Trevor Ncube, 49, a Zimbabwean publisher, looks a hard nut to crack. Perhaps he is tough as nails after navigating the murky waters of Zimbabwean politics to set up private papers that have clashed with President Robert Mugabe and given an alternative voice to state-owned media.
It has made Ncube rich, with an estimated fortune running into millions of rand. He prefers to keep this figure under lock and key, the legacy of humble beginnings.
Ncube was born into a poor household in colonial Zimbabwe in the 1960s, when there were few opportunities for black men. His father was an amazing cook, in his words, and his mother, Alima, a domestic servant, later an entrepreneur, who sold clothes to send six children to school.
“Our upbringing was tough… we struggled quite a lot. There were times when I didn’t have shoes, walked to school barefoot; there are times when I didn’t have a uniform, and friends would borrow me shirts. We would run out of things like Vaseline to oil our body and used margarine instead, so we would look good,” says Ncube.
To raise school fees, Ncube often worked as a gardener at the home of a white family, the Johnsons, where his parents worked, in the suburbs of the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo.
“It is this background that has made me humble,” Ncube said.
His mother gave Ncube a taste for making money, his background the motivation.
“I never wanted to live the kind of life we lived, I wanted my life to be different. The life of lack, the type of hand-to-mouth existence I endured, not because of my parents’ fault or anything. It is a life I said I didn’t want to endure. It’s fear of being poor, the fear of the hand-to-mouth existence,” he said.
Achieving this hasn’t been easy in the rough-and-tumble of Zimbabwean politics. Ncube has been in and out of police cells, starting with his student leader days at the University of Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Once, while detained at a police station in Harare, the former head of intelligence threw a pistol in Ncube’s face in anger over a student demonstration.
When he became a journalist, the cells awaited Ncube yet again, as his newspaper, The Financial Gazette, the country’s business weekly, trod on a few powerful toes.
“The discomfort of being in a room with 14 other suspects, with a toilet close by—the stench was awful. Sending us to prison was a way of showing us they could do anything they wished, that they were in charge. It was uncomfortable, it makes you very angry and think of a way to treat these people in kind for what they are doing to you. It was very frightening. I had never been in prison and I didn’t know what would happen next, given the unexplained disappearances of others in similar circumstances by the state,” says Ncube.
These days, Ncube is merely disappointed with Zimbabwe’s leaders whom, he says, had plenty of opportunities to turn things around since independence, but have little to show for it.
Beneath Ncube’s often acid look, as he narrates a painful past, is, in his own words, “a loving and caring man who fears God”.
Ncube also needed guts to set up a company now running three papers in Zimbabwe: a daily, financial weekly and Sunday paper. This, in addition to publishing South Africa’s second most popular paper, The Mail&Guardian, selling just over 51,000 copies every week. He holds 76% equity in the Mail&Guardian.
“Nothing happens at the M&G when I don’t want it to,” he says.
A climb down from chairperson to deputy chair of the M&G group raised whispers that he was being bought out.
“I’m not a CEO. I provide strategic support, wisdom, oversight. I’m not a manager, I’m terrible at management. I’m a leader, I’m not an entrepreneur. There are much smarter, better managers out there. I thought, ‘Well, let me stick to what I know best… I love making babies, I don’t like taking care of babies, so, well, I like conceiving ideas and projects, and letting them happen’.”
Ncube won the German Africa Award, from the German Africa Foundation, for press freedom, human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, a journalistic milestone on the road to riches.
Says Andy Moyse, a journalist who heads Zimbabwe Mass Media Monitoring Project, which scrutinizes news in the country for fair and professional coverage of events: “He (Ncube) is an astute businessman. He has created one of the biggest print media businesses the country has ever witnessed. He has brought his business acumen into the media environment. To be fair, he has created a very dominant single media house. We need this to deal with the repressive media climate.”
Ncube’s career has been eventful and often rocky, to say the least. It all began with a job as assistant editor of The Financial Gazette in 1991. He got fired by the publisher years later for not toeing the editorial line.
“It was a tough time. If you have never been fired, then you have no business being in business. Being fired is a university in itself. It toughens you, it makes you realise how life is like.”
Ncube got fired with a mortgage hanging over him and a family to take care of, despite the fact that he was once nominated Zimbabwe Editor of the Year.
