Science is pumping in billions searching for solutions that will help humans live longer – and better – and one day even indefinitely.
If you are under 50 years old and reading this article, treat it as a crystal ball – and it will tell you that chances are you may live for another 100 years.
There are species of sharks, whales and turtles that live for hundreds of years. Likewise, researchers are trying to figure out how to make you live longer, if not forever.
“If we are made from the same ‘stuff’ then what’s stopping us from achieving the same,” asks John Sanei, a futurist and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
For decades, scientists have been trying to do so. But before we go to the future, we must dwell on the past, and the present.
In 1770, Africans had an average life expectancy of a mere 26 years. With newer ways to cure deadly diseases such as small pox and polio, life expectancy gradually increased. Exactly two centuries later, Africans were living to almost 47 years. In 2001, the average life expectancy of Africans rose to 51 years, in 2005 to 53 years, in 2010 to 57 years and in 2015 to 60 years.
Even with such numbers, Africans are still dying sooner than most people in First World countries where life expectancy is in the 80s.
Dr Susan Coetzer spent 14 years studying to be a geriatrician, a specialty focusing on healthcare of the elderly, at the Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg in South Africa. She says the costs and access to healthcare are the biggest barriers. In Africa, according to Coetzer, poverty and lower education levels link to both frailty and cognitive diseases lowering life expectancy.
“Other risks are because of lifestyle-related problems like diabetes, hypertension and obesity. The HIV epidemic has also decreased life expectancy in the past, but with the availability of treatment, this has improved and we will certainly see more HIV-infected older people in the future,” she says.
As the universe often works, what has an advantage also has a disadvantage. Old age often comes with various accompanying diseases that require constant supervision and medication. The more old people Africa has, the more money it needs to pay for their upkeep.
“Older patients are at a higher risk of becoming frail and frail patients have been proven to cost more – in terms of hospitalization, medication and other needs and of course, the additional care. Even most of the developed countries are battling to budget for the increased financial impact,” says Coetzer.
It is true. In October last year, South Africa had 17.5 million social grant recipients and 3.7 million of them were the aged. There are also few specialists to give proper care to the elderly.
“There are less than 20 geriatric specialists in South Africa serving a population of more than seven million people older than 60 years,” says Coetzer.
The good news is we are in an era where scientists are developing the technology to prevent aging and the diseases associated with it.
If they succeed, you could work and live long without experiencing most symptoms of old age.
For this, it will take an understanding of our genes and aging itself.
According to Dr Samantha Baron, a research and development scientist at Optiphi Skin Care in South Africa who is an expert in genetics and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the primary cause of aging is damage to structures within the cells.
“Damage within the cell can be induced by oxidative stress, glycation, telomere shortening, mutations and epigenetic contributions. The progression of this damage is what leads to eventual cell death and what we know as the general cause of aging,” she says.
It means every time you celebrate your birthday, the probability of death increases. The older you get the more you become prone to diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis — all associated with age.
Dr Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, and co-founder of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation tells FORBES AFRICA these can be avoided. Instead of solving death, he looks at extending life.
“Aging can absolutely not be ‘cured’ but it absolutely can, although not yet, of course, be eliminated by medical interventions that are not cures…
“We already feel comfortable with spending lots of money trying to make Alzheimer’s history, so if we stop pretending that it is somehow separate from ‘aging itself’, we will have taken a huge step towards wanting to make that history too,” he says.
De Grey believes we can increase our lifespan by periodic, comprehensive repair and maintenance of the human body.
“We want to restore the molecular and cellular structure and composition of the body to something like how it is in early adulthood. That means things like using stem cells to replace cells that the body does not naturally replace on its own by cell division when they die, or introducing new enzymes to break down waste products that the body does not naturally break down,” he says.
Baron agrees. She says if scientists could delay cell death by reprogramming cells, increasing cellular lifespan and increasing the efficiency in damage repair mechanisms, they could potentially prevent the onset of diseases associated with aging.
“If true cellular regeneration can be accomplished, then these diseases can be treated and the damage reversed.”
Humans are already able to manipulate the longevity of organisms.
A number of researchers in the United States (US) identified a drug that delays several age-related symptoms in mice. It has sparked massive debate and research in the world of science.
“With an experiment that replicated stem cell-like conditions, Salk Institute researchers made human skin cells in a dish look and behave young again, and mice with premature aging disease were rejuvenated with a 30% increase in lifespan. The Salk Institute expects to see this work in human trials in less than 10 years,” says Sanei.
A growing interest in this field also led to biologists at Osaka University in Japan to discover a new way to nurture and grow the tissues that make up the human eyeball. Using a small sample of adult skin, they are able to grow retinas, corneas and the eye’s lens.
Another team of researchers in the US injected stem cells into the damaged cervical spine of a recently paralyzed 21-year-old man. Three months later, he showed dramatic improvement in sensation and movement of both arms.
Longevity Escape Velocity
According to Sanei, in the next 10 to 12 years, we will hit ‘longevity escape velocity’ — the point at which, for every year that you’re alive, science is able to extend your life for more than a year.
According to Oliver Medvedik, a Director at the Maurice Kanbar Center for Biomedical Research and VP of the longevity-focused non-profit Lifespan.io, interventions are being developed that “reprogram” the chemical signature of the genome, referred to as the epigenome, to a more youthful state.
“The epigenome is largely responsible for determining what the status of each of your cells is. As an adult, you typically don’t want this status to change, but as we age, it does change for the worse,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
There is also a new class of drugs being developed known as ‘senolytics’ that specifically target and destroy cells that are too far gone and are causing secondary damage in the body. These aged cells are referred to as ‘senescent’.
“Tremendous progress has also been made in learning exactly how to reprogram the epigenome of cells so that they become new adult stem cells. These can then be reintroduced into the body to potentially promote the rejuvenation of tissues and organs, after perhaps senescent cells have been cleared,” says Medvedik.
The low-hanging fruits are small molecules that may help slow down aspects of the aging process and allow us to live healthier and longer.
“One such candidate molecule has been known for many years as a Type 2 diabetes treatment, metformin, and is now being set for clinical trials,” says Medvedik.
Scientists are also debating how long humans can possibly live in the future. Some say we will live up to 150, others say 200, and some go as far as a 1,000 years.
Baron says that at this point in time, this is mere speculation.
“It is too premature to accept a maximum lifespan of humans. Eventually, science may lead to the first 200-year-old. I would have to say that living to a 1,000 years old is highly improbable.”
