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OBBO: With right connections, no mission is impossible

Saturday December 14 2019
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Panelists from left, AU Commission Chair Moussa Muhamat, Rwanda President Paul Kagame, DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, AU special envoy for Infrastructure Raila Odinga and the executive director of UN Economic Commission for Africa Vera Songwe at the Kusi Ideas Festival in Kigali. PHOTO | JARED NTAYAYA | NMG

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Last year pan-African telecoms company Econet Wireless, completed its “Cape (Town) to Cairo” fibre optic cable to some fanfare.

As often happens with these things, after getting a sense of the cost, we don’t hang around much asking how it happened. Now we know part of the story, thanks to some very rare coincidences.

Nation Media Group’s inaugural Kusi Ideas Festival on the “Next 60 Years in Africa” started in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, last Sunday.

The last event on the opening day was a presidential round-table. On it were Rwanda President Paul Kagame; Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi; Chadian diplomat and Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat; former Kenya prime minister and now AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa Raila Odinga; and Cameroonian economist and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe.

During the proceedings, Zimbabwean billionaire, philanthropist founder and executive chairman of Econet Wireless Strive Masiyiwa was asked to intervene from the floor.

Mayisiwa’s point was that private businesses can be trusted to build big things, and political support from African leadership can help complete the magic.

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But few would have bet he would reveal much about how that happens. As he told it, while Econet Wireless was doing the Cape to Cairo fibre, he met President Kagame, who was then chairperson of the AU.

Kagame, he said, told him, I hear you are building a fibre optic cable to Cairo, how can I help you. He put his needs on the table. Kagame made calls (to other African chiefs) along the path of the cable. And so Econet Wireless did it.

Then Mahamat, newly installed as AU Commission chair, called him and asked, you’ve built Cape to Cairo, “what about West Africa. And how can I help you”?

Mayisiwa told him they wanted to lay fibre from Port Sudan, through to Chad, and on to Nigeria. Mahamat said he would make some calls and get him through doors.

He did, and Econet Wireless built the cable, until it got into Cameroon and got stuck.

So Mayisiwa called Songwe, and asked for help. “We will sort you out in Cameroon”, she said.

Then last year Tshisekedi became president in DRC. It had always been a dream to build through DRC, Mayisiwa said, and one of the big goals for many companies is to build through DRC.

So, he went to Kagame, and they called Tshisekedi. They got on a plane and went to see Felix in Kinshasa. The rest, as they say, is history.

Econet has laid fibre cable from Lubumbashi, on to Inga Dam, and as Mayisiwa spoke, they were 37 kilometres from the Angola border. He said they expect to be in the Angolan capital Luanda by February 2020.

And, he said, to keep the project moving, he is “knocking all day on the door” of Raila.

When done, the Econet network will connect 13 African countries with more than 60,000 kilometres of fibre optic cabling.

As it happened, on stage before us, was what you might call the “Invisible African Digital Infrastructure Ensemble”, and some of the unseen hands it takes to do a pan-African economic project. Mayisiwa earned himself an early invite to Kusi 2 in 2020.

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]

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