In 1993, Strive Masiyiwa had an idea for a mobile telephony company in Zimbabwe. The founder of a successful electrical contracting firm, Masiyiwa envisioned cellular communications as the next big business opportunity, despite the fact that few countries in Africa had built such networks. At the time, Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (PTC) of Zimbabwe was the only telecommunications provider in the country, and when Masiyiwa expressed to the government an interest in launching a mobile telecoms network, “They declared me public enemy number one,” he recalled.
Masiyiwa recounted this and other challenges as well as successes in business and human rights philanthropy in a conversation with Tom Bernstein, with whom he serves as board advisor for the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, at an NYU law event sponsored by the Leadership Mindset and the Bernstein Institute.
He explained how, in a bid to start his mobile business following his initial rejection by the government, he spent the next several years mounting legal battles against PTC. The first time he took PTC to court, he aimed to prove that mobile telephony was excluded from the state company’s monopoly. But Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled against him.
Undaunted, Masiyiwa tried again. He returned to court with a new, creative approach based on freedom of expression. His lawyers argued that the telephone was critical to freedom of expression and that the telecom monopoly was a hindrance on that freedom since only a small percentage of Zimbabweans could access the telephone. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in Masiyiwa’s favor, but the following year, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe forbade private cell phone operations. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Supreme Court granted Masiyiwa’s company, Econet Wireless, a license to operate.
“We became the only company in the world licensed by a constitutional court,” said Masiyiwa. Today, Econet is not only one of Zimbabwe’s largest employers, but also operates in Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia.
In addition to serving as founder and group chairman of Econet, Masiyiwa is involved with a number of telecom and technology companies. And Masiyiwa says he applies the same dedication to philanthropic endeavors. He serves on numerous boards, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Asia Society, and Africa Progress Panel.
In a word of advice, Masiyiwa urged students to make change wherever they are in the world. “You can’t say the corporate world is there and human rights is here,” he said. “We spend most of our lives in the workplace, so how can we separate ethics and human rights and business? Just go out and engage. If somebody walks in and says ‘I need your help,’ and you can help, then help.”
Masiyiwa received one such call for help in 2014, when the chairwoman of the African Union asked him to rally support and medical assistance to fight the Ebola outbreak. Masiyiwa recalled that the epidemic had killed 27,000 people at the time and was projected to account for more than one million deaths in the next six months. The entrepreneur gathered leaders from some of the largest corporations in Africa, including General Electric and Coca-Cola, and, working together, they mobilized 850 nurses and doctors to go to the affected communities. The group also coordinated with mobile operators to set up an SMS number for donations, which resulted in donations pouring in from 100 million people. “It was the first time that Africans felt that we had a problem and we solved it,” Masiyiwa said.
Masiyiwa further emphasized that philanthropic action is not only in the purview of the wealthy. Soon after Econet’s launch, Masiyiwa and his wife Tsitsi established the Capernaum Trust, which offered scholarships to a small number of students. As the company grew, so did the Capernaum Trust, which today supports more than 40,000 students. About philanthropic work, Masiyiwa said to “throw away” labels “because philanthropy has nothing to do with having money. It’s just a desire to seek change and look for solutions.” He encouraged: “Be a philanthropist on day one.”