Within months, Ncube had scouted for a financier to set up a private paper, The Zimbabwe Independent. Clive Murphy, a serial entrepreneur, got wind of that; a meeting was set up, and the rest is history. He was initially offered a 2% stake, but increased it to 5%. He paid it off when the business returns looked good.
“I’m scared of debt. When the first dividend of equity came, that was it, I became a capitalist. I never looked back,” Ncube said. After almost a decade, he took over the controlling shareholding of The Zimbabwe Independent.
From The Zimbabwe Independent are two off-shoots: a weekly, The Standard, and a daily, NewsDay, part of a media empire called Alpha Media Holdings.
Ncube smiles at the memory of the next step. When he lost The Financial Gazette job, Ncube applied for a job at South Africa’s Sunday Times and Mail&Guardian. He was turned down by both. The rich irony is that he now owns Mail&Guardian.
This is how it happened: During a trip to Cape Town, Govan Reddy, the previous owner, approached him, having caught wind that Ncube wanted to expand his media business portfolio into the region.
“They wanted someone with a pedigree, who would withstand political pressure but who is also even-handed to both government and opposition,” Ncube said.
Negotiating the deal wasn’t easy. Ncube had to shrug off the challenge from big-hitting potential suitors like Zwelake Sisulu and Anthony Harper. After acquiring it, Ncube says the challenge was to turn it around. The M&G, at the time, was making over R15 million ($1.95 million) in losses every year. “For me, it was the biggest test being in a foreign environment where the players are complete strangers,” he says.
Ncube applied for a New York-based foundation funding loan for media development. It provides seed capital, is run professionally, and they charge interest.
“We have since repaid the loan,” he said.
It’s not an easy job. At the time, the establishment was accusing the M&G of pandering to white interests.
“Naturally, we are bound to irritate the political establishment. That doesn’t worry us, it doesn’t concern us, it happens here in Zimbabwe. That is the nature of the beast. We would worry if the politicians weren’t complaining.”
What bothers the publisher is the politics of South Africa.
“The situation in South Africa is now beginning to approximate what happened here 20 years ago. That’s where South Africa is after 16 years of a new political dispensation—the intolerance around the media, this new secrecy bill. For me, watching South Africa play out is watching Zimbabwe play all over again. I know a lot of South Africans get irritated when you say that. South Africa is Zimbabwe again in slow motion in certain instances,”
It could be tricky for Ncube, when it comes to speaking out about politics. He is known as a journalist who speaks his mind and has an analytical insight into the political machinations of Zimbabwe and South Africa. On the other hand, he is a man with media interests—which can often be vulnerable—both sides of the Limpopo River. This year, he is likely to field a flurry of questions, about the politics of the land of his birth, as Zimbabwe is expected to hold elections.
Referring to Zimbabwean politics, he says: “It is going to be turbulent. I don’t think the Movement for Democratic Change (under Morgan Tsvangirai) has a clue about governance. But (should it win an election) it will only provide that environment necessary for stability.”
A journalist at Alpha Media Holdings, who declined to be named, said: “His (Ncube’s) commitment to democracy and media freedom in particular is not driven by corporate or business interest. It is an ingrained conviction for him. He has this deep-seated belief that people must be free… his downside is his failure to create a balance between the workers’ interests and enlightened self-interest. He would do well if he became more sensitive to our remunerations; otherwise, he is a great guy.”
New Randela Notes
Cause A Stir
With South Africa’s rand under pressure, word on Friday afternoon that there would be an announcement of national importance on the following day, February 11, caused consternation in the markets.
The rand lost 2.5% of its value as traders got the jitters ahead of the mysterious announcement in Pretoria. The invitation said the South African President, Jacob Zuma, Reserve Bank Governor, Gill Marcus and Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan were all going to be there—something highly important, surely? Journalists stayed glued to their phones and laptops—maybe exchange controls were about to be abolished. Imagine?
In the end, it was merely an announcement that former President Nelson Mandela was to replace the big five game animals—lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant and leopard—on the front of South Africa’s bank notes. “It’s the Randela!” joked one journalist.
The announcement was to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the release of Mandela from Victor Verster Prison, near Cape Town, on February 11, 1990. The notes have improved security marks and features to help the blind. They will be put into circulation before the end of the year and the existing notes will remain legal tender.
Marcus apologised for the confusion around the announcement and quipped: “It shows how little we look to good news.”
