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How one entrepreneur beat corruption

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2000


Corruption has become somewhat of a clich in Africa. So, few Zimbabweans were surprised when a league of crooked cronies sought to destroy an honest businessman like Strive Masiyiwa.

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What shocked people most was that the upstart entrepreneur repeatedly fought back - and won.

"There is a new way of doing business in Africa," declares the 30-something tycoon, letting out a boyish giggle as he swivels behind an expansive wooden desk at Econet Wireless.

Mr. Masiyiwa took on a state monopoly, corrupt bureaucrats, and politicians to launch his cellphone company in Zimbabwe. Even President Robert Mugabe once used emergency powers in a bid to stop him.

Today, Econet is the biggest corporation in the country. The aptly named Strive is a millionaire, as well as a household name.

Along the road to success, Masiyiwa inspired a new breed ofbusinessmen in Zimbabwe, who hold on tight to Christian ethics while they pursue profits in this emerging economy.

"Many people see Strive as a savior," says Tikirayi Deketeke, news editor at the local Sunday Mail. "He is not only a leading light in the Zimbabwean economy. He is someone who dared to fight for his principles."

Educated in Wales, Masiyiwa set out to launch Econet in 1993. As a telecommunications engineer, he knew cellphones could earn him money and promote development at the same time.

A mere 1.4 percent ofZimbabwe's 12 million people have a phone in their home - and even that dismal degree of phone coverage puts this country among the top five in sub-Saharan Africa. The UN says that a country has not achieved full industrialization until at least 30 percent of its population owns a phone.

"There is a direct relationship between telecommunications and empowerment," says Masiyiwa, noting that every dollar invested in phone networks creates an estimated $4 of investment elsewhere in the economy. "This is about poverty alleviation."

Masiyiwa asked Zimbabwe's state phone company to join him in starting a cellular network.

"They looked at me and said, 'We don't see a future in it.' "

Masiyiwa decided to go it alone. But the state company, PTC, immediately announced that no private entity could establish a cellular network. The state had a "water-tight" monopoly on telecommunications.

A less resolute capitalist might have given up up on the spot. But Masiyiwa hired an American lawyer instead and, for the next five years, waged one court battle after the other.

His first victory was to convince the country's constitutional court that the state's phone monopoly violated guaranteed rights to free speech. The extraordinary legal argument attracted international attention when phone companies throughout North America and Europe were still clinging to monopolies of their own. Astoundingly, Masiyiwa won.

President steps in

Econet spent millions setting up cellular base stations across the country, and was just days away from launching when the president himself stepped in to stop Masiyiwa.