Similar to De Grey and Medvedik, she says to increase lifespan, research needs to focus on improving DNA repair mechanisms, making it more efficient. This would slow down the progression of accumulated damage within the cells and consequently aging. The cells will be able to maintain homeostasis for longer.
Alternatively, she suggests the focus to be on reversing the signs of damage through cell regeneration where the healthy and younger state of the cell is obtained.
“Presently, all we can do is try to minimize the damage we provoke on to our cells by controlling our environmental factors (i.e. eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke etc) as well as understanding our genetic predispositions. For example, at Optiphi, we offer a comprehensive DNA skin test to decipher your genetic predispositions to certain aging characteristics. Results from this test allow one to approach skin aging from a holistic point of view,” she says.
According to Baron, from an aesthetic point of view, the future market will benefit more from cell regeneration through reprogramming.
“This way you reprogram your own cells to their younger state and maintain the youthfulness of your skin. From a medical stand-point, regeneration of whole organs is definitely the future of regenerative science and exciting advances are happening in this field,” she says.
And indeed, success will mean high profits for those who invest.
Investing in the immortality industry
The rich and famous are ploughing billions into research as they try to solve the issues of ‘growing old’.
“The main wealthy people investing in this space are the techno-visionaries like Peter Thiel, Vitalik Buterin and Michael Greve but increasingly there are also people like Jim Mellon whose expertise is not in tech investing. The field is growing fast,” says De Grey.
Those with money are really keen on this next new frontier.
According to Bay Area News, Scott Smith, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based investment bank, Viant Capital, said “the Venture Capital community has finally woken up to the fact that, next to millennials, this is the largest market in the world and it’s grossly underserved”.
The last 24 months has seen a huge uptick from the investment community.
Google’s Calico, founded in 2013, has more than $2.5 billion in funding. It paved the way for other startups and foundations like Apollo Ventures, Oisin Biotechnologies, Longevity Fund, Kizoo Technology Ventures, Methuselah Fund and Jim Mellon’s Juvenescence.
If investments trickling in are anything to go by, there is a lot of money to be made in the industry. For example, UNITY Biotechnology reported cash and investments of $198 million as of June 30 compared to $92.2 million in December.
“The increase in cash reflects net proceeds of $59.9 million from UNITY’s Series C convertible preferred stock financing, and $75.9 million from UNITY’s initial public offering. We ended this quarter in a strong financial position as a result of our recent financings. We are well-resourced to move towards our goal of extending human healthspan,” says Keith Leonard, the Chairman and CEO of UNITY in a press statement.
The company is already in first-stage human trials.
“We treated the first patient in our Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating UBX0101 in moderate to severe osteoarthritis of the knee. This is an important step in assessing the role that eliminating senescent cells may play in the treatment of diseases of aging such as osteoarthritis, and we expect to share initial results in the first quarter of next year,” says Leonard.
Big business realizes there is need for startups working in this space.
Ichor Therapeutics, a biotechnology company in New York that develops therapeutic interventions for age-associated diseases, is one of them. It has created Grapeseed.Bio, a life science strategic fund and accelerator program where life science entrepreneurs receive up to $100,000 in seed funding, technical training, full access to Ichor’s research laboratory and mentorship in exchange for equity.
“Direct funding vehicles like Grants for Growth and the TC Growth Fund, combined with mentors and a physical facility at the Tech Garden, have cultivated many promising companies in the software and tech sectors. We want to do the same in the life sciences,” says Kelsey Moody, CEO at Ichor Therapeutics and Managing Partner of Grapeseed.Bio.
The $331 billion anti-aging market
In South Africa, Mic Mann, a futurist, through his advertising and marketing agency Mann Made, co-organizes the SingularityU South Africa Summit. This year, in October, the summit is bringing to Johannesburg speakers like De Grey from all over the world to also discuss aging, longevity and a “future-proof Africa” to make sure we embrace this wave of technology coming our way.
Tickets for the whole two-day event cost between R14,850 ($1,012) and R18,150 ($1,239) and he says they are almost sold out. That’s steep prices for a country where there are more people on social grants than are employed.
“There is massive interest. We have about 100 tickets left. We are going for 1,800 people this year. Last year, we sold out at 1,300 people,” says Mann.
According to Mann, there are many investors getting into the immortality industry.
“I think there will always be a debate or drive of humanity on how we will solve the issue. Firstly, we will become amortal [pursuing a lifestyle that defies the process of aging], but we could still fall off a car or train and die. Eventually, we will become immortal and able to put our conscience in another being or hard drive,” he says.
According to the global anti-aging market research report by Orbis Research, a leading market research company, the anti-aging market is expected to reach $331.41 billion by 2021.
“The industry is exploding in size. I have seen a 1,000 percent increase in the last 18 months in investment in life extension research and technology. Everybody realizes that if life extension can fulfil its promise, many new billionaires will be made,” says Sanei.
According to Sanei, the worldwide pharmaceutical market surpassed $1.1 trillion in 2016. In 2018, the top 10 pharmaceutical companies alone are projected to generate over $355 billion in revenue.
The problem is, according to Sanei, it currently costs more than $2.5 billion, sometimes up to $12 billion, and takes over 10 years to bring a new drug to market.
“Nine out of 10 drugs entering phase one clinical trials will never reach patients. As the population ages, we don’t have time to rely on this slow costly production rate. Some 12 percent of the world population will be 65 or older by 2030, and diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s will pose increasingly greater challenges to society,” he says.
Although there are billions being poured into the longevity economy, many ventures have not made money.
“Very little revenue was made in the last few years…However, most life extension and longevity companies are not trying to get quick products to the market. They are searching for the holy grail of medicine: a pill or a therapy to overcome aging. This product, if successful, could generate hundreds of billions of dollars. A few billion people may end up using it eventually,” says Zoltan Istvan, a politician and former journalist who narrowly escaped death and is now trying to prove we can live longer.
While working as a journalist in Vietnam for the National Geographic channel, he almost stepped on a landmine in the jungle. It was such a nerve-racking experience he dedicated the rest of his life to overcoming death.
“It’s hard to pin down what the industry is actually worth, since so many new medicines and robotic parts are not for sale yet and are in development. But I would venture to say that some of the life extension founders and CEOs may eventually become some of the first trillionaires on the planet. If they are successful, they will be able to sell their products to virtually every person on the planet, since almost everybody wants to live longer,” Istvan tells FORBES AFRICA.
