Written By: Safeer Malik, Capacity Media
An industry veteran and one of the few female CEOs in telecoms, Ineke Botter has held integral roles in the build-out of Europe’s mobile ecosystem – a story which she tells in her new book, Your Phone, My Life.
Having been stuck in Amsterdam in the midst of Covid-19, Ineke Botter decided to continue working on her book, which she had made little progress on prior to the pandemic. Botter had left the Netherlands 35 years before, so now faced being alone in what had become unfamiliar territory.
“I was totally alone in two periods [during the pandemic], for the first time, for around three or four months, and the second around seven months,” Botter says. “But I’m used to being on my own: as a CEO, you’re always on your own.”
Your Phone, My Life: or how did that phone land in your hand?, tells how the world’s mobile networks were built over the last 30 years from the perspective of a female chief executive who had entered the industry in 1991.
Botter’s telecoms journey began in Ukraine, in 1991, as the country freed itself from the USSR. As part of a wider team, she took part in negotiations with the minister of telecommunications of a country with virtually no telecoms infrastructure.
Ukraine’s government declared the country an independent state in August – and Botter was present when Ukraine’s citizens confirmed the country’s independence in a referendum held on 1 December, and the USSR imploded 25 days later. Since then, she has managed country’s mobile networks through periods of political turmoil, unrest, war and bomb attacks.
Botter has held positions in senior management, including chief executive roles and directorships, in Ukraine, Hungary, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Kosovo, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Haiti, and currently East Africa.
Given the world’s reliance on mobile phones, Botter laments that the history of a device so integral to society is not well known. This, she says, was her primary motivation for writing her book.
“For me, it was acknowledging the people who worked their socks off to get this realised, and in my own sort of way, to say thank you to them,” she says.
Today, the mobile telecoms industry provides 10 billion connections, contributes almost 5% to global GDP, provides more over 30 million jobs, and pays US$500 billion in taxes worldwide. And Botter notes that it enables famous tech companies to exist and virtually everyone in the world to work, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of very few
Botter has been one of the very few female CEOs in the industry, which manages less than 1,000 mobile networks globally. But she does not believe that female CEOs being rare in this industry held her back from holding prestigious positions across the world.
“In the telecoms industry, being female wasn’t a consideration, it was rather having enormous experience,” she says.
Botter says that she found it more difficult to work in Western Europe than in countries such as Lebanon, where half of her middle management team of 55 colleagues were female.
She found countries she feels are “extroverted” were her favourite places to work, as they suited her personality.
“Every country has positive and negative points, but I look at it more from a cultural point of view,” she says. “I think if you’re a very extroverted person, then there are certain countries that will suit you.”
Botter namechecks London, Hungary and Lebanon as the countries she loved working in, despite the latter being “dangerous”.
Although Botter was in France for this interview, she spends most of her time in Uganda where she helps local businesses and start-ups.
Botter has travelled to several African countries, which makes her better placed than most to see the vast potential the continent has to offer, particularly around its telecoms industry.
In recent times, she says, Africa has been seen as a “playground” for operators to try new things to increase mobile penetration because of the freedom on offer.
“But it is also the case that the penetration of laptops or computers is very, very low due to a lack of disposable income,” she says.
Botter believes there are several challenges facing African operators as they build out sustainable networks, just like in Europe many years ago.
“4G and 5G networks are so expensive to build, the question is, are you going to build it in rural areas even with 4G?” she points out.
Botter thinks that the continent will look to satellite connectivity in a bid to bolster its networks as a whole. And while Africa’s economy continues to grow at an accelerated pace, the continent is facing several challenges to enhancing its satellite network.
Despite these issues, satellite is showing more promise, especially as improvements to its technology and new opportunities and benefits become available with new constellations.
But Botter has already put in the hard years in Europe, and now enjoys her role as a board member for several companies across the world.
Looking back at her career she says, “I’m happy our efforts made it that people are able to stay in touch, no matter what.
March 16, 2023
Author: Saf Malik