MTN entered Uganda in 1998, and 11 years down the line, the company has not only risen to the summit of the telecom industry but has also set the benchmark for corporate social responsibility by continuously reaching out and giving a helping hand to the people who have been instrumental in the company’s metroic rise.

And while the MTN Brand has become a household name with its products and services commanding respect across all market segments, it’s the plight of the common man that seems to have caught the eye of the company.

It’s the realization of the importance of the need to help communities reach their full potential that led MTN Uganda to create a special vehicle that would only address the pressing needs of the people that have supported the brand for more than a decade. .
Thus in November 2007, MTN Foundation, a non-profit organization was established with a primary role of identifying areas where the company can engage, support and give back to the society. The MTN Foundation was incorporated as a separate legal entity and is solely financed by up to 1% of MTN Uganda’s declared profit after tax, on an annual basis.

As a corporate Foundation it stands at the forefront of the emerging debate on the wider role of business in the society. As such the MTN Foundation has key strategic areas of focus. These include health and HIV/AIDS, education (including science and technology), low cost housing, music, sport, art and culture, community development, environment and other actions of humanitarian nature.

The Foundation is governed by a 10-member Board of Trustees, five of whom are independent respected members of the community. Mr. George Egadu is the chairman of the MTN Foundation, and to Egadu, for the telecom giant to have created a Foundation to specifically handle and promote activities of a humanitarian kind means the “highest level of commitment.” Currently, the trustees of the Foundation have clearly spelt out mandates that focus on the above mentioned core focus areas and activities that aim at positively changing the lives of the beneficiaries.

“It shows a big concern on their part. And depending on the overall performance of the company, the funds available for the activities of the Foundation will be substantial going forward. Some areas will be reconsidered and I think the Foundation’s work will be more spread all over the country,” said Egadu

Noel Meier, MTN Uganda CEO agrees with Egadu. “Focus will be on projects that may not necessarily fit the usual traditional philanthropic model. For instance, projects like our village phone concept, in which we truly empower the community and there is a win-win outcome for all partners”.

The MTN VillagePhone was a joint venture between MTN Uganda and the then Grameen Foundation of the United States and in partnership with local micro-finance institutions. The VillagePhone now forms part of its public access strategy, providing access to basic telephony service in remote areas. Through this project, the company was able to provide affordable telecommunication in rural areas and improve the economic livelihood of rural entrepreneurs.

To date, there are over 5,500 VillagePhone operators in 53 districts in Uganda. Each earns an average $15 daily which is 15 times more than what the average Ugandan earns. It currently serves over 500 people in any one community and the entrepreneurship model has been replicated in other MTN operations with Rwanda being a case in point.
This is a clear example of a corporate using its core competence to address an issue of societal concern and in so doing creating an economic opportunity for its beneficiaries.

“There are other projects which fall within the same category as MTN VillagePhone and these include those for carbon credits, global initiative for sustainable development projects and empowerment of small scale entrepreneurs in disadvantaged social groups,” said Meier.
Ms Halima Besisira, MTN Corporate Affairs Manager says the Foundation’s existence for the last one year has already delivered incredible results and there is now a need to inform the wider public about its existence and benefits. “We want to publicize the Foundation and its activities more, so we can reach as many deserving people as possible,” said Besisira.

Going forward, Besisira says MTN Foundation will seek to enter into synergetic partnerships so as to deliver sustainable projects for the wider community.

Beyond the Foundation and the greater good from the company MTN, there is another group of helping hands. These are the MTN staff who are involved in a programme dubbed the “21 Days of Yellow Care”. This is an annual in-house programme by MTN staff members who mobilize themselves financially and materially and connect and give back to the wider society. The practice has been implemented in the 21 countries that MTN has operations in Africa and the Middle East. It begins on the first day of July and runs for three weeks.

“Staff contribute money and material items and then come up with ideas on how and who will benefit. They also volunteer on a day to day basis,” says Ms Wendy Angu’Deyo, MTN Internal Communications Coordinator.

From these selfless undertakings by the MTN staff, there is already feedback from the beneficiary communities that indicate profound gratitude from the communities in which these activities are conducted, thus boosting MTN’s corporate image.