According to him, there are only a few reliable medical regenerative products on the market today.
“A few pills are coming in the one-two year pipelines that are FDA-approved and will help people live longer. But there’s an expectation that within five to seven years, an enormous amount of products will hit the market. The problem is which products are ‘snake oil’ products that aren’t FDA approved, and which are really useful for making people live longer. This will take a discerning consumer to know the difference,” he says.
Istvan loves life. His father died last year due to old age.
“Some life extensionists are afraid of death. Not me. I just love life, and since I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s imperative I make the life I have here on earth last as long as possible — hopefully forever. Death is terrible. It’s forever. I’m haunted by it. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m haunted by my life disappearing forever — of there being no more existence of me,” he says. Istvan predicts we will gain a free year for every year we live past 2020.
“That is how fast the technology of anti-aging is developing. But at some point of this J-curve chart of life extension and living longer, humans hit a point — probably in 25 years or so — when technology and radical science simply overcome all our biological issues, and then we will live indefinitely or at least hundreds of years.”
He says hospitals may have to shut their doors.
“Medical care will go the way of the dinosaurs. At some point in the next 25 years, humans will have such good medicine and science, that pharma companies, hospitals, and doctors will begin to realize they are no longer needed. It won’t happen overnight, but by the end of this century, there will be 90% less hospitals,” he says.
It would mean life extension would have arrived. Right now, we think of medicine in terms of managing disease and how old we are. But in the future, according to Istvan, we will think in terms of getting rid of all disease and physical discomfort forever.
De Grey disagrees.
He says the only difference from the hospitals now will be that most of what hospitals will give you will be preventative.
“All it will shift is the way we think about that fictitious concept that we currently call ‘aging’ itself. We will understand that there is no such thing …,” says De Grey.
What about Africa’s existing problems?
Some argue that in Africa, however, private healthcare is expensive and government hospitals are struggling to treat people, let alone fund aging research.
De Grey, however, says there is still far too much early-life mortality in Africa, more than in the rest of the world – but as of 2015, not a single country in the whole world, including Africa, had a life-expectancy below 50.
“Therefore, Africa is catching up, which, of course, means that it is on course to have the same age-related health crisis that the industrialized world already has. Thus, it is highly timely that African nations should start to pull their weight in this space.”
Baron says should the lifespan of people increase, we will have bigger problems such as the ever-increasing population, further decline in food and water sources, and large economic transformations that will need to happen.
“[These] problems are already of major concern today and should be addressed before we consider further burdening our already limited resources,” she says.
Istvan sees it another way.
He says if people think they will live hundreds of years, they may not have children or even get married in the first 100 years of their lives.
“This of course will help with the overpopulation issue, and have significant structural ramification for society and human culture.”
There is another challenge. Life extension is most likely to broaden inequality. We may have a world where the super-rich can cheat death while the poor continue to die.
“The problem, of course, is that only the rich Africans will benefit at first. And this will be a hard fact to swallow for those people that live in poverty in Africa,” says Istvan.
De Grey however argues that such treatments will be for free.
“Keeping people healthy pays for itself so spectacularly fast that it would be economically suicidal for any country not to make the necessary investment to ensure that access is not limited by ability to pay. Today’s high-tech medicine for the elderly is not an informative precedent at all, because it doesn’t work – it doesn’t keep people healthy,” he says.
Istvan however further argues that it’s unlikely that a single pill will make people immortal. He says it’s likely to come in a combination of treatments and bionic organ replacements.
“It’s likely to take years of genetic treatments, shots or IV drugs, and organ replacement surgeries. At first, when this starts happening in 10 or 20 years, it will probably cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars, if not millions,” he says.
Longevity would mean a world where the global economy will surge, as people will be able to work much longer and stay younger much longer. Permanent retirement may be a thing of the past and people may be able to do multiple careers over hundreds of years.
Longevity’s impact on savings
If you live into your 100s and are as strong as you were in your 30s or 40s, you will still be a part of the working population.
“Extending the human lifespan by 30 years and postponing the current retirement age would generate a massive global GDP boost,” predicts Sanei.
Currently, people retire at about 60 years old. If people continue to live far longer, this will be at the peak of their earning capability.
According to Alexander Forbes, a financial services group headquartered in Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa, retirement savings in South Africa currently amount to R4.4 trillion ($300 billion).
“[It’s] an accumulation of assets that could only have been reached because of policymakers’ insistence that if an employer does offer a retirement fund (or funds) to employees, it is mandatory for all employees to participate in the fund,” it says in its Benefits Barometer report in 2017.
This number is expected to grow as people continue to live longer. South Africa has 4.4 million people over 60 and 2.9 million over 65. According to the report, by 2050, the total population over 60 is projected to be over 6.4 million.
Sanlam, a financial services group based in South Africa, says longevity is a blessing and burden. For its centenary celebrations, the group is focusing on answering longevity questions. Through its advert, the company uses a 10-year-old ambassador to ask questions like, ‘if the person who will live to 200 has already been born, would they stay younger for longer or get older later? How long will they study for? At what age will they retire? How many jobs will they have? Will they choose the same partner for life? How many kids will they have? Will anything come with a lifetime guarantee? How would you plan for a financial future?’
“As a future thinking organization, we wanted to look into the future. We believe in long-term planning. Already, South Africans can’t retire comfortably. Only 6% South Africans retire comfortably so we had to make sure people think about the future,” says Sanlam’s marketing chief, Mariska Oosthuizen, to FORBES AFRICA.
Mikel Moyo, co-founder of Mphato & Associates, a tax consultancy firm in South Africa, says traditional financial planning speaks to retiring at age 65. Living longer means longer working lives.
“It’s is a scary thought,” says Moyo.
“Try speaking to a 30-year-old about retirement planning. The typical response is ‘65 years is 35 years away, why do I need to save now’. What people do not understand is they only have 12 pay cheques per year. This means they only have 12 opportunities to live the life they want to live, to pay for all their obligations and save for retirement. They do not have that perspective. So the rational prediction is that if people currently think 30 years after retirement is long, what happens when it’s an extra 100 years?” According to Moyo, we don’t communicate well about finances as Africans.
“We need to be able to talk about money and speak out against every bad behavior if we are to survive. If we are to live longer, we have to understand ourselves.”
Anne Cabot-Alletzhauser, Head of the Research Institute at Alexander Forbes, says longevity means the financial industry has to break away from the notion that you have to retire at a certain age.
