Irene Charnley : The Founder of Smile Communications

Africa's top 10 wealthiest women and among the 50 most influential on the continent.


Irene Charnley is the founder and former CEO of Smile Communications, and also former executive director at The MTN Group. Forbes recognized her in 2020 as one of Africa’s top 10 wealthiest women and among the 50 most influential on the continent.

Who is Irene Charnley?

Born on May 6, 1960, in Cape Town, South Africa, Irene Charnley’s early life was a mix of challenges and dreams. She grew up in Cape Flats with her siblings and widowed mother, she developed resilience and ambition. These early experiences fueled a strong determination, pushing her to overcome challenges and make her mark. Hence diversity, inclusivity, freedom, responsibility, hope, and faith became the foundation of her career. The impact of apartheid and patriarchy deeply inspired her. Surprisingly, Irene Charnley leads a private life, away from media attention—a unique trait for an industry titan. It’s known that she is married to Clement Charnley. Her deliberately low-profile personal life stands as a testament to her modesty and humility, qualities that remain steadfast despite her exceptional accomplishments.

Early Career

She began her professional journey as a negotiator for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in South Africa, a role she dedicated herself to for thirteen years. During this time, she championed the safety and livelihoods of thousands of workers. Irene’s entry into the business world was driven by a clear vision forged from her background. Fearlessly navigating the business landscape, she laid the foundation for a remarkable career. In 1996, she joined Johnnic Holdings South Africa, aiming to make the company a leader in media, entertainment, and telecommunications. Later, her focus shifted to telecommunications, and she assumed the position of executive director at MTN Group. Notably, she transformed MTN Group from a local contender into a global telecommunications powerhouse, establishing herself as a strategic visionary.


Irene Charnley’s leadership at MTN Group was revolutionary. Remarkably, her strategic insights and exceptional leadership propelled the company to unprecedented heights. Her success at MTN GROUP inspired her to later start her own telecommunications company. She reshaped MTN into a dominant force in Africa and the Middle East.

In 2007, Irene Charnley stepped down as the Executive Director of MTN. Later that year, she founded Smile Telecommunications Group, becoming its CEO and elevating it to a continental giant. With headquarters in Mauritius, Smile Communications has a presence across the continent, including Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her impact was acknowledged with the award of Businesswoman of the Year in August 2000, cementing her pivotal role in reshaping the telecommunications landscape.

Today, Irene’s influence continues reshapes the telecommunications arena as Vice President of Smile Communications. Additionally, she holds significant roles, including President of the International Women’s Forum South Africa and Chairman of the Gibela Rail Transport Consortium.

Inspiring the Future

Irene Charnley’s story shows that with unwavering determination and innovative thinking, one can overcome challenges, transform industries, and break through barriers, serving as a motivational example for readers to embrace resilience and creativity in their own pursuits.

As you read about her relentless pursuit of success, let her story be the catalyst for your own aspirations.





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