By his 40th birthday, he’d outwitted the dictator Robert Mugabe. By 50, he was a multimillionaire mogul. Now, Strive Masiyiwa — telecom entrepreneur, philanthropist and proud Pentecostal — is among a cadre of African moguls aiming to turn the continent into a powerhouse.
By Pooja Bhatia
His story is full of trials and tribulations, including a battle against the government of Zimbabwe that earned him death threats and, probably, made him flee the country in 2000. But it’s also replete with triumphs.
“Strive is one of a small but growing group of senior African business leaders and entrepreneurs deliberately engaging in dialogue beyond business,” says James Mwangi, of Dalberg Global Development Advisors. Instead, those leaders are looking to Africa’s future overall, says Mwangi, and in their broad-mindedness and sense of obligation, they recall latter-day Mellons and Carnegies.
Like Cornelius Vanderbilt, who saw early on that railroad infrastructure would revolutionize the American economy, Masiyiwa is using his cell phone networks as a platform for economic development across Africa, from education to health care.
That’s made him a man in much demand. In addition to overseeing the multicountry operations of his $750 million firm, Econet Wireless, Masiyiwa sits on prominent boards, like that of the Rockefeller Foundation. He appears on fancy philanthrocapitalist panels, is tapped by Richard Branson for support, and dines with religious leaders at the White House’s annual Prayer Breakfast. This year, Masiyiwa took up the board chairmanship of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a post previously held by his friend Kofi Annan. It gives him an even broader pan-African reach than he already had.
For all this, Masiyiwa presents as disarming and humble. He is a small man with a globelike head, spherical and smooth. He favors gold-framed spectacles and light-colored ties, often in pastels that contrast nicely with the sharp black of his suits. He speaks softly and slowly and kindly, with a slight British accent, and punctuates his talk with jokes and exclamations.
Vocally devout — yet never pious, observers say — Masiyiwa would likely credit the Lord for his success. He turned seriously to faith during the darkest of his tribulations, in the mid-1990s, and has never let go.
“Do you read the Bible for an hour every day?” a CNN interviewer asked him in 2011. “Is that correct? I’ve read that.”
”Oooh!” said Masiyiwa. “That’s when I’m busy. I can read it for four or five hours on the weekend.”
Religion likely motivates his philanthropy, which involves orphans and schooling, and is very personal: “I spend most of my waking hours interacting with philanthropists, but [the Masiyiwas] really stand out,” says Jane Wales, president and CEO of the Global Philanthropy Forum and the World Affairs Council. “A lot of folks talk about ’engaged philanthropy’ — this is the real deal.”
He was born in what was then Rhodesia, and he was barely 4 years old when conflict started — first over independence from Britain, and then against white-minority rule. In 1968, the Masiyiwas fled to Zambia, across the border. Their neighbors were Scottish and had a young son, and that’s more or less how young Strive landed in an Edinburgh boarding school.
Masiyiwa returned to Africa in 1978, keen to join the guerrilla fight for independence. But a cousin in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, later to morph into Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, advised that independence was nearly won. The new country would need people to run it.
And so Masiyiwa scored a scholarship to university in Wales. In 1984, he returned with an engineering degree to Zimbabwe, which was then four years into its nationhood. He worked briefly for the government telecom company, but state enterprise frustrated him, he says. After borrowing the equivalent of $75, he started a construction business.
It’d be easy to say it all grew from there organically, but Masiyiwa likes to tell stories — parables, we might say — as evidenced by a multipart serial autobiography he’s been posting on his Facebook page. He spent two years studying banking in order to procure a small-business loan — this before the Internet — and changed his social networks to better understand the business community. He learned the language of the golf course and of the balance sheet. (”In the Money Game, there is a way of talking that will have bankers and investors interested in what you want to do, and there is a way to talk which makes them shun and run away from you, and it has nothing to do with where you come from,” he wrote.)
Many of the vignettes evoke his stubborness, tenacity and ability to educate himself. His utter prescience, too.
In the mid-1990s, few would have guessed that cell phones would become a major growth sector in African countries. The government of Zimbabwe certainly didn’t. Masiyiwa did. He offered to develop a cell phone network in tandem with the state telecom company, but the Mugabe-controlled government rejected his offer — a refusal that, Masiyiwa wrote, “must surely rank amongst the greatest follies in the world of business: They could have owned the Econet Wireless Group, but instead they declared war on me!”
The state telecom refused to grant Masiyiwa a license to cell frequencies, claiming it had a monopoly. That’s when Masiyiwa sued, in 1994. The case went on for five years, and at one point early on, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled against Econet, leaving, apparently, no chance to appeal.
That’s when Masiyiwa turned to God. His wife had been urging him to come to church for years, but he’d resisted. He dropped her off one Sunday after the Supreme Court defeat, drove around aimlessly and gutted for a while, and decided to return. “I sat at the back, by myself. My wife did not know I returned,” Masiyiwa wrote:
”It was the first time, in my life, I had listened to a church service without the compulsion of duty for an event held there. It seemed as though everyone in the room except me was so happy! The young American pastor was preaching about Jesus Christ, whom I thought I had known all my life. And yet now I realised that I did not know Him; I only knew of Him. Disturbed, I left hurriedly and went and sat in the car.”
Masiyiwa was soon born again, and his faith strengthened his resolve. It helped, too, that high-powered lawyers championed his case, which became a test of African nations’ willingness to open up state monopolies to private investment. Some years later, he won the case. Econet now has a majority share of users in Zimbabwe and operations in more than 15 countries. It started offering mobile banking through its phones a few years ago, and within 18 months, some 20 percent of Zimbabwe’s GDP was passing through its networks, Masiyiwa says.
And that’s one key to his success: foresight. At the time he was fighting with Mugabe over his license, hardly anyone imagined that mobile phone networks could provide ways platforms for banking, formalizing the economy, health care and other infrastructure. Marketing, too.
Masiyiwa has come to relish obstacles and challenges. To him, they’re opportunities in disguise. Like other prominent African businessmen, he believes that “ultimately, Africa’s development challenges are also its business opportunities,” says Mwangi, of Dalberg Global Development Advisors. Gaps in infrastructure, health care delivery and the like are “huge opportunities to unlock value,” not barriers to entry. Once those barriers are addressed, people get more disposable income, and market opportunities grow — creating a phenomenal virtuous cycle.
And that, perhaps, is what Masiyiwa meant last year when he sat on a panel with Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Paul Kagame and others, and told the audience to stop considering Africa “exotic.” Instead, he said, it’s a business climate like any other — defined by challenges and opportunities, and one that rewards innovation, determination and homework.
“This is this is part of the narrative we wanted you to hear,” Masiyiwa told them. “It was time you heard that Africa was open for business.” – OZY