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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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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.

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 “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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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