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.
Packing Light In School Bags
Former South African rugby star John Mametsa provides alternative energy solutions for the state. With his wife Tumi, he says their future in the business is bright.
In his prime, former Blue Bulls winger John Mametsa had rugby fans screaming in delight at his try-scoring exploits at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Between 2001 to when he retired in 2010, he had brought smiles on people’s faces.
Hidden beneath the rugby bravura on display on a weekly basis were Mametsa’s entrepreneurial exploits, which led him to co-found Soltech, a solar technology company he started with his wife Tumi.
Soltech has bridged the gap between solar technology and user-friendly consumer products by creating school backpacks, outdoor umbrellas and lifestyle bags custom-fitted with solar power.
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The smiles are back but Mametsa has brought them in a different form.
Soltech’s main aim is to help companies achieve their corporate social investment targets and make a real difference in the lives of school children who might not have electricity at home, or whose access to electricity is limited.
“Generally, I love giving back. Just to see the kids smile brings joy to me,” Mametsa says.
“It is the best space I could have asked for. Other than when I was involved in rugby, this is the best thing I could have ever been a part of.
Putting smiles on kids’ faces is the best thing. Because we are dealing with children, we have aligned ourselves with people that want to make a difference.
“We don’t stop at just giving them the bags where they can charge phones and study at night but we also educate them about the social ills that come with roaming on the internet and social media.”
During this period of Eskom blackouts, uncertainty about South Africa’s energy and a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, he says Soltech’s products make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
In a sense, they’ve taken the might of solar technology and put it right in people’s hands. The school bags come with a solar-powered battery, which has a night lamp and cellular phone battery charger installed.
“With everything that’s going on at Eskom now, they (citizens) are using millions of liters of diesel per month, just to keep the lights on,” Mametsa says.
“Hence, it’s coming back to hit our pockets and they (Eskom – South Africa’s national energy provider) are raising the electricity prices again. Such things we have to read about so that, as we grow, we educate the people that we are selling the bags to.
“At some point, you need to convert [to reusable energy sources], you need to start using solar energy. We are still fortunate that there’s an Eskom in the first place. What about those countries that don’t even have electricity at all?
“Yes, we have power cuts but the people that really need the bags are people in the rural areas.”
Admittedly, Mametsa was the pretty face and Tumi conceptualized the idea when they started. But their partnership was perfect in more ways than one. Tumi, just like her husband, had a massive entrepreneurial drive.
While Mametsa was playing rugby, he would dabble in taxi and printing businesses – an uncommon trait among sportsmen and sportswomen who are at the peak of their powers. Tumi was no different. As a student, she would sell hair and cosmetics products, something that sharpened her business senses.
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And despite a successful 11-year career in corporate as an accountant and financial manager for companies such as Alexander Forbes and the Film and Publication Board, Tumi took a bet on herself and dedicated her time fully to building Soltech.
The result was that, in just the company’s second year, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland solar technology company Tespack. Tespack founders Caritta Seppä and Yesika Robles were last year named in Forbes ’s 30 Under 30 Europe.
The joint venture will see Soltech come out, among other things, with a solar-powered, fast-charging power bank, which should totally disrupt the smartphone accessories market.
“There’s going to be skills and knowledge transfer,” Tumi says.
“The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) is also backing us on the partnership because we need them and their funding to assist us. We will be hiring South Africans to work the machinery, which was something that was very attractive to the DTI.
“The Tespack partnership confirmed my belief that our company could grow from a small tree to a forest someday. Once we manufacture in-house we can streamline the process. And there are so many other ideas for products I have, such as ladies’ handbags and stuff.”
Here at home, Soltech has partnered in CSI projects with Liberty and Exxaro and they hope to grow their client base in the next couple of years. It is a huge endorsement of their products and should see them salve some of the hurt from the country’s electricity crisis, especially to those who need it the most.
‘Worth Millions And Billions’
Terence Terenzo, the award-winning South African hairdresser and founder of hair salon group Terenzo Suites, on his biggest investment decisions and blunders.
What is your investment philosophy?
One of my philosophies is to really analyse ‘is this an investment or is it a money pit… Are you sure you got a good investment and not a liability?’… Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to invest in things that don’t absorb all my time and energy.
So if someone were to say to me, ‘you can work your butt off seven days a week and we will give you a million rand a month, or you can take it super easy and do the absolute minimum but you can have R400,000 ($27,700) a month’, I would rather take the R400,000 because that would free me up so much more.
I would have time to do things that are important and other projects. So, for me, it is about setting up passive income businesses instead of creating businesses that need huge amounts of management.
What are some of the big investments you have made over the years?
Most of them were in property but this, Terenzo Suites, is one of the biggest investments I have ever made. It was many many millions. And then on the stock market, I’ve played around on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where we have invested quite heavily. I would use it, then look at the market and sometimes pull the money out and move it. I have also invested in Naspers.
Have you had any regrets?
If any entrepreneur tells you that he hasn’t had that [an investment blunder], he is lying. So, what happened was I bought a property in 2008, just before the [recession]. I was stuck with it for years and even when I sold it, I sold it many years later at the same price I bought it.
I bought it in an absolute inflated stop end, and it was really at an all-time high and I had to sell it at an all-time low… But the main thing for me about those kind of things is that you learn from them and you must not beat yourself up for too long.
Try and see what you learned from them.
Why did you invest in the hair business?
