In this highly dynamic technological era, it is becoming increasingly needful for Africa to groom her own to advance technological development on the African continent. More children need to become proficient in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) disciplines in order to innovate and propagate Africa’s digital and technological space. The girl child, in particular, needs to be equipped and encouraged to pursue STEM-related careers as this industry has generally been stereotyped as male-dominated. One woman who has not only proved that women are equally capable in this field but gone further to facilitate remarkable development in the telecoms and e-space in West Africa is none other than Funke Opeke (Founder and CEO of Mainone Cable Company).
Funke’s journey to entrepreneurship
Funke Opeke is an Electrical Engineering graduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife Nigeria, and holds a Masters degree from Columbia University in Electrical Engineering. Following her education, she built a career in Information Technology for 20 years, while living in the United States. Before returning to Nigeria, she was an executive director for the wholesale division of Verizon. In 2005, Ms. Opeke returned to Nigeria as the Chief Technical Officer for MTN Nigeria. Subsequent to MTN, Ms. Opeke advised Transcorp on the acquisition of NITEL and briefly served as the interim Chief Operating Officer, post-acquisition of NITEL. The year 2010 saw the launching of her brainchild, Main One Cable, which built the first privately owned undersea fibre optic cable linking Europe and West Africa. The cable which runs over 7,000 km on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean cost more than $250m and she managed to raise all the money, even though she was a first time entrepreneur.
The birthing of Mainone
Working on the NITEL project was challenging but it was worth the stress. We had so much difficulty achieving success in NITEL and then internet services were almost non-existent in the country. I recognized 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 so it just got a life of its own. The first year, 2007, I essentially worked on my own and put everything 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.
Since its launch in July 2010, MainOne has become a leading provider of innovative telecom services and network solutions for businesses, internet service providers, telecommunications networks, educational institutions and government agencies in West Africa. Its world-class infrastructure enhances the productivity and profitability of its customers.
MainOne’s world class submarine cable system running down the coast of West Africa (linking Nigeria, Ghana and Portugal) consists of state of the art IP NGN network, growing regional and metro terrestrial fiber optic networks and data center facilities. These enable efficient broadband services for businesses needing critical connectivity solutions in West Africa.
Notwithstanding, Funke says MainOne still faces challenges such as:
- manpower (building the right team to drive and deliver world class service quality)
- the high costs of doing business in Nigeria and the region as a whole
- problems with sourcing sustainable financing for large-scale projects
- other issues peculiar to the West African environment.
Lessons learnt by Funke
To succeed as an entrepreneur in the industry she is operating in, Funke says one needs:
- leadership skills
- clear vision
- clarity of purpose
- excellent understanding of Telecoms particularly in Nigeria
- People Management
- Planning and Organization
To develop her career, she invested in reading a lot and took advantage of various personal development opportunities. She also kept abreast of happenings across the different sectors of the economy, especially in Telecoms, and participated in relevant industry events, programmes, and other professional development activities. She currently belongs to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the Nigerian Society of Engineers. She also values the mentorship she has received and says:
‘One significant influence on the business has been Mr. Fola Adeola, the Chairman of MainOne, who has been a great mentor and role model for me personally. Mr. Adeola is a visionary leader, very disciplined and a man of great integrity.’
Funke’s words to the Upcoming Generation
I think the possibilities within Nigeria are limitless and students and young graduates need to seek opportunities to excel within their fields of endeavour. They should seek solutions to challenges, seek the assistance of like minds and people who believe in their dream and just go for it. The fact is you can achieve whatever you put your mind to. In addition, it does not matter if you are male or female.
I participate in the Girls in ICT programme and there I say to them that ICT offers a tremendous opportunity for young women to work on solutions and technologies that impact people’s lives and change the world. A career in ICT can be diverse, varied and offers good rewards.