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Africa’s Unassuming Giant

Hakeem Belo-Osagie, veteran entrepreneur worth $400 million, on catching up with Nigeria’s telecom market leaders and the rise of Africa.

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Tales of entrepreneurial success are usually based on events or circumstances that define and distinguish each story. At times, these relate to the individual’s planned or fortuitous foray into a business venture; the painstaking process of building same, a bruising setback or a stroke of fate that leads to the game-changing break. The interplay of these elements is what makes each entrepreneur’s story unique, and in the case of Hakeem Belo-Osagie, the Nigerian entrepreneur and chairman of the mobile telecommunications company Etisalat, the chemistry between these elements is as vivacious as ever.

After more than a decade of running UBA and overseeing a transformation of its fortunes, Hakeem, or Keem as he is widely referred to, shifted his focus to the telecoms industry. Two prior unsuccessful attempts to obtain a license were followed by a successful third bid with the Mubadala Company of Abu Dhabi. The new player, Etisalat Nigeria, rolled out its services six years after the first mobile operator had launched in the Nigerian market. Etisalat became the fourth operator alongside MTN, Glo and Airtel.

“I had made two attempts to get into the telecoms industry before. The first time was when we had the first bid for GSM and there I was a partner to Orascom. Four licenses were given and we were fifth, so we just missed it. With the second attempt, this time working with Orascom again to buy NITEL, we won, but we were told that our price was too low. I thank God that we were rejected because I think that it would have been very difficult managing NITEL. And then the third time, this time I was not working with Orascom, I was working with a company called Mubadala, which is one of the sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi, and this time we were successful in getting a license and that is the foundation of the company called Etisalat.”

Experts and skeptics predicted a rough ride for the company due to its late entrance into the industry. But since its commencement of commercial operations in October 2008, Etisalat has surprised with its solid growth and achievements. The newcomer had two million subscribers in its first year and gained the reputation of being the most innovative telecoms company in Nigeria. By 2011, it had 12 million subscribers, despite the intense competition in Nigeria’s telecoms sector.

As mobile penetration continues to increase in Africa’s largest telecoms market—with recent figures showing that the aggregate mobile subscriber base has surpassed 100 million—telecom infrastructure continues to mushroom across the country. Etisalat has invested more than $2 billion in building and expanding its network. Of the estimated 20,000 cell sites scattered across the country, Etisalat’s infrastructure accounted for around 15% in 2011. Belo-Osagie points out that the expansion of the company’s network will continue.

“We had some gaps in our network in the South-South and South Eastern part of Nigeria and we are now in the process of filling those gaps, right now we have something in the range of just over 4,000 base stations. We are very happy with our rollout because we think with this number of base stations we can cover the whole country. However, our objective over the next few years is to double that number and get to the range of about 8,000 base stations.”

By October, Etisalat had surpassed its target for the year of 14 million subscribers.

“What we are particularly happy about is our 3G data offering, which we think is universally accepted as the best and the fastest in the market. As a company, we are going to continue to pioneer innovative solutions as we seek to distinguish ourselves from our competitors.”

True to his words, Etisalat is stealing a march on its competitors in the mobile banking race with its recent introduction of an innovative SIM application called ‘Easy Wallet’. The application, which comes pre-loaded on every Etisalat SIM card, encourages the adoption of mobile phone as the preferred means of conducting basic financial transactions. Belo-Osagie promises that the coming months will see more such mobile money products.

“Well, I think we are very proud of the fact that our partner Etisalat indeed won a prize for having one of the best mobile applications in the world… at the recent telecommunications conference. In addition to that, we’ve built on the strengths of Mubadala, which is a sovereign wealth fund very much in the area of finance. You will notice that many of the Nigerian directors have, at one time or another, been involved in banking. We felt that it should only be natural that we be a leader in the area in which telecoms and banking cross each other.”

Being the resolute operator that he is, Belo-Osagie wants Etisalat to rise to the second position in the industry.

“I do think though that with the correct strategy we can become the number two [telecom] company in Nigeria. We focus very much on the youth market. We focus very much on the data market and we focus very much on the quality of services. I think we are also helped by the fact that we have two very financially strong shareholders, Mubadala and Etisalat, and we have funded our rollout, so the amount of debt that we have on our books is relatively small. I believe that with the strategy that we have, especially one that has avoided a lot of changes of management which Airtel has gone through, and the depth of management we have in comparison with Glo, I think that we will eventually get to the second position in the market place.”

He describes the challenge of catching up with the market leaders as “a management and intellectual challenge,” which he enjoys. With an air of confidence that is almost palpable, he offers a concise analysis of the industry.

“Realistically, I don’t think that any company can beat MTN in Nigeria because the gap is very large between MTN and everybody else. And while I think that MTN can improve its quality of service, I think that it has a strong management; there is a real commitment to Nigeria from MTN, and they’ve also done a lot in terms of the development of local staff.”

Belo-Osagie’s childhood fantasies had nothing to do with running businesses. His early ambition was to become a mathematician. Later, while studying at a sixth form college in Wales, he developed an interest in public service and went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. He obtained a law degree at Cambridge University before undertaking the Harvard MBA program. While at Oxford, he obtained work experience as an intern at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna.

His graduation from business school would coincide with the enactment of a policy by the Nigerian government that permitted federal ministers and the president’s advisers to employ aides. Through much more than a stroke of luck, Belo-Osagie was appointed as an aide to the president’s adviser on petroleum. He would go on to hold the position for six years, despite a coup d’état that led to the arrest and incarceration of his initial boss. Following another coup, which occurred when he was getting married, he made the decision to abandon the precarious public sector to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

He set up a consulting firm which advised international companies that sought to play in Nigeria’s oil industry. The venture was a resounding success and after a few years and millions of dollars in the bank, his entrepreneurial instinct sparked the hunger for another venture. This led him to cast his attention to the financial sector and, as fate would have it, the Nigerian government decided to privatize banks established by the British, which were still under government control.

