It happened one Saturday afternoon; the meat was on the fire, the smoke was in the air, and a father sat his 13-year-old son down for a paternal chat that was to change his life.
The father was billionaire investor Jannie Mouton – known as the ‘Boere Buffett’. The son was Piet Mouton who was to grow up into a multi-million-dollar investor. Billionaire and son have beefed up PSG, the investment holding company worth $4.3 billion (market cap) that has spread to a combined market capitalization of approximately $12.5 billion in just 22 years.
“Growing up in our family, at the age of 13 I already knew what options and futures were… It was a new thing on the JSE and my dad came home and, at a braai on a Saturday, he sat me and my brother down and explained it to us. So here I had some great knowledge that I didn’t know what to do with at school, but I understood the concept of options and futures,” says Piet.
“[PSG] was part of our life growing up, the entire business concept. Being mathematically inclined, [my future idea] wasn’t necessarily to go into business with my father, but it was to go into business.”
This was the incredible inside story told from the two men as FORBES AFRICA sat down at 35 Church Street, Stellenbosch, in the heart of the quaint South African wine farm to hear how one family built an investment giant.
“My wife once told me that was your favorite child, PSG, you never ask anything about Jan or Piet, or Charity. It’s only PSG, PSG. The whole braai [barbeque], the whole evening was talking about PSG. It was very much part and parcel of how we started,” says Jannie.
The choice of the building in Church Street for this interview was a spot-on smart investment. They call it Ou Kollege and it is as much of a reflection of their humble characters as their life stories. The wooden panels, grey walls, African paintings and sculptures of leopards have that millionaire touch. Jannie bought it with his old friend GT Ferreira, FirstRand founder and also a multimillionaire. The two men decorated it with paint pot and brush in hand.
“We bought this building and we haven’t left. I remember GT saying to me ‘Jannie, it’s just a structure, you must put stuff in it as well’, so he ended up being the interior decorator here as well,” says Jannie.
“You can see this wood paneling is the same as GT’s office on the third floor which looks very similar to what we’ve got. It had the same interior decorator at the end of the day,” says Piet, as they both laugh.
On this day, in the very room where they plotted billions of dollars of investment around the world, Piet and Jannie don matching black suits and white shirts. They are every inch the shrewd businessmen, with a dash of down-to-earth humility.
Thomas Edison, the man famous for the lightbulb, once said opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. The Moutons are dressed in suits and look like investment.
Jannie founded the group just 22 years ago after a kick in the gut. He was fired by his partners from his own stock broking firm. To add insult to injury, his name as part of Senekal, Mouton & Kitshoff was on the door. The fact that Mouton will never forget August 5, 1995, shows how deeply it hurt him. At the time, probably the last thing on his mind was that this humiliation was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“If you were fired in your life, you must have realized you’ve made a mistake. I think it was a good lesson. It’s a team effort and all the team must be happy and must respect their standing credibility and wisdom. I’ve learned a lot about that,” says Jannie.
That lesson hit like a sledgehammer when young Piet was told the news.
“I was in first-year and was 19 years old. The first part started with Jannie being fired. He was so ashamed he got my mother to phone us up and say he’d resigned,” says Piet.
Jannie searched his soul and vowed to own a financial services JSE-listed company. It took three months to get onto the JSE. Jannie, then 48 years old, bought a 51% share of JSE-listed PAG for R3.5 million ($273,000). He sold it two years later for R107 million ($8.35 million).
Then he went home. He settled in Stellenbosch, the town where he studied alongside fellow decorator GT, in the Western Cape.
From these humble beginnings the PSG Group took off like a rocket with annual compound growth in earnings of 50.8% a year.
Their main investments are in bank start-up Capitec, private education firm Curro Holdings, PSG Konsult and agribusiness firm Zeder – with the 31% interest in Capitec constituting roughly 40% of the value of PSG’s portfolio.
Here’s how rapidly PSG has grown: An investment of R100,000 ($78,000), on its first day in business, would be worth approximately R390 million ($30.5 million) today if all dividends were reinvested. No other company in the world matches this, according to the Moutons and researchers at the Top Performing Companies & Public Sector.
Jannie is Afrikaans with a capital A. When you speak to him you can see he thinks in Afrikaans and speaks in English. Yet when it comes to business he knows, whenever he speaks, English is king. So when it came to sending his sons to school he bent the rules to claim he was English-speaking so they could grow up learning the world language.
“My wife was a bit smarter than me. She was in an English school her whole life at Rustenburg Girls’ High. She realized how important English was in life and in business… To send your children from an Afrikaans background to an English school, you had to apply officially. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it. I still have the little document that says I am English-speaking. That was to protect Afrikaans, they didn’t want Afrikaans schools and English schools to mix.”
With parental guidance, and the English language, Piet took to business like a duck to water in his first year at Stellenbosch University where he studied actuarial science.
“Remember, this was at a time when we were coming into a new democracy. We were at university, there was massive growth in the PSG share price, I think it went up from 36c and peaked at about R18 which was my last year at university. Students do take interest in what happens in the world and it’s a phenomenal story, so everybody knew who Jannie was, and obviously Jannie and GT were Simonsberg Old Boys, which was the residence where I went to,” says Piet.
With seven years as CEO of PSG, Piet is the new generation injecting adrenalin into the beating heart of this $4.3-billion company. There were no short cuts for the young Piet, according to Jannie, he had to work his way up the corporate ladder.
“Piet had started in the group in 2004 with a company called Arch Equity. It was actually a tough day in our lives, because his mother and my wife passed away on 11th of May. On the 17th we launched Arch Equity. We never discussed him becoming CEO,” says Jannie.
“Piet was a candidate and I stood back. His colleagues selected him. Here, in private and in public, Piet was the best candidate, I couldn’t get involved. I would never do that in my life, misuse my title and it was the shareholders decision to appoint him head of the board… For us, it’s the best CEO who must be in charge.”
Despite this, you can only imagine the pressure that Piet feels. Not only does he juggle billions in other people’s money, the chairperson is also your father, the person who started to build it.
“[Jannie’s] entire business philosophy is a lesson. The biggest one is don’t give me problems, give me solutions. Jannie always says ‘it’s easier to tell a guy something won’t work, it’s a lot more difficult to sit with an idea and think of a way of doing it differently’,” says Piet.
A cornerstone of PSG’s success is a 30.7% stake in Capitec Bank. In 2002, Capitec’s individual shares listings were worth less than a rand and now they are worth R531 ($41.50). The guiding spirit of Capitec is Michiel le Roux, who disrupted South Africa’s once cozy banking market by bringing in an aggressive strategy in search of deposits from low-income earners.
“The Moutons, as the main drivers behind PSG, have built a company that created wealth for many. Their active involvement in the beginning years to get the Capitec dream off the ground was crucial to our success,” says Le Roux.
Capitec was built on 300 micro-lending branches. It shook up the banking sector with new ideas, like the no-brainer of opening on Sundays.
“The five big banks, prior to Capitec, sat back and they had a nice little oligopoly. Capitec came around and they were allowed to build a great business. By the time the competition realized this is a real player, it was too late. Now Capitec is a serious competitor,” says Piet.
PSG has proven time and again that opportunities can be found in the pessimism of others. These are tough times for South Africa, one of Africa’s most developed economies. It has suffered a string of downgrades, political uncertainty and questions about corruption and fiscal mismanagement.
“Everybody is always outwardly focused in South Africa… But it means you can actually operate in a very uncompetitive environment. You would not have been able to start a Capitec in London,” says Piet.
Now technology is also a factor.
“Each and every week, we at PSG level encourage our subsidiaries to look at the changes. It’s a fact of life. From the start [Capitec] was a bit of an IT business but now it’s becoming more and more an IT business. Just look back 10 years; it’s unbelievable how business has changed. I’ve also realized my generation has to step back, because we don’t keep pace with this generation,” says Jannie.
