Greg Carr

Bringing new life to Mozambique

Legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a fortune in the voicemail revolution. We travel to Mozambique to find out why he turned his back on the business of technology.

'If you want to get anything done here you've got to stop thinking like an American CEO,' says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their'Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We're sitting drinking iced tea in the bar of Mozambique's Chitengo lodge, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. 'See the swimming pool over there?' he says, pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. 'That used to be a prison during the Civil War.'

Carr was one of the most influential CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. The rewards were substantial, and he amassed a colossal personal fortune. However, here in the middle of the world's poorest country he has no delusions of grandeur; there are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxuries.

'If you look at the organisation chart, you'll see I'm not even the boss,' he says, before explaining that what he does now is in partnership with the government of Mozambique, and that this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

The task is not, though, without reward: it's made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he has now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park.

His aim is to return Mozambique's 'crown jewel' to its pristine state, and in so doing provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the villagers of this rarely-visited country his new career is far more important than his old one.

Humanitarian champion

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a 'classic public-private partnership' that sees $40m of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years' time the park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much-needed economic activity into the country's tourism sector with benefits for all.

With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr's corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a'school. But it's only the start.

'We need 750 medical centres,' he says, referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voicemail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it.

Inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voicemail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr; by 1998 he was able to retire from 'for-profit' business an extraordinarily wealthy man. He made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique and, as he describes his new job, it's clear that success in the world of digital technology was merely one milestone in his career; it's what comes after financial success that really matters.

'I'm a human-rights guy,' he says. What you really have to do, he explains, is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? 'Bicycles,' he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage-packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels ' and'it'changed their lives.

Chitengo's rise and fall

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benz cars drove up to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War bubbled up, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions – resistance movement Renamo and liberation movement Frelimo – were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. A million humans perished.

There is still plenty of evidence of the war today. Carr points to bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path to the ferry threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don't stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there's a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It's riddled with head-height bullet holes.

However, the mission of the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will return. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or, as Carr puts it, 'sustainable economic development'.

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they're present in nothing like their former numbers. 'There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times,' says Carr. 'The first, the War of Independence, didn't affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late 1970s was in good shape.'

But then followed a civil war between Renamo and Frelimo. 'That really got going in the 1980s, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.' He'recounts the case of a local ranger who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

Opportunist hunters

It's easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush-meat to feed the soldiers. While there's no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush-meat issue is more complex.

'The real carnage came at the end of the war,' says Carr. 'This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It's true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was commercial hunting.'

Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. 'In fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.'

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the 1960s when, according to Carr, 'this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it'. Something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also the economic engine of Mozambique. 'I'm a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.'

It hasn't always been done right, though. National Parks don't have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let's have a National Park, if you're not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa 'we have a rights-based philosophy, and that's the new way of thinking'.

Carr, to his credit, has always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. 'I was a human-rights activist before coming here ' I created a human-rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project, I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.'

When Carr arrived in 2004, post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: 'Everything you see here was rubble. I didn't even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.'

He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn't see any animals. 'Maybe you'd see a warthog. Maybe you'd see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. It turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they figure out who's who.'

Within a few years the wildlife 'started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them'. Part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. 'Today if you're lucky you'll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.' He's right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I tell Carr this, he smiles. 'They're coming back.'

Return of the tourists

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr's philanthropic foundation. But there's work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem.

'What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.'

As Carr leans back it's hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: 'I've got 20 years to make it work. We're two-and-a-half in and we're getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that's a very critical point – they said to me let's do something together. I couldn't turn up in someone's country and just say 'here I am'. It's about partnerships.

'This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you'll see I'm just a member of a committee. I'm not here as a big cheese.' 

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