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Africa’s Unassuming Giant

Published 9 years ago
By Forbes Africa

Tales of entrepreneurial success are usually based on events or circumstances that define and distinguish each story. At times, these relate to the individual’s planned or fortuitous foray into a business venture; the painstaking process of building same, a bruising setback or a stroke of fate that leads to the game-changing break. The interplay of these elements is what makes each entrepreneur’s story unique, and in the case of Hakeem Belo-Osagie, the Nigerian entrepreneur and chairman of the mobile telecommunications company Etisalat, the chemistry between these elements is as vivacious as ever.

After more than a decade of running UBA and overseeing a transformation of its fortunes, Hakeem, or Keem as he is widely referred to, shifted his focus to the telecoms industry. Two prior unsuccessful attempts to obtain a license were followed by a successful third bid with the Mubadala Company of Abu Dhabi. The new player, Etisalat Nigeria, rolled out its services six years after the first mobile operator had launched in the Nigerian market. Etisalat became the fourth operator alongside MTN, Glo and Airtel.

“I had made two attempts to get into the telecoms industry before. The first time was when we had the first bid for GSM and there I was a partner to Orascom. Four licenses were given and we were fifth, so we just missed it. With the second attempt, this time working with Orascom again to buy NITEL, we won, but we were told that our price was too low. I thank God that we were rejected because I think that it would have been very difficult managing NITEL. And then the third time, this time I was not working with Orascom, I was working with a company called Mubadala, which is one of the sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi, and this time we were successful in getting a license and that is the foundation of the company called Etisalat.”

Experts and skeptics predicted a rough ride for the company due to its late entrance into the industry. But since its commencement of commercial operations in October 2008, Etisalat has surprised with its solid growth and achievements. The newcomer had two million subscribers in its first year and gained the reputation of being the most innovative telecoms company in Nigeria. By 2011, it had 12 million subscribers, despite the intense competition in Nigeria’s telecoms sector.

As mobile penetration continues to increase in Africa’s largest telecoms market—with recent figures showing that the aggregate mobile subscriber base has surpassed 100 million—telecom infrastructure continues to mushroom across the country. Etisalat has invested more than $2 billion in building and expanding its network. Of the estimated 20,000 cell sites scattered across the country, Etisalat’s infrastructure accounted for around 15% in 2011. Belo-Osagie points out that the expansion of the company’s network will continue.

“We had some gaps in our network in the South-South and South Eastern part of Nigeria and we are now in the process of filling those gaps, right now we have something in the range of just over 4,000 base stations. We are very happy with our rollout because we think with this number of base stations we can cover the whole country. However, our objective over the next few years is to double that number and get to the range of about 8,000 base stations.”

By October, Etisalat had surpassed its target for the year of 14 million subscribers.

“What we are particularly happy about is our 3G data offering, which we think is universally accepted as the best and the fastest in the market. As a company, we are going to continue to pioneer innovative solutions as we seek to distinguish ourselves from our competitors.”

True to his words, Etisalat is stealing a march on its competitors in the mobile banking race with its recent introduction of an innovative SIM application called ‘Easy Wallet’. The application, which comes pre-loaded on every Etisalat SIM card, encourages the adoption of mobile phone as the preferred means of conducting basic financial transactions. Belo-Osagie promises that the coming months will see more such mobile money products.

“Well, I think we are very proud of the fact that our partner Etisalat indeed won a prize for having one of the best mobile applications in the world… at the recent telecommunications conference. In addition to that, we’ve built on the strengths of Mubadala, which is a sovereign wealth fund very much in the area of finance. You will notice that many of the Nigerian directors have, at one time or another, been involved in banking. We felt that it should only be natural that we be a leader in the area in which telecoms and banking cross each other.”

Being the resolute operator that he is, Belo-Osagie wants Etisalat to rise to the second position in the industry.

“I do think though that with the correct strategy we can become the number two [telecom] company in Nigeria. We focus very much on the youth market. We focus very much on the data market and we focus very much on the quality of services. I think we are also helped by the fact that we have two very financially strong shareholders, Mubadala and Etisalat, and we have funded our rollout, so the amount of debt that we have on our books is relatively small. I believe that with the strategy that we have, especially one that has avoided a lot of changes of management which Airtel has gone through, and the depth of management we have in comparison with Glo, I think that we will eventually get to the second position in the market place.”

He describes the challenge of catching up with the market leaders as “a management and intellectual challenge,” which he enjoys. With an air of confidence that is almost palpable, he offers a concise analysis of the industry.

“Realistically, I don’t think that any company can beat MTN in Nigeria because the gap is very large between MTN and everybody else. And while I think that MTN can improve its quality of service, I think that it has a strong management; there is a real commitment to Nigeria from MTN, and they’ve also done a lot in terms of the development of local staff.”

Belo-Osagie’s childhood fantasies had nothing to do with running businesses. His early ambition was to become a mathematician. Later, while studying at a sixth form college in Wales, he developed an interest in public service and went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. He obtained a law degree at Cambridge University before undertaking the Harvard MBA program. While at Oxford, he obtained work experience as an intern at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna.

His graduation from business school would coincide with the enactment of a policy by the Nigerian government that permitted federal ministers and the president’s advisers to employ aides. Through much more than a stroke of luck, Belo-Osagie was appointed as an aide to the president’s adviser on petroleum. He would go on to hold the position for six years, despite a coup d’état that led to the arrest and incarceration of his initial boss. Following another coup, which occurred when he was getting married, he made the decision to abandon the precarious public sector to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

He set up a consulting firm which advised international companies that sought to play in Nigeria’s oil industry. The venture was a resounding success and after a few years and millions of dollars in the bank, his entrepreneurial instinct sparked the hunger for another venture. This led him to cast his attention to the financial sector and, as fate would have it, the Nigerian government decided to privatize banks established by the British, which were still under government control.

