In 1998, I turned 18. This momentous, coming of age day occurred in July of that year. At the time, I was in S. 6 at the great Ntare School. Did I say momentous? Truth be said, it passed by pretty inconspicuously. My classmates and I had just started (or were about to start) our Mocks for which we were significantly underprepared. The major reason for our lack of preparation was – you guessed right – France 1998. To make matters worse, we were the first A-Level class to do our final exams at the end of the calendar year (the preceding S. 6 class had just completed their UACE exams in March). And so did I (along with many of my classmates) turn 18 with nary a celebration save for the odd bottle of soda. Our minds were very much preoccupied with making the best of 6 terms compressed into 5 by securing admission to University despite Zidane’s best efforts.
Earlier that year, MTN Uganda had secured the necessary license to rollout out a mobile telecommunications network. Amazingly, I only got to hear about MTN when they launched on 21st October some 6 months later and kicked off an unprecedented advertising/publicity blitz. Even more amazing for a nerd like me, I had no idea how a cellular network worked even though Celtel had been operational in the country for 3 years by that time. These were the pre-internet days and so the only sources of extra-curricular knowledge were encyclopaedias, newspapers and magazines and other publications. None of the ones I had access to had anything about this new & highly advanced technology :-).
MTN’s launch that October marked the start of operations of a remarkable company that has had a huge, positive impact on this country. But not once did I imagine back then that MTN would end up being such a huge part of my personal life.
At the end of 1998, I completed my UACE exams and said bye to Ntare which had been my home for 6 years. 6 extraordinary, fun-filled years. I actually stayed on at school for two days to spend some time in the then novel computer lab (actually a small room). During my vacation in idyllic Kisoro, mobile telephony was the last thing on my mind. The only active telecom in Kisoro was UP&TC (soon to be UTL after the 1998 corporate split with Posta) with its extremely-hard-to-get landlines. I’m not sure about the exact telephone penetration statistics for Kisoro back then but I’m certain there were less than 500 lines in the entire district. My dad had applied for a home telephone in 1997 and we were still waiting for installation by the end of 1998. Celtel hadn’t expanded much beyond Kampala/Entebbe and so mobile phones were still a complete unknown there.
Thankfully, I did secure admission to Makerere University’s Faculty of Technology. And so when I left the tranquillity of Kisoro for the hustle and bustle of Kampala in late 1999, I finally got introduced to the wonders of this technology. This was the age of devices like the Ericsson 628 & A1018, Nokia 5110 etc which were later overshadowed by blockbusters such as the Motorola StarTac, Ericsson T28 and R320, Nokia 8110 and 9000 etc.
Inasmuch as the end user devices were utterly fascinating, I couldn’t help but wonder about the kind of infrastructure powering them. As luck would have it, the course I was doing (Electrical Engineering) meant I could opt for a telecom career if the opportunity arose. Note that I use the term ‘luck’ because I knew nothing about mobile telecommunications when I applied for the course in my final year of A-Level. That opportunity showed up in the form of a Year 2 Industrial Training placement in 2001 at – you guessed right – MTN Uganda! Rarely have stars aligned so perfectly for individuals like they did for me and my classmates back then. MTN was less than 3 years old when we arrived for training and so it was still fully in start-up mode expanding the network like crazy. The awesome technology, wonderful culture and high energy personnel that we found there as student trainees led to a three-month memorable experience that we all still cherish. And yes, I got handed my very first mobile phone (a Nokia 5110) on arrival. Plus – I got introduced to Borland Delphi and saw Windows XP for the very first time there. Good times…
21st October 2016. MTN Uganda is now the same age as I was when it started operations. This coincidence is what inspired me to write this post. Of MTN’s 18 years in the market, I had the opportunity of working with the firm for 11 years (10 years and 11 months to be exact). I am proud to have been part of such an impressive success story and I will always retain this pride. It goes without saying that MTN is responsible for a large part of who I am. Apart from earning a livelihood (close to 100% of my NSSF savings are due to my time there :-)), the culture of the workplace, the professional relationships I formed and the mentors I met there have had a lasting influence on me. Above all, the most significant impact MTN had on me was providing an environment where I not only learnt the craft of software development but I got to prove that I could utilise that knowledge to make useful products. Having this reinforced over my time there provided the impetus and confidence to go out into the world to develop products for completely different sectors and for that, I will always be grateful.
Of course, MTN@18 is quite different to the MTN@3 of 2001. To say that the industry landscape has changed dramatically over the last 15 years is a massive understatement. Still, MTN has grown from strength to strength adding yet more chapters to its success story. Today, it is a veritable economic powerhouse and a true testament to the hard work of many people whose collective input has given rise to output many times the sum of their individual efforts. It is also proof that world class businesses can be born and thrive in this country and on this continent. What more encouragement can any entrepreneur need? I sincerely wish the firm and its staff even more success. Here’s to the next 18!
UTL finally delivered the home landline sometime in 2000 or early 2001. This was just before MTN rolled out service in Kisoro. We used the landline for a few months before abandoning it. If we had had Twitter back then, UTL would have probably seen the hashtag #ImminentDisruption on the 21st of October 1998.