“It’s going to continue changing in the years ahead. It’s a big thing at all the companies at the moment. You have to sit down and look at your business model and say ‘can it be interrupted?’ There are businesses that are just not there, take for example Kodak,” says Piet.
“Now you sit at the Capitec level and you say we mustn’t be caught with our pants down, because there are guys sitting in garages developing FinTech stuff. At least we at Capitec acknowledge – we don’t know where the problem is going to come from, we’ve got to constantly be smart about it,” says Piet.
“There are 150 people working on innovation and it’s costing us R200 million ($15.6 million) a year, to constantly scan and see if we can implement some of this new innovation.”
A recent purchase of an online lender in Poland is a Capitec move toward technology.
“The model is slightly different here. Whereas here in South Africa we are backed by bricks and mortar with 800 branches with a massive 300 ATM network, there it will be an online operation. Michiel coined a great phrase, shortly after I came back from the UK: it was either going to be a small failure or a big success. Now, where a lot of corporates go overseas and make massive acquisitions and then try implement them, Capitec actually tackled a very small business that has the potential to expand and they can contribute capital if it grows… It’s a longer path but it’s a sure way of hitting success at the end of the day. If it’s a failure it’s a small failure,” says Piet.
Another of PSG’s success stories is Chris van der Merwe’s Curro Holdings that develops, acquires and manages private schools in South Africa. What started off as a school of 28 learners in the hall of a church in Durbanville, Cape Town, now has a market cap of $1.4 billion.
“Chris van der Merwe is a unique person. Education and doing something great for the company is his passion. He tells you to your face he doesn’t understand accounts or profits. He is one of the people I admire in life, he isn’t fanatically orientated but he has a big thing about education,” says Jannie.
“Chris was a primary school teacher who knew he was also phenomenal businessman. He built the school himself, with his own hands. He took his early pension, started with 28 kids in a class, now it’s up to 50,000,” says Piet.
In May, Curro Holdings announced it would buy the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA) – a film, television and live performance higher education institution. Step one of an expansion into the tertiary education system under the soon-to-be JSE-listed company Stadio. In six years, the share price has increased more than 300% to R44.70, with pupil numbers rising 14% to 47,589 in 2016, reports CNBC AFRICA.
“A typical school class has about 45 students. At varsity, a class could be 100, and the fees are even a bit more than school. It could be a fantastic model,” says Jannie.
Asked if this decision had any particular influence from recent education crisis events, like FeesMustFall, the campaign that saw South African universities come to a standstill amid violence over tuition fees, the Moutons were open.
“See, there you have almost hit the nail on the head of investments. Big macro themes, if you can get it right, you shouldn’t be limited to growth. Take the whole education sector as a whole, primary and core, if you can get it right, there is actually a massive scope for growth. You are right about the FeesMustFall, because people are becoming disillusioned [with education].”
Another company Jannie believes could surprise investors is PSG Konsult. With 270 branches and 800 advisors, each branch is its own company, 70%-owned by the individuals who run it – what Jannie calls ultimate empowerment.
“You should attract very good people alongside you and you must make them co-workers inside the business. You must trust them implicitly and give them the space to grow. That has worked significantly for our group, because they act like shareholders and look after the company,” says Piet.
Back in the boardroom, the conversation shifts toward the lighter side of life, something the pair can’t agree on – rugby.
“It’s one of the points we don’t see eye to eye on. Jannie is a Stormers supporter whereas I am a strong Lions supporter. Literally, Saturdays would be a fight to behold.”
Imagine if the idea to invest in the Stormers or Lions was raised in this Stellenbosch boardroom.
The People’s Banker: ‘Entrepreneurship Means Folding Up Your Sleeves And Working’
In 1993, Dr James Mwangi walked away from a promising career at one of Kenya’s largest banks, to join the Equity Building Society. Three decades on, few could have predicted his entrepreneurial leadership would work to transform not just Equity but the financial services of the region. FORBES AFRICA meets the man behind East Africa’s billion-dollar banking empire.
Dr James Mwangi, Managing Director and CEO of Kenya’s Equity Group, is a captivating figure. His trademark smile and down-to-earth demeanour set him apart from the traditional banker. But Mwangi isn’t your run-of-the-mill chief executive. His journey to the C-suite has been fuelled by sheer resolve, belligerent bravado, and an uncanny concern for his customers.
It’s hard to believe that the force behind East Africa’s pioneering billion-dollar banking brand grew up in circumstances far removed in rural Nyagatugu, a tiny village flanking the Aberdare mountains in central Kenya.
“I am a product of my upbringing [and] it has [had] a significant influence on how I see things today… [but] my village of Nyagatugu was not enough to say that I conquered Africa,” declares Mwangi from his office at Equity’s corporate headquarters in Upperhill, Nairobi’s swanky business district, in an interview with FORBES AFRICA in July.
The banker describes his childhood as humble, dignified but fraught with difficulty. Born in 1962 to peasant farmers, Mwangi’s parents had no formal education and lived apart from what he calls the ‘monetary society’. As a boy, he had never met anyone who owned a bank account or even fathomed being served by any of the country’s banks which, at the time, only catered to a privileged few.
“It was a simple life. As boys, we grazed cows and goats… we hunted wild animals like rabbits. Growing up, we didn’t know [if] people were ‘well-off’ or [if] people were ‘poor’, we were all equals. [As a community], we built houses together, tilled the land together, and even socialized together at village dances,” he reminisces.
While it may seem contradictory, it was this deeply communal atmosphere that inspired the business that Mwangi built.
Founded in 1984, Equity did not start its commercial life as a bank but as a mutual society trading as the Equity Building Society (EBS). Back then, as Kenya was forging a new national identity, most banks were hesitant to provide its vast population with even the most basic financial services. As an answer, indigenous building societies took root. However, while buffeted by good intention, these fledgling financial institutions were poorly run, leading many to ruin.
“I realized that there is no wealth without work! Entrepreneurship means folding up your sleeves and working. Profit is the reward.”
In the 1970s, while these societies were emerging, life’s challenges had already begun to shape the young Mwangi. Shortly after his birth, his family had suffered a major tragedy with the untimely death of his father. His mother, Grace Wairimu, was not only widowed but was left with seven children to raise on a meager income.
Never having gone to school herself, Mwangi’s mother, who was an anchor throughout his life, was adamant that all her children, including her daughters, would study; a controversial decision at the time. And she was not prepared to compromise.
To achieve this dream, Wairimu imposed a strict code of discipline in her household whilst encouraging an entrepreneurial fervor in her children. The family sold milk, tea, charcoal, and fruits to stay afloat. It was an important training ground for the young Mwangi.
“We were vending to eke out a living, to pay school fees, and to feed the family. My instinct for commerce [came] from [there]… I realized that there is no wealth without work! Entrepreneurship means folding up your sleeves and working. Profit is the reward,” he explains.
Nyagatugu was where Mwangi really cut his teeth in business. Then, owing to his academic talent, he had the opportunity to study the theory that governed his early entrepreneurial experiences, on scholarship, at the University of Nairobi several years later.
“Taking milk to the village restaurant or selling fruits to the village middleman, who would take them to [the market] in Nairobi, introduced me to the concept of ‘supply chains’. I realized that I was the ‘primary producer’ with my mother, the ‘middleman’ dealt with logistics, and then an ‘aggregator’, who was our face in the marketplace, played on volume and made more money than everyone else. The owner of the shop received [goods] from the ‘aggregator’ and sold them to ‘consumers’, through the ‘brand’ of his shop. I [finally] understood how the value created [in the supply chain] was shared.”
After university, Mwangi began his career as an auditor with Ernst & Young in Nairobi. Four years later, he moved to the now-defunct Trade Bank Group. Then an innovative financial services firm, founded in 1985, it quickly gained prominence as Kenya’s first attempt at mass-market banking.
Over a brief career at the bank, he climbed the ranks from teller to Group Financial Controller.
