James Makamba has never forgotten his early years in Mount Darwin in rural northern Zimbabwe, where he witnessed first hand the guerilla battle for Zimbabwe’s independence from British rule, and where his parents worked long hours side by side on the land to make a living for the family. He understands at a profound level the need for wealth generation at grassroots level.
So, in the mid-1990s, when the Zimbabwean government opened up the market for two independent cellular operators, he became both a cell phone entrepreneur and a telecoms mogul with a difference: He became a cell phone entrepreneur with a conscience.
He put together a consortium of grassroots organisations, including the War Veterans Association, the National Miners’ Association, the Zimbabwe Farmer’s Union, and the Indigenous Business Women Organisation. Quite deliberately, he named the consortium the Empowerment Corporation. The War Veteran’s Association is no longer a shareholder in the consortium, which has a majority stake in Telecel Zimbabwe, the country’s third largest cellular operator. But, the principle of giving ordinary Zimbabweansa stake in the enormous wealth generation potential of the cellular industry is typical of James Makamba’s approach to business.
Through his involvement of grassroots organisations, James Makamba effectively turned ordinary Zimbabweans into cell phone entrepreneurs.
Makamba is chairman of the Empowerment Corporation and non-executive chairman of Telecel Zimbabwe (licensed in 1998).
In the same context of empowerment, James Makamba is also a cell phone pioneer. Cell phone usage in Zimbabwe is not ubiquitous, partly because network coverage is limited due to geographical factors and lack of capital investment and partly because the cellular devices and network connection fees were, for many years, beyond the financial means of the majority of Zimbabweans.
Working closely with Siemens (now Nokia Siemens), Makamba brought to market a handset that provided very basic functionality and could, therefore, be offered at a price most Zimbabweans could afford. Again, Makamba was focused on empowering the man and woman in the street.
Known colloquially as the ‘mango’ and carried on the belt, as a way of proudly showing you were connected, the handset made cell phone usage in Zimbabwe much more pervasive.
As a true African cell phone entrepreneur, James Makamba had also made a strategic decision, when setting up the consortium, to align the Empowerment Corporation – and therefore the financial aspirations of the grassroots communities involved in the consortium – with Africa’s very first cell phone operator, Telecel International.
Telecel International was founded by the late Miko Rwayitare, a Rwandan, who brought cellular technology to Africa by obtaining the first ever concession in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and building it into the continent’s largest cellular operation.
In affiliating himself and the consortium with Telecel International, James Makamba the telecoms mogul acknowledged African business flair and innovation and, by growing Telecel Zimbabwe, continues the indigenisation of the cellular industry. He is a director of Telecel International and believes that Rwayitare’s example of determination and vision in business still motivates him to spend the time, effort, and money in developing leadership in Africa’s youth through organisations such as the Ibbamo Foundation.
Although it’s the smallest of Zimbabwe’s cellular operators, Telecel Zimbabwe continues to have a profound impact on the quality of life of ordinary Zimbabweans. Early in 2013, the company received a cash injection of US$70 million from its parent shareholder, Orascom Telecom Holdings, to help expand the network’s coverage to 90% of the population. The company has a subscriber base of 2.62 million and offers 3G, Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE), and GPRS services.