'On my first visit to Lagos, my car was held up by armed men' - Issam Darwish

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: The founder of IHS Towers, Africa's largest builder of mobile phone masts, on dodging bullets, terrorism and power problems.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2016

As a teenager I loved physics. I wanted to be Einstein and win the Nobel prize. But if you were born in Lebanon in 1971 like me and you lived through the civil war - having to leave for Syria when the fighting got too much - you focus on survival. That means a safe, good job. So I studied engineering in Beirut.

I got a job with MCI and got into telephony. I set up the first Lebanese news satellite in 1996 and taught myself coding. I was responsible for the first ever mobile GSM call in Lebanon. It was on one of those old, big Nokias.

I left home to set up mobile in places like Belarus, Chechnya, Grozny and Gabon. Then I decided to try Nigeria in the late 1990s. Lagos didn't start well. It was far more chaotic than now. On my first visit my car was held up by armed men. Lucky it was bulletproof although I didn't know that beforehand. They ran out of bullets.

Africa has huge potential. The population will double to two billion by 2050 and mobile telephony is a force for good - economically and politically. When you build mobile telephony masts, the biggest problem is power. There's no grid and of the 24,000 towers we have, fewer than 4,000 have access to a power grid. So, they need their own power systems, which means diesel generators in a continent where diesel is like cash - a litre is 50 cents. 24/7 security is a necessity with everything monitored from a control room.

The main way to make progress and grow is by working closely with local people. A local chief or king is your ultimate security. We have 100 guys with whom we outsource and many of them have become very wealthy. Our success is their success. 

If Boko Haram cause trouble and start blowing things up I don't have to go there. Our partners sort it. In Africa, CSR and throwing money at it isn't the way. You must attach their local economic interests to yours.

We can make things better. When we spread into Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire we bought towers from people like Orange and put in better generators and installed solar power systems. We stay out of politics because we don't get involved in the frequencies, which are government resources.

The thing is Nigerians are not violent people. They will take a row to the brink but then back down. Lagos grows on you and now it's my home. I get about on a dirt bike.

Lebanese know how to find a way. As a teenager, I knew where to find the kids who'd stolen the tyres from my car - four times - and left it up on bricks. And my father negotiated with a guy pointing a bazooka at him after a car accident. These experiences toughen you up.

I hope to IPO in the next few years. It would be Africa's largest ever. I may now own less than 10% but the company should go into the FTSE 50 and my share could be worth hundreds of millions. I'm not complaining.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events