“One of the biggest mistakes we have made in South Africa is that we would retire people at the age of 60 or 62 to make way for youth to rise up to senior positions much faster. But in fact, research shows you that you will get better productivity by having people with more experience…You can get transformation without retiring people with experience,” she says.
According to the Alexander Forbes report, there has been a rise in the number of elderly who are bread winners. Between 1996 and 2011, this number increased from 1.7 million to about 2.9 million households.
“Elderly people also appear to be continuing to work later in life. This could be because of economic pressure to continue generating an income, or it may be a reflection of a global trend: educated individuals are beginning to see that they still have value to offer professionally, even if they have hit some arbitrary cut-off date.”
She adds that people make assumptions that as you get older, you become an economic burden to the country.
“We need to change our attitude towards healthcare because the healthcare you give to someone past the age of 60 is completely different to the one you give to someone younger…If you get it right, you significantly reduce the cost of healthcare which is one of the biggest fears of what is going to happen if longevity increases.”
She says the biggest challenge for financial planning is post retirement because you have no idea of what is going to happen to your health.
According to her, quality-care of the elderly exists in the communities, not retirement homes.
“We have had a nice situation whereby adults take care of their children and the children grow up and take care of the elderly,” she says.
The problem is, according to Cabot-Alletzhauser, the financial services industry uses first-world solutions to try solving third-world problems.
“I have a real problem with the financial services industry. It is touted to be first-world quality, and indeed it is, but it solves first-world problems…The insights it has applies maybe to the top 5% of the population.”
She says retirement savings is not a priority for South Africans.
“Most South Africans work, take their income home and take care of their siblings and even grandparents. That’s our modern reality…We don’t have a stable middle class in South Africa. People enter the middle class by virtue of what their income is but they don’t stay there because they immediately get into credit problems…We aren’t focusing on how we create stability during the journey and jumped to retirement,” she says.
Instead of saving for retirement, Cabot-Alletzhauser, says she would support investing in property.
“If they have a house, when they retire, they can rent some of the rooms and make an income…There is a mistaken notion that you are going to retire at 60 and then live to 120. People will keep working if they are to live to 120. I am 69 and I am still capable of working and will continue working.”
Preserving and reviving dead people?
Finland-based entrepreneur Filip Poutintsev first heard about the concept of aging when he was three years old.
“I was playing with my grandfather and suddenly asked him ‘why are you so old?’. His reply was very straight forward: ‘we all get old’. After hearing that, I started crying hysterically, as at that point I realized for the first time that I too will get old,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
At about age 12, his teacher told him about cryonics – deep-freezing the bodies of people who have just died, in the hope that scientific advances may allow them to be revived in the future.
“For me, that was like a light at the end of the tunnel. There was finally hope that I may not have to die.”
His curiosity about life and aging grew. He decided he wanted to be frozen after death but was appalled by the limited research in the industry. It compelled him to actively engage.
“I remember reading a few years ago an article about immortality that stated that if we spent as much money on life extension research as we spend on whitening our teeth, we would already be immortal. This was kind of a wakeup call for me. I realized deep inside that if I do nothing and just wait I might not make it to the time biological immortality is possible,” he says.
He founded the Immortality Foundation, which tries to create visibility and attention for anti-aging, longevity and life extension research.
“You see aging is a physical process, and the aging of humans is not different than the aging of a car, it’s just more difficult to fix.”
Breakthrough doesn’t mean everyone with access will live long. Poutintsev says once we eliminate death caused by aging and age-related diseases such as cancer, the biggest cause of death will be accidents, as our bodies will still be vulnerable to physical damage.
“If you want to live to 1,000 years, you need to be very careful not to die in traffic accidents for example. Actually, if we look at modern day statistics on death, we can calculate that even if we will become biologically immortal, our chance to live for 1,000 years is only 60%, due to all sorts of accidents,” he says.
The study of cryonics is growing rapidly.
“The process of cryopreservation involves cooling a legally-dead person to liquid nitrogen temperature where all physical decay essentially stops – with the goal of preserving tissues, organs and especially the brain with its associated memories and personality as perfectly as possible,” says the Cryonics Institute on its website.
A person held in this state is called a cryopreserved patient.
“We do not consider the legal definition of ‘death’ as a permanently irreversible state. We believe that the incredible advances being made today in biology, medicine, computers, nanotechnology and much more, inevitably point to a future where advanced science will be able to revive these patients and restore them to health and even renewed youth.”
There are more than hundreds of cryopreserved patients across the world, says the institute. And it’s costly.
A minimum whole-body suspension costs $28,000 at the Cryonics Institute. Other companies charge more.
For example, the same procedure reportedly costs $200,000 at Alcor4, $155,000 at the American Cryonics Society, $36,000 at KrioRus and $150,000 at Trans Time.
Just as vaccines, surgeries, sterilization and antibiotics ushered in a new age of longevity, new technologies like robotics will expand it further.
“Humans are slowly becoming cyborgs with artificial hips, dentures, and soon will replace all their organs with better performing bionic ones. So it’s quite possible that overpopulation won’t really affect the world, as humans will be machines, and can do things like interplanetary travel as well as only use sunlight to run their bodies, and not food or water or oxygen,” says the futurist Istvan.
There is also an impact for the geriatrics industry.
“I hope that in geriatrics, we will still maintain the ‘human’ part of interacting with patients, instead of everyone just ‘plugging in’ like a robot, says Coetzer.
Sanei agrees. He says most people he speaks to say they never want to become a cyborg but we will naturally become robot-like.
“Let’s go back to the beginning when humans developed the earliest technologies – fire and stone tools. These tools gave people new capabilities, and became extensions of our physical bodies. As we move into the future, we are not even going to notice becoming part-machine, because it’s going to be a sensible thing to do at each point in the journey,” says Sanei.
Tech billionaires like Google co-founder Sergey Brin are already working on combating aging in the longevity labs of the west. African entrepreneurs have begun to see the merit of such research. One of them is 41-year-old Dr Danny Meyersfeld.
“I love research and being in the lab but there comes a point where you need a clean break from academia otherwise you will be there for the rest of your life,” he says.
We meet him at his offices in Illovo in Sandton. He has invited us to see the DNA-testing in his lab. Meyersfeld is the founder of DNAlysis Biotechnology.
Here, his team conducts different tests – for weight management, disease management, sports performance, skin health, skin-aging and cognitive health.
Dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt, he tells us how he started the business in 2008.
“I had a PhD in Molecular Biology and I didn’t know what to do with it…At the time, we wanted to bring biotech advancement to the South African healthcare environment and to bridge the knowledge gap that exists between academia and the consumer. There is a wealth of knowledge and research that sits in publications and academia that never gets to the people. If research is not done to make a difference to the average human, then what’s the point,” says Meyersfeld.
His idea wasn’t easy to sell.
“For the South African market, I think we were about five years too early for these types of tests. We were this lone voice trying to sell a product but also trying to educate and create a market for something that hadn’t existed before,” he says.
The advantage was having examples from the US and European market. They were able to learn from the mistakes of those companies to find the right model.
“But the challenge was still a lack of awareness of these types of technologies especially with healthcare practitioners because that’s where our market was. We didn’t want to go straight to the consumer; we wanted to work with dieticians and doctors so genetics can be a daily part of their work.”
According to Meyersfeld, longevity is possible but it’s more about being healthy and understanding your DNA.
“I would rather live to 90 and maintain my health than live to 120 and suffer for the last 20 years,” he says.
Anti-aging in the beauty business
Dr Reza Mia is the Chief Operating Officer at Anti-Aging Art, a medical aesthetic and wellness center focusing on minimally invasive anti-aging and cosmetic treatments.
“People kept coming to me and saying, ‘aren’t you a doctor, don’t you do botox, don’t you do fillers and I went and did the courses to satisfy that need. Slowly, they kept coming and bringing their brothers, sisters, friends until it became a full-time job,” says Mia.
According to Mia, the industry is growing.
“In South Africa, because it started a bit late, it’s growing faster than the rest of the world. We are normally fully-booked but we try to add doctors to take care of that demand.”
The company says it serves 500 to 600 clients every month. They are 60% women and 40% men, ranging from teenagers to people over 80. Patients pay R3,000 ($205) on average per visit.
“Mostly, people want to fix tiny problems like frown lines and sagging faces. A lot of the time, it’s small things that make them self-conscious, like sweating too much on the face and underarms. Sometimes, they just want maintenance work all over the body,” says Mia.
She says one of the challenges is a lack of the right regulations.
“We see a lot of practices opening up not owned by doctors and they obviously don’t know about the ethics…It’s hurting the industry because people are seeing other people looking unnatural and they think that’s what fillers do.”
Mia wants to expand the business, through franchising, to Tanzania and Dubai in the near future.
The quest for immortality may be very much in the future, but these futurists, doctors and scientists believe that with technology, we are irresistibly closer to finding a cure for aging than we have ever been before.
Never say die.
The Madhvanis: The Industrialists Who Have Tasted Sucrose And Success
The Madhvanis started with sugar and now lead diversified global businesses. In a rare interview from their home base of Kakira in Uganda, Mayur and Kamlesh Madhvani, the Joint Managing Directors of the Madhvani Group, share a century-old tale of extraordinary family enterprise and how they are continuing the legacy of their forefathers.
It’s a bumpy 100km drive from the Ugandan capital of Kampala to the town of Kakira in the east. Past the swaying sugarcane plantations and green hillocks and roundabouts intermittently featuring the words ‘Madhvani’ and ‘Sugar’ that announce you have arrived, a tranquil avenue, immaculately lined by pine trees and acacia, leads to Kakira.
From this little town, an international empire was built, with a reach in far and distant lands. To this little town, have many a cavalcade, bearing presidents and global business tycoons, made its way.
At the sugar factory that is the pulsating heart of Kakira, the quiet of the verdant landscape rapidly gives way to the deafening sound of production.
The sound of enterprise, the sound of African industry.
Close to the equator and Jinja, the source of the Nile, I am in the ‘cane yard’ of Kakira Sugar Limited, watching giant machines noisily swallow up truckloads of sugarcane and crush them into pulp.
READ MORE | Uganda Sees 11% Growth In Sugar Output This Year
Under the sweltering African sun, these monsters, also known as feeder tables, are four in number around me, relentlessly chopping tons of sugarcane fed by a long line of at least 400 trucks piled high with unruly cane stalks gathered from the fields in this eastern corner of Uganda.
This is the back-end and the beginning of a well-oiled factory process that will eventually turn sugarcane into foamy rivers of juice and finally sugar.
The entire process, from feeder table to sugar crystal, is completed in eight hours, resulting in bags of refined sugar at the other end.
Inside the factory, even the air is calorific, with the saccharine-sweet smell of sugar – and success. The factory is the soul of the 14,000-hectare Kakira Sugar Estate, which provides a livelihood to some 9,300 direct employees, and sugar to the rest of Uganda and East Africa.
It is the core business of The Madhvani Group, Uganda’s biggest sugar producer. And everything within a 10km radius from here, belongs to the group.
Generations of the Madhvani family have been based in Kakira, and much has happened here over the last century: success, strife, destruction and resurrection.
It all started in 1908, when at the age of 14, the family’s venerable patriarch, Mujlibhai Madhvani undertook the long and arduous journey from India to Uganda, to join his uncles Vithaldas and Kalidas Haridas in their shop in Iganga. By the time he was 20, Mujlibhai was tasked with opening and managing a shop in Jinja, a town at the source of the Nile River.
The waters ran deep in his veins as he was determined to make a success of his enterprise. He was appointed the Managing Director of Vithaldas Haridas & Company, which in 1918, bought around 800 acres of land in Kakira. The sugar factory subsequently started operating here in 1930, with a cane crushing capacity of 150 tons per day.
Mujlibhai built his empire on sugarcane, and laid the foundation for Kakira’s development, also empowering the communities within. Kakira grew around the factory and family home.
Soon, Mujlibhai Madhvani & Co. was also manufacturing sweets, soap, cooking oil, ghee, tea, margarine and pastry shortening. It also made cotton and became the agents for imported goods such as Goodyear tyres.
The late Manubhai, Mujlibhai’s second son, writes in his book, Tide of Fortune, an account of the family’s tale, with British author Giles Foden: “My father was the first person in Jinja to own a radio, which he bought in 1938. He purchased a record player in 1940 and soon afterwards, he became the proud owner of a 9.5mm film projector. His love of cars led him to purchase an extremely expensive powder-blue Buick, as well as an Oldsmobile.”