As for the losses to the rand during the confusion? The CNBC Africa markets team assures FORBES AFRICA that most of the 2.5% loss to the value of the rand was largely down to the economic woes of Greece, rather than the PR clumsiness of the government officials behind the new face on the notes.
The Maverick In Tech
The founder of some of Nigeria’s best-known startups on the mistakes and the millions that made him click in the technology business.
Sometimes, the simplest business ideas can come from strange places, or even strangers.
In his first year studying law at Waterloo University in Canada, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was approached by a stranger who asked to stay in his house.
“I was like ‘I don’t know you, you have long hair and you are white; I don’t know about this’, but I said, ‘ok cool’, and he stayed over and we became good friends.”
About a year later, Pierre, the friend, decided to head to Silicon Valley for his cooperative education term.
“He told me about this amazing world of Silicon Valley, tech and investments, and I was sold. A few months later, we decided to start our own tech company called bookneto.com,” says Aboyeji.
It was a platform that enabled students to download past examination questions and work with a team of people at the school to help answer them.
The company did decently for three years until it got sued by the university, but at least that marked a turning point in Aboyeji’s entrepreneurial life.
It turned out that the intellectual property for past examination questions belonged to the professors at Waterloo University, a fact that was “unknown” to the pair of entrepreneurs and they were found “guilty of piracy”. The venture was eventually sold to a professor who wanted to teach students not enrolled on campus, for a small fee.
“We had it for three years, and by this time, I had graduated and looking for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I did not want to run another business in Canada, so I had started looking at other markets and Africa was a big one for me, Nigeria in particular,” says Aboyeji.
After graduating, he returned to Nigeria in 2013.
His proclivity for identifying opportunities inducted him into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The dominant players at the time were Coursera and Udacity.
According to a report by Component, globally, the MOOCs market is estimated to hit $20.8 billion by 2023. Aboyeji wanted in. He set up a company in Abuja called Fora.com focused on incorporating MOOCs into the university environment especially for courses that were relevant but not provided by Nigerian universities due to a lack of quality resources.
“I was very naïve. I imagined that it would be a breeze to build that business and learned the hard way that anything regulated doesn’t operate rationally. So, the regulators didn’t give me any approvals and universities were skeptical and didn’t want to be laid off so it didn’t work out. We ended up pivoting that business and ended up selling online MBAs instead. Our typical clients were young bank managers who wanted to get an MBA or advanced degree courses to improve their chances of being promoted,” says Aboyeji.
The firm began to gain some traction. People were paying for the application courses and Aboyeji decided to pilot a loan program where financial institutions would offer loans to students.
“So, we were making money but it wasn’t popping off. I went to New York with the team because we had just gotten some new funding and we had to meet the new investors. I had met a guy named Jeremy Johnson when he was in Nigeria earlier so I pinged him and told him what we wanted to do. I wanted to learn from his experiences. He agreed to meet for coffee in New York.”
During their meeting, Johnson expressed his idea about a new form of education geared towards skills rather than degrees. Aboyeji also talked about unemployment in Nigeria and how that represented a massive opportunity.
It was a match made in heaven.
“One of the things he told me was that he could not find a sales force engineer for $150,000 in New York. They just didn’t exist so I said, ‘man, I can train you sales force engineers’. And he said ‘if you decide you are going to pivot, what you are doing or adding to it… I would fund you and I will be chairman and we can do this together’. So, I said ‘someone is going to fund you to do a new business, why not’.”
Aboyeji had just stumbled on a new gold mine and Andela was born. He started with one person and began teaching him how to code. He repurposed the team from Fora into coding masters, bid masters and operational staff, and shifted the focus of Fora because they had the flexibility to do it.
“I don’t think at the time we had any idea how big what we were doing was. We did the first one, it was semi-successful, we trained the next four, which was really good. We put out a job description saying no experience required, we will pay you to learn how to program and we had over 700 applicants off Twitter and we knew we had something.”
They whittled down to about four or five people that completed that program. To find work for his new coders, Aboyeji used Upwork, the popular freelance jobsite, to bid for jobs.
“We didn’t know anybody, so we bid for jobs, executed it and before we knew it, we had about 150 people in the room. That was how the transition happened from Fora to Andela,” says Aboyeji.
The company has since gone on to raise $180 million in venture funding from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other notable investors from Silicon Valley. Aboyeji left the company after three years in search of his next adventure but is still a major shareholder in Andela.
