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He Came, He Trembled, He Conquered

It was a night of trepidation and surprise in Monte Carlo as a Nairobi banker became the first African to win a coveted award for entrepreneurs. Africa was right behind James Mwangi—he wasn’t so sure.

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When James Mwangi boarded a commercial plane in Nairobi, bound for Monte Carlo, he was nervous.

This was a big trip to the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 Awards and the competition was tough. They call this award the Olympics, or World Cup, for entrepreneurs. It was a prize too far away in the mind of a 50-year-old like James Mwangi, CEO and group managing director of Kenya’s Equity Bank.

“I started wondering how I would be ranked when you hear stories of the personal wealth of these entrepreneurs. These people range from heads of industries like: the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world; the biggest ship building company in the world; supplier and producer of 90% of the world’s silicon chips—people with extensive experience—the majority of them are in their seventies,” he says.

Any fears in mid-air were confirmed when Mwangi’s commercial flight touched down in Monte Carlo on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of his competitors had arrived in their private jets.

“Not only did we not jet into the country, like most participants, we had to do a 45-minute drive to the hotel, while the others were lifted in helicopters,” Mwangi says.

“I was given a hotel room overlooking the beach on the 10th floor, overlooking yachts, more than 200 of them, expensive and luxurious yachts, at that. I realized that I am in a different place and not a usual place.”

So you can imagine the shock and surprise when the Nairobi banker, far from home, won.

“The whole hall was silent except our tables, with Nigerians and South Africans, of course.”

As they gritted their teeth and applauded, the illustrious competitors waited for the winner to walk to the front. Then, they waited a bit more.

“Instead of making my way to the podium, we started hugging and embracing each other with African joy and warmth. It was like thunder and something extraordinary had happened… We started singing the song, It’s Time for Africa and we were very excited about it—almost assuming that there was nobody else in the room until I was prodded by someone to make my way to the podium.”

Mwangi delivered the shortest acceptance speech in history, without protocol and almost incoherent, in his excitement. The roof-top drew back and fireworks crackled into the night sky over Monte Carlo—on the ground, Mwangi, the first African to win in 25 years of the awards, felt like exploding with them.

“This award makes a point that Africa is ready to be fully integrated with the rest of the world and what we hold are perceptions that are very far from reality. This is global recognition for Africans who are embracing the power of entrepreneurship to change the economic and social state of Africa,” says Mwangi.

Other African participants in these awards included: Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, group managing director of Access Bank in Nigeria and Braam van Huyssteen, founder and managing director of Tekkie Town.

It was recognition for the entrepreneur who opened up banking for millions of poor Kenyans through Equity Bank, in which he owns a 5% share.

Mwangi joined Equity Bank nearly 20 years ago when few gave a dime for its chances.

“The bank was declared technically insolvent and earmarked for closure when I joined in 1994,” recalls Mwangi.

Deposits were at Ksh22 million ($262,000), loans were at Ksh9 million ($107,000); there were 27 employees and losses were Ksh33 million ($393,000) against capital of Ksh3 million ($35,000). So the bank was technically insolvent to the tune of Ksh30 million ($357,000). He converted his family’s 15-year home loan of Ksh4 million ($71,000 in 1994) into capital, thus reducing the technical insolvency of the company to save it some interest.

“Instead of the traditional banking, we went to mass banking, high volume and very low margins. Consequently, we became relevant in terms of affordability. Through the use of technology, particularly that of mobile banking and agency, we were able to breach the last mile in terms of access to financial services,” says Mwangi.

“There was no way of going back to the family to say that we had lost everything, hence I had to work hard to redeem that which I had lost.”

Equity Bank grew and the deposits flowed in. Today the company has a turnover of about Ksh200 billion ($2.3 billion), with nearly 7,000 employees. It is listed on both the Nairobi and Uganda stock exchanges.

The Mwangi model is studied in several business schools including the Stanford Graduate Business School; Columbia Business School and Lagos Business School. Maybe, one day this method of making money at the bottom of the pyramid will be referred to by business graduates as “Mwangist” alongside Marxist and Keynesian theories.

It was the fruit of years of struggle for Mwangi. His father died when he was very young and his mother struggled to bring up her children alone. To raise money for school fees, Mwangi sold charcoal and fruit on the streets. It was his training ground for buying, selling and trading.

The blood of an entrepreneur ran through Mwangi’s veins from a tender age. As a young man, Mwangi formed a small company selling sand around Nairobi, in partnership with the current assistant minister of agriculture, Gideon Ndambuki. They had four lorries and a pickup truck; later they sold fruit and vegetables to hotels.

“Entrepreneurship is the cure for the African paradox of a continent with resources and human capital but that remains poor. The only ingredient lacking is entrepreneurship,” he says.

Anyone who can beat a fleet of high-flying entrepreneurs is surely worth listening to.

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