The Main One
By Isabelle Paradis
President, HOT TELECOM
Article in PDF format
Behind every successful project, be it large or small, is one passionate, determined, inspirational driving force. Someone that believes in the project, won't rest until it's done and done well. In other words, the 'main one’ behind that success.
Having met with Funke Opeke in Chicago in May, I was so inspired by what she had achieved that I had to find out more about what made her so special. My first impressions of Funke can be summarised in a few simple words: a charismatic and dynamic business woman who exudes self-confidence. A business woman that means business.
Funke Opeke was definitely the 'main one' behind the successful launch of the Main One Cable Company. I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this truly remarkable story with her recently and I am happy to share this great success story with you.
Founder and CEO of Main One Cable Company, Funke Opeke was born and raised in Nigeria along with her 6 brothers and sisters. She studied Electrical Engineering at Obafemi University in Nigeria before heading off to Columbia University in New York to complete a Masters in that subject. Following graduation, Funke pursued a career in ICT in the United States and successfully ended that phase of her career as an Executive Director with the Wholesale division of Verizon Communications in New York. She then returned home to Nigeria and worked with a team of like minded people trying to privatise and revitalise Nitel, Nigeria’s incumbent fixed and mobile operator.
I have a dream…
Nitel should have been a national treasure and the vehicle to transform the way business and life in general was carried out in Funke's home country, but it wasn't and this set her mind working on what was preventing that from being so. Here is what she had to say about how the dream was born.
How did the dream of building an African cable come about?
“We had so much difficulty achieving success in Nitel and Internet services were almost non-existent in the country. I recognised that the absence of submarine cables was the weakest link in the chain. That was what inspired me. The more I thought about that and what it would take to build a new cable and the marketability and regulatory structures, the more it seemed that clearly there was a need and it was feasible and it just got a life of its own.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced in moving this from an idea to a tangible initiative?
“The most challenging was raising capital. The next was getting the licenses. But absolutely the most challenging was raising capital.”
There must have been so much to do, so many tasks to coordinate, how did you manage that alone or did you have help in the very early days?
“The first year I essentially worked on my own and pledged all the savings I had, or did not have, into doing the foundational work, feasibility studies, business plan, technical plan to see that this was indeed feasible and then talked to regulators about licenses and things like that. Again, the more I delved into it the more I knew this could work, everything seemed to bring me back to that conclusion even in those early days.”
At some point you had to make the first major commitment. That must have been a scary and defining moment, pressing the button so to speak!
“Yes you are right! The next major milestone was to reserve a slot for manufacturing the cable, we needed to make a financial commitment and put a deposit down at that point. And at that point, I needed to bring the external money in. I was able to find a very small group of Angel investors who would put enough money down to get us to the next step.”
The Main One cable was to be built over a 2-year period, from inception to launch, with a total investment of US$240 million financed entirely from African investors. To this date, the company has succeeded in repaying its debts on schedule and has achieved breakeven, a little over 2 years after launch. Here is an insight into a few of the challenges Funke had to overcome to bring this project to fruition.
So it was step by step, gradually realising the dream. Keeping and showing absolute faith must have been so important for you and your angels.
“Yes, to be honest it was what you would call a slow climb because we kept going and we kept raising money with the objective that we would be able to finish and if we did not finish any money we had already invested was at risk. But I truly believed and maybe this is what gave me the passion because there was no going back. I had accepted money from other people to finish the project and so we just kept at it.”
It must have been tough convincing global investors with such an unstable economic environment in the world at that time.
“From the Angel investors we raised more Angel investor money in Nigeria and in Ghana and then I appointed Standard Chartered out of London to work with us to start raising money globally. But as I mentioned, at the end of the day, all the investors who actually put money down came in from Africa. We did however have two International Financial institutions, the African development bank and the German development bank but it was from the German fund focused on Africa that we raised that money.”
Was there a point in the project you thought I can’t see how this is going to happen?
“There was. First we raised equity of US$120 million and the construction was well advanced so we needed to bring in additional debt of US$120 million. When negotiating the debt, I still recall a series of meetings in London where things completely broke down and we went back to our hotel rooms from the lawyers’ offices and it felt like ‘where do we go from here’. The key thing was there was no going back, so I was relentless in continuing to engage with everybody who could help us fill that financing need to close the gap.
One key thing we did ensure was that once we had started the implementation work we did not stop and we had a very good partner in that regards, which was Tyco. This was very useful when investors or lenders would prove difficult or were not confident that we could pull it of.
