The spectacular rise of the cellphone is one of Africa’s enduring success stories. But it would not have been possible without the complex and costly array of transmission towers that make up the networks, run by companies like Nigeria-based IHS Towers and engineers like Mohamad Darwish.

Mohamad Darwish was born in Beirut and grew up there during Lebanon’s agonising civil war. He credits his parents “for providing me the most precious gift they could, during the period when people were fighting, which is education as it was the key factor to my future success.” But the war also had an effect on the youngster: “When you live in circumstances where in the morning you go to school for a normal day, and you end up running back home, taking a different route every time, it just makes you stronger and want to achieve more in life.”

Darwish has certainly made his mark. Along with his brother Issam, he’s a co-founder of IHS Towers, which currently manages of 23,000 towers in five countries on the African continent. Of those, approximately 15,000 are based in Nigeria, making IHS Towers the No.1 tower company in Africa, as well as EMEA, and one of the Top Ten tower companies in the world. Currently, he sits on the Group’s executive committee and is deputy CEO of IHS Towers Nigeria.

“As devastating as the war [in Lebanon] was, it taught me the importance of development. It gives me happiness now to know that IHS supports thousands of families and its business model inherently improves life for ordinary people through cheaper and better quality communication networks,” says Darwish.

 From his parents’ investment in education flowed a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the American University in Beirut, an MBA with Honours from Rollins College and a Master’s degree in Engineering and Applied Operations Research from Cornell University in the US. His brother is also an engineer, and Darwish says “it forms the very DNA of our business, as we are able to grasp not only the business side of running a company like IHS, but also have a solid understanding of the technical aspects of owning, managing and growing a telecommunications tower business.”

I suggest to Darwish that cellphone towers is not a very glamorous business and that it probably contains a lot of rolled-up sleeves, steel-capped bots and hard hats?

“Spot on,” he replies. “What we provide is core engineering services. Behind the high availability and fancy offering comes a large team of staff and partners who work day and night across the countries we are in, in challenging areas, overcoming access conditions and security concerns.”

There’s an element of understatement at work here: unable to rely on the national electricity grid, each tower has to have its own independent power generation system. Along with solar technology, these have to be supplied with diesel on a regular basis, which Darwish says is “a very complicated and challenging supply chain process”.

He also believes the engineering background is what gives IHS a competitive edge: “Keep in mind that what differentiates IHS from its competitors is its technical edge and the innovative solutions it implements on its sites.”

The company manages towers for both Orange and MTN in Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire and recently completed two similar deals with MTN and Airtel in Zambia and Rwanda. Two transactions closed last year in Nigeria, adding a further 12,000 towers to an already impressive base. Key to IHS’s success is the concept of tower-sharing, which sees more than one mobile network operator using the same mast.

“Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) outsource their tower portfolios to IHS creating three significant and almost immediate benefits,” explains Darwish. “For the customer, the network improves, uptime increases to over 99% as the network is now run by a specialised team and the network expands quicker and cheaper through sharing towers with other networks. Second, for the MNO, costs are stabilized and capital is released for spending, i.e. improving the network and developing products for customers. And third, for Africa, the benefit is wider, more reliable and efficient networks, built and maintained by professionals.”

Darwish sees IHS as a truly entrepreneurial company, “one of the pioneers who ventured into the infrastructure sharing and leasing business in Africa, as well as continuously looking at and designing smart solutions on our systems that provide better performance at lower cost.”

He is also quick to point to its green credentials: “Each of our portfolios is also serviced with a bespoke energy mix to ensure maximum uptime, but also to minimise the consumption of diesel. We achieve this through the most up-to-date batteries and generators and the latest innovative solar technologies.”

Born in 2001 out of the privatisation of the Nigerian telecommunications sector, IHS began as a company that specialised in building base stations for the operators. “Over the years, IHS has evolved into operating and maintaining the MNOs’ sites, which eventually made us the perfect partner for our customers in providing telecom passive infrastructure sharing and leasing services,” says Darwish.

But why the decision to headquarter itself in Lagos, Nigeria?

“Africa’s population is just over 1 billion and is set to double over the next 40 years,” explains Darwish. “This rising population is more affluent, mobile and connected than ever before and Nigeria alone has 170 million people in it. As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, as well as being Africa’s largest, Nigeria is leading this change.

“The country’s economic fundamentals are very attractive to MNOs and infrastructure companies. It is Africa’s largest mobile market, with more than 125 million subscribers and a market penetration of 75%. And it is still growing, year-on-year,” notes Darwish. “IHS invested over $10 million in 2012 and is planning to invest more than five times that amount, into developing the most advanced Network Operations Centre in Nigeria. This will give us 24/7 awareness and data capture of tower performance.”

IHS also recently sponsored an Economist Intelligence Unit report entitled Enabling a more productive Nigeria: Powering SMEs.

“The importance of mobile telecommunications and its role as a leapfrog technology is readily apparent from this study, affirming our belief that an enhanced mobile network materially contributes to the growth of both urban and rural businesses with the potential to reduce societal inequality,” says Darwish, who cites the deepening application of mobile to agriculture as “a way to lessen the urban-rural divide. Agriculture is the sector in which the majority of Nigeria’s rural dwellers work. Combined with improved mobile networks in rural regions, the penetration of ICT across wider geographies will significantly support favourable income distribution trends throughout the continent.”

Darwish is at pains to stress his belief that “the future economic and social development of Africa will be accelerated exponentially by mobile connectivity. Our team of over 2,000 engineers in five countries is focused on making this happen. We are committed to developing the communities we serve, and to help people and businesses across the region build a powerful, prosperous future.”


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