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The MILLIONAIRE Of Oil And Toil

Tonye Cole’s business was on the brink of collapse in the turmoil of a regime change. Perseverance and a sympathetic ear set him on a path to riches.

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Nigeria is a nation that knows all too well what damage dictatorships can do. Between 1966 and 1999, the country saw several military coups, culminating in Sani Abacha seizing power. From 1993 to 1998, Abacha’s rule marked a period of oppression, inflation and poverty. As a business owner, the main objective was to stay afloat.

For those brave enough to speak out against the regime, the punishment was either death by hanging or prison. Atrocities were commonplace in an atmosphere of desolation. In 1998, when Abacha died, Tonye Cole, the Co-Founder of Sahara Group, remembers it like yesterday.

“I remember exactly where I was when Abacha died. I remember people jubilating and singing and it was as if an air of relief had happened. I remember my partner had just got married and we were closing a major transaction so he delayed his honeymoon and stayed in Lagos. It is one of those moments in life where you remember key places you were. And the first expression was that of relief from everybody and then the next day reality set in,” says Cole.

Tonye ColeFor the first time in years, hope dispelled despair. Cole was invested and happy.

“My partners and I had been working for three years and pushing ourselves really hard. We just got to the point where we were establishing ourselves as a business. Everything seemed to be going right. We had been working on an oil transaction and collected our allocation to load the products. At that point, all the brokers who we collected our oil allocation from had been paid by us. This is what you call betting on the horse. We had taken everything we owned and put it on this single deal,” says Cole.

Cole believed there was nothing more to be done but wait for the return on investment. Then the new government cancelled every contract that was issued by the Abacha administration.

The three young men had pumped everything they had earned for the past two years into the deal. Overnight, Cole and his partners went bankrupt. The trio had invested $400,000 of their savings in the supply and distribution of oil contracts from their new venture. For Cole, this was not the first time he lost everything. The first time was the catalyst for him to take control of his own fate. Ironically, he was hitting rock bottom again.

“If you are an entrepreneur, you are going to get bad days and if you are a successful one you are going to get even more bad days. As young people, this was all we had. People had collected their commission and nobody wanted to help us. We knew we had nothing to lose. Everything was gone. The good thing was that we had records and payment to brokers and their assignments they had given us. So we put the files together and walked into the office of a man we had never met before. We waited until we had an opportunity to speak to him and we locked the door,” says Cole.

It was 2PM on a Monday. The drive to the office of Mallam Lawan Buba, Group Executive Director, Commercial and Investment, Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), was a quiet one with all three men contemplating the gravity of what had just happened. Cole remembered advice his father, Patrick, had given him years ago. He told his son to spend five years working and learning from different companies before embarking on his own business venture. Cole had already served the five years but, in hindsight, he wondered if an additional five years could have saved him from this catastrophe.

Cole and his partners spent weeks trying to secure an appointment with the man seated in front of them that day. As Cole stood in Buba’s office, a fleeting fear gripped him. They had leveraged their one good relationship with the company’s secretary to get this appointment and if things did not go according to plan, not only would they still be bankrupt but the secretary could lose her job as well. Cole tried to read the expression on the face of Buba and drew a blank. He then regained his composure and approached the man who had the power to change their destiny.

The trio made their impassioned plea to Buba, the man responsible for the allocation of oil contracts. They showed him their legitimate contracts, payments made and financial records for the past three years. Cole took a cue from his father’s days running for president of Nigeria and gave a fervent speech on why they believed they could make a difference by creating employment and establishing an indigenous oil business, one of the first of its kind.

Buba listened to their plea and told them to wait. That was the end of the journey; there was nothing more the young entrepreneurs could do. As they left, it occurred to Cole that this could be the end of a lifetime of hard work.

“Failure teaches you a lot. As an entrepreneur I am not afraid of failure but I must learn from it,” says Cole.

During the two-hour trip back home, Cole’s life flashed before him.

Cole had three major influences growing up. His creative side was nourished by his mother, who was a journalist for one of the leading publications in Nigeria. From his father, Cole learned the skills of diplomacy and how to be a mediator on account of his role as an ambassador to Brazil. From his stepmother, Cole was given the foundations of the Christian faith upon which he built his life principles. Born in January 1967 in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, Cole and his family relocated to Anambra State during the civil war. Cole had a nomadic existence, shuffling between guardians. He learned to be self-sufficient and stumbled into his career by what he calls divine intervention.

“I ended up studying architecture because the subjects I had taken for O-levels in secondary school aligned more with the profession. I went to the University of Lagos to study architecture and then found that it was something that was perfectly suited for me. It rewards extreme hard work and punishes laziness to a fault. You had to imagine things and create it in your mind long before it comes on paper,” says Cole.

After university, Cole joined Brazilian architectural firm Grupo Quattro SA where he oversaw the construction of the new Palmas city developments in Tocantins, Brazil. This was a slight deviation from his plan to work for himself.

“When I was in university, we had already set up a business where I created architectural drawings and designs for different companies and teachers, as well as perfecting their existing designs,” he says.

Cole’s father influenced his decision to go to Brazil and leave.

“I have this belief and patriotic zeal in Nigeria and I believe we all have a role to play. My father had decided to run for the presidency in Nigeria and I decided to relocate to help him with his campaign,” he says.

Back in Nigeria, Cole Joined EMSA S.A. – one of Brazil’s largest engineering firms. He was the head of operations and business development in the country.

“They needed someone in Nigeria who could speak Portuguese and someone they could trust to implement a World Bank project. I now had this job, which was an engineering job, and it involved traveling around the country meeting government officials and business development. I had a wonderful salary at an expatriate rate, a company car and all the corporate perks. I had no interest at this point to do anything entrepreneurial. I was very comfortable,” says Cole.

Nigeria had just fallen under Abacha’s military regime. The initial hope and excitement turned to gloom. Almost overnight, the military started throwing people in jail. Riots ensued all over the country, leading to the exit of foreign businesses, like EMSA, from the Nigerian economy. The company signed off all the contracts and instructed Cole to liquidate everything.

“I said to myself ‘I am never leaving my fate in another person’s hands again,’” says Cole.

Prior to this, Tope Shonubi and Ade Odunsi had teamed up to start a new business venture in the burgeoning oil industry. Cole had turned down the offer to join the team in favour of his hefty salary and company perks. The offer was made once again, and now finding himself unemployed, Cole accepted. It was the birth of the Sahara Group, a leading private power, energy, gas and infrastructure conglomerate established two years before the end of Abacha’s rule in 1998.

All of this led to Cole walking out of the office of Buba, the man with their oil contracts. A week later, they got a call promising to reinstate their cancelled contracts over one year. Cole learned a valuable lesson.

“Don’t rely on one product and one country. In 1998, we got some of our contracts back and by 1999 we were in Ghana and then subsequently in Côte d’Ivoire, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Singapore and the UAE.”

Today, the Group has around 20 operations across the energy sector with 660 employees. Sahara began as a facilitator in the oil sector, acting as a middleman between producers, marketers and traders. This year marks their 20-year anniversary and there is a lot to celebrate. The company has diversified into utilities, real estate, farming and infrastructure. Among its many developments is the $400-million Lekki power project in Lagos.

“When we came in there were not a lot of people in the business of trading and exploration of oil. When you talk about someone in the oil business back then, the most they would be were petrol station owners. We were the first pioneers to come into this aspect of the business,” says Cole.

Being trailblazers served the company well. The first major break happened about a year and a half after the company started. A major tool in the oil trade is the ability to have a letter of credit, popularly known as an LC. This is a guarantee taken on by a bank to make payments on behalf of the client, provided certain terms are met.

As brokers, Cole and his team will get allocations and trade them off to those who had an LC and then get their commission from the deal and plough it back into the business. For the initial period, Sahara could not open an LC, which was a major stumbling block for its growth.

“We couldn’t even open a dollar account in the beginning because the banks did not trust Nigerian businesses and this is a dollar denominated business. So we had to use a lot of innovation to get LCs. We asked our international clients to open an account for us so we could receive the payments, which they did with ease and secondly, we made sure that any LCs our clients opened, was done in our name,” says Cole.

Another major breakthrough happened when financial giant BNP Paribas approached the firm after two years of trading and helped them to finally open an LC in the company’s name.

As Cole turns 49 this year, he is slightly nostalgic when asked about his success in the oil business. He takes a deep breath and, for the first time during his interview, the charismatic and energetic entrepreneur assumes an almost vulnerable disposition as he talks of his multimillion-dollar empire.

“I am not sure I will be anywhere I am without my wife. She has allowed me to work and to be able to do what I do. I travel a lot and the ability to come in and go out without anybody being as clingy and commanding has been very helpful. Family wise, she makes me look good with everybody in my family because she is the one who keeps in touch with everyone. She is my perfect complement,” he says.

Cole met the love of his life 22 years ago at university. She was 16 going on 17 and he was in his third year of studies at the age of 18. Cole spent two years trying to convince his wife that he was the perfect match for her and years later, with three children, he calls her the glue that holds everything together.

Success can be fleeting. It has been a number of years since the company almost went bankrupt. In those days, the focus was on staying afloat as a business. Today, the Sahara Group has set up a foundation with a mandate of helping 12 million people in the next four years. The company contributes 5% of its profit to the foundation, which has worked with international not-for-profit organizations to eradicate Guinea worm disease, cataracts and cleft palates.

Faced with a global drop in oil prices, a resurgence of Boko Haram in the north of Nigeria and conflict in the Niger Delta, the West African nation’s economy is facing economic and social challenges. For Cole, his fate is firmly back in his hands. He has a much better understanding of the industry he operates in.

