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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.


How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires



One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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The Sun King Bows Out: Legendary Hotelier Sol Kerzner Has Died



Solomon (Sol) Kerzner, one of the world’s most innovative hoteliers, founder of the Southern Sun hotel group, Sun International and Kerzner International, has died of cancer surrounded by his family at the Kerzner family home, Leeukoppie Estate, in Cape Town, South Africa. Always a maverick, Kerzner was a titan of the hotel and resort industry who redefined the scale and scope of integrated destination resorts worldwide. He was 84.

The son of Russian immigrants, Kerzner was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1935. The youngest of four and the only son, Sol was a working class boy from a rough neighbourhood but he would grow up to become one of the most influential entrepreneurs in South Africa. Having founded the country’s two largest hotel groups — Southern Sun and Sun International — Kerzner would go on to achieve international prominence with groundbreaking resorts that helped transform the tourism industries not only of his home country but of Mauritius, The Maldives, The Bahamas, Dubai and other important international destinations.

Kerzner’s career in hospitality began in 1962 when he decided to leave the accounting profession and purchased The Astra, a small inn in Durban, South Africa. Kerzner quickly transformed this rundown establishment into one of the most popular hotels in the area, a success that whetted Sol’s insatiable appetite for innovation and demonstrated a trademark ingenuity that would define his 60-year career.

Kerzner’s most monumental and controversial achievement was the creation of Sun City.  Here, in an area north of Johannesburg where there were no roads and no infrastructure, Sol imagined and delivered the most ambitious resort project in all of Africa. Commencing work in 1975, over the next ten years, Kerzner built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses, and an entertainment center with an indoor 6,000-seat arena, which played host to a world-class roster of artists including Queen, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, as well as huge world title fights, and many other spectacular events. Once again, Kerzner defied the naysayers to train a best of breed workforce and to operate Sun City on a totally non-racial basis. Even the most cynical of visiting overseas journalists had to concede defeat in trying to find racism behind the operation of the vast resort.

Sol is survived by his children Andrea, Beverley, Brandon and Chantal and ten grandchildren. His eldest son, Howard ‘Butch’ Kerzner died in 2006.

Sol Kerzner will be buried at a small, private funeral with only immediate family in attendance.

Back in 2014, the Sun King was featured on the cover of Forbes Africa for the 3rd Anniversary Issue of the magazine.

In 2018 he was honored with the Life Time Achievement award at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLAs).

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The French Silhouette In Africa: How This Designer Started Her Own Business Despite A Shortage Of Funds



From glamorous Paris to gritty Johannesburg, Zazi Nyandeni arrived with $2,700 and updated sartorial skills to showcase haute couture on South Africa’s racks and runways.

With just $2,700 in her bank, transferred from her savings account in France, Zazi Nyandeni returned home to the South African fashion industry with her freshly-minted talent. But if Paris was school, Johannesburg proved to be university. Qualifying was never easy.

About 53kms from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is Constantia Kloof, a scenic, upmarket suburb in the West Rand, where we meet Nyandeni, the up-and-coming 25-year-old fashion entrepreneur whose brand, Zazi Luxury, has showcased in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.

“I wasn’t really introduced to fashion, but more so to art,” recalls Nyandeni of her early days. “Ever since primary school, I was exposed to paintings, drawings and music by my father when he would come back with artworks from his travels.”

She thought she was going to become a doctor growing up because of her choice of subjects in high school but still pursued design to stay close to art. Thankfully, her parents picked up that she was artistically-inclined and gave her their unstinted support.

In 2013, after high school, Nyandeni took the plane out of South Africa and went on to study fashion at ESMOD, an international fashion design and business school in Paris. She wanted to express herself without saying a word, and found her way. She spent close to six years there, studying full-time for the first three years and partially for the last two, whilst freelancing and interning for various companies in the glitzy city.

“I love to draw and not really to sew. For my first freelance job, I went for a company that would help me work on my weaknesses; I went to Loon Paris boutique and worked on my sewing techniques. They were very strict and meticulous when it came to sewing and I learned a lot about technique,” she says.

The intense training meant that even the inside of a garment had to be as exquisite as the outside and if the hand stitch was incorrect, she had to undo and redo it all over again.

READ MORE: Conscious Fashion: ‘So Much More You Can Do With Discarded Clothes’

“When I asked ‘aren’t we wasting material’, they would say ‘I’m wasting their time’,” she laughs.

The eager fashionista was juggling two jobs; the other was at a PR agency named DLX Paris, which was sourcing brands for international celebrities like American singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland.

She soon came to a realization that in fashion, there is nothing new, which is when she moved to fabric store Boutique Malhia Kent, a French manufacturer of haute couture.

Nyandeni has a soft spot for weaving. She clearly adores fabrics, and this is apparent in the weaving machine she has at her Constantia Kloof studio, placed in a corner of one of the work rooms.

She says her weaving differentiates her from the other designers, as she compares herself to South Africa’s Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa and Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou.

“You can make a silhouette similar to somebody else but the real interesting part is the fabric, so Malhia Kent deals with fabric customization, and this is where I learned that in the world of fabric, you are two years ahead of the industry; like Chanel orders their fabric from Malhia Kent,” she says.

That was the space she wanted to be in.

So in between jobs, Nyandeni co-founded Garbage, a business that looked into environment-friendly garments.

“We wanted to speak on the notations of how do we pick up the fashion industry and say that there are other ways to look glamorous and chic and it doesn’t have to be wasteful and terrible to the environment.”

The business ran for a year and sold a few garments, but sadly, collapsed. That inspired the birth of an idea, one that would solely work for her, a business that would include all that she had learned from fashion school and the stylish streets of Paris. She had also personally worked with Katrantzou, building a portfolio and a first collection. She was ready and had under $2,700 in savings.

READ MORE: Owning The African Narrative

Nyandeni returned home to South Africa and registered her company in 2018.

“In my heart, I thought I was going to be able to buy sewing machines and a small car to travel back and forth for business, be able to get staple fabrics that people would love,” she says.

It was not the case, but she started the business despite a shortage of funds.

“I called it Zazi Luxury because it speaks to more of the inside and outside of a garment and the technique used which is the core of the business. The inside is about matching the outside; I should literally be able to wear it inside out, and if not, it’s not [a Zazi Luxury product].”

Her first client was South African comedienne Tumi Morake referred by a mutual friend, and later actress Zenande Mfenyana, but currently, her clients are also doctors, lawyers and drawn from the corporate world.

“In the beginning, the business was focused on couture and it developed a bit more into business such as television, dressing anchors, and we also have ready-to-wear garments. We are broadening the business to other boutiques too.”

Zazi Luxury recently showcased at South Africa Fashion Week. This year, she will be working on a fourth collection that will be both couture and basic women’s workwear garments but featuring the Zazi aesthetic.

Zazi Luxury currently employs seven young enthusiastic fashionistas; one of who is Lebohang Ketlele, who has worked with Nyandeni for two years.

“I am a dressmaker and stylist. I don’t think I would know the things I know now if I wasn’t working here, we have dressed celebrities and that is a great experience,” attests Ketlele.

Inspired in Paris, but made in Africa, Zazi seems to have made the cut.

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