However, just as things were looking up, a familiar face came calling. In 1993, the EBS was in trouble, with debt on its books. Founder and Chairman, Dr Peter Munga, had known Mwangi as a boy and was convinced that the young banker was his only hope. By then, Equity had been declared insolvent and was facing dissolution.
“We came from the same village where I had developed the reputation of a ‘brilliant boy’. I was the first boy [from Nyagatugu] to get a university degree. I was also a youth leader in the church. In Nairobi, I had risen up to be a director at Trade Bank by the age of 28 [where] I had a reputation for being a sharp young man who was good at analytics and bold decision-making. All of that combined to package me, in the eyes of Dr Munga (and other EBS executives), as a credible, reliable person,” he says.
Munga’s confidence was not misplaced. Eager to oblige, 31-year-old Mwangi left his job at Trade Bank to take on a role as Director of Strategy at the stagnating society.
“I had gone with [EBS executives] to Central Bank because they had been condemned with closure. Suddenly, the Governor looks at me, as I try to plead their case for more time, and he says [to me], ‘if it was you who was talking of turnaround, then I would give you the opportunity’. I was between a rock and a hard place; if I hadn’t made the sacrifice to join them, then they would [have had] to close,” recalls Mwangi.
“I had a singular mind to build a bank for my mother who [I saw] bury savings under her mattress.”
So, in a seemingly fool-hardy move, the young banker agreed to take on mounting debt, unpaid salaries, dwindling membership, and declining morale at Equity. He even remortgaged his own house to inject some desperately needed cash into the business, inextricably linking his fate, and hard-won reputation, with that of the beleaguered building society.
Given a carte blanche to transform the business and with no option of turning back, Mwangi was determined to meet his mandate.
“I had made the decision from an emotional aspect [and] I didn’t want to fail them. But I hadn’t realized that Equity was in [such] a bad state. It had not done any [debt] reconciliation, it had not published accounts for three years, and it had not had a board meeting for [over] two years. With everything at stake, it was only my entrepreneurial skill that would [eventually] get us out of insolvency.”
Mwangi’s reforms were more an attempt at reinvention rather than resuscitation. He began by re-training the organization’s remaining staff in the ethos that would later come to define them – customer care.
“We didn’t have money… the currency that created Equity was a passion to please the customer. I had a very small staff, none of whom had gone beyond Form 4 [Grade 10]. They didn’t have the skills but they had enthusiasm. We didn’t [even] have a meaningful product so we had to give our clients an experience that they had never had anywhere else and that they were willing to pay for,” he continues.
According to a Lagos Business School case study, Mwangi ensured that, in this way, his 12,000 customers were accorded with the dignity they deserved, breathing new life into the institution. This had an impact on both sides of the counter. Customers felt valued and continued to patronize the building society. On their side, staff felt confident and empowered even whilst working long hours.
In 1997, things looked promising. Equity had cleared its debts, encouraging staff and customers to begin purchasing shares in the company. This time around, Mwangi made sure that records were meticulously kept.
“We didn’t have money… the currency that created Equity was a passion to please the customer.”
According to its website, Equity’s client accounts had grown exponentially from 32,000, in 1997, to 482,000 by 2005. This exemplary track record allowed Mwangi to raise capital from the European Union (EU), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and other institutional lenders to introduce computing technology to the building society, paving way for his ambitious expansion plans.
“Transaction times dropped from 30 minutes to five, queues disappeared, the process, including signatures and so on, was automated. Equity was now on a rapid, but solid, growth path,” notes Mwangi in a 2012 interview to African Business.
Steady growth made the building society’s transition to Equity Bank, in August 2004, possible. Two years later, the bank listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). Bolstered by further investment, Equity made its first foray into the region, listing on the Uganda Securities Exchange, as EBL in 2009.
Within five years, the bank was operating subsidiaries in Rwanda, Tanzania, and was among the first to open branches in South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country. By 2019, the bank had transformed, yet again, becoming Equity Group Holdings, with customers across East Africa.
In 2020, three decades after Mwangi made his debut, the Equity Group boasted a market capitalization of KES128.1 billion (approx. $1.3 billion) making it the largest banking outfit in East Africa, out-rivalling its closest competitors.
Equity’s tremendous transformation is due, in large part, to what is now known as ‘The Mwangi Model’. Thanks to this ground-breaking framework, Mwangi has been able to introduce a bulk of East Africa’s low-income population to the financial services sector. It is a model of inclusion that thrives on high volumes, low margins, and mass-market appeal.
“I realized [after leaving Trade Bank] that it was not the bank of the common man. My mother would have never been able to [open] an account there. Nobody in my village would have qualified for an account either. In fact, not even [EBS Founder] Dr Peter Munga would have qualified. I had a singular mind to build a bank for my mother who [I saw] bury savings under her mattress,” reveals Mwangi.
At the time, this drive to serve the so-called ‘unbankable’ population had only been attempted once before at the Grameen Bank founded in 1984 by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. However, in Kenya, the model was risky, untested, and needed modifying.
“To be honest, [in 1993] I didn’t have a very good view of what Muhammad Yunus was doing. His [main product] was group lending, Equity started out with individual lending. I simply wanted to remove the barriers for people, like my mother, in opening bank accounts. We could do better than a mattress!”
This revolutionary perspective blew open the Kenyan banking sector. By eliminating monthly ledger fees, minimum balance requirements, and easing withdrawal limits, Equity ended up engineering a product that it could bank on.
By 2000, Mwangi says, Equity began signing on an average of 100 new clients per day. Going directly to its customers, initially, in weekly marketing campaigns in rural towns and villages, the bank eventually developed a network of third-party ‘banking agents’ to provide services across Kenya, even in the most far-flung corners.
Today, with mobile banking, Equity’s customers benefit from yet more convenience with access anywhere, any time, and at a minimal cost.
As a result, Mwangi’s entrepreneurial reward has extended far beyond profit. The ‘Mwangi Model’ has been recognized and analysed in case studies at some of the world’s most prestigious business schools including Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, and the Lagos Business School.
He is also the holder of numerous honorary degrees and the winner of countless awards for his commercial prowess. The first, and most memorable, he says, was the ‘Global Vision Award’, which Mwangi won alongside fellow micro-finance trailblazer, Muhammad Yunus, at the 2007 G8 Summit.
In 2012, after clinching the title of FORBES AFRICA ‘Person of the Year’, the Kenyan banker triumphed over 58 global business leaders to become the first African ever to be crowned Ernst & Young’s ‘World Entrepreneur of the Year’ in Monaco.
Mwangi, as Founding Chairman of the Equity Group Foundation (EGF), is also a prolific philanthropist. In May this year, EGF, with the Mastercard Foundation, pledged KES1.1 billion ($10.3 million), to Kenya’s Covid-19 response and to provide personal protective equipment to frontline medical staff in public hospitals. A portion of the endowment, KES300 million ($2.8 million), was a personal donation from the Mwangi family. Since March, the banker has been a member of the Covid-19 Emergency Fund Committee, a 10-member board peopled by the country’s most accomplished private sector leaders, convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
A key feature of the ‘Mwangi Model’ is its resilience which the current pandemic is putting to the test. In June, Equity saw its acquisition plans, through the highly-anticipated Altas Mara deal, in Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia, halted. Instead, Mwangi announced that the Group was doubling down and would take a more conservative approach to see through the crisis. In an unprecedented move, shareholder dividend payments were also delayed to safeguard liquidity reserves.
“Covid-19 has been a turning point. We have analysed over 1,200 years of data, starting with the bubonic plague, to understand this [Covid-19] pandemic. The only way we can survive this is if [our] business is agile and resilient enough to navigate these times.”
While much is still uncertain, the pandemic has had some positives for Mwangi, a proud husband and family man.
“I am not a very outgoing character so ‘working from home’ has been very exciting for me. I’ve been able to spend more time with my family, which is important for me,” he says.
On another high note, Mwangi jests that Covid-19’s most visible impact has not been on his balance sheet but his waistline.