They shared in our vision that we could complete the project successfully. They believed in the business plan and were willing to work with us. So we were just relentless. I don’t know if there was any magic to this. We simply thought that there was no turning back and we had to make it happen.”
Did you find it an additional challenge or a benefit driving this project forward as a woman?
“Not really, as you said, being an engineer we are used to being around men from university so that in itself was not a challenge. I don’t know if it was because I was a woman, but it is such a big infrastructure project to embark upon for a start-up company, and so some people just tended to dismiss it or dismiss me but I could not separate whether that was from being a woman or because 'you got to be kidding, you cannot possibly pull this off. You don’t have the backing or the structure; only big companies do things like this, so why do you think you can do it? So that really was it. I guess I was immune already when working with men, so I am not as sensitive to those issues as others might be.”
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams…
The Main One cable was West Africa’s first privately owned, open access submarine high capacity cable, which was completed in time and on budget.
The cable has succeeded in signing over 100 customers, accounting for less than 5% of its total available capacity. The cable has landing points in Portugal, Ghana and Nigeria and branching units in Morocco, Canary Islands, Senegal and Ivory Coast. More recently in July 2012, Main One signed an agreement with TATA Communications to extend TATA’s Video Connect Network into Nigeria through a strategic partnership.
It’s quite an amazing and inspiring story Funke, so what is next for you and Main One?
“What we are more focused on now is inland connectivity, terrestrial connectivity across Nigeria, Ghana and then growing into West Africa. We are also focused on growing and building data centers and delivering cloud services. If you look at this part of the world, broadband services have a very low penetration and so does ICT in general. We have played a significant role already and we think we have an opportunity to play a leadership role in driving that. That is really our focus. Getting services distributed through the country, improve connectivity, seeing a lot more broadband applications, e-commerce, e-learning and those kinds of applications developed and being adopted.
Nigeria and Ghana are our primary markets, but we are focusing to offer service across Africa as well because when we look at Nigeria and Ghana from a demographic standpoint that is a significant part of the population of West Africa. We are also doing business in some of the francophone countries, so we would like to expand services into those markets as well. Apart from that, everybody knows it, I want to get Main One to a successful point and then retire in the Bahamas...”
Well it sounds as though a retirement in the Bahamas will have to wait a while!
“Indeed. It is really a fascinating time in terms of broadband access and Internet connectivity in West Africa. Over the past few months we started noticing a lot more e-commerce web sites and online businesses popping up and that is exciting. I think you know this is a part of the world where when you talk about globalisation, there are still a lot of growth opportunities. There is a large youth population and I really think Africa is going to be propelled forward and the world scene is going to look at Africa differently in a few years. Broadband and Internet access continues to unfold and Main One wants to play a part in it.
I guess from a business standpoint we are excited to being at the very beginning of that. We would like it to be a lot bigger but we can see things starting to take off.”
The secret of my success…
Funke and her team achieved a great thing with the successful implementation of the Main One cable, so what was the key to her success in her eyes?
It takes visionary people to see and create opportunity and reality for others Funke
“I don’t know that I am unique in that regard. It is all the things we learn: hard work, integrity and focus, but it is really about value creation. Each individual has to think about how they can utilize the opportunity and the assets they have to generate value and if you create value, you will be successful in business. That is what I strongly believe.
When I look back now I cannot imagine how I did it. It is one of those things. So hard or so gruelling, but once you started you just couldn’t stop until you came out successful at the end. I am glad we did.”
It is said that every inspirational person has been inspired by another, was that the case for you?
“Yes I actually think that Fola Adehola, the chairman of Main One, has been a great mentor and role model for me. He founded the most respected bank in Nigeria a while back and was the founding CEO. He is such a visionary leader, very disciplined, a person of integrity. He champions entrepreneurs. When I talk about raising all that money, without his active participation and support we would not have been able to do that. So he has actually been quite a significant influence in terms of the business.”
The secret of her success…
After spending some time knowing Funke a bit more and delving into what makes her tick, I can say that from my point of view what makes Funke Opeke so successful can be summarized 3 words:
Determination – Determination - Determination
However this is not the whole story, one cannot be so successful if one does not also have self-belief, the support of a great team and last but not least: a dream.
About the Author:
HOT TELECOM has been serving global operators, governments, equipment vendors and telecom investors for over 10 years, providing leading edge market research and consulting services to industry leaders around the globe.
For more information on our HOT INTERVIEWS program, please contact Isabelle Paradis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at +1 514 270 1636