“We intend to spend $100m from now until the end of the year in the south,” says Abdullah Zawiah, deputy chief executive officer of MTN Sudan. “In the long term, we will spend maybe more than $500m.”

The company will launch its mobile phone services in Juba, the administrative centre of the southern government, at the end of May.

MTN Sudan, which won its licence in June 2005, was only able to enter the 10 southern states after Juba agreed in March 2008 to uphold an earlier bilateral agreement with Khartoum covering telecoms.

Some 8.5 million people live in the southern states, although no one knows how many refugees have yet to return from neighbouring countries following a peace agreement with Khartoum, which was signed in 2005.

“Our mobile phone network will cover seven out of 10 states in the next three months,” says Zawiah.

Mobile phone penetration in the south is thought to be just 5 per cent of the population, offering huge potential for telecoms operators to grow.

Sudan’s other two licenced operators, Zain, a subsidiary of the Kuwaiti telecoms business, and Sudani, the mobile phone brand of the state-owned operator Sudatel, both have minimal coverage in the south.