That voyage led him to co-found Flutterwave, an integrated payments platform for Africans to make and accept any payment, anywhere from across Africa and around the world. Under his watch, the company processed 100 million transactions worth $2.5 billion.
Turning his eyes firmly on future opportunities has led Aboyeji to set up his own family office called Street Capital, with a focus on identifying passionate and experienced missionary entrepreneurs with the integrity and courage to flawlessly execute in Africa.
With a solid track-record of unearthing diamonds in the rough, Aboyeji hopes to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to achieve their fullest potential and help build some of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-impactful tech businesses.
The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business
Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.
If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.
Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.
As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.
The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.
“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.
And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.
With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.
“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay. The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.
The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.
Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.
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The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.
“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”
In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.
“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.
The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.
“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”
The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.
Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.
Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.
In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.
With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.
“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”
Advances In Nigeria’s ‘Burglar Watch’ Industry
The escalating safety and security issues in Nigeria raised the alarm for this innovative entrepreneur.
Today, organizations not only face escalating risks but also the certitude that they will face a security breach at any time, if proper precautions are not taken. Such was the case for Paul Ajibulu when his office premises were ransacked by thugs in Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, Lagos.
“We had just got our office fully furnished with MacBook computers and the whole works. When we came in the next day, we found the locks broken and all the office equipment had been looted. I lost about $20,000 in all that day and that set our business back for a couple of months,” says Ajibulu.
To solve his problems, he reached out to Extreme Mutual Technique, an automated digital systems solution and renewable energy service provider.
The company says it boasts top-tier clients such as MTN, the Embassy of Sierra Leone, South African Breweries, and Africa Finance Corporation, amongst many others.
Akpobome Ojoboh, its founder and Managing Director, is adamant his systems are a must-have for every organization in Nigeria.
“We initially started the business called Extreme Surveillance Systems limited. Coming from my previous background, we decided to focus on CCTV and digital security. Considering the fact that Nigeria was being terrorized by security mishaps, we decided to [resolve] that,” says Ojoboh.
Safety and security have never been discussed in Nigeria as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Routine security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become the norm.
The idea of preventing crime is an appealing twist in today’s times and although it’s comforting for many to imagine a competent police officer monitoring every camera in Lagos, the question remains whether CCTV systems really do prevent crimes from happening or do they merely help in nabbing a criminal once a crime has occurred.
In a city like Lagos where you have constant disruptions to power, the long-term success of these systems presented significant hurdles for Ojoboh in the early days.
“There are so many limitations to digital security vis-à-vis the lack of a proper database that even when you have [identified] the culprits, you cannot find them. Furthermore, there were limitations to how people took ownership of their equipment because there was [often] no power. So, you put a system and people say ‘what if there is no power’?”
To combat these challenges, Ojoboh decided to provide another solution, by moving into the world of inverters.
“Then again, these inverters run down when there is no power to charge them so we went into renewable energy called solar to back up our inverters and digital solutions. That is when we changed the business to Extreme Mutual Technique Limited,” says Ojoboh.
Security is one of the largest businesses in the world, according to Ojoboh.
He has seen an increase in more families opting for peace of mind by having big brother watching over their loved ones whenever they cannot be with them.
“When I first became a mum, I would always worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with my nanny. Then, we started noticing strange marks on my daughter and I had heard about people mistreating children they cared for but I never thought it would happen to me. I reached out to a security company to install a camera in the house and lo and behold, I saw the nanny hitting my daughter. My whole world crumbled,” says Rebecca Gyan, a grocery store owner in Accra.
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“You have to be prepared because if you are not, then you almost cannot stop any security breach. It helps you to know some proactive measures to protect yourself. If you have a CCTV system and you notice there is a particular group of people visiting your building, you will be able to notice and react,” says Ojoboh.
As organizations become familiar with probable threats and vulnerabilities, they will be able to establish both preventive measures and responsive systems, to decrease the likelihood of intruders and attacks.
Since starting out in 2007, Ojoboh has grown the team to a 40-member business spread across Lagos and Abuja. The company has also moved into IT and engineering services in the areas of energy infrastructure, home automation, fire safety and digital security solutions.
With power still an issue in Nigeria, Ojoboh sees the future of his business in the area of renewable energy to power his systems to provide that all-important peace of mind to his clients.
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