“I have been making the best of this crisis. Instead of 30 minutes, I am now able to put in at least two and a half hours at the gym. When I look at myself [in the mirror], my body is looking much better!”
Despite the present tumult, Mwangi insists that the fundamentals remain unchanged and only the things that matter get him up, at 3AM, to start his day.
“Seeing a smile in people’s lives still makes me happy. I’ve lived a full life and it’s humbling to know that the child my mother raised has not changed and [with the values she taught me] I’m able to share what I have with others. Thirty years later, it’s been a journey of changing one life at a time.”
James Mwangi’s 10 Tips For Entrepreneurs During Covid-19
1. Stick and focus on purpose, use essence to filter dos and don’ts.
2. Protect the public license. Society will never forget the side or position you took when you had the chance.
3. Support the supply and value chain and recover. Bend backwards to accommodate your business’ unusual circumstances.
4. Adopt a shared prosperity model using social and impact investing.
5. Adapt to ‘the new normal’. Be aware Covid-19 might have irreversibly changed your world in terms of resource reallocation, priorities, tastes and preferences.
6. Be part of the solution to our shared global challenges in humanity, health, and livelihoods. Don’t run away from the reality your customers are facing.
7. Focus on the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution like digitization, big data, technology and innovation.
8. Adopt an appropriate leadership style for these uncertain times. Provide visibility, hope and answers to concerns and when carrying your followers along with you.
9. Preserve cash, liquidity, and capital reserves for the long haul.
10. It is all about people: staff, customers, society and humanity.
– By Marie Shabaya
Covid-19: Beyond The Lockdown: What Big Business Is Doing Now
Corporate Africa has to urgently pandemic-proof itself with new ideas, innovations and emotions, to merely stay alive fighting a marauding virus.
The verdant vineyards of Stellenbosch, a charming wine town in South Africa’s Western Cape province, offer breath-taking, panoramic views of the rolling hills, valleys and mountain ranges fringing them.
Only that there are no tourists to marvel at them now – and perhaps will not be for a long time to come.
Like good wine, these views will stay but who will savor them?
Like every other industry on the planet, South Africa’s wine industry too, which produces some of the finest wines and spirits globally and employs millions in its tourism collaterals, has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even with the President Cyril Ramaphosa (whose leadership at this time was commended by world leaders and media) easing lockdown restrictions to Level 4 on May 1, liquor and wine sales are prohibited, and the big players say the local industry has taken a hit.
Former banking CEO and wine entrepreneur Michael Jordaan speaks about the effects the crisis has had on business.
“Local sales represent 50% of industry turnover,” says Jordaan. The export ban was lifted five weeks after the lockdown but by then, he feels “precious sales and rack space” in export markets were lost to foreign competitors. “Related wine businesses such as wine tourism or restaurants are suffering the most as income has gone to zero while many costs remain.”
The wine industry is already a high-cost, low-margin business, he adds, with industry surveys showing that only 28% of wine grape producers made a profit in 2019.
Most wineries were cash-strapped to start with, and the pandemic has left a bitter after-taste.
“It is inevitable that many of the 290,000 jobs in the industry will be lost…” he says.
Premium wine houses are now looking at offbeat ways to sell and deliver online.
Jordaan’s Bartinney Wines – in the Jordaan family since 1953 – is produced from a 28-hectare farm in Stellenbosch, and he says he has made it a priority to look after staff using savings and income from non-wine businesses.
“We’re also exploring new export markets but struggle as this usually requires trips to sellers which are obviously not possible,” he adds.
The wine-drinking wealthy across the continent are also not immune to the crisis. Some South African billionaires, listed by Forbes every year, made announcements to help fight Covid-19 even before the government announced the lockdown.
Billionaire Johann Rupert and family, worth $4.6 billion (as of mid-May according to Forbes), announced R1 billion ($54.73 million) through the Sukuma Relief Programme “consisting of grants and low-interest bearing loans with a 12-month repayment holiday, given to formal sole properties, closed corporations, companies and trusts”. On April 6, the program closed the application platform on account of the overwhelming response. Ben Bierman, administrator of the program, told CNBC Africa the relief program received applications in excess of R2.8 billion ($153 million). Nicky Oppenheimer and family, worth $7.5 billion (as of mid-May according to Forbes), made two contributions towards Covid-19 relief. The first made by Nicky and son Jonathan, pledging R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the South African Future Trust (SAFT). Following in her brother Nicky’s footsteps, the second pledge came from Mary Oppenheimer-Slack and her daughters who pledged R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the state’s Solidarity Fund, stating it’s “most aligned to our concerns about basic needs, food, medicine, general care and gender abuse”.
The Motsepe family pledged another R1 billion ($54.73 million) to the country’s coronavirus Solidarity Fund and said the pandemic has shifted the priorities of the Motsepe Foundation. The Founder and Chairman of the foundation, Patrice Motsepe, with a net worth of $1.5 billion (as of mid-May as per Forbes), said: “The Motsepe family and companies we are associated with, will continue to do everything possible to assist health workers, poor rural and urban communities and all South Africans to prevail over the current coronavirus pandemic.”
Other established South African businessmen such as Douw Steyn and family pledged R320 million ($17.5 million) through the Douw Steyn Family Trust.
Globally, tech billionaires such as Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, worth $4.7 billion, announced on April 7 that he was moving $1 billion of his Square stock to support various causes including Covid-19 relief efforts. The tech billionaire didn’t specify how much of the $1 billion donation would be going towards the pandemic.
Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma donated protective equipment to all 54 countries in Africa through his Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation. The donation includes a total of 1.1 million test kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits.
Global tech billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda committed more than $250 million through their foundation. According to Forbes, much of it will be spent on vaccines, treatment and diagnostic development.
“Covid-19 has essentially become a catalyst for the shift which was bound to happen,”– Sipho Maseko, CEO, Telkom Group
Whilst the big dollar signs bring hope, the numbers for Covid-19 continue to bring gloom as worldwide statistics rise.
At the time of going to press, the number of cases globally was over five million, with the death toll over 325,000. So far, almost two million worldwide have made recoveries. Africa has over 90,000 cases, with 2,900 deaths and over 35,000 recoveries.
But the big global bodies overseeing the crisis say the world’s youngest continent, Africa, may suffer heavily if the disease is not contained.
The World Health Organization said in a statement released early May that “83,000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of Covid-19 and 29 million to 44 million could get infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail” as per a new study based on prediction modeling, looking at 47 countries in the WHO African region with a total population of one billion.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “sub-Saharan Africa is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis that threatens to throw the region off its stride, reversing the development progress of recent years and slow the region’s growth prospects in the years to come”. It predicts the region’s GDP to contract by 1.6% this year, making it the worst forecast on record.
On its part, the African Development Bank (AfDB), led by president Akinwumi Adesina, is supporting the continent through the Covid-19 crisis with $26 million for the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the procurement of critical medical supplies. The bank also launched a $3 billion ‘Fight Covid-19’ social bond, with bids exceeding $4.6 billion. It also launched a $10 billion Crisis Response Facility to support Africa to address the pandemic.
Because Africa’s financial markets are less developed than many of its global counterparts, Gary Booysen, Director and Portfolio Manager at Rand Swiss based in Johannesburg, says: “They often struggle with liquidity. As the world grapples with the economic fallout of the lockdowns and Covid-19, risk appetite will almost certainly diminish. This will likely see money initially flowing out of more speculative frontier markets. This, in turn, could potentially result in undue pressure being placed on African financial assets.”
With these forecasts, what is the way forward? Corporate Africa is grappling with the hard reality and is in the process of re-strategizing itself. The only hope is if big businesses realize that they have to not just come up with forward-thinking views but also unlock much-needed solutions and even their balance sheets to help all in these times of uncertainty.
And technology and interconnectedness should be the forces driving these collaborations.
Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure, states on the bank’s website: “Governments, regulators and the telecom industry must do all it takes to deploy affordable, reliable, and safe digital technologies… to work together to achieve the promise of new technologies for all and keep the world connected.”
