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The Mall King And His New Toys

He built shopping malls at a time when Zambians were queuing for food on the streets. Mark O’Donnell is now making millions from tourists and hotels.




From the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park hundreds of miles from a town or on the streets of Lusaka, the name Mark O’Donnell is as common in Zambia as the Victoria Falls or Mosi Beer. On the streets they call him the Mall Man; the Zambian who made his fortune building places to stay and shop. In business, he is known as a ruthless strategist who wants to make money and cannot make it fast enough.

“Zambia is a small market but it’s a growing one, at six to seven percent a year, for the past 14 years. The economy of the country has grown much bigger. We’ve been fortunate to make investments when the time was appropriate… we just wanted to build a shopping mall,” says O’Donnell.

O’Donnell is a born and bred Zambian and has walked a meandering path to riches.  At 18, O’Donnell was selling auto parts for someone else. But he dreamed of being an entrepreneur. Times were tough in the 1980s, when private money struggled in a socialist state run under tight regulations. Strangely, at a time when there was little to buy, he thought that malls could be just what Zambia needed.

“It was very difficult to do anything in Zambia. Ninety percent of the country was controlled by the state. You would drive around in Lusaka and all you would see were queues of people lining up to buy whatever commodities were in the stores. There were a lot of hardships,” he says.

This hardship led to riots and ushered out the 27 years of power for Zambia’s president Kenneth Kaunda and its policy of control. Frederick Chiluba led his Movement for Multiparty Democracy in the elections in 1991 on a ticket of free enterprise. Despite the freeing of the economy for private business, things got worse for O’Donnell. Private business was shrinking by the day.

“In the 1990s, business was pretty bleak. We were just plain contractors at that point, and we were just trying to find work. It was almost impossible to get regular types of work, so we had to be innovative. We had to figure out how we were going to make projects. So we went and designed our own projects,” he says.

O’Donnell decided to build a mall to keep his business running. Despite his fears, the Arcades Shopping Centre was built in 2003 and brought in a number of South African franchises, putting Zambia on the map for investment.

“Many people wondered why we were building a shopping mall when the market seemed like it was struggling,” he says.

It brought fame to the farthest reaches of the country, even to the far flung bush of the Lower Zambezi National Park. Hundreds of kilometers away, Joshua Chizuwa, who has been a game ranger for more than 40 years, has heard of him.

“I used to work as a construction worker for him during breaks from the bush a long time ago. O’Donnell was as a hard businessman, ruthless in his deals. I have seen his buildings rise and Lusaka has grown from his ventures. He’s changed the face of Lusaka,” says Chizuwa.

According to Trevor Simumba, a Zambian-born managing director of the Sub-Saharan Consulting Group, within Lusaka O’Donnell is regarded as a progressive businessman who saw the liberalization policies of the MMD in the nineties as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

“He was very helpful to me when I was starting my career in the consulting field. At one point during a very difficult career transition, Mark said to me ‘Trevor it is always darkest before dawn’. This simple but profound statement helped me through and I always tell myself that whenever I face a challenge. Zambia is privileged to have Mark doing his business in Zambia. We need more role models like this in business in Zambia,” says Simumba.

O’Donnell also went into the hotel industry. It was a failed game lodge that saw O’Donnell go big. He negotiated a deal with Africa’s largest hotel group, Protea Hotels, a chain that has been targeted by Marriott International.

The first hotel O’Donnell built was in Chingola, in northern Zambia’s rich Copperbelt Province. He says it was a disaster.

“We opened it in the same week that Anglo American pulled out of Zambia. It wasn’t the best start to a hotel chain. There was zero occupancy for a couple of years,” he says.

It has taken 13 years of fighting back to expand seven more hotels. He is currently building his eighth in Lusaka, next door to his mall.

As the largest owner of hotels in Zambia it makes sense that O’Donnell wants tourism to boom. Until recently, he has been critical of the government’s efforts to encourage visitors. Tourism currently accounts for a mere 2% of Zambia’s gross domestic product. In August, the government announced a turnaround strategy to increase this to 7% in line with neighboring Zimbabwe. It has won over O’Donnell.

“You are talking about an industry that needs to double in size over the next five to 10 years. Our current arrivals are about 900,000 a year. If we take out non-tourist visits, we are probably looking at 300,000 tourists. I think what we would like to see that number grow to about 600,000 high spending visitors. We need to increase the visit to arrivals in Zambia. That’s our first priority. To raise Zambia’s profile in the key source markets and increase interest to come into Zambia either through leisure tourism or for business travel. Certainly both components have interest,” says O’Donnell.

Tourism in Zambia is difficult. O’Donnell says a ban on Zambian aircraft by the European Union (EU) has discouraged North Americans and Europeans.

“The agents won’t book internal flights due to insurance reasons. It’s purely to do with some technicalities that the EU won’t deal with, with our civil aviation authorities,” he says.

But his greatest challenge lies with Zambia’s marketing. According to O’Donnell, 60% of wealthy foreigners in North America, Asia and Europe have never heard of Zambia.

“Our customers demand a high quality sort of product. Just because this is Africa it doesn’t mean you can’t offer top class products to the market. Zambia is generally unspoilt, an environment untouched by commercialization. In some places in Africa you would find 20 minibuses around a lion, this doesn’t happen in Zambia. You can’t compare what we have with London and New York, but you have something different,” he says.

In a city that was little more than dirt roads, O’Donnell had a dream that many struggled to envision. Where people queued for hours to get their hands on commodities he saw malls with refrigerators. Today, O’Donnell’s buildings run alongside tarred roads and Zambians are eager to see what his next dream will be.

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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.

John Mamemtsa. Picture: Supplied

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.

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“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.

Tumi Mametsa. Picture: Supplied

“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.

-Sibusiso Mjikeliso

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‘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.

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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.

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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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