This is the story of businessman Ronnie Apteker, his money and his expensive passion. A man sharp enough to get in early on the internet boom in Africa’s biggest economy; a man wise enough to have sold out before the market became crowded, three years later, for $55 million. He doesn’t know how much he is worth, but does admit he never has to work again.
This is also a man who has lost nearly $7 million in 11 years, chasing the elusive dream of fathering a blockbuster movie.
“I would be far wealthier if I had done nothing for the last 11 years, but my life has been richer for the risks I have taken… I love story telling. I love magic and I love trying to inspire people,” he says.
This month will see the release of a film he thinks is a winner that will compensate for the years of pain and losses. It is a low-budget film called Material, set in the gritty inner-city district of Fordsburg in Johannesburg and starring South African stand-up comedian Riaad Moosa. He says it could be a cheap and cheerful international hit like Bend it Like Beckham or Billy Elliot.
It all started in the early 1970s in Cape Town, when Apteker’s father won a 16mm film projector in a game of backgammon. From then on, Sunday night was film night at the Aptekers.
“The whole neighbourhood in Cape Town used to come in and see them. You remember those leather cases with the handles. In our rented house we used to watch Dirty Harry, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I grew up in a movie-watching home. I watched more movies by the time I was 13 than most people watch by the time they are 30,” he says.
Apteker’s working life took a different turn. It was the internet, not movies, that became his bread and butter. In 1993, he founded Internet Solutions in the days when 99.9% of South Africans didn’t know even what it was.
“People used to phone us and say the internet is broken, or they used to ask who they can email. I used to give them my email address and they used to email me because they had no one else to email!” he laughs.
The internet made Apteker a fortune before he was 30. Then he tried a much harsher business—movies.
“If you build a cheap house, you can sell it for half price and get some money back. If you make a bad movie, you may not sell one ticket and lose everything. You can even end up owing money. It is not a normal business, it’s like a casino.”
Apteker started writing scripts in 1996 and the first film came in 2000—a 95-minute movie shot in Los Angeles called Purpose, the tale of the battle for the soul of a young entrepreneur working in California’s Silicon Valley.
“A lot of people said it reminded them of The Social Network, but sadly, it wasn’t as good,” says Apteker.
The film didn’t do well. It cost $8 million and Apteker was lucky enough to claw back $3 million by selling it to distributors Lakeshore International.
A string of homegrown movies with limited success followed, including: Jerusalema, The Flyer and Crazy Monkey: Straight Outta Benoni.
Fast forward to the latest offering, Material, starring South African comic flavor-of-the-month, Moosa. In many ways, the film mirrors his own life. In a nutshell, Material is the story of a father who wants his son to stick to his day job—that is, running the family store—instead of telling jokes on stage.
In real life, Moosa also gave his day job the slip. He trained as a doctor at the University of Cape Town and carried out his internship at Natalspruit Hospital, near Johannesburg, before settling down to practise as a GP in Cape Town for a couple of years.
The draw of the stage proved too strong and in the evenings, Moosa was cracking around the small theatres of the Western Cape. He had no illusions and already knew what it felt like to “die”—as the actors say—on stage.
“It used to happen a lot when I was younger. The most difficult time was when I was doing magic in high school. It was comedy magic. I had studied at the College of Magic in Cape Town. I was supposed to make a ball fly across the stage—there was a wire involved. There was a dude taking photos with flash and every time the flash went off, you could see the washing line across the stage. I was trying to make it dramatic and it was obvious. I heard one little girl say: ‘There is a wire there, mum!’ At that moment, I thought ‘I had another eight minutes to go of this sham.”
Material is Moosa’s first foray into film and he identifies with his character. “I am really proud of it. I think when people watch, they will laugh and cry. They will be challenged.”
So what happens if Moosa makes it to Hollywood and the big time? He pledges not to let success go to his head.
“What is this fame thing? One minute you are normal, the next minute you are shaving your head on the cover of Heat magazine. One minute you are normal, the next you are getting an 18-year-old pregnant. I prefer driving home at night and getting shouted at by my wife… I shouldn’t let it go to my head; I think through medicine you face reality head on.”
Apteker believes any success would be a good thing and refuses to give up his movie quest, whatever the cost.
“It is an obsession. I have got to get this right. It is like you either get this right or die trying. There is no middle ground in love, there is no middle ground in art. There is no middle ground when you are an entrepreneur—you either win or go home in a coffin,” he says.
Well, Is It Any Good?
There is mistrust when it comes to homegrown cinema. Everyone has waited long for the great African movie—maybe, just maybe, Material is it. So says Rea Bantseke, who went to the preview screening in Sandton, near Johannesburg.
The story is simple. A young Muslim man wants to become a stand-up comedian, but has to do it behind his family’s back because it clashes with their culture. The movie examines clearly the struggle of a Muslim family to uphold its traditions in 21st century South Africa.
I was looking for the mistakes and the glitches, but there was nothing. The movie is shot beautifully and it makes you feel like you are part of the family. The story flows and is well told.
Everyone will have something that they can identify with in this movie. It will make you laugh, it will make you question, it will bring a tear to your eye.
This unique movie is hard to classify as a genre because it fuses drama, romance and comedy. It is likely to appeal to all ages. Material will leave you with hope that if this story can see the light of day, there must be many more.
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work
Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them.
“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression.
That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.
Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.
Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.
“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.
In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.
Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”
To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership.
With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.
“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.
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