'Getting MTN Nigeria back to a place where It's been loved is probably my biggest achievement' – Guardian Nigeria

Karl Toriola is the CEO of MTN Nigeria. In this interview with CHIJIOKE IREMEKA, he speaks on his experience managing the telecommunication company, upgrade to 5G technology, MoMo PSB, family, hobbies, and more.
You’ve been CEO of Nigeria’s largest telco for almost two years. What do you consider as your most important accomplishment?
First of all, it’s a team accomplishment. So, it’s not down to me but the entire team – from the board, right down to everyone working in the organisation. But I think getting MTN Nigeria back to a place where it’s been liked and loved gradually is probably my biggest achievement. It’s a long journey.
Everyone loves to hate two service providers, the telco and the bank, and to get them (customers) to start to like and love you and give you some respect; I think it’s a tremendous achievement.
If you want to speak about the single day where I had probably the highest elation from my job, it was probably the day after we won the 5G license. For me, that was a very interesting day. It was a very strenuous process, which I went through with three incredible gentlemen. The day we got the license, we didn’t feel elated, but the next morning at the Hilton Hotel, sitting down with the team, we felt like we’d done something special.
What would you, in your estimation, say is responsible for the successes?
I’ve always said the most important thing to making an organisation successful is for every individual in that organisation to feel that they have a voice and a role to play in the success. And if I were to put it down to one thing, it would be that, but even that, we are just on the very early part of the journey and creating that culture where every member of staff, whether in Sokoto or Akwa-Ibom, really feel that you can make a difference and contribute value.
The secret to the successes is tapping into everyone, from the board to the senior management and every layer of the organisation, to drive the success and make them feel that they own the success along with everyone in this organisation. And beyond that, we continue to elevate the bar. So no matter how well we’ve done, there’s a sense of ‘it’s not good enough;’ we need to lift ourselves higher, we need to be better, stronger, faster, and at the forefront of technology. So, it all comes together and gives you small little steps of results.
Aside from winning the 5G license, can you remember any other two accomplishments since you became CEO?
I think a few other things, which really gave me some excitement were the closure and the success of the public offer; the visit to His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari and the warm reception we received coming from the history of MTN, and hosting the (MTN) Group board along with the Lagos State governor.
There are so many of these little moments of success that you take in, bask and rejoice in that it’s very hard to distil them into a few numbers.
We all know what 5G is, but if you’re going to explain this to maybe the ordinary Nigerian, what does 5G really mean in layman’s terms?
5G is ultra-high-speed wireless internet in the most simple terms possible. On the launch day, our demonstration on our live network showed over 1GB per second download, which is 50 times higher than the average 4G connection. And what it does is, brings the world of the immersive and industrial internet to our fingertips.
In layman’s terms, it brings to Nigeria the world of the future of the internet, which is going to transform radically.
MTN is increasingly moving more from being a telco to an ICT company, leveraging technology to empower consumers. What implication does this have for the business and customers, now and in the future?
For the business, it means we need to reinvent ourselves. The skills that have taken us to where we are in the last 21 years are not going to see us through the next three to five years. So, there needs to be a radical change in our competencies and skills; and in the places we source revenue from, in our understanding of the customer requirements, known and unknown, that are coming in the future, towards us to be able to serve them in various facets of their lives.
Connectivity remains number one and will be the biggest. Financial service, digital consumption, and the total digital lifestyle are others, and leading through that is Ayoba.
So, what is going to change for consumers?
Our consumers are going to increasingly live a much more digital life, end-to-end, their entire experience, from waking up in the morning to dressing up, where you can actually use things like 5G with augmented reality to see how this outfit is going to look on you today, to your transportation, financial services, entertainment, to the news that you watch, when you wake up while you’re getting ready for work. And the manner in which you watch that news, how it is customised to your tastes, desires and historical habits is going to transform.
The truth is, we still don’t know 100 per cent what the future will look like in 10 years. With ultra-high-speed connectivity, digital services, and financial services, it’s something we’re going to figure out along with our customers. And a lot of new business cases are going to evolve that we have no idea of today.