On their part, telecom companies such as Vodacom have stepped up. Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group Limited, says it plans to donate 20,000 smartphones, 100 terabytes of data and 10 million voice call minutes to South Africa’s National Department of Health to collect and transmit data in real time for resource planning purposes as the government accelerates its Covid-19 testing campaign. Vodacom recently entered into a partnership with Discovery Health to offer free virtual consultations with doctors for the general public. The telecoms company has experienced a significant increase in fixed and mobile network traffic since the lockdown, attests Joosub. As a result, Vodacom has accelerated its investment spend.
“As the world becomes more online and more digital, it would make fiber and 4G-investment ready for that. This has always informed our investment strategy. Covid-19 has essentially become a catalyst for the shift which was bound to happen,” says Sipho Maseko, CEO of Telkom Group, to FORBES AFRICA. The telecom provider delivered a tracking and tracing system for Covid-19, “in record time”, working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa. Maseko believes that as big businesses face an economy and society that has been changed fundamentally by Covid-19, they will need to find innovative ways to adapt, deliver services, and drive growth in a challenging economic period.
“Tech innovators will find business opportunities in the difficulty,”Darlene Menzies, CEO, Finfind
Megan Pydigadu, Group Chief Financial Officer of EOH, a technology services provider in Africa, believes the company is systemic to South Africa’s IT backbone, and as a result, creates significant responsibility for the company as an organization during the pandemic.
“We have implemented short and medium-term cash flow forecasting which pre-warns us of anything we need to deal with,” says Pydigadu. On potential opportunities and trends coming out of the industry, Pydigadu believes that EOH needs to develop product solutions that will last beyond the company’s current circumstances.
“The ‘new normal’ is here to stay and is going to change the ways of working. There will be an increased need for virtualization and the effective use of information, AI and data to reduce costs as we face an ongoing recession in the medium-term,” says Pydigadu. The CFO says the company is looking at opportunities to accelerate digital transformation for its clients.
As companies continue to look for solutions, one thing is crystal clear.
Corporate Africa is reiterating the need to future-proof businesses through new innovations – and they have to act now.
For years, the question of whether businesses are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has been posed. The pandemic has no doubt now answered that question. Perhaps what we need to ask is how quickly companies must now adapt to 4IR.
Darlene Menzies, CEO of Finfind, an online finance solution platform that brings together the providers and seekers of SME finance, believes online businesses will thrive as traditional forms of business grind to a halt.
“Tech innovators will find business opportunities in the difficulty, and we will see many new businesses birthed that provide solutions to address the gaps that this challenging time has presented,” says Menzies. She believes it’s important every business uses the lessons learned from the pandemic to ensure they are better prepared for any future disaster.
She reckons the world will see a lot of change with more firms deciding to move to a hybrid of virtual and physical work, and many transitioning to an entirely virtual operation. Menzies says the pandemic has also exposed the need to increase the accessibility of the digital economy to people at the base of the pyramid, in order to ensure that everyone can take full advantage of the benefits.
As the world finds itself at the mercy of the digital economy, perhaps more can be achieved through partnerships?
Kweku Bedu-Addo, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in South & Southern Africa, says the pivotal lesson during the pandemic has been the need for greater collaboration.
“It’s clear that we need better collaboration globally to be able to identify a developing crisis sooner, to enable the world to react faster to minimize the fallout,” says Bedu-Addo.
Speaking on digital technology, Bedu-Addo believes that many in the banking industry, and other industries, have had to quickly and safely expand access and capabilities in the area of technology.
“If it [digital technology] is fully integrated into a company’s strategy, it can benefit all employees and help businesses thrive in a time like this.” Standard Chartered has committed $1 billion of financing to support companies that provide goods and services to help in the fight against Covid-19. In addition, the bank has launched a $50 million global fund with donations from colleagues and the bank to provide assistance to communities affected by Covid-19.
“We have seen a 650% increase in alternate channelsin the last two weeks of March alone,”– Robin Bairstow, CEO, I&M Bank Rwanda
Similar examples abound in the rest of the continent. In East Africa, more banks have responded to the pandemic.
The CEO of Rwanda’s largest commercial bank, Bank of Kigali, says the bank’s staff set up a fund to support the most vulnerable in Rwanda’s communities affected by the health crisis. “We have provided relief measures to our clients, waived various transaction fees as well as penalties for late payments. We have also designed loan products to support both retail and SME clients going through this difficult period,” Diane Karusisi tells FORBES AFRICA. The CEO’s forecasts for the medium-term are that economic growth will be significantly affected and all stakeholders will have to coordinate efforts to support speedy economic recovery.
“The Bank of Kigali’s excellent liquidity and capital position pre-Covid will allow us to weather the shock and remain a champion in financing the economy,” says Karusisi. On the opportunities she sees for the industry, she says that clients have had to shift their behavior toward digital channels, and cashless means of payment. For this reason, she believes digital transformation in the industry will be accelerated. Should the worst happen, Karusisi believes the bank’s most pessimistic stress tests show that it would withstand “a shock implying large business and retail defaults as a result of our strong capital position”. She adds: “Rwanda recovered from the war and the genocide against the Tutsi only 26 years ago. Our resilience has been tested and Bank of Kigali was the only bank to avail clients’ balances and savings after the tragic events…”
Another bank in the country is I&M Bank Rwanda Limited. Robin Bairstow, the bank’s CEO, tells us its top priority during the pandemic is to maintain operations, protect the workforce, and keep customers safe and informed. Bairstow mentions the bank has anticipated changing customer needs, and has agreed to allow interest and principle deferrals for three months, and in some cases, longer for all affected customers. They have also reduced lending rates to provide support to clients. He believes that social distancing has given an opportunity for banks in terms of shifting customers to digital channels.
“We have seen a 650% increase in alternate channels in the last two weeks of March alone (when the lockdown began). If this trend continues, we would have changed behavior and the cost of serving customers will reduce in the industry and the momentum will continue due to the convenience of digital offerings,” says Bairstow.
“My team and I are trying to find or create new projectswhere we are able to work with people remotely,”– DJ Fresh
In South Africa, internet group Naspers, one of the largest technology investors in the world, was one of the first, alongside the Ruperts and Oppenheimers, to announce funds for Covid-19 relief efforts. The company contributed R1.5 billion ($82 million) in emergency aid to the government’s response; of that, R500 million ($27.3 million) was allocated to the Solidarity Fund, and it’s buying R1 billion ($54.7 million) worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies.
In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Naspers South Africa’s CEO, Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, says: “We have a strong and liquid financial position to navigate uncertain times but we are not immune to the impact of Covid-19 and like all other businesses in the global economy.”
On the opportunities ahead, Mahanyele-Dabengwa believes in the longer term, Naspers’ payments and fintech business is expected to benefit across its markets from large sectoral trends, including more customers transacting online and more online transactions being executed through alternative forms of payment, instead of cash.
Moving to the travel and lifestyle sector, tourism has been hit the most. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that industry passenger revenues could plummet $252 billion or 44% below 2019’s figure for the world.
“Airlines need $200 billion in liquidity support simply to make it through. Some governments have already stepped forward, but many more need to follow suit,” says IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, in a web statement.
In South Africa, Marc Wachsberger, Managing Director of The Capital Hotels & Apartments, a luxury hotel and apartment room provider that also offers conference venues and meeting spaces, believes travel will change dramatically in the future.
“As social distancing becomes the norm, hotel groups that will survive will be sure to go the extra mile in cleaning and sanitation protocols, while giving guests the room they need to maintain sufficient physical distance.”
With approval to operate during lockdown, Wachsberger says the company helped a few businesses to remain open during this time. It pivoted its business and implemented steps to offer safe spaces for guests and their staff, through ‘self-isolation hotels’ for anyone needing to isolate for approximately 14 days, or until they have been cleared; and ‘sanitized sanctuaries’ for families and corporates who want to live and work freely during this time. The company has partnered with Discovery Health in operating The Capital Empire in Sandton in the heart of Johannesburg as a Covid-19 isolation recovery facility called ‘The Get Well Hotel’. He adds that occupancy is expected to increase as more industries return to work and need to isolate or quarantine. He reckons hotels that can offer contactless check-ins, room access, check-outs and payments will be the way forward.
