Meet The CEO Africa

Irene Charnley

Irene Charnley is a former trade unionist, social entrepreneur, and well-respected telecoms visionary from South Africa. She is a successful businesswoman and one of Forbes’ 50 Most Powerful Women in Africa. 

Who is Irene Charnley? 

Irene Charnley led MTN’s transition into one of the most successful telecommunications organizations in the EMEA region. She started working for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in South Africa as a mediator. She then assumed the role of an Executive Director at Africa’s largest telecoms group, MTN, where she spearheaded its expansion into several African countries. 

Before her role at MTN, Irene headed the investment holding company, Johnnic Holdings, as an Executive Director. She headed MTN to acquire one of four Nigerian GSM licenses and the second GSM license in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following her success at MTN, she received over $150 million of MTN stocks as a reward. After leaving MTN in 2007, Charnley founded Smile Telecoms, an affordable telecommunications operator in Mauritius. 

Early Life 

Irene Charnley was born on the 6th of May, 1960, in South Africa. She grew up with her siblings and widowed mother in the Cape Flats community. 

Irene, the first born of her parents, completed her education at the London College of Printing. Irene’s Career 

Irene Charnley started as a key negotiator and trade unionist for NUM. She spent 13 years working at the union, coordinating different operations. Afterward, she served her tenure as an executive director for the MTN group, during which several African and Middle Eastern countries joined the MTN network. 

Charnley spearheaded the founding of the National Empowerment Consortium, consisting of black business owners and laborers, after which they owned 35% of Johnnic Holdings Ltd. During her time directing Johnnic Industrial Corporation, Irene led the organization into becoming the focused media and telecoms group from an industrial conglomerate. She was also at the forefront in the Ikageng Scheme, one of the early broad-based empowerment schemes for blacks in SA. 32,000

previously underprivileged South Africans participated in the scheme to buy shares in Johnnic and realized 400% as Return On Investment. 

Irene became the President of the International Women’s Forum South Africa, an organization with over 7,000 influential women of significant achievement across six continents and 36 countries. She chaired the Gibela Rail Transport Consortium and recently joined the board of the Public Investment Corporation. 

Charnley is the co-founder and former CEO of Smile Telecoms, a Mauritius-based Pan-African group founded in 2007, operating in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 



Success at MTN 

Irene contributed immensely to MTN’s transformation into one of the most pre-eminent telecommunications groups in the Middle East and African region with several successful license company acquisitions. She directed operations and an 18.7% staff buy-in in MTN, an independent entrepreneurial initiative that benefited thousands of MTN employees at the time. She led as the Commercial Director for the MTN Group, tasked with strategic investments and international expansion for the organization. Charnley saw to the full listing of MTN Holdings through M-Cell limited, leading its transformation into one of the foremost black-empowered companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. 

Irene stepped down as an Executive Director of MTN in 2007 but remained part of the organization’s boards of directors. 

Smile Telecoms Holdings 

Smile Telecommunications Group provides 4G LTE mobile broadband networks with data speeds up to 21 Mbps in the 800MHz band. The company delivers swift mobile broadband services for crystal-clear voice calls, video calls, and SMSs. It has its head office in England. 

After Irene founded Smile in 2007, the company launched its first commercial 4G LTE network in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in May 2013. Ever since, Smile extended its coverage to seven regions in Tanzania, after which it launched commercially in fourteen cities in Uganda and eight cities in Nigeria in 2013 and 2014, respectively. 

As of 2015, Smile had covered most of 4G LTE mobile networks in Africa, comparable to the existing 3G

network in each country of operation. By 2016, the telecoms group launched its SuperFast broadband network over LTE for affordable, SuperClear voice, video, and SMS services. Irene stepped down as Smile’s CEO and has recently retired as Deputy Chairman from the Group’s Board alongside Mohammed Wajih Sharbatly. 

Under the tenure of the new CEO of the Group, Ahmad Farroukh, Smile launched a series of innovative services, including the new MySmile App that allows Users to manage Smile services on their mobile devices easily. 

Irene Charnley’s Net Worth 

As of 2019, Irene Charnley had a net worth estimate of $150 million. She amassed this wealth from her successful entrepreneurship and role as a former trade unionist. 

Awards and Recognition 

  • Africa’s 50 Most Powerful Women by Forbes (2020) 
  • Advance Media 100 Most Influential African Women (2020) 
  • Forbes Women Africa Pioneer Award (2020) 
  • Businesswoman of the Year (2000) 
  • Top 50 Business Women by Fortune Magazine (2002)