Incidentally, all that we’ve discussed so far, they’ve been on your professional life, which is what is mostly out there. Everybody sees you and they see your footprints everywhere. A lot is known about you, even your royal roots as a future king. But little is known about your immediate family, your private life. Can you tell us more about who you are?
So, let me say that’s quite deliberate, because I’m an employee of an institution, and the individual’s persona should never supersede the institution. However, let me quickly assure you; I’m not an ‘Obalola’ (a future King). The royal title where I’m from is awarded through seniority. And my father, who became king, started on that journey 40-something years ago. I haven’t even gotten on the rung of the ladder, and I don’t have any intention to, so that’s out of the question.
I married my university sweetheart; we met at the age of around 19 and dated for a while. Ronke Toriola-Omisakin likes retaining her maiden name, which is great, because her family is also an important part of her journey and my journey as well. We met in the university, and we’ve been married for 27 years. Our anniversary was just a few days ago.
My wife gave me my greatest gift, my only child – Damilola Toriola, who is very happy to be a black woman in STEM. But more than the academic qualifications (she’s an Imperial College graduate), and I’m very proud of her character. She’s a strong-willed, independent-minded person who I know will do great things in her life according to her desires and ambitions. So that’s my family life, a very long marriage, the best thing I ever did; my one and only child, very proud of it all.
On a personal basis, I enjoy fishing. Those who know me know I’m an avid fisherman. That’s my hobby. I don’t play golf, I don’t do much else, and I love travelling when I am on vacations. I love travelling to nice exotic destinations, and aside from that, honestly, this job doesn’t afford you much time for anything else.
You find yourself working on the weekends, having informal engagements about the business all the time and working late hours. But not a problem because this is the time to put in the heavy lifting in terms of work, and when I’m done with the job, I can go into some form of semi-retirement.
Tell us a bit more about the school you met your wife, what were the circumstances like?
We were both in OAU, and interestingly enough, we are from two very opposing tribes – Modakeke and Ife. As you know, I always say this, my dad is from Modakeke, and my wife comes from a very prominent family in Ile-Ife. So, a Modakeke man married an Ife woman, but our parents actually knew that my wife and I were very strong-willed, and in love; and once we had decided, they could say or do anything they wanted, but we were going to get married. So, they decided pretty quickly that these ones were a couple, and we were going to support it fully.
My wife is Nigerian, she was raised in the leafy suburbs of Ikoyi while I was a village boy growing up in Ife, and she’s been my rock. Someone once told me there are no bad men; there are men not held in check by the environment around them, which effectively is your wife and family. And so, my wife holds me very much in check and balance to ensure that I don’t get ahead of myself with my ego.
I’m very well-grounded; I know where I’m coming from. I know where I’m going, and I understand that ultimately, all this fanfare, status, position, etc will all go away someday when you retire. And what do you come back to? You come back to your family. And it’s important to always remember that and to ensure that you’ve built something beyond your career that gives you a real sense of inner satisfaction.
One day, my daughter will leave me and marry. I can’t imagine what that will be like, but I will promptly adopt her husband to be my son and expand my family through that.
Nigeria has a huge unbanked population. In what ways do you think mobile money and payment service can help solve the unbanked problem in Nigeria?
Great question, you know, the brilliance about MoMo PSB and the vision of the Central Bank of Nigeria in bringing in mobile operators to support that is that we think that mobile operators with their distribution reach, financial capability and their already registered KYC (know your customer) base of customers are the best people, institutions and catalysts to accelerate financial inclusion, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid.
The focus for us on Momo PSB, at least in the early stages, is the unbanked. What we’ve seen across all the markets where we’ve operated is that because we focused on the unbanked in the remote villages of all the countries where we operate across Africa, we’ve brought a lot of cash transaction and people that are not even in the financial system into the financial system, which at the end of the day still comes into the traditional banking system.
