Congo-Kinshasa: Cell Phone Pioneering in Mobutu's Zaire

18 September 2008

One of the pioneers of cellular telephone technology in Africa, Joe Gatt set up the first mobile phone network in what many would have considered among the least likely countries: Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To say in the late 1980s that Zaire was a developing nation required a huge leap of the imagination. It was sliding backwards in nearly every aspect used to measure progress, including infrastructure and technology. But within that problem was the solution and a new model for business.

Gatt and the company he co-founded, Telecel, stepped in to bypass Zaire's decrepit fixed-line telecommunications system and install a mobile network that was among the first in Africa to defy expectations. Telecel began with about 500 phones in Zaire. By 2006, companies across the continent had more than 192 million cellular subscribers. Mobile phones overtook fixed telephone lines in 2001 and now outnumber them by nearly seven to one, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

In an interview with AllAfrica's Cindy Shiner, Gatt talked about what it was like to set up a mobile company in Zaire in the early days of cellular technology.

The cell phone revolution started in October 1983 in the United States. Washington was the first place where Motorola put the first system. That's what got me – the idea – when reading an article on what cellular was all about.

I was in Zaire, first with Pan Am and then as chief executive of Air Zaire. The difficulties we had with phoning, not only internationally but also locally, were due to the non-maintenance of the infrastructure. It was deteriorating at a very rapid pace and so the voice communication went from the telephone line to the walkie-talkie. At the time, walkie-talkies were not a discreet means of voice transmission; anybody that had one could have been heard by anybody else.

So I thought the cellular birth was very good for Africa because it replaced and avoided the maintenance problem that they had with the network infrastructure. I started looking into it and there were no regulations, nor did anyone understand it in Africa. But how do you educate a government on what cellular is all about?

It was difficult.

Fortunately for us President Mobutu [Sese Seko] came to the United States at that time, in 1985 [when he met with President Ronald Reagan] and we were able to get cellphones from National Car Rental. That was another hurdle. If you had the car you could rent the phone, but you couldn't rent the phone without the car. We had to convince somebody to let us have 10 phones without the car.

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.

Then we took the [telecommunications] minister to Phoenix, where there was a convention on cellular, and he was able to talk to his family in Kinshasa. Having done that we went back to Zaire and convinced the government to let us put in a pilot project.

Then came the problem of the equipment. Manufacturers were not that many. Europe had not started with cellular – they only came into it in 1992 and here we are seven years earlier. We were looking for equipment that was affordable and easy to put into Africa.

And, of course, you needed frequencies to operate the system. At that time the government wasn't quite sure what this was about so they eagerly gave you the frequencies. Frequencies were not allocated according to the ITU regulations. They were given out haphazardly to any operator that wanted to operate any piece of equipment for any transmission they wanted… So we also had the hurdle of going into a maze of frequencies. How do we get a clear frequency that would give us operating liberty inside that spectrum?

We were able to buy a system for about 500 people. I think Motorola charged 3,000 dollars a phone and we were able to sell them at 5,000 dollars a phone. For a year only the government personnel would call each other or call overseas.

Now the government was hooked with these wireless phones. After a year we produced a report and they were able to accept it. Now we had to write up some legislation for them in order to make it a proper [telecommunications] function and to allow us officially and legally to operate the cellular operation commercially.

One of the challenges Telecel faced was growing instability in Zaire. The military rioted in 1991 and 1993, ransacking the capital, Kinshasa – events that were known by the French word pillage.

In the first pillage we had equipment from Motorola which was still in the warehouse, not yet installed. They did pilfer that equipment, except they found out later there was nothing they could do… Nobody knew how to put it together. It was, I think, a three million dollar loss.

Any time there were possible problems, including the military being over-zealous, we would be protected because that was the only way that anybody could communicate. We were sort of a monopoly.

During Mobutu's era, all of the government bills were paid – just like any government, with delays, but they were paid. The problems we had were when there was a shift in government when [Laurent-Désiré] Kabila came to power in 1997. Then the government really started picking up arrears. The receivables came in to the tune of about 25 million dollars. It was very hard to continue operations under those circumstances and we had to cease operations in 2004.

Vodacom and Celtel have both done a very good job in covering the entire country with cellphones, so now you've got at least that, but it's still not an affordable means of communicating, not for the mass population.

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