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Wheeler Institute for Business Development event explores running business in a war zone

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim (above) has revealed how his mobile communications empire, Celtel, operated in two war zones, as he discussed the role of business in redeveloping weakened states. 

Speaking at a Wheeler Institute for Business Development event with Professor James Robinson of the University of Chicago and Jonathan Rosenthal, Africa Editor of The Economist, Ibrahim said business had an important role to play in supporting struggling nations.

The panel formed part of a two-day event ‘Business and Fragile States: Learning from Research and Practice’, which explored international development from a business perspective.

While acknowledging the risks of corruption, Ibrahim said Celtel entered Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo during civil wars. 

“Nobody destroyed the mobile phone towers,” he said. “Nobody touched them because everyone used them.”

Societies across Africa, he said, have subsequently benefited enormously from mobile telecommunications, of which Celtel was a prime mover.

Even though terrorists have used communication channels to spread propaganda, the widespread access to mobile phone networks has weakened despots’ publicity machines while promoting freedom and plurality in the media, he said.

Ultimately, Ibrahim argued, Africa needs jobs and wealth creation to stem the flow of migrants from the continent and put its fate into the hands of Africans.

Professor Robinson agreed, saying: “The private sector can help push the whole social and economic environment in a better, more functional direction.”

The Wheeler Institute was founded in January 2018 following a £10 million donation from London Business School alumnus Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen. Together, they founded Lonely Planet, the travel guide book publisher, in 1972.

The institute aims to tackle some of the planet’s most urgent issues using business, informed by research, to grow wealth and social cohesion in the world’s poorest communities.