“We have been distributing mosquito nets in the cancer ward at Mulago Cancer Institute for the last two years. Overall and with support from the Foundation, 230 low cost houses have been constructed worth well over Ush570 million in partnership with Habitat for Humanity in just over seven years,” says Angu’Deyo.

In the past year, MTN staff undertook to build a school block in Gulu Prisons Primary School in northern Uganda to help educate kids who were affected by the extended period of insurgency in the north. Currently the employees are seeking new ideas on what they can do. “The whole idea for involvement in these projects is “how deep can you dig into your own pocket to help the suffering and make a change in someone’s life,” says Angu’Deyo.

From this symbiotic company-community relationship, both MTN and the society can only grow to greater heights.

Ms Halima Besisira, MTN Corporate Affairs Manager, recently held an interview with John Muthee, CSR AFRICA’S publisher.

CSR AFRICA: What has been the impact of the MTN Foundation in the last one year?

Halima Besisira: As the corporate social responsibility arm of MTN, the Foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life through caring partnerships and all activities are focused in that line. This we have done by contributing over 1.2 billion shillings to noble causes over the past one year to various projects such as Proline Football Academy(Ush.140 million), ICT roll out programmes, Hospice Africa Uganda(Ush.10 million), Arrive Alive Uganda(Ush.55 million), M-Lisa Brass Band(Ush.35 million), Malaria Consortium(Ush.200 million), and the Red Cross(Ush.200 million),refurbishment of the Lugogo Sports arena(Ush.275 million), Habitat for Humanity(Ush.76 million), Cancer Institute Mulago (Ush.30 million), Gulu Prisons Primary School(Ush.200 million)and many others. These contributions to community focused projects have had wide ranging benefits that are sustainable.

CSR AFRICA: Going forward, what are the specific areas of focus for the foundation?

Halima Besisira: Our work will have three pillars. First is to have synergistic partnerships. We shall maintain our partnerships with Habitat for Humanity with whom we’ve had a long standing relationship spanning over 7 years. MTN partnered with this international Christian NGO, Habitat for Humanity (HfH) to build low cost decent housing for poorer communities in Uganda and to date MTN has built over 230 houses over the past 7 years. The housing projects are self perpetuating. The HfH model identifies small communities it calls affiliates.

An initial investment is made to build 15 – 25 houses in an affiliate. The members of the affiliate provide the basic manpower to build the houses. HfH manages the building works and provides the materials. The owners of the new houses make monthly payments (<$20) for their new houses. The payments are pooled and managed by an Affiliate Committee, overseen by HfH. The pool is then re-invested to building more houses within that same community. In that way the expansion of housing in that community self perpetuates and remains sustainable in the long term.

The model has been successfully used to build over 1,000,000 houses throughout the world and MTN Foundation is committed to continue supporting an initiative that has changed and continues to impact lives of millions of people.

We will also continue supporting Red Cross with the marathon Mama Bag appeal. The MTN marathon started in 2004 with 1,500 participants and has grown exponentially with a record turn-up of 10,000 participants last year. The contributions from the Marathon to the Mama Bag project have also grown proportionally, supporting over 8,500 beneficiaries to date. While maintaining the above partnerships we will also continue exploring other new opportunities that fit our strategic areas of focus.

The second pillar is to focus on strategic and sustainable projects which may not necessarily fit the usual traditional philanthropic model. Projects with an avant-garde model, like our VillagePhone concept, which truly empower the community and the project has a win-win outcome for all involved.

Last but not least, we will seek to promote the spirit of volunteerism in the company, which will be in accordance with our group wide ‘21 days of yellow care’ initiative.

CSR AFRICA: How does the Foundation’s work and corporate social responsibility activities fit in the business plans of the MTN?

Halima Besisira: The Foundation activities are an integral part of the MTN Uganda business plans. The MTN Uganda Foundation, albeit a separate legal entity, is solely financed by 1% of MTN Uganda’s declared profit after tax, on an annual basis. So the Foundation activities are integrated in our budgeting process.
Beyond the monetary contribution, MTN provides other services to the Foundation.

Top senior managers are members of the Board of trustees and middle managers are also involved in the day to day running of the Foundation. Staff members are encouraged and facilitated to participate in key CSR activities, as I had mentioned earlier in the 21 days of yellow care. CSR