The cellular network in the world has come a long way: we now have 4G networks and we have made tremendous progress in creating affordable devices to improve communications. In Africa, the progress has been lauded as one of the fastest.
But did you know that the first-ever cellular call in Africa was made in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
The first cellular network in Africa was the brainchild of Miko Rwayitare, a Rwandan-born billionaire. Born on December 2, 1942, Rwayitare went to primary school in Rwanda and secondary school in then-Zaire before heading to Germany for an engineering degree at the University of Karlsruhe in 1970.
Upon his return from Germany, he worked in different companies but later opted to become an entrepreneur: his own boss. He saw how terrible the landline connection was in the country, then run by despot Mobutu Sese Seko, and decided to find a way to deal with the poor connection.
He founded Telecel International, which is considered Africa’s first mobile network.
The creation of Telecel was not accidental and Rwayitare had to go through hoops to get a license to set it up.
He sought the help of an American, Joseph Gatt, who had worked as an executive of Pan–Am Airlines in Zaire, a former chief executive officer of Air Zaire and former managing director of the Intercontinental Hotel (Kinshasa). Gatt had the connections Rwayitare needed for his plan to see light of day.
A visit by President Mobutu to the U.S. in 1985 also provided Rwatiyare with the impetus he needed. Mobutu and his entourage were given heavy brick-like Motorola phones, which he used to call the people back in Kinshasa.
According to Gatt:
We programmed the phones for Mobutu and 10 of his entourage. Those phones were like bricks. We had a hard time telling [the entourage] this was not a walkie-talkie, that it was an actual phone. They were hesitating in making an overseas call. We showed them how to do it and thank God it worked because even then [the technology] was in its infancy in the States. But it did work and Mobutu was able to call his people at the palace and at his office in Kinshasa.
After this first-hand experience with the mobile telecoms, Mobutu became a proponent of the idea in his country.
Instead of building the business from the ground, Rwayitare opted to partner with Gatt and buy American business, Cellular Development Technology. He had invested his $200,000 loan from Canada to buy this struggling telecom network, which came to be known as Telecel.
Just when the opportunity presented itself, a new problem arose: there were no private telecommunications licences on the continent yet and Zairean government had no idea how to come up with one. The two partners quickly said they would deal with the issue, hiring a firm from Paris to create the framework that would allow Telecel to operate in the country.
It officially started operating in 1987 with Rwayitare being the person to make the first-ever phone call on the continent using a mobile phone.
Within its first year, it signed up 3000 subscribers operating within the capital city. By 2000, it would have over 400,000 subscribers across 12 countries on the continent.
Telecel would not be the only business Rwayitare invested in. In the 2000s, he set up Mikcor Investment Holdings (Pty) Ltd, a holding with diversified interests in various sectors, such as broadband communications, real estate, hotel, and wine farm. At the time he had moved to South Africa and by buying out Mont Rochelle Winery in Franschhoek, he had become the first black man to own a winery.
Rwayitare passed away on September 25, 2007, after developing complications following a minor routine surgery in Brussels. He was the president and chairperson of Telecel at the time of his death.
For his contribution to the telecoms industry across Africa, Miko Rwayitare was indeed a pioneer that should be remembered.