30 years of MTN

It has been thirty years since Mobile Telephone Networks, better known as MTN, received its cellular license in South Africa.

MTN was incorporated on 17 March 1993 and received its global system for mobile communications (GSM) license in September 1993.

MTN was originally called ‘M-Cell’ and was started by a consortium of South African investors who identified the potential of mobile telecommunications in South Africa.

After winning the license bid, MTN built its first cellular network infrastructure and launched its services in South Africa in 1994.

The company’s initial focus was on providing mobile voice services, which were in high demand at the time due to the limited availability of landlines in the country.

At the time, there were four million landlines in South Africa, and only 1% of black South Africans owned a phone.

MTN quickly grew its subscriber base and expanded its services to other African and Middle Eastern countries. 

Today, the company operates in over 20 countries and has over 280 million subscribers – it is Africa’s largest mobile network operator.

As MTN’s 30th birthday looms, here is a look at the mobile operator’s milestones over the last three decades.

1993 – MTN was incorporated, and its founders applied for a mobile license from the South African government. The initial brand was M-Cell.

1994 – MTN launched commercial mobile services in South Africa, and the first call was made on the MTN network. MTN rolled out GSM payphones, which can carry both voice and data.

1994 – MTN changes the face of customer service in South Africa with Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

1995 – MTN offers free calls to emergency services for the first time in South Africa.

1995 – M-Cell becomes a public company, with 25% of MTN Holdings and 60% of M-Tel.

1996 – MTN made Short Message Service available to its customers, heralding the age of SMSs.

1996 – The prepaid solution PayAsYouGo was launched.

1996 – MTN developed a telemetric app for vehicle tracking and theft recovery via GSM.

1996 – MTN acquired South Africa’s biggest service provider in M-Tel, creating the blueprint for network-owned service provision.


1997 – MTN began its international expansion drive.

1997 – MTN acquired the services provider Transtel Cellular.

1998 – MTN expanded to Uganda, Rwanda and Swaziland.

An MTN stand in Gulu, Uganda, in 1998. SOURCE: Fiona Graham / World Remit

1998 – MTN offered South Africa’s first two-way PC-to-cellphone messaging app as a free and international service.

1998 – MTN International is established.

2001 – MTN acquired two licences in Nigeria. It also launched the MTN South Africa Foundation.

MTN in Lagos, Nigeria. SOURCE: Shutterstock / Tolu Owoeye

2001 – MTN became a tier-one Internet Service Provider (ISP), trading as MTN Network Solutions.

2002 – M-Cell’s name changed to MTN, short for Mobile Telephone Network. The company is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.


2002 – MTN is the first operator in South Africa to offer General Packet Radio Services (GPRS).

2002 – MTN Business was launched to deliver dedicated connectivity solutions and services to the corporate sector.

2003 – MTN made South Africa’s first video call using its new 3G-enabled network.

2004 – MTN wins licence to operate in Cyprus.

2005 – MTN launched in Zambia, Ivory Coast, Botswana, Liberia and Congo. It also became one of the first operators in Africa to bring 3G to market.

2006 – MTN acquired Dubai-based Investcom for $5.5 billion.

2008 – MTN pioneered instant messaging in South Africa, enabling groups to chat simultaneously in real-time.

2009 – MTN reached 100 million subscribers. It also launched its HyConnect wireless internet service. MTN launched mobile money in Benin, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Yemen.

2010 – MTN Mobile Money launched. MTN was also the only African global sponsor of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

MTN Mobile Money stand in Gulu, Uganda. SOURCE: Fiona Graham

2012 – Cyril Ramahosa, MTN’s chairman, retired after more than ten years at the company. MTN also launched a commercial 4G network in South Africa.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa

2014 – MTN is named Africa’s Most Admired and Most Valuable Brand.

SOURCE: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock

2015 – MTN Nigeria is fined $5.2 billion by the Nigerian Communications Commission for failing to disconnect improperly registered SIM cards on its network.

SOURCE: Flickr / Warrenski

2015 – MTN acquired multimedia and telecoms company Smart Village as it started rolling out fibre-to-the-home across South Africa.

2016 – MTN’s chairman described 2016 as “the most difficult period in MTN’s history” due to challenges in South Africa and Nigeria, its two largest markets.

MTN Chairman at the time, Phuthuma Nhleko

2017 – MTN launched its BRIGHT Strategy.

2018 – MTN Ghana is listed.

MTN in Accra, Ghana. SOURCE: Shutterstock / Delali-Adogla-Bessa

2019 – MTN Nigeria is listed. MTN also celebrated 25 years in business.

MTN building in Lagos, Nigeria. SOURCE: Shutterstock / Tolu Owoeye

2020 – Ralph Mupita is appointed MTN Group CEO. MTN introduced the MTN Global Staff Emergency Fund in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ralph Mupita
Current MTN CEO, Ralph Mupita

2021 – MTN completed the sale of its operations in the Middle East to focus on its core African markets.

Members of MTN during its listing on the Damascus Stock Exchange. SOURCE: The Syrian Observer


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