As a student finishing high school in Scotland in 1978, Strive Masiyiwa was more concerned with liberating his native Zimbabwe than memorizing the monarchs of Britain. But when he traveled to Africa to join the freedom fighters, "one of the senior officers told me, 'Look, we're about to win anyway, and what we really need is people like you to help rebuild the country,'" Masiyiwa recalls. He returned to Britain to study engineering, and 24 years later leads a new African revolution--in telecommunications.
Sub-Saharan Africa has just one phone line for every 70 people, in contrast to almost one per person in the U.S. and Europe. But by using cell-phone technology, Africa hopes to leapfrog a stage in development, just as parts of Asia have done. In the past six years the number of mobile connections in Africa has jumped from 2 million to 35 million.
Masiyiwa, 41, is at the forefront of this transformation, and has become a role model for other young African executives. His privately held company, Econet Wireless, generates revenue of more than $300 million a year, making it one of Africa's five largest telecom companies. It operates in eight countries, including Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 125 million people but just 600,000 fixed lines; New Zealand, where Econet will soon launch that country's third GSM network; and Britain, where Masiyiwa is targeting the niche market of African expatriates. "When I visited Nigeria a year ago," he recalls, "I had to use a satellite phone out my hotel window. Now when I arrive, my taxi driver is taking calls on one of our new cell phones."
When Masiyiwa returned to newly independent Zimbabwe in 1984, he took a job with the state-owned telephone company. But he grew frustrated with the bureaucracy and formed his own engineering company. He applied to his old bosses for the country's first mobile-phone license yet had to fight them all the way to the supreme court before he could connect his first subscribers in 1998. For beating the establishment, he became a national hero, especially among opposition politicians, who today use cell phones to summon supporters to rallies and alert radio stations to fraud at polling places. His introduction of wireless technology has profited not only Masiyiwa--who says Econet's profits are up 116% this year--but also Africa's progress toward democracy. --By Simon Robinson/Johannesburg