Victoria Island to the World

In the space of two decades, Sam Darwish built a global giant. The company he co-founded, IHS Towers, has become the 4th largest independent multinational telecoms towers’ owner globally. At a glamorous gala dinner held on December 11 in the Grand Ballroom of the Lagos Oriental Hotel, winners of the 3rd Nigerian Business Leadership Awards were announced.

Organised by BusinessDay, the event presents an opportunity to recognise companies and chief executives who have distinguished their business performance and social impact. The honorees are selected for their significant contributions to the Nigerian economy, implementation of global standards in innovation, and efforts to catalyse Nigeria’s global competitiveness rankings.

Past winners of the Nigerian Business Leadership Awards include many iconic industrialists, founders, and chief executives in Nigeria who have achieved global recognition while staying true to their proudly Nigerian identity.

Winners at the event this year included some of the biggest names in Nigerian business across different industry sectors – Construction, Infrastructure, Hospitality, Oil & Gas, Real Estate, Logistics, Mobility, Professional Services, and Aviation, to name a few.

One of the most coveted awards of the event – The Most Admired CEO of the Year – was clinched by Sam Darwish, Chairman & CEO, IHS Towers.  This award is bestowed on a chief executive whose professional achievements, contributions to the company’s financial success and market share growth, involvement in philanthropic efforts, and creation of a purposeful organisation are worthy of emulation.

Originally from Lebanon, Darwish had the vision to build his global telecoms infrastructure company in the early days of Nigeria’s GSM revolution. At the last count, the company’s presence spanned over 35,000 towers pro forma under management in eleven countries across Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, serving approximately 750 million people. He co-founded IHS Towers in 2001 alongside his business partners William Saad and Mohamad Darwish.

His success has drawn global media attention. A December 2020 story in The Africa Report magazine, “Lebanese in Africa: A look at 30 family dynasties,” placed him near the top of the list. In contrast to many other families profiled on the list, including the famed Fakhourys in Côte d’Ivoire, Hejeijs in Gabon, and Chagourys in Nigeria, the Darwishs did not make their fortune in construction, distribution chains, or commodities.

Instead, the Darwish family have distinguished themselves in technology; more precisely, in providing the backbone that supports the digital revolution, which has significantly transformed communications in Africa over the last two decades.

Darwish studied Computer and Communications Engineering at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where he graduated summa cum laude. A tireless businessman with peerless hands-on operational nous, he is universally ranked among the most influential telecoms entrepreneurs to have emerged from Africa with Mo Ibrahim, chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Strive Masiyiwa, founder and executive chairman of Econet Wireless; and Naguib Sawiris, executive chairman of Global Telecom Holding as his peers.

He was present at creation in the era of the “nought-nine-nought” analogue system, having served in a senior role at Motophone, Nigeria’s first GSM operator just before the millennium. In this position, he was one of the few who helped shape Nigeria’s telecommunications industry, as an engineer, investor, and senior executive all rolled in one.

The story of Motophone reveals plenty about Darwish’s tenacity and opportunism. Seven months after arriving in Nigeria, the engineer had installed towers for his employer in five Nigerian cities. It is no surprise that big picture thinking has always been his trademark, tempered by nuts-and-bolts creativity.

The trajectory to dominating the mobile telecoms space was aborted when the government cancelled Motophone’s license a few months later. Still in Lagos, with little to do but sensing an opportunity, Darwish joined with his brother Mohamad and fellow college alumni William Saad to co-found IHS in 2001.

With over 35,000 towers proforma across eleven countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, IHS has grown to become the undisputed continental leader in building and managing sites for Telcos and third-party suppliers seeking to expand their telecom infrastructure.

The Nigerian arm of IHS, IHS Nigeria, is helmed by Mohamad Darwish, an engineer by training and a veteran of the industry. Asides from its core shared telecoms infrastructure business, IHS has continued to enhance its revenue through investments in ancillary telecom infrastructure technologies such as small cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and fiber connectivity.

The closing of a deal estimated at US$235 million with TIM S.A, a Brazilian telecoms company, last November to acquire a controlling interest in FiberCo Soluções de Infraestrutura represented a high point in what was already an exciting year. IHS now owns a 51 per cent stake in the company, which has been renamed I-Systems.

Darwish is cut from a contrarian cloth.

Read also: IHS Towers: How a bad bet on GSM became a $7bn company

One need look no further than IHS has done since the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. When many other businesses retreated, Darwish continued to steer IHS’ strategic growth ambition.  Of course, he did not do deals-for-deals sake, and his method cannot be faulted from a shareholder-value prism.

Since February 2020, IHS has acquired 1,620 towers from Zain in Kuwait entered Latin America through the completion of the acquisitions of Cell Site Solutions adding around 2,300 towers and sites in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, Skysites, which brought over 1,000 towers to its Brazil portfolio, Centennial Brazil, which weighed in with 602 towers, and Centennial Colombia that came with 217 towers.

In the same year, IHS was listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), achieving a valuation of nearly US$7 billion. The offer on 14 October was for 22.5m shares at $21/share. As the largest company with African heritage to list on the NYSE (arising from Nigeria), this was undoubtedly a historic moment.

It would not be far-fetched to place IHS among the top non-financial services raisers of capital.

Consequently, beneficiaries of investor confidence have emerged from Nigeria over the last decade.  With continuing support from the government and an improved business environment, we will likely see more organisations like IHS emerge from Nigeria and spread across the globe.

Pre-IPO, its roster of investors included Wendel, a leading European investment firm, MTN, ECP, Korea Investment Corporation, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), IFC (part of The World Bank), Goldman Sachs, FMO, the Dutch development bank, and Ninety-One, an Anglo-South African asset management firm.

Institutional investors are impressed by its structurally strong, geographically diversified business model that offers solid organic growth potential, a sustained track record of operational excellence in challenging environments, a disciplined M&A approach, and prudent capital structure with low leverage versus developed market peers. Another notable feature on the company’s profile that draws investors with an increasing ESG focus is IHS’s environmentally responsible business practices. It continues to deploy hybrid and solar power sources where possible on its African sites.

How Darwish has taken a business that started in the hustle-and-bustle of Victoria Island to become a billion-dollar company with international corporate grandees like Ursula Burns, former Chairman and CEO of Xerox, Phuthuma Nhleko, incoming Chairman of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Frank Dangeard, chairman of Natwest Markets, and Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida is a case study that will become standard fare in leading business schools.  He believes that he owes a lot of this to Nigeria, IHS’s starting point, hence his comprehensive sustainability and philanthropic approach in the countries in which IHS operates.

His record has not gone unnoticed.

He received the CNBC Africa Business Leader of the Year Award for West Africa in 2016 and the TowerXchange Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 for his co-founding and continued leadership of IHS Towers. Receiving the Most Admired CEO of the Year award from BusinessDay affirms his status as a business legend of his time.

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