Wachsberger believes the meetings, incentives conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry is feeling the ripple effect of the virus and will continue to struggle as business travelers stay away. Many venues will flounder as large meetings and gatherings can only possibly convene again in Level 1 of South Africa’s ‘risk-adjusted strategy’.
Another company steering itself for the future is Bolt. The app, formerly known as Taxify, offers services from ride-hailing to food delivery. Gareth Taylor, Country Manager for Bolt in South Africa, says the company now offers free sanitization liquid refills at all its driver centers on a daily basis.
The ride-hailing company has launched several new services to provide alternative ways for drivers to continue to earn an income. One such is the ‘Bolt Isolated Car’, featuring a physical barrier between the front and back seats, limiting the risk of exposure between drivers and passengers. Taylor says there will be a bigger focus on businesses connecting and assisting one another through partnerships.
“Businesses that can collaborate the most effectively and to the greatest mutual benefit, will win,” says Taylor. On the future of the transport industry, he says it is likely to evolve as electric vehicles become more available. “Electric vehicles are cheaper to run and maintain than petrol or diesel vehicles, which could in turn make transport more affordable, particularly for the more cash-strapped.” Taylor reckons that as more people and businesses have become accustomed to a work-from-home labor force, it’s likely that car ownership will decrease.
With the cancellation of movie premieres, concerts and big ticket events, those in the entertainment industry are also feeling the heat. And this includes actors and celebrities.
In a recent Instagram Live session (which seems to be the order of the day), Hollywood actress Gabrielle Union told her fans that a number of black entertainers are grappling to pay their bills as they are getting fewer gigs during this crisis, and that “this stoppage of work and money is impacting marginalized ‘celebrities’ the most”.
Over the last few months, people working in the entertainment industry have had to look for other alternatives of making money.
Closer home, as a DJ who travels for shows around the world, Thato Sikwane, known as DJ Fresh, realizes that DJing is one of the jobs that has definitely taken a knock.
The DJ says he’s fortunate to have work outside of his DJ career. “Radio being one of the biggest mediums and forms of entertainment and information providers, we are marked as essential support workers. I still have Fresh on 94.7, Monday to Friday,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
Whilst the entertainment industry has been rattled by the lockdown and travel bans around the world, DJ Fresh says players in the music industry will need to carry on finding new windows of opportunities to keep generating personal incomes.
Furthermore, he states that they will need to have bold ambitions to change the way in which they previously applied their minds, in order to survive.
“I am working on new music and excited for it to be released. I have live streams every Sunday on my Facebook page where I work with Oskido and a few other industry mates to create sets called Legends Live. My team and I are trying to find or create new projects where we are able to work with people remotely and that will help some of the unemployed people.”
The South African DJ believes those that fail to fully utilize and exploit their digital presence during this period, will have wasted a crisis.
Through trial and error, big business and big names are re-evaluating, re-strategizing, and trying innovative ways to face the disruptive virus and rebuild themselves sustainably for the future, knowing only too well, that if they don’t adapt, they will surely die.
Covid-19: The Ultimate Disruptor
The coronavirus has rebooted every aspect of life as we know it. Across Africa, home-grown ideas and small-scale technological innovations are coming to the fore to help combat it.
It’s 8PM in Johannesburg on March 29, the first Sunday of the lockdown in South Africa, and a team from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is hard at work, not in the comfort of their homes, but at an innovation lab, designing the first two prototypes of a face shield.
Letlotlo Phohole and Moses Mogotlane, the two members of the team, are working on paper and transparent face shield models, with a Perspex headband, and they are doing all of this at a Transnet-sponsored innovation space hosted at Wits; together in thought, but apart in (social) distance.
Their work would use 3D-printers and a laser-cut solution, in coming up with the very first version of a face shield developed by Wits.
Reeling from the disastrous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, just like any other part of the world, Africa is turning to home-grown solutions such as this to tackle a global problem.
“Design can save the world,” says Dr Randall Paton, one of the engineers in charge of coordinating this project. And for any innovation at this time, speed is paramount.
“I think that innovation, especially of the sort that leaves us with a legacy of new products or ideas, is essential in tackling an issue like the coronavirus crisis,” he adds.
The face shields were initially designed for health workers at Netcare Hospitals, made from a flat pack consisting of two pieces that can rapidly be assembled.
Now, they are producing the face shields in only 90 seconds using die-cutting (cutting chosen shapes from low-strength materials), as opposed to 3D-printing them which takes up to 90 minutes.
“We are also working with the Wits’ UK representative looking at possible collaborations with the University of Edinburg who responded similarly to Wits in the face shield provision to healthcare workers. We are sharing our stories with the aim of learning from their mass production process that we could emulate,” Phohole tells FORBES AFRICA.
This pandemic could very well see innovation going from Africa to the rest of the world.
Another example is Fablab Rwanda, a space for members to turn innovative ideas into products specifically in the hardware and electronics domain based in Kigali, that has produced 3,500 face shields so far as the entry point for personal protective equipment, especially for health workers, and is now working on producing low-cost ventilators in Rwanda.
A manufacturer of industrial robots, YASKAWA, in South Africa, for many years, has been looking into a crystal ball believing robots would come handy at such a time. “Future-oriented solutions won’t merely be an option, but an absolute necessity,” they say.
Robotics and automation technology are already playing a pivotal role in the health sector, from the use of automated laboratory tests to autonomous disinfectors utilized in hospitals, but they’re about to extend further into other industries faster than anyone could have anticipated.
The global Japanese manufacturer’s southern African branch has already installed over 2,500 robots in the automotive, manufacturing and packaging industries. Decades ago, YASKAWA proposed the innovative concept of an unmanned factory termed ‘Mechatronics’. Since then, the concept has evolved into ‘i³-Mechatronics’, featuring further advancements and implementation of automation through the management of digital data.
“The fast-moving consumer goods and food markets, however, should see an increase and acceptance in the usage of robots and automation technologies… And this is where robotics could come in to reduce contact and cross-contamination,” says Kurt Rosenberg, Managing Director of YASKAWA Southern Africa.
Covid-19 is birthing a new era of health-focused robots and tech to be used in all spheres of life.
Rosenberg believes a robot-powered workforce is the way to the future, both locally and internationally.
And there are more such examples of blue sky thinking.
In South Africa, construction company Profica has partnered with ‘temporary infrastructure specialists’ Chattels to construct temporary Covid-19 triage and testing facilities.
Chattels have already constructed new temporary Covid-19 triage and potential field hospitals at Tygerberg Hospital, Victoria Hospital and Paarl Hospital in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
Meanwhile in South Africa’s North West province, in Mogwase, a company called Akim Holdings Pty Ltd has designed a walk-through sanitizing unit. With an engineering company, it has created a tunnel that is practical and adjustable to suit the specifications of clients.
“Covid-19 is an introduction to a world hygiene awareness program that many have not been practicing or have partially practiced. The sanitizer tunnel was created with health risks involved especially for hypersensitive individuals and to also accommodate the disabled and parents with prams, providing a ramp and sprayers that release 5-10ml of sanitizer per person,” says Thuli Mabebo, one of the directors of Akim.
Corona contact-tracing is also an area where technology and manpower meet.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland in the United States (US), contact-tracing is key to reopening the economy.
The world’s tech giants Apple and Google have joined forces to unveil plans to build contact-tracing technology with the potential to cover the vast majority of smartphones currently in use across the world. In a joint statement, the companies explained they will develop technology-enabling governments and public health agencies to develop apps to track the pandemic, “with user privacy and security central to the design”. They have decided to refer to it as “exposure notification”.