Sensing the opportunity, Belo-Osagie cashed in and acquired UBA in a landmark transaction. The consequent modernization of the bank, which he spearheaded, led the bank to remarkable achievements. The UBA acquisition would become the transaction that cemented his reputation as an astute and dogged entrepreneur.

Before the triumph with UBA, Belo-Osagie tasted his share of failure. He set up a financial services company called KMC in the early 1980s.

“We did very badly, but that failure was very useful to me because it taught me a lot about what not to do. One of the things that I believe is that setbacks are a very vital part of life because setbacks strengthen you. You learn lessons from them; you learn to be tough; you learn to be bold. Therefore learning the lessons from the failure of KMC, I, with a group of others, set up First Securities Discount House, which was a great success.”

Despite his media shyness, Belo-Osagie is well-known in business circles locally and internationally. Indeed, he maintains a good friendship with Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and energy analyst under whom he authored a special paper on the state of international oil markets, while at Harvard Business School. His calm and unassuming demeanour belies a strong intellect and an uncanny ability to spot lucrative opportunities. This is best reflected by his status as one of Africa’s wealthiest men with an estimated fortune of $400 million, which saw him at number 40 of the ‘Africa’s 40 Richest’ list in December.

When asked about recent calls urging telecoms companies to list on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, he pauses to gather his thoughts, before explaining meticulously and systematically the role that the telecoms industry will have to play in fulfilling Nigeria’s aspirations.

“One way or another, all of us telecoms are going to have to accept that we are living in a certain country, that the country has certain communal, social and national interests and we are going to have to adjust to those interests. I don’t think that the interest of the company and the interest of Nigeria necessarily have to conflict. But I think that there has got to be flexibility on both sides. And I don’t think that the telecoms companies will be successful if they have an attitude that is inflexible. So for me, sooner or later the Nigerian companies will have to list, and I honestly don’t have a problem with that at all.”

Government and telecoms companies should be discussing how the listing process should unfold, with the question being on the various policy options for listing, according to Belo-Osagie.

“Should all the companies be listed? Should it only be companies that have been in existence for a certain number of years, or companies that have reached a certain level of profitability?” he asks rhetorically.

He feels that it will be counter-productive, were government to compel the operators to list. He advises that consultation rather than fiat, should be adopted by government, so that the healthy atmosphere, which he believes the Nigerian government, and to an extent, a lot of African governments have done good to create, is sustained.

As the conversation switches to the subject of the future of Nigeria and Africa, Belo-Osagie points out that he is cautiously optimistic about Africa’s future. He believes that a lot of the growth in Nigeria and Africa stems from the dismantling of many of the barriers imposed by the over extensive state investment and participation in the economy, in African countries. In his opinion, reforms, especially those in the Nigeria, need to be stimulated. He observes further that governments have an important policy role that needs to be refined.

“No matter how effective a private sector is, it cannot generate electricity outside a set of policy measures that determine how everything works together.”

Belo-Osagie believes that a crucial factor to the performance of African economies in the next few years is the extent to which the African public sector is reinvigorated across the continent. He notes that, Africa’s success hinges on the paradox that sees governments relinquishing control in terms of administering the economy, while developing and exercising its capacity to articulate and implement policies. He expresses his concerns that the pace of the policy strengthening across Africa is not taking place fast enough. Comparing developments in Africa with Asia, he says: “Whether it is Japan, Singapore or South Korea, you will see the hand of the government that is pushing, that is encouraging, that is putting together the infrastructure, that is ensuring that a competitive system is established, you will see them in all of those areas. You will see them ensuring that things like airports, immigration, state security, all have the tools to do well in their area. The success of each of those areas is as important to the running of an economy, as is simply giving licenses to private companies”.

Outside his business ventures, the entrepreneur is a generous philanthropist. As one who had the privilege to attend prestigious universities, he is very active in supporting education. He is one of the largest donors to the African Leadership Academy, an advanced level college in South Africa, to which he has given more than $1 million. He announces with pride that the school has named part of the library after him and his wife for their contributions. Keem is also in his third term as president of the King’s College Old Boys Association, the college where he attended secondary school in Lagos in the 1960s. He also sponsors an annual scholarship, The Hakeem Belo-Osagie Scholarship, at Oxford University.

An ardent lover of jazz music and fan of Manchester United, Belo-Osagie takes a broad yet simplistic view of success.

“There is a quotation, which was adapted from something that John F. Kennedy said, defining happiness, which I think is a definition of success as well. He said it’s ‘The full use of ones talents, along lines of excellence, in the life affording one opportunity, and in the direction towards service’. I think that one thing that makes you happy or successful is to know that you are operating at the peak of your abilities. The abilities can be in the carpenter who takes great pride in his craftsmanship, making the great table. It can be the great singer, the great mathematician. ‘In a life affording you opportunity’, by that I mean that to be successful there must be the opportunities for you to exploit, and that part of the kind of society we must create is a society in which more and more people have the opportunities to develop those talents. And in the African societies that we have today, we are not doing enough of that. And then we say, ‘In the direction towards service’, which simply says that the ends, the objectives cannot be solely focused on me, me, me. So I like that definition of success or happiness because it says a lot which I think is important.”

For a person who has traveled the world and been actively involved in business for more than three decades, he clearly knows a thing or two about what success means.

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Related Topics: #Etisalat, #February 2013, #Hakeem Belo-Osagie, #Nigeria, #Telecommunications.