So, mobile money, the way we are operating it, at least in the early years, is going to strengthen the traditional banks incredibly and accelerate financial inclusion at an unprecedented pace. Now, we were just awarded a full license. I think in April this year. So we are in the early stages, a lot of legwork and groundwork going on. We are already opening accounts, engaging with customers, and expanding the connectivity across our systems. But over the next one to three years, you’re going to see a tremendous acceleration, and you will see the direct, positive impact it has on both the traditional banking system and the Nigerian economy as a whole.
You’ve talked about the future being digital. Everything starts with the mobile phone. Can you remember your first experience with a mobile phone, a smartphone?
My first experience where I owned a mobile phone was when I went to do my Master’s degree in the United Kingdom. I didn’t own one before then. This was in 1994/1995. And I won’t mention the name of the network because it’s not MTN, and it was this Motorola flip phone. It was a wonderful experience to have that kind of connectivity. The truth is, it wasn’t something that was that distant from me because my passion, academically, was communications, and then I went to do a master’s degree in Communication Systems specialising in radio communication systems, which is what GSM was based on. And shortly after I finished that Master’s degree, I went to work for Ericsson, the biggest vendor for mobile communication systems and also used to make handsets back in those days. I was still doing my thesis when I started working for them.
So, I have always been in very familiar territory. People often say you’ve had an interesting rise and trajectory in your career, but people don’t realise that I’ve been plodding away at this industry for 27 straight years. I’ve never diversified to any other industry. And they say if you do something for 10,000 hours, you become an expert on it. So since 1995, I’ve been working in the mobile industry for 27 years, and I’ve done nothing else. I always tell people I don’t know much else besides the mobile telecommunications industry and real estate, because that’s where my competencies sit. But someday, when I retire, maybe I’ll start learning new skills like golf.
But would it be a safe bet to say that your first email came about the same time?
Yeah, it was pretty much when I was starting my Master’s degree that I started using an email. Remember computers, and we’re not even talking about smartphones now; computers were not that accessible. And so, during my Master’s degree in Swansea, UK; there were computers in the computer lab in the school that you would use to go and access your email. Within a year thereafter, it became quite common with AOL, and then Hotmail came on the scene and so on.
What book are you reading presently?
I enjoy reading two types of books – books about leadership, I know that sounds like a cliche, because everybody says that, but it always gives you a few ideas of the kinds of strategies and experiences people have had. And I’ve increasingly started to read more about the history of Nigeria again. We were all educated about it in our primary and secondary education. But I recently read President Olusegun Obasanjo’s My Watch again. For some reason, I just feel like there are gaps in my knowledge about the history of Nigeria that I want to come and fill in.
What kind of books, articles, courses, videos, or resources would you advise young Nigerians to consume? What would be a summary of your guidance to young Nigerians? Looking for answers about what a better tomorrow could look like for them?
So I’m not sure when you’ve passed 50, you can say you’re still a young man, I think I’m firmly in the middle age to old bracket. Perhaps because I lead a company, which is seen to be technology-oriented, people think that I’m very much in touch with the trends, but that’s not as much so as you might think. There’s a lot of people in this organisation who are much more in touch with the trends.
We live in an economy where the youth find it hard to earn a decent wage with their skills. But beyond that, another problem is that our educational systems are structured for history and the past. Let me explain what I mean to you. Our educational systems are designed to drill certain principles and theories into your head, and you repeat them over and over until you’re a subject matter expert or you know them in your head. But the advancement of computing and everything from mobile phones to 5G, etc, in a lot of ways, have made a lot of that knowledge obsolete.
So I always tell the story, and I can’t remember the article I read that an application designed by a few Stanford University engineers using a common mobile phone, was more effective at diagnosing skin cancers through a picture taken than the top 10 dermatologists in the USA combined. So, you have 10 dermatologists that have spent probably 40 years each (400 years) of going through an educational system to learn what a few engineers designed an app in two months to detect, and they’re more efficient than them. And it’s just one example; we have a lot of skills beyond diagnosing what skin cancer is.
So, if it’s accounting or law that you’re studying, or if it is engineering the way we teach engineering, that you are studying, a lot of that knowledge is going to become near obsolete, because there are apps that are going to do all those calculations, or you plug in the court case, it picks up the few keywords, using the artificial intelligence and tells you, this is the best defence, etc.
