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Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

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It’s a strange sight. Four men wearing Virtual Reality (VR) goggles with heads bowed and moving up and down and from side to side. They call it a Stevie Wonder – the humor is a bit rough in this business – but this is the modus operandi of a drone racer.

All four sit in a stand at the rugby field at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The drones buzz like a swarm of bees over the rugby field.  With the help of VR, all four have the view from the cockpit of their small drones as they race through hoops, weave through S-bends and barrel roll though low hanging gates at 160 kilometers an hour.

“The first time you fly it’s one of those eye-opening experiences. It’s like you are floating outside your own body, especially if it’s FPV (first-person view)…When you are using goggles, you are fully immersed in virtual reality. It’s as if you are looking at yourself while flying. You still experience all the vertigo of being up in the air and you feel that on the ground. When you get up you feel dizzy after the flight, it blows your mind,” says six-year veteran drone racer Alan Ball.

This experience captured the imagination of Ball. Four years ago, after he got tired of waiting for parts from overseas, he converted his garage into a thriving drone business.

“I said whatever it costs I’m in. That’s how I started… I was working from my garage at night while doing my day job. I would come home from work and work another eight hours until one in the morning, then go to bed, then it was the same thing again the next day.”

Five months later, Ball quit his job as an iOS game developer at Naspers, Africa’s $74.5-billion media group. With R50,000 ($3,900) out of his own pocket he opened the first drone shop in South Africa, Flying Robot.

“Two years later… I am in this massive 200-meter-square warehouse and shipping drones around the country 24/7. We’re now four staff, shipping 15 to 20 drones daily,” he says.

Ball is one of hundreds of Africans waking up to this up-and-coming sport. You can make big money at the top if you are prepared to spend money. A professional will spend as much as R35,000 ($2,700) on one drone.

A pilot’s license can cost up to R30,000 ($2,300). Thereafter you still need to be part of a company that has a Remote Operating Certificate (ROC), of which there are only 11 ROCs in South Africa, says Ball.

Photo by Jay Caboz

Drone prize pools can run into the millions. At the 2016 World Drone Prix, in Dubai, from a $1-million prize pool, 15-year-old Luke Bannister walked away with $250,000 after placing first at its inaugural event.

The sport’s popularity is growing as fast as eSports – professional online gaming –which has taken off in countries like South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as South Africa.

A sign of the times in 2016, The Drone Racing League (DRL), which was broadcast live on US sports channel ESPN and Sky. It raised $8 million from Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins who is worth $7.4 billion.

Thirty two competitors face off in heats until they are whittled down to a final four. Obstacles can range anywhere from stadium hallways to two-meter-square gates.

“Your tracks become three dimensional. It’s no longer just an on-the-ground two dimensional track. You can now start exploring verticals and doing maneuvers like a Split-S, to get the quad down and then back again,” says Ball.

In Cape Town, the numbers are growing. Ball says the biggest turnout he’s seen was a crowd of 200 at the South African FPV Racing Club in 2016.

“A lot of guys practice by going through kids’ jungle gyms. The tighter the gap the more the challenge and showing the skill and the precision,” says Ball.

Back at the rugby field in Cape Town, with the four Stevie Wonders, there is a ragtag collection of dads, sons, hobbyists and professionals. Each pilot brings a bag of wires, batteