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REWIND: Tech Investor, Victor Asemota, Chronicles How Econet Came to Nigeria

“The GSM license was roughly 20 Billion Naira. That was at least 10 banking licenses. HSBC Capital helped the Nigerian investors in Econet to pull that off.” 

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Econet

The conspicuous claim by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State during the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential screening exercise on Monday that he brought Econet Wireless to Nigeria has sparked different reactions. 

Econet which is now Airtel Nigeria began operation in Nigeria in 2021 and adopted a founding trading name Cybertel at a time when Tinubu was the Governor of Lagos. 

At the screening, while highlighting some of his achievements, Tinubu: said “I could remember that I brought Eron to this nation. Telecommunication is now a success today in Nigeria. I brought Econet. I helped them; they now want to adopt 5G; we started it. “Nigeria is rich.”

Victor Asemota’s Story 

Victor Asemota is a technology entrepreneur and investor who serves as a board member and advisor to leading fintech and investment firms across Africa. Asemota, who also worked at Econet during its early days gave his account of how Econet Wireless came into Nigeria.

According to Asemota, Lagos State was only involved in its founding through the acquisition of secondary shares after many deliberations had taken place amongst Delta State, Oceanic, and David Edevbie, who were major players.

He wrote on Twitter, “My uncle held a party for Tony Anenih Jr. after his wedding in 2000 in Benin City.“Many of the new state governors were in town and came for the party. He got five of them into his bedroom and pitched a company called ‘CyberTel’, which was supposed to bid for a GSM license. 

Victor Asemota, Tech Investor

“Only Delta State was very keen on it. The others told us that they would get back. Cybertel merged into the consortium called First Independent Networks Limited, which was started by Bolaji Balogun and his team at City Securities Limited. It was a harrowing period”.

He added that he had to travel to Delta and Akwa Ibom to ensure the commitment of the state as FINL was supposed to hold 60% of the license holding company, and 40% went to the foreign partner.“We later selected a small company from Zimbabwe called Econet because we felt it was easier.”

He also revealed that “Econet was supposed to bring 40% of the license money and the technical know-how. We had the equity agreement as a shareholder and technical services agreement as operator of the license. That 40% never came. It was excuse after excuse. We finally had to go back to the states.

“The initial structure we had proposed was for the licensed entity, Econet Wireless Nigeria (EWN) owned by FINL and the technical partner to own 60% of the operating entity Econet Wireless Mobile (EWM) and the remaining 40% coming into that entity from states like Delta and AKSG.”

According to Semota, when the 40% from the operator wasn’t coming and other shareholders were leveraged to the hilt, state governments were allowed in to buy secondaries from existing shareholders who had covered the initial $285m license fee they didn’t bargain for, which caused the Shareholders approached states.

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He said OANDO was also a shareholder, stating that Wale Tinubu (Oando founder) got Lagos State to buy their secondaries and come in. 

“That was the extent of the Lagos State involvement in the deal. His relative was the state governor, and it made it easier for OANDO to convince them. Tinubu didn’t even commit to Cybertel initially. Delta State and Oceanic saved ECONET. David Edevbie saved us all,” he said.  

Econet
James Ibori, former Gover of Delta State

Bidding And Licensing

In a PDP document dated 19 January 2001 and obtained by TechEconomy, Ernest C A Ndukwe, former Executive Vice‐Chairman, NCC, noted that Econet was successfully licensed.

The document titled “Digital Mobile Licence Auction – Final Result” noted: “The Nigerian Digital Mobile Licence auction concluded successfully at the end of Auction Day 3 Round 5. The Successful Bidders are Communication Investments Limited, Econet Wireless Nigeria Limited, MTN Nigeria Communications Limited.”

“The whole auction process has been completely transparent throughout, with the public being informed of all the details along the way. We can now look forward to four national operators delivering much-needed digital telephony services to the benefit of all Nigerians,” Ndukwe said.

Once the GSM licensing requirements were announced by the NCC, a lot of alignments and realignments were made by Econet.

According to Semota, before you go into bidding, you were meant to put $20m down which determines who you were going to work with.

He said the people who helped to do it in the case of the FINL consortium were Oceanic Bank and was based on a guarantee by the Delta State “that they knew us and would be part of the consortium. Some people didn’t even get to pay and others lost their bids.” 

“I hate it when people try to rewrite the history of things that were largely public knowledge barely two decades ago. Especially when those who were involved are all largely alive. That they didn’t talk before meant they didn’t take the people talking seriously.”

The Ghanian tech investor said the license fee was huge and a bank in Nigeria at the time needed 2 Billion Naira as paid-up capital. “The GSM license was roughly 20 Billion Naira. That was at least 10 banking licenses. HSBC Capital helped the Nigerian investors in Econet to pull that off.” 

Continuing, “It was the finest structuring I have seen in my life to date. We didn’t even know we had assets that could be leveraged. Some people are still suffering from the effects of that leverage today as they didn’t pay it off after the exit. $285m was raised after one month of work.

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Econet
Strive Masiyiwa, Econet Founder

“I was in the same office with the HSBC Capital team daily for a month. Worked with late Osaze Osifo and his guys learning. I paid the rent for Econet offices at Fortune Towers myself after I approached NNB to provide a loan. Zenith gave the first 500m Naira for working capital. 

He revealed that Elias Igbinakenzua was the person he structured to deal with before he left Zenith Bank. “He is alive today. Without that loan, we were dead. Everything was on a shoestring budget and Bolaji Balogun was the one who tied most things together. He really needs to write his memoirs.”

Who is Bolaji Balogun?

 Bolaji was a co-founder and Director of Econet Wireless Nigeria. A notable banker and was part of the license bid auction team that led the capital raising and license bid auction process for the Econet Wireless Nigeria license.  

Econet
Bolaji Balogun

He planned and executed the $1.67 billion sales of Econet Wireless to Celtel, which remains Nigeria’s single largest successful exit from private investment. 

Justice Okamgba functions as CONTENT STRATEGIST for TechEconomy.ng with penchant for content planning, development, analysis, management, and measurement. Contact: [email protected]

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