Sensing the opportunity, Belo-Osagie cashed in and acquired UBA in a landmark transaction. The consequent modernization of the bank, which he spearheaded, led the bank to remarkable achievements. The UBA acquisition would become the transaction that cemented his reputation as an astute and dogged entrepreneur.

Before the triumph with UBA, Belo-Osagie tasted his share of failure. He set up a financial services company called KMC in the early 1980s.

“We did very badly, but that failure was very useful to me because it taught me a lot about what not to do. One of the things that I believe is that setbacks are a very vital part of life because setbacks strengthen you. You learn lessons from them; you learn to be tough; you learn to be bold. Therefore learning the lessons from the failure of KMC, I, with a group of others, set up First Securities Discount House, which was a great success.”

Despite his media shyness, Belo-Osagie is well-known in business circles locally and internationally. Indeed, he maintains a good friendship with Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and energy analyst under whom he authored a special paper on the state of international oil markets, while at Harvard Business School. His calm and unassuming demeanour belies a strong intellect and an uncanny ability to spot lucrative opportunities. This is best reflected by his status as one of Africa’s wealthiest men with an estimated fortune of $400 million, which saw him at number 40 of the ‘Africa’s 40 Richest’ list in December.

When asked about recent calls urging telecoms companies to list on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, he pauses to gather his thoughts, before explaining meticulously and systematically the role that the telecoms industry will have to play in fulfilling Nigeria’s aspirations.

“One way or another, all of us telecoms are going to have to accept that we are living in a certain country, that the country has certain communal, social and national interests and we are going to have to adjust to those interests. I don’t think that the interest of the company and the interest of Nigeria necessarily have to conflict. But I think that there has got to be flexibility on both sides. And I don’t think that the telecoms companies will be successful if they have an attitude that is inflexible. So for me, sooner or later the Nigerian companies will have to list, and I honestly don’t have a problem with that at all.”

Government and telecoms companies should be discussing how the listing process should unfold, with the question being on the various policy options for listing, according to Belo-Osagie.

“Should all the companies be listed? Should it only be companies that have been in existence for a certain number of years, or companies that have reached a certain level of profitability?” he asks rhetorically.

He feels that it will be counter-productive, were government to compel the operators to list. He advises that consultation rather than fiat, should be adopted by government, so that the healthy atmosphere, which he believes the Nigerian government, and to an extent, a lot of African governments have done good to create, is sustained.

As the conversation switches to the subject of the future of Nigeria and Africa, Belo-Osagie points out that he is cautiously optimistic about Africa’s future. He believes that a lot of the growth in Nigeria and Africa stems from the dismantling of many of the barriers imposed by the over extensive state investment and participation in the economy, in African countries. In his opinion, reforms, especially those in the Nigeria, need to be stimulated. He observes further that governments have an important policy role that needs to be refined.

“No matter how effective a private sector is, it cannot generate electricity outside a set of policy measures that determine how everything works together.”

Belo-Osagie believes that a crucial factor to the performance of African economies in the next few years is the extent to which the African public sector is reinvigorated across the continent. He notes that, Africa’s success hinges on the paradox that sees governments relinquishing control in terms of administering the economy, while developing and exercising its capacity to articulate and implement policies. He expresses his concerns that the pace of the policy strengthening across Africa is not taking place fast enough. Comparing developments in Africa with Asia, he says: “Whether it is Japan, Singapore or South Korea, you will see the hand of the government that is pushing, that is encouraging, that is putting together the infrastructure, that is ensuring that a competitive system is established, you will see them in all of those areas. You will see them ensuring that things like airports, immigration, state security, all have the tools to do well in their area. The success of each of those areas is as important to the running of an economy, as is simply giving licenses to private companies”.

Outside his business ventures, the entrepreneur is a generous philanthropist. As one who had the privilege to attend prestigious universities, he is very active in supporting education. He is one of the largest donors to the African Leadership Academy, an advanced level college in South Africa, to which he has given more than $1 million. He announces with pride that the school has named part of the library after him and his wife for their contributions. Keem is also in his third term as president of the King’s College Old Boys Association, the college where he attended secondary school in Lagos in the 1960s. He also sponsors an annual scholarship, The Hakeem Belo-Osagie Scholarship, at Oxford University.

An ardent lover of jazz music and fan of Manchester United, Belo-Osagie takes a broad yet simplistic view of success.

“There is a quotation, which was adapted from something that John F. Kennedy said, defining happiness, which I think is a definition of success as well. He said it’s ‘The full use of ones talents, along lines of excellence, in the life affording one opportunity, and in the direction towards service’. I think that one thing that makes you happy or successful is to know that you are operating at the peak of your abilities. The abilities can be in the carpenter who takes great pride in his craftsmanship, making the great table. It can be the great singer, the great mathematician. ‘In a life affording you opportunity’, by that I mean that to be successful there must be the opportunities for you to exploit, and that part of the kind of society we must create is a society in which more and more people have the opportunities to develop those talents. And in the African societies that we have today, we are not doing enough of that. And then we say, ‘In the direction towards service’, which simply says that the ends, the objectives cannot be solely focused on me, me, me. So I like that definition of success or happiness because it says a lot which I think is important.”

For a person who has traveled the world and been actively involved in business for more than three decades, he clearly knows a thing or two about what success means.

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Cover Story

Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed. 

Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.

 Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.

 Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.

 A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.

 We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.

 As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”

 With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.

 Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.

 In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.

For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.

 Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.

– Unathi Shologu

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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