A lot of those skills are obsolete, and they have been effectively enmeshed into our computing and knowledge system that doesn’t require the human brain for it, and they can pull on it when they need it. So, the skills that are needed for the future are skills around being able to imagine things in a completely different light, reinvent business models, change the way things are done, increase things on productivity, like food production, help with environmental issues, like waste management, and issues that are facing the world of tomorrow. Of course, artificial intelligence is going to be a critical part of it; robotics is going to take over a lot of what we do. So the more skills you have in robotics, the better for you.
And then look, I don’t want to encourage everybody to do this. But the truth is content creation and entertainment is incredibly profitable as a source of business. So, why is Cristiano Ronaldo a billionaire? Do you know why? Is it because he’s the best footballer or Messi is the best footballer? It’s because he creates content through his sport. And then leverages his skill and sports in creating content to create all sorts of other content through his Instagram and so on, that’s making the money.
So, the space of entertainment is going to be incredibly important. And creating content and entertainment, and knowledge for the future is important.
It’s very hard. People say what’s the path to success for the youth? There’s no guaranteed path; if there was, there would be no mystery to life. But I’ve spoken about the areas where skills will be needed. And people fulfilling those skills is going to be critical.
The ability to build and manage relationships to interconnect all of those things. So social skills are also going to be incredibly important for people to succeed in the future.
You said something about deep sea fishing, which is part of your hobbies. Can you actually do deep sea fishing in Nigeria’s territorial waters?
Actually, Nigeria is one of the best fishing grounds in the world. I think we’re slightly overfished. So, the quantity of fish that you catch now is nothing like it was 10/15 years ago. Back then, the fishing people go out by 7a.m and by 11a.m, they will tell you there’s no more space on their boat for fish. But in terms of the geography of Nigeria and the different species of fish you can catch in Nigeria, it is out of this world. Global warming, environmental impact, overfishing etc have impacted that.
So, it’s not as great as it used to be. But you will be amazed when you go out in Nigeria and see whales, dolphins, sea turtles etc. And you’ll think that you’re in some exotic place like the Maldives. We see that regularly here in Nigeria.
What was your biggest catch for instance?
So we’ve caught 130kg-marlin; we have got some 70kg tuna etc. For a lot of the endangered species, especially the billfish, we catch and release. We try and make sure that we don’t take off species that are endangered. We try and return them to the seas healthy and alive. But fishing is a skill on its own; we know how to navigate, we have the GPS, satellite phones, and radar to see what’s coming in in terms of storms and we watch the weather before we go out.
What were you like growing up; any pranks; were you naughty?
Funny enough, in my secondary school, I was academically very brilliant. I think I had the second-best results in my secondary school. But at the same time, I was very mischievous. I studied hard. I wasn’t a natural genius; my academic excellence was as a result of studying. But I was very, very mischievous.
And I used to get into a lot of trouble and even more so in the university. But my one and only child, Damilola, although she’s an adult now, she’s still my child. I can’t tell you guys all the bad things I’ve done so that she doesn’t read about them (laughter).
Could you give us more insight about your sporting interest?
So I’m not a football fan; I’m a very wishy-washy football fan. I followed Arsenal for a number of years until they frustrated me, then I moved to Liverpool. But one sport I’m fanatical about, it’s the sport I’ve always really liked – Formula One. But I am in extreme admiration of Lewis Hamilton. Seven-time world champion, the first black person to enter that sport. He has had to face incredible prejudice, including his eighth world championship being stolen from him. And he always comports himself with such dignity.
The fact that he put the ‘Black Lives Matter’ agenda at the front in Formula One and even got the Mercedes team to change their colour to black for that season, is a tremendous achievement. He even went around with various areas of advocacy around certain things that have happened in terms of police brutality in the USA etc. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hamilton and Formula One in general even before Lewis Hamilton, F1 has always been the sport that I follow.
So, will it be safe to say if you’re not in your office, you’re somewhere watching Formula 1?
In my house, on my television, I’ve been watching Formula One for a long time.

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