“We are in a boom and bust business, so these challenges are all part of life. We know when it is high and when it is low. Once oil prices are low you adjust immediately as an organization. You look at waste and how to cut it. We try as much as possible not to cut staff, we talk to them and let them understand that they need to be a lot more efficient in the things they do. It is all about planning ahead,” he says.

As Cole looks to the future, he sums up the strategy that has served him well so far.

“Let people think you have 10, act like you have only one but make sure you have 100.”

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Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

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The New Wealth Creators is the first of its kind list by FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Herein is a collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.

These 20 women have been selected because they have created significant impact in their respective sectors by transforming a market or company, or innovating a product or service, and are pioneering their organization(s) in generating new untapped streams of income.

These women come from across the continent, from the villages and the suburbs, and are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. They have all adopted sustainable development initiatives in one way or another to help solve Africa’s problems.

They may be wealth creators but their businesses, ironically, did not stem from a need to make money,  but rather from the need to solve Africa’s persisting socio-economic challenges.

 Economically empowering women has shown to boost productivity. It increases economic diversification and income equality, in addition to other positive developmental outcomes.

Simply put, when more women work, economies are likely to grow.

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA put in months of rigorous research, searching near and far for these inspirational entrepreneurs.

We took into account their business model, new ideas, potential, struggles, social impact, growth, influence, resilience and most importantly, their innovation.

Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA last year at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “Innovation [is] becoming the cornerstone for our economy going forward.”

As Africa’s population is reported to increase by 53% by 2100, according to the United Nations, new solutions must be created in order for us to keep up.

One question remains: can Africa translate its significant population growth into economic development, and invest this wealth to improve the quality of life?

Entrepreneurship could very well be the answer, or at least, one of the answers.

Last year, the Founder and Chair of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma paid Africa a visit to discuss tangible investment and technology development.

He encouraged African entrepreneurs to take giant leaps in solving the challenges facing the continent and to take advantage of the digital economy.

From left to right: Rachel Sibande, Arlene Mulder, Miishe Addy, Sarah Collins, Dineo Lioma, Jessica Anuna. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla
Assistant Photographer: Gypseenia Lion

He said that opportunities lie where people complain.

And these women, through their businesses, have identified just that.

Vijay Tirathrai, director of the Techstars Dubai Accelerator, shared the same sentiments with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

“The new wealth creators, for me, are entrepreneurs who are very conscious about finding solutions in the market place, but from a lens of having social impact or having impacted the environment,” he says.

Tirathrai believes that while servicing consumers, new wealth creators are also “making a safer and a greener planet in the process, eliminating diseases, improving health conditions and advocating for equality for women”.

Women on the African continent have been making headway as drivers of change, and in many ways, they embody new wealth.

They are the true wealth.

As FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, we seek to celebrate such women.

Through this list, money is no longer the central indicator of new wealth creation.

It is about job creation, contributing to healthy societies, recycling waste, giving agency to those who are financially excluded and developing solutions for some of the socio-economic problems we grapple with.

These women may all come from different places but they are bound together by one common thread, and that is the thread of new wealth creation.

This compilation is innovative, exciting, inspiring and shows what businesses of the future may look like.

Meet the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA New Wealth Creators of 2019.

The list on the pages that follow is in no particular order.

-Curated by: Unathi Shologu

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

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It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.

Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.

The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few. 

A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.

The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”

His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.

In 1992, he did.

“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.

On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.

Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.

“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”

Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.

The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.

For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest. 

“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.

From this exercise an important lesson was learned.

“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”

Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.

Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.

“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”

“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.

Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.

“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.

The rationale for diversification 

What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.

Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”

The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.

“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”

Reinvesting profits

The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.

“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”

‘Reputation very important’

But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.

Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.

Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.

Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.

Analogue to digital

Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.

Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz. 

“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”

From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.

In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.

Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.

The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.

But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”

Balanced life

The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.

“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.

The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.

“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.

 “When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”

Philanthropy, education and inclusion

It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.

The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.

In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.

The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:

“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”

It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.

“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.    

In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.

The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.

His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.

Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.

His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.

“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.

“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.

Succession planning

Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.

Additional inputs:

“Ylias Akbaraly’s reputation precedes him,” says Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Goulet says the work Akbaraly does “has crossed oceans and France admires him. He knows how to share his knowledge and is a special kind of businessman”.

Goulet lauds Akbaraly’s altruistic approach to business, in particular his relationship to the youth and refers to him as “socially responsible and someone who loves his country very much”.


Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Picture:Supplied

“He is someone who is open to the world. The personal touch he brings to his approach makes him unique. You can tell he loves his family, and society,” she says. 


Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”

Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”


Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations. Picture:Supplied

Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many.  “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”


“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.

“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.

Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL and Africa’s youngest billionair as per FORBES.

“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire

-With inputs from Unathi Shologu

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A Solution To Improve Madagascar’s Local Economies

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Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.

Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.

President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.

Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.


Patricia Wright is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Picture: Supplied

Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.

CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.

Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.

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This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.

The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.

This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.

All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.

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Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.

If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.

We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.

We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?

Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.

With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.

The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.

There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.

– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar

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