I think the hair industry is going to explode in South Africa and the whole continent, if you just think of the possibilities of wigs, hair pieces, hair colors and relaxers. Millions of women before weren’t so worried about their hair but as the world has changed so much, all of them want to look amazing and they want to look current, fresh, sexy, and that is all a part of the hair industry.
What should you consider first before you invest in your hair?
I think the one thing is to have a professional conversation with someone instead of just doing your own thing and, usually, hairdressers are quite happy to consult with you without charging you before you make a serious investment in hair pieces or wigs.
How big do you think the hair industry is in Africa?
I think it is worth millions and billions… and I think it is an undiscovered industry that is still going to explode. I don’t think we have scratched the tip of the iceberg with this.
A Germ Of An idea
The microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Babajide Ipaye started making good-looking shoes to fit his size 48 feet but decided to create them for others as well.
Selling shoes was probably the last thing Babajide Ipaye, a microbiology graduate, envisioned doing. But when by the age of 10, he was already wearing his father’s shoes, a size 44, he knew that some day that he would step in that world.
The only child of his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was only 11, Ipaye was raised by his grandparents and extended family members who shaped the early years of his life.
“I had a lot of people who were trying to nurture me and they had different professions. So for example, one was an artist and I was endeared to him, another one was a medical doctor, so my granddad wanted me to study medicine and another uncle was a computer scientist, so I was kind of confused growing up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I kind of lived the life of almost everyone that influenced me,” says Ipaye.
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That confusion helped Ipaye cut his teeth in various industries early on in his career. His medical doctor uncle influenced his career as a microbiologist where he worked with Ideas International Bio Technology Services, spending his days cleaning up oil spills and bacteria.
Then followed a stint in Information Technology (IT), a move also inspired by another uncle, where he worked with Tranter IT Infrastructure Services and Computer Warehouse as an analyst deploying managed technology services for multinationals like Guinness, Total and KPMG.
“At this point in time, IT was very hip and we happened to be one of the early pioneers in the tech space which was a very exciting time and considering where I was coming from in microbiology, it was a new field for me, I was working with multinationals and the exposure was amazing, it gave me a very broad sense of how organizations function.”
But Ipaye soon became dissatisfied with being put in a silo. There was too much structure and rigor due to the size of these multinationals and he became bogged down with a lot of systems and processes, which ultimately stifled his creative juices. His solution was to start his own IT company, Torque Technologies.
The company began providing IT equipment and technology services in its early days to multinationals before quickly creating a niche for itself in the fiber optics space. In early 2003 to 2005, the Nigerian telecoms era had just started booming and Ipaye and his partner saw a first-mover advantage in fiber optics by providing training to firms in Nigeria, which they did for the next 10 years.
By 2015, Ipaye decided he wanted a new challenge outside the IT world. After parting ways with his partner, he began to ponder about his life-long struggle with footwear.
“So I said to myself ‘why don’t I make my own shoes?’ So I went on the internet, did a bit of research and came across a school in the Netherlands called SLEM. I called them up and found out about the shoe-making course and I said since I was on holiday, why don’t I take some time off the business and explore how to make my own shoes and I went to the Netherlands.”
Keexs was born. The goal was to make shoes that fit Ipaye’s size 48 feet but also looked aesthetically pleasing. But making shoes for him alone would prove to be too costly.
Ipaye decided to make shoes for others as well. He would focus on the athleisure market, which is a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’, a market that has grown to the stage where it is no longer a trend but a mainstay in Nigerian fashion.
To stand out in the competitive footwear market, Ipaye decided to add some African elements to his innovative footwear brand and focused on outsourcing the production to a factory in the Netherlands while he focused on the product and design to save on cost.
The aim in the long run was to move production to Nigeria where he could fulfill the brand’s social mission of providing employment and skills training to unemployed youth. However, to make the business viable, he had to make a minimum of 1,000 pairs of shoes to achieve economies of scale. Next came the challenge of securing startup funding.
“From my previous experience of starting my technology business in Nigeria, I came to realize that the cost of funding in Nigeria is very high and also there are a lot of businesses chasing funding and the risk level of most potential investors in Nigeria is very conservative and they don’t want to invest in stuff they are not sure about.
“So I read about crowdfunding and consulted a company in the Netherlands and I came across a site called kick-starter which is a US-based platform that offers a global crowdfunding platform to innovative ideas and projects, hence we started the first innovative and social focused brand in Africa,” says Ipaye.
In just over two years Ipaye has managed to grow the business through leading e-commerce sites like Jumia and Konga as well as via its own website which receives orders from countries around the world. The shoes sell for anywhere from $40 to $60, with over 8,000 pairs of shoes sold till date.
Keexs has about 18 outlets in Nigeria with retail partners in Kenya, South Africa and Guadeloupe and Nairobi.
The company also sells through social media channels where they boast over 15,000 followers on Instagram. The long-term goal for Ipaye is to secure enough funding to set up a factory in Nigeria, which he is looking to raise through an amalgamation of funding sources including grants and loans.
“We realized very quickly that economies of scale is critical to drive the growth of this business therefore there is a need for a lot of capital. There are four sides to this chain; production, design, distribution and retail. The problem with a lot of businesses in Africa is that they are expected to do everything from start to finish along that entire value chain and what that does is, it stifles the growth of the business,” says Ipaye.
The big-time hit when CNN profiled Keexs on its African Voices show. Since then, they have managed to establish themselves as an innovative social brand focused on empowering unemployed youth in Nigeria. Next on the to-do list for Ipaye is establishing a production line in Nigeria, and then taking his brand global.
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