After Mujlibhai’s death in 1958, his eldest son, Jayantbhai, took over the business. Manubhai worked closely with him. By 1970, the Madhvani Group, according to Tide of Fortune, was at its peak with rapid annual growth of at least one new manufacturing unit a year. Manubhai says of his brother Jayantbhai: “I admired his humility and his commitment not only to serve the family, but also the community at large.”
And he further pens: “How did we select the industries we were expanding into? It was a combination of two or three policies, really. The first was to seek vertical integration. If you make beer, you will need bottles, so why not manufacture them and some plastic crates as well?”
Unfortunately, for the Madhvani family, tragedy struck when Jayantbhai died of a massive heart attack in 1971.
Politically too, Uganda’s destiny was changing.
When Idi Amin came to power in 1971, Manubhai was thrown into the Makindye military prison, an infamous hell hole, by the ruler for 21 days. The Madhvanis, along with the rest of the Asians living in Uganda, were notoriously expelled by Amin in 1972. The family relocated to London and then Kenya.
The sugar mill operation, which was producing 83,000 tons of sugar and contributing to 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was destroyed, looted and run down.
“Production had been at a standstill since the end of 1983 and the great hangar where sugar had once been produced was now a home to birds and animals,” says a line in Manubhai’s book.
When Amin was toppled, the Madhvanis returned, to the vestiges of their farm and factory, and a family squabble, with a segment of the family taking over the business in 1980.
The property was returned and the process of recovery started in 1985, with Manubhai and Mayur, Mujlibhai’s youngest son.
“When you repossess assets that are completely destroyed and run down, there is obviously a great emotional side to this,” says Mayur, the Madhvani Group’s Joint Managing Director, when we meet him in his offices at the Kakira sugar factory on a sun-filled afternoon in March.
The offices he shares with his nephew and Joint Managing Director, Kamlesh, Manubhai’s elder son, are adorned with tasteful MF Husain paintings, family memorabilia and redolent with the smell of incense. The British-educated Mayur, wearing a crisp white linen shirt, warmly invites us to his office space.
“For us, it was not so much a business decision, I think it was more of an emotional decision but it ran into the business arena because we knew that once the industry would come up, there would be growth,” continues Mayur about the challenging 1980s.
Kamlesh, 64, who joined the business a few years later, and is the younger of the two, chips in: “Kakira is where the roots of the family are. What we learned very quickly was that it is far easier to build something new than to rehabilitate something that is in total disrepair. It is not only the physical assets but also the mentality of the people.”
They had to work hard to return it to the glory days of the past.
“When we were here before 1972, we had connections with a lot of leaders. Mrs Indira Gandhi visited us, and also the Kennedys; they all used to visit Kakira. Martin Luther King was here, to meet my brother. My father of course is the pioneer. I mean if you look at the way the estate is laid out, it was this man in the early 1950s that laid it out,” recalls Mayur.
Today, the Madhvani Group is one of the biggest diversified private-sector businesses in Uganda, with assets of $750 million for the Kakira sugar business, producing 180,000 tons of sugar, 74,000 tons of molasses and 22 million liters of ethanol.
The sugar factory also makes green electricity. Very little of the sugarcane is wasted. The fiber from the process, or the bagasse residue, is burned in large boilers to generate steam that drives the turbines.
The facility also generates 51MW of electricity daily and of that, sells 32MW to the national grid, “enough to light up Kampala”, says Mayur. This is one of the biggest bagasse co-generation power plants in Africa.
A tour of the sprawling factory is rounded off with a visit to a storage warehouse with mountains of 50kg sugar bags, stacked from floor to ceiling at any given time, ready to be hauled onto waiting trucks.
At an altitude of about 4,000ft, Kakira is lush, fertile territory offering year-round harvest. The sugar factory stops only for a month every year for maintenance. It processes its own cane but also buys from the farmers, or the out-growers, living outside the nucleus of the estate. This is an association built from Mujlibhai’s time.
“There was a genuine affection when we came back [in 1985]. But it was very nice to say the Madhvanis are back but the Madhvanis are not magicians,” recounts Mayur. “It takes a lot of hard work and strategizing, and with government support (President Yoweri Museveni was newly elected at the time), we managed, through our small efforts, to instil in him, the aspect of business not necessarily being a bad thing. He was the one that allowed us to move forward and put this company right and pay taxes.” Fast forward to now, and the group’s focus continues to be to build its core businesses.
It is commencing a new $150 million sugar project in the northern district of Uganda named Amuru, working closely with the government. It has a sugar project in Rwanda, and projects in South Sudan and Tanzania are also on the cards.
“If you are manufacturing food commodities, it’s going to grow and this is the bread basket of the world. The Ugandans went through hell with Idi Amin but you never heard about famine because we can put anything in the ground here. We are so blessed,” says Mayur.
Cashing in on the salubrious climate and natural resources, another focus area for the group is tourism. There are nine lodges that it currently operates in Africa including in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.
One of the ways in which it opts to stay relevant is with partnerships.
“In the past, we used to think we can run [the business] ourselves and have those old-fashioned conglomerates. Those days are gone. You need to tap into the international market and get good world-class partners to work with and work with the right value for the African context,” offers Kamlesh.
And this applies to management as well, to further professionalize what is a family-run business.
“Most businesses that have started have been family businesses, if you look at Walmart, Ford, etc. But what you have to do is move away from the family business and let it become a little bit more professionalized,” adds Mayur.
“You want to avoid falling into the trap where the first generation creates, the second generation enjoys and the third generation destroys. We are the second generation moving to the third. The Madhvanis have broken the mould, but now [it’s not] for us to think we are infallible. We need to set up something that other family businesses can emulate, and follow other families that have succeeded in this. For that, you need to have a business that is professionally-run, yet have the family involved to give direction and not lose total touch or control.”
For this reason, the group mandatorily organizes three meetings a year in Bermuda, attended by family members and stakeholders.
But why this location in the Atlantic Ocean, far from Kakira? “We set up our companies in Bermuda in 1958, so we have been there some serious years now,” says Mayur. “In those days, perhaps it’s correct to say Bermuda was a tax haven, but now, the corporate tax structures have changed. Bermuda becomes a good venue because it is one of those tax havens that is also respected by various jurisdictions and for us, it is a historical fact that we were based in Bermuda. Our boards are all there.”
In Bermuda, the family also meets with members not actively involved in the business. Even the youngsters who are a part of the business have to report on their activities.
