The stream of world leaders coming to campus continued yesterday, as Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celtel and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, spoke to a captivated audience in Kennedy Hall. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Ibrahim’s lecture, titled, “Africa Works with Good Governance, Investment, and a Little Help from Our Friends,” was this year’s Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellowship Lecture.
“I was lucky, I had the chance to get educated, which many of my African friends did not have,” Ibrahim said.
After being introduced, Ibrahim began his talk with a synopsis of his experience at Celtel. The telecommunications company was the brainchild of Ibrahim, who saw the need for Celtel amidst the dearth of companies willing to do business in Africa, especially in the increasingly vital cell phone industry. Many businessmen saw the continent as rife with famine, corruption and crime, something Ibrahim attributed to the negative focus that Western media often place on African countries. As a Sudanese-born Egyptian raised “child of the ‘60s,” Ibrahim saw an opportunity not only for business, but for the advancement of the continent as a whole.
“I formed a really incredible board of some of the best people around,” Ibrahim said. “Nobody can bring a check for bribery for that kind of board.”
Ibrahim, who also referred to the 12 members of Celtel’s executive board as “beasts,” noted that he held 60 percent of company’s stock. When the company began in 1998, an estimated 2 million Africans owned cell phones. By the time Ibrahim sold the company in 2005 to the Mobile Telecommunications Company for around $900 million, more than 100 million Africans operated cell phones, showcasing the revolutionary nature Ibrahim brought to his business dealings.
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Ibrahim made the point that the expanded cell-phone industry gave many previously destitute Africans a chance to participate in business. The selling of Celtel resulted in 100 new millionaires in Africa, which Ibrahim emphasized as a positive impetus for more trade and exchange.
“We started from the outset that we cannot succeed if the communities around us are failing,” Ibrahim said. “It is possible to do clean business in Africa. We did it, in 15 countries.”
Ibrahim noted that the true morale of the Celtel fable is to be virtuous in business dealings, even in situations where corruption may seem to be the most lucrative option.
“[If] you want to make money, be honest,” Ibrahim said. “You’ll make more money. Be smart, and be good, because to be good is to be smart, because believe me, that’s what really generates value in the long term.”
Ibrahim then continued to describe his current endeavor, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which has gained him accolades worldwide for its visionary and proactive mission. The foundation gives the world’s largest prize, $5 million initially, plus $200,000 a year for the rest of the recipient’s life. However, the conditions to even be considered are stringent. The prize is given to an African ruler who is able to reign over peace and prosperity in his or her respective country, and who acknowledges a democratic change of power. Ibrahim noted that the organization was met with skepticism from the notoriously snarly United Kingdom tabloids. To dispose of this nebulous criticism, a video featuring numerous world leader’s espousing support for the foundation was created, which Ibrahim showed to the audience yesterday.
“Good governance and democracy are central to African development,” Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in the video. “The mission of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is so important.”
The foundation also established the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which ranks sub-Saharan countries according to government quality. The yearly rankings have been widely published and referred to since the index’s creation.
“We must be able as Africans to face our continent and do the tough job,” Ibrahim said. “Our constituency are those good leaders who do their job.”
After his speech, Ibrahim opened up the lecture to a question and answer session. The lecture was met with much enthusiasm, particularly from African immigrant students in the audience, who found his message of hope for Africa hit close to home.
“I’ve heard a lot about Mr. Ibrahim, I really admire his business model,” said Kobbina Awuah ‘09, a Ghana native. Awuah noted that he plans on starting his own business in Ghana following graduation. “He’s someone that’s really admired in Africa for just showing it can be done. These markets shouldn’t be overlooked just because many Africans are poor.”