Closer home, one of the entrepreneurs working on a contact-tracing device app is 2020 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list-maker, Olajumoke Oduwule, with her company KJK Africa in Nigeria. The ‘DISTANCING App’ ensures the user can observe a six-feet distance with others to control the spread of infectious diseases.
2018 FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list-maker Roger Boniface and his brother Dean, have been working alongside the Aurum Institute, architects, 3D-printers and branding specialists to build automated wash-bins called Shesha Geza. It is a cost-effective mobile wash-bin and sanitizing solution that can service large numbers of people. Boniface plans to install these in high-density areas such as taxi ranks and plans to “sanitize more than 100K hands a day”.
Communications solutions provider, Liquid Telecom, is also coming up with digital solutions for Africa during the pandemic. It has provided solutions for remote learning at Kibabii virtual school in Kenya, established Covid-19 toll-free helplines in Zimbabwe, and provided better connectivity across the East African Community.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa is also pushing the boundaries of innovation, using an app developed for rhino poaching to tackle Covid-19. Cmore allows rangers to use their cellphones to track poaching incidents, sightings, carcass locations, or to track rangers out on patrol. Now, it is being used to record screening data and assist in tracking potential coronavirus cases. “Community health workers have to enter information on a cellphone and, when they press submit, the cellphone sends a location – not just to the person that has been screened – and that location pins itself on the screen at the CSIR, so we know where we have covered the country with our screens,” says Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory group, during an event just before the lockdown at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
As cases spike in South Africa, Evolutio, an African company whose cloud solutions include BSS/OSS and CRM, has developed artificial intelligence (AI)-powered Covid-19 screening software that will allow the system to identify Covid-19, pneumonia and tuberculosis on chest x-rays, or a photo of the x-ray, in the absence or presence of pathological findings. “Our results from reading thousands of x-rays has showed that the system can achieve an accuracy comparable to radiologists, above 90% sensitivity and above 80% specificity across conditions,” says Evolutio’s co-founder Sunil Menon. However, he says the regulatory authorities have not responded to most Covid-19-related initiatives so they have faced challenges with any local traction.
This is an issue encountered by most innovative players in the fray. Some local manufacturers of Covid-19 test kits claim the regulatory authorities are stifling the distribution and export of kits despite massive demand globally. It will take a while before legislation can approve certain home-based innovations; as a result, it is global innovations that seem to be thriving in Africa.
An ad hoc team of engineers and doctors from the MIT Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent) Project, has developed a low-cost, open-source alternative of ventilators to assist hospitals across the world facing shortages. The goal of the project has been to find a way to automate resuscitator bags using mechanical paddles that continuously, precisely and gently squeeze the sides of the bag. Instead of relying on someone’s hands to manipulate the bag and deliver oxygen, the idea is that this device could do it automatically, and act as a long-term ventilator.
‘A Game Of Survival, Not Growth’
Small businesses all over the world are succumbing to the pandemic.
“90% of the small businesses went from trading on amonthly, weekly, or daily basis, to zero,”– Mashudu Modau
Latest research from fintech group Yoco shows small business revenues in South Africa have plunged over 84% in the pandemic.
“This pandemic has been the ultimate disruptor,” says Mashudu Modau, an entrepreneurship enthusiast and founder of Founders Sauce. Formally working as the community and partnerships manager at Yoco, he was one of many retrenched globally in the pandemic.
“[Covid-19] reduced the number of small businesses that were trading by 90%,” says Modau. “This meant 90% of the small businesses went from trading on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis, to zero.”
Many small businesses operating in Africa already face challenges such as not being registered, lack of resources or lack of funding and as a result, the lockdown has crippled the SMME economy.
“Informal economy businesses were completely wiped out, where they could not trade at all and those that were left operating could not trade at a significant level,” he adds.
Only essential workers or businesses deemed essential services could operate during the lockdown in South Africa. As a result, many businesses are relying on digital platforms to survive if they can afford it, and if lucky, with a client base still consuming their products. Most have had to come up with new ideas. Like startup Granadilla which went from swimwear to grocery delivery in weeks. South African brand Tshepo Jeans, known for denim clothing, quickly pivoted to producing fashionable denim masks. Falke, a South African company once known as a sock manufacturing company, has now turned towards manufacturing face masks from its facility in Pretoria.
With hospitals around the world facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), businesses have stepped up. Nike, for example, has manufactured full face shields and powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses to protect against the virus, while the Prada group has started the production of 80,000 medical overalls and 110,000 masks to be allocated to healthcare personnel. Food and beverage company Nestlé is contributing masks and other PPE to frontline workers. It’s also donating medical equipment to hospitals in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal. Additionally, in Burkina Faso, it will donate three ventilators, for use in intensive care units.
“Zimbabwe is in the midst of a crisis knowing exactly that its healthcare system is dilapidated…The fact that there is limited supply of hospital equipment in our institutions, especially in this part of the globe, has had a negative effect on our motivation to report for work,”– Dr Masimba Dean Ndoro
The lockdown regulations have also grounded the construction sector.
Siphelele Mngaza, the Founder and CEO of Hannah Properties in South Africa, had to curtail operations, resulting in many clients pulling out of contracts. However, this has made him rethink his building strategy, especially in crowded areas.
“Social distancing and self-quarantine is almost impossible because shacks can [heat] up to about 50 degrees in summer and be really cold in winter with no electricity and no water,” he says. The key then is how to build better cities suitable for everyone.
He emphasizes the importance of having smoother surfaces, greener buildings that incorporate plants, better ventilation and access to natural light. “[Post the pandemic] I envision healthier buildings that behave like plants,” says Mngaza.
On the other side of the spectrum, businesses operating in the digital space have seen a boom at this time. Twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur Cleo Johnson has taken full advantage of this. She is the founder of Nuecleo, a hospitality and marketing consultancy in South Africa. With clients based in Africa and overseas, she has been able to put together post-corona marketing plans remotely.
“The big thing is, ‘what is your business going to look like post corona?’ Because it is not going to be the same,” she tells FORBES AFRICA. She remains optimistic.
“As a business owner, taking care of yourself mentally is extremely important as it also gives you clarity on a way forward. There is time now to refine your business, your growth strategy and how you can scale your business.”
Those that grab the opportunities or gaps in this pandemic stand a better chance of surviving because if a small business does not receive any revenue within 30 days, it may die, says Modau.
“Right now, it’s a game of survival, not necessarily growth,” he adds.
Where Africa Stands In Healthcare
In Zimbabwe, Dr Masimba Dean Ndoro is a medical doctor on the frontline, working in the country’s Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals. Wearing his white coat and stethoscope, every day, Ndoro prepares himself for the worst.
“Zimbabwe is in the midst of a crisis knowing exactly that its healthcare system is dilapidated,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. He says Zimbabwe was not ready for the devastation wreaked by Covid-19 on its economy and people. “The fact that there is limited supply of hospital equipment in our institutions, especially in this part of the globe, has had a negative effect on our motivation to report for work.”
March 20 marked the first confirmed case of the virus in Zimbabwe, when a 38-year-old man arrived at his home in Victoria Falls after a trip to Manchester in the UK.
By the end of April, there were 29 confirmed cases and four deaths, a small number compared to neighboring South Africa, but with huge repercussions nevertheless.
With Zimbabwe’s economy on its knees and socioeconomic problems lingering, healthcare in the country was already in dire straits. In an effort to curb the virus, the country was put on lockdown.
Coronavirus testing rolled out. But Ndoro believes this is not enough.
“There has been an outcry for the need to decentralize centers for testing so we reach containment faster. It’s so unfortunate relevant authorities are lagging behind,” he laments.
In Malawi too, efforts to curb the virus have been challenging. The nation is divided. Since the first case of the virus hit headlines in the country on April 2, it was met with skepticism by many in a nation not used to epidemics. For a country that recently nullified its 2020 elections, the public’s trust in the government also reportedly declined. Being told to stay at home and stop business because of an invisible opponent was the least of many citizens’ worries amidst the political instability.