“We present our reports to the family and I think the secret that myself and Kamlesh are looking at is that the business has to be such that it survives this turmoil of create, enjoy and destroy and there is transparency. The secret is transparency. The more transparency you have in a business, the more likely it is going to survive the long-term because then individuals are not allowed to mess up the day-to-day control systems,” says Mayur.
“Leadership is something that you grow into by an accident of life. I am not the oldest of this family. I have two brothers but they are much older. Kamlesh’s dad, and my elder brother Jayant, sort of had the experience of my father. So did Pratap and Sur, my elder brothers and then things changed. We came back here and I worked closely with Kamlesh’s father and he had a lot of knowledge and I had the advantage I had. We got on as a team wonderfully, and in any business, you always need the ying and the yang. Kamlesh and I work very closely but you will find that each one of us is very good in certain aspects of the business. That is so important.”
As Joint Managing Directors, their offices are adjacent to each other.
“We have this little window and we shout at each other or talk to each other whenever we want,” laughs Mayur.
“We are more like brothers, but he is still my nephew. As children, when we were at boarding school in the United Kingdom, his mother was always worried and I had to look out for him.”
Looking ahead, the Madhvani Group plans to produce rum, vodka and gin, predominantly for the export market. All of these are by-products of the same crop – sugarcane. The distillery at the estate produces 22 million liters of Extra Neutral Alcohol or ethanol a year.
“Sugar is the main product, [but] it’s quite possible in the time to come that some of these other activities from the by-products will become the main product. Such as electricity and alcohol… We are even putting up a plant for carbonated waters coming up next year,” says Mayur.
But Uganda, a part of the East African Community (EAC), has a population of about 45 million and a poor rating score in the EAC when it comes to corruption. Surely, that’s discouraging for investors?
“The biggest problem we have in Africa is nearly 58% of the population is below the age of 30 and these individuals really do not want to hear about the wars because it is history. They are looking to see Africa catapult itself to another level. What the businessman needs is political stability and structured legal systems so that you feel comfortable doing your activity and I think [that is the only way] you will see Africa grow,” says Mayur.
“And yes, we do have corruption; it is endemic, you have corruption in every country. You have got to stop it. You have to have the right systems in place and you have to have total transparency on how businesses are conducted. Countries have gone through these stages and I think you have got to make an effort to try and eliminate corruption actively, without lip service. Now, action needs to be taken. If you look at Rwanda, it has progressed amazingly. As a businessman, what I have seen is the efficiency in which the government works, and the government takes decisions very pragmatically. That is the kind of model one needs to follow.”
At this point, Kamlesh interjects to say decisions taken must be implemented too.
“It leads to frustration. In Uganda, you have the President who has tremendous vision, and his vision towards the private sector driving the economy becoming the engine of the economy is absolutely spot-on, but there is no follow up,” agrees Mayur.
As in other countries of the EAC, in Uganda too, private-public partnerships may be the way forward and it takes effort from the private sector to lead that charge.
“The politics of Africa is very similar. Leadership is important but then [you have to] have growth cycles driven by the private sector. I remember there was a time when in Uganda, prior to the expulsion of the Asians in 1972, to do business was criminal. If you were a businessman, you were regarded as a crook. Today, it is instilled that everyone should do business; business is a good thing. There are positive changes.”
The Madhvani Group’s sugar project in Amuru, in northern Uganda, for example, will be owned 51% by the government and 49% by the group and it will be managing it.
“Eventually, the government will offload the shares to the general public, but I think it is important for all private sector businesses to try to involve the community, the population around you,” says Mayur.
“Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta gave a good analogy when we left Uganda. He said ‘in the case of you Madhvani, you are the tree and the tree has fruit and if you share the fruit with the local community, the tree will get water’… For instance, we make the products, but we don’t do the distribution, we allow the others, we have our out-growers.”
“The farmers benefit more, we have a very successful joint venture NGO with them,” adds Kamlesh. “Essentially, we convinced the farmers to contribute a certain amount of money which we will also contribute and this money goes to finance roads, clinics, health facilities and orphanages. This is one quite unique experiment. The farmers have voluntarily sort of parted with money.”
For farmers like 48-year-old Naitema Godfrey, who owns 48 acres of land and has been an out-grower for the Madhvani Group for the last 15 years, sugarcane is everything. Calling himself a “sugarcane millionaire”, he says: “The food crop has given us money, power, sugar and electricity.”
Another out-grower, Robert Waako, who has been supplying sugarcane to the Madhvanis for the last 26 years, says he has been able to put his six children through school and college; four of them are software engineers today.
On the cards for the Madhvani Group is a possible listing in the future. The group also operates properties in India, and is big on religious tourism with hotels in famous pilgrimage sites.
“Indians are very religious, they go to these sites, but don’t have a good place to stay. We built a beautiful four-star hotel in Tirupati. We are now opening one in Bodh Gaya, and we have in Rajkot. At Rishikesh, we have the land, and we are looking at Shirdi and Benares. They are all in the pipeline.”
Back home in Uganda, the group are also big in packaging and steel.
The discovery of oil in the country has made investors and the private sector sit up to the opportunities to fund development.
The Madhvanis are also keen to hop on to the bandwagon.
“We are looking for good partners to work with. We have our infrastructure companies, also working on the logistics side,” offers Mayur, but says Africa’s real strength is the green economy.
“I think oil is overplayed, and is not going to solve our problems. I think oil brings problems in itself, from an environmental point of view and the point of view of not becoming too reliant on this one product. Look at Nigeria and Saudi Arabia; they are all looking at alternatives now. The one thing you have got to remember in Africa is we have the weather, and we have vast tracks of land that are fertile. I think Africa can be a great grain basket for the world.”
The next generation of the Madhvanis are in line to take the company to the future. Mayur’s 34-year-old daughter Tanya, who is based in Rome, is responsible for managing the hotel business.
His nephew Ronnie was tasked with reviving the packaging business and he has built it into “a multi-million enterprise through his creativity and marketing efforts”.
The caveat is that family members who are involved in the business must contribute to its growth. Kamlesh and Mayur too came up learning the ropes the hard way.
“We have enough youngsters in business. But just employing family members for the sake of employing them and giving them a posh office is totally wrong and it hasn’t worked. What you have to do is contribute, and when you do, you also get a share of the success as an individual,” says Mayur.
“Basically, we are all fortunate we had good role models to follow. If you read my father’s book, you will know we had our own turmoil in the family. Kakira did not come to us and say ‘here is the key’; we had to fight for it. We had to fight for it from other family members as well. We are not the perfect family; we had to prove ourselves [in addition to] the passion we had [for the business]. That is the type of determination that made it work,” says Kamlesh.
“We started at zero…” adds Mayur.
Today, the family members all have their own businesses too, and in different countries. “I have my own companies. Kamlesh has his. I have vast real estate in Orlando, we all have assets in Europe, North America and India. But we have been taught to be low-profile,” says Mayur.
The family live in bungalows near the factory in Kakira, minutes from each other. There is nowhere else they would rather be. They have their own airstrip and private planes.
“This is utopia for us,” says Kamlesh.
Succession planning is key in ensuring the Madhvani legacy lives on. Mayur is cognizant of this truism.
“We have reached an age where we know the inevitable is coming. We have to witness the change so we can actually guide that change to some extent, rather than create a vacuum and arrive at a situation where there is no smooth handover,” he says.
“We will have to leave that to the next generation. The important thing is to make sure that whatever business that we have, we maintain a world-class lead in them. Today, our sugar factory is the most modern in the world, and more and more we are moving towards automation, and everybody is going to still need sugar,” says Kamlesh.
“In the end, you don’t work for the money, you work for the passion of it all.” The bags and packets of sugar that go out of this little town of Kakira are testament to the fertile bounties of the land, and the story of a family from India that, through enterprise, resilience and industry, found its fortune in the fields in a beautiful corner of Africa.
Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent
The New Wealth Creators is the first of its kind list by FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Herein is a collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.
These 20 women have been selected because they have created significant impact in their respective sectors by transforming a market or company, or innovating a product or service, and are pioneering their organization(s) in generating new untapped streams of income.
These women come from across the continent, from the villages and the suburbs, and are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. They have all adopted sustainable development initiatives in one way or another to help solve Africa’s problems.
They may be wealth creators but their businesses, ironically, did not stem from a need to make money, but rather from the need to solve Africa’s persisting socio-economic challenges.
Economically empowering women has shown to boost productivity. It increases economic diversification and income equality, in addition to other positive developmental outcomes.
Simply put, when more women work, economies are likely to grow.
FORBES WOMAN AFRICA put in months of rigorous research, searching near and far for these inspirational entrepreneurs.
We took into account their business model, new ideas, potential, struggles, social impact, growth, influence, resilience and most importantly, their innovation.
Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA last year at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “Innovation [is] becoming the cornerstone for our economy going forward.”
As Africa’s population is reported to increase by 53% by 2100, according to the United Nations, new solutions must be created in order for us to keep up.
One question remains: can Africa translate its significant population growth into economic development, and invest this wealth to improve the quality of life?
Entrepreneurship could very well be the answer, or at least, one of the answers.
Last year, the Founder and Chair of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma paid Africa a visit to discuss tangible investment and technology development.
He encouraged African entrepreneurs to take giant leaps in solving the challenges facing the continent and to take advantage of the digital economy.
He said that opportunities lie where people complain.
And these women, through their businesses, have identified just that.
Vijay Tirathrai, director of the Techstars Dubai Accelerator, shared the same sentiments with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“The new wealth creators, for me, are entrepreneurs who are very conscious about finding solutions in the market place, but from a lens of having social impact or having impacted the environment,” he says.
Tirathrai believes that while servicing consumers, new wealth creators are also “making a safer and a greener planet in the process, eliminating diseases, improving health conditions and advocating for equality for women”.
Women on the African continent have been making headway as drivers of change, and in many ways, they embody new wealth.
They are the true wealth.
As FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, we seek to celebrate such women.
Through this list, money is no longer the central indicator of new wealth creation.
It is about job creation, contributing to healthy societies, recycling waste, giving agency to those who are financially excluded and developing solutions for some of the socio-economic problems we grapple with.
These women may all come from different places but they are bound together by one common thread, and that is the thread of new wealth creation.
This compilation is innovative, exciting, inspiring and shows what businesses of the future may look like.
Meet the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA New Wealth Creators of 2019.
The list on the pages that follow is in no particular order.
-Curated by: Unathi Shologu
The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him
It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.
Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.
The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few.
A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.
The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”
His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.
In 1992, he did.
“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.
On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.
Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.
“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”
Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.
The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.
For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest.
“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.
From this exercise an important lesson was learned.
“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”
Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.
Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.
“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”
“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.
Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.
“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.
The rationale for diversification
What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.
Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”
The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.
“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”
The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.
“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”
‘Reputation very important’
But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.
Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.
Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.
Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.
Analogue to digital
Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.
Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz.
“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”
From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.
In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.
Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.
But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”
The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.
“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.
The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.
“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.
“When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”
Philanthropy, education and inclusion
It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.
The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.
In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.
The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:
“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”
It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.
“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.
In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.
The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.
His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.
Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.
His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.
“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.
“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.
Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.
“Ylias Akbaraly’s reputation precedes him,” says Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Goulet says the work Akbaraly does “has crossed oceans and France admires him. He knows how to share his knowledge and is a special kind of businessman”.
Goulet lauds Akbaraly’s altruistic approach to business, in particular his relationship to the youth and refers to him as “socially responsible and someone who loves his country very much”.
“He is someone who is open to the world. The personal touch he brings to his approach makes him unique. You can tell he loves his family, and society,” she says.
Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”
Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”
Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many. “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”
“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.
“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.
“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire
-With inputs from Unathi Shologu
Airbnb Leads $160 Million Investment Into Hospitality Startup Lyric
Controlling The Ledger: The World’s Largest Financial Firms Embrace Blockchain
A Statement On The Skyline
Re-constructing Johannesburg The City Of Opportunity
Here’s How The US Claims The Assange-Manning Conspiracy Worked
- Entrepreneurs3 weeks ago
African Curricula That Mean Business
- Cover Story2 weeks ago
The Madhvanis: The Industrialists Who Have Tasted Sucrose And Success
- Billionaires3 weeks ago
The World’s Most Generous Billionaires Outside Of The US
- Brand Voice3 weeks ago
Eswatini: A Global Fortress of Innovation and Tradition
- Arts3 weeks ago
Inside Nipsey Hussle’s Blueprint To Become A Real Estate Mogul
- Entrepreneurs3 weeks ago
Her Brush With Business
- Lists2 weeks ago
The 10 Most Notable New Billionaires Of 2019
- Entrepreneurs3 weeks ago
$10 million for Africa’s next great entrepreneurs