, which might take him three takes to reply to.
Yes, Africa was frustrating, but it was also filled with opportunity. It was a sleeping giant and, despite the nightly diet of civil war and famine on TV screens across the world, Celtel was forging ahead, establishing and operating networks in countries where there were few roads and even less land lines and where Celtel’s enterprising executives were forced to live, sometimes in zones of conflict, for several months in hotels that had no running water or windows.
But the tenacity paid off. Once word got out, African consumers would, in some cases literally, batter down doors to get their hands on a new mobile phone. On occasions, the local police had to be called to control crowds of over-enthusiastic customers. Sales targets in the thousands were recast in the tens or hundreds of thousands before being upgraded to the millions.
Celtel then went one step further by unveiling its One Network, the world’s first borderless phone system that linked countries without crippling customers with an extortionate roaming tariff system. In doing this it revolutionized the way Africans communicated on a social and economic level. Even the EU wanted to know how it could be duplicated.
Celtel was founded in Europe by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese, who had been a senior executive at UK mobile operator BT Cellnet before going it alone. Against all odds, he convinced skeptical international bankers to invest in his dream, and believe in his position as a man who operated “between cultures,” a status that allowed him to translate what was happening for those outside the continent.
He assembled a multinational team and insisted that Africans work in countries other than their own, while at the same time convincing them all to work for a common goal. Celtel executives were sent to the London Business School to sharpen their skills, while at shopfloor level the company became one of Africa’s major job providers. It was a prime place to work and it paid well. “When I arrived, everyone came to work on a bicycle or a motorbike,” recalled one employee. “When I left, the car park was full of cars.”
Since then, and its acquisition by Zain in April 2005, through strategic partners, most notably Ericsson, the Earth Institute and the GSM Association Development Fund, the company has revved up the CSR initiatives and intervened to make real and dramatic changes to the ways Africans live.
In March 2008, Zain and Ericsson were part of an operation that will eventually allow the 200,000 fishermen who ply their trade on Lake Victoria to use mobile phones on what is the world’s second largest inland lake, by upgrading existing infrastructure and building an additional 21 radio sites to provide mobile coverage up to 20 kilometers into the lake (covering 90% of the fishing zones) and reduce the estimated 5,000 annual deaths from accidents and piracy. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Zain, also with Ericsson but this time including the Earth Institute, has delivered mobile telephony to 400,000 people in rural villages.
Celtel will always have a place in African telecom history; under Al-Barrak and wearing a new brand, it is now part of Zain’s global campaign, one that will not only serve bottom line ambitions but also show that communication should be a right, not a privilege.
Michael Karam is Associate Editor-in-Chief of Executive