By April 7, the country had recorded its first Covid-19 death. Panic ensued, and the president declared a national disaster. Part of the nation began practicing social distancing despite the Malawi High Court putting in an injunction against the notion of a 21-day lockdown.
On May 5, thousands in Malawi took to the streets in support of the opposition party alliance as they submitted their presidential candidate nomination in Blantyre. It was a sea of red.
“It’s like all they care about is to vote, then start the fight against Covid-19,” a Malawian citizen tells FORBES AFRICA. He watched the crowds chant and dance. “The pandemic is here, and it is real. But we Malawians, we are taking it for granted,” says another to us.
Amid all the chaos, one of the many at the helm in the fight against the virus in Malawi is Dr Titus Divala, a medical doctor and epidemiologist.
Operating from the southern part of the country in the city of Blantyre, he works for the University College of Medicine focusing on malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, but now, is also part of the national committee leading efforts surrounding the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“One thing I have learned as a medical doctor and epidemiologist, I never thought I would come across something that consumes my every thought,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
“For countries like ours, where we are sort of struggling to get hold of every case, what will happen is the virus will spread widely to most of the population and then at some point, it may not be able to move forward because most of the population is already infected. This is a point we call ‘herd immunity’.”
However, there is one key advantage Malawi and other African countries may have over Covid-19 and that is a young population. It is quite possible the risk of death is slightly lower than that of an older European or American population. However, according to Divala, if a vaccine is found, it may take long to reach African countries due to political and economic challenges.
Further up the continent, in Nigeria, Dr Nneka Mobisson, provides healthcare support for her clients digitally.
“I realized that we as Africans were not willing to take ownership of fixing our healthcare systems. We all have a role to play in ensuring the health and happiness of Africa and I hope everyone is willing to take on that responsibility in the post-Covid world,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
She is the co-founder and CEO of mDoc, a social enterprise that integrates methodologies in quality improvement and behavioral science with web and mobile-based technology to optimize the end-to-end care experience for people living with chronic illnesses. At this time, her patients are most at risk.
In the first week of April, Mobisson lost an acquaintance to Covid-19. “She had been at the Yale School of Public Health when I was there for medical school and was my best friend’s close friend. She was such a champion for public health in the US, a 45-year-old mother of three, so it just hit too close to home,” says Mobisson, who also knows more friends who have tested positive for the disease. She and her team have been working 24/7 to combat the virus – digitally.
Very few healthcare entities have the ability to provide virtual care and at such a time, it puts Mobisson at an advantage.
“We have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, and we have been knee-deep supporting our members, the general population and health workers with Covid-19 support. We have shut down all our in-person hubs but have ramped up all virtual care support,” she says.
They have built a center locator called Navihealth which helps to reduce the burden of overwhelmed and insufficient hospital systems in the country. Digitally, they have been able to reach thousands.
However, Mobisson says it has not been easy with funding and resources being limited.
“Most of our team is located in Lagos and electricity is not constant which makes the reality of providing 24/7 guidance to people challenging. We fortunately have a redundancy system when generators or fuel are not available but it certainly makes things very expensive.”
What About Other Diseases?
As governments, hospitals and organizations shift all focus to Covid-19, burdening existing healthcare systems, where does it leave patients with other conditions needing critical care?
“Other diseases are suffering now,” says Dr Herbert Longwe, a lab director at ICAP at Columbia University in Pretoria, South Africa.
Liam Klassen, a 19-year-old from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, experienced this first-hand. After discovering that flesh-eating bacteria had entered a wound in his leg, he was admitted to a hospital 45km away from home. The staff, he says, were too preoccupied treating Covid-19 patients.
“It was very intense being in hospital, with nurses and doctors, and they really wanted me to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. And my wound was very severe,” he says. Anxiety levels remained high for the family as they were not allowed at the hospital due to regulations, what’s worse; they say they didn’t receive adequate communication about what was going on.
“What has happened is, many people are focused on Covid-19 now, and skilled people who were looking at HIV, are now focusing their attention on Covid-19 and the other diseases are being abandoned,” notes Longwe. His work involves doing surveys to measure the impact of HIV, the burden of the disease and the populations that have been affected. Longwe says that there has been a lack of further research and finances being put into other diseases, as a result, the coronavirus has triggered a funding crisis for NGOs when they are needed the most. “People are no longer paying more attention and putting their efforts in writing grants or research proposals on other diseases, for example, TB, HIV and malaria. The focus has dramatically shifted away from those diseases. But those diseases are still killing us. They are still a public health problem,” he adds.
“The initial genome sequencing was costly and time-consuming but efforts are underway to reduce this cost and get faster turnaround time. This will allow us to help those trying to trace the transmission of the disease in South Africa and the continent,”– Peter van Heusden
But on the other hand, the pandemic will expand knowledge in the public health space and grow more human resources and skills. “We are going to draw a lot of knowledge in terms of public health on disease intervention, disease prevention and disease control,” says Longwe.
Hunt For A Vaccine
Billions of dollars are being spent globally to find a vaccine for Covid-19, but the big question is which is the most promising? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 70 vaccines in the works for Covid-19, but only four of them are already being tested.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the manufacturing of seven potential vaccines. But it is possible that one or two of these may be successful.
In South Africa, Peter Van Heusden, a bioinformatician focusing on pathogen genomics, is part of a team researching ways to understand the coronavirus. Simply put, he builds and uses software to make sense of genomic material from bacteria, parasites and viruses.
Together with Dr Mushal Allam, a graduate of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and other scientists, they immediately got to work researching the virus in January this year. “My role has been in sequence analysis, that is taking the data from the sequencing process and trying to clean it up and make sense of it, both for this single SARS-CoV-2 genome and to understand the genome in the context of other SARS-CoV-2 genomes worldwide (collected on the GISAID portal),” Van Heusden says.
This work is a breakthrough in understanding Covid-19 in South Africa in the context of the global pandemic. “The initial genome sequencing was costly and time-consuming but efforts are underway to reduce this cost and get faster turnaround time. This will allow us to help those trying to trace the transmission of the disease in South Africa and the continent,” he says. This research will also help in understanding the global diversity of Covid-19 and note any significant changes in the virus.
Madagascar has reportedly found a cure for Covid-19 in an artemisia-based tonic that’s subject to more trials.
Other options being explored globally to treat Covid-19 include new drugs specifically designed to target SARS-CoV-2, as well as repurposed drugs designed to treat a different disease.
One of the oldest treatments being tested, is convalescent plasma. This involves using blood plasma from people who have recovered from Covid-19 and infusing it into patients presenting the disease.
In Pakistan and India, it was reported that Covid-19 patients recovered through this method, although it’s contested.
In short, it’s all hands on deck as countries and corporates come together to find ways to alleviate the disease.
Rebuilding the world
It’s hard to imagine what the world may look like by the end of the year. From healthcare, to retail, media, travel and education, it will no longer be business as usual. Experts are already coming up with strategies to entirely rebuild nations.
“I hope that in the post-Covid or Covid world, we are willing to invest in primary care systems, non-siloed care that focuses on building awareness and health literacy and one that invests in educating, retaining and supporting our healthcare workers at all levels of the system,” says Mobisson.
Sanitizing, social distancing and mask-wearing are the expected new norms, along with remote working and e-learning. Van Heusden fears the worst in a post-corona society. “I fear there will be a lot of trauma. How we deal with that will define the post-Covid-19 world. We might turn inwards and focus on blame and recriminations. Or we might draw on new awareness of how interconnected we all are and draw strength from that,” he says. In a tweet, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says “the reality is that we are sailing in uncharted waters. There is still a great deal about the epidemiology of the virus that is unknown. It is better to err on the side of caution than to pay the devastating price of a lapse in judgement.”
We are living a textbook example of history as it’s being made, amid uncertainty that will likely not go away for long. The moot question is: will we all live to tell the tale of a pre-and-post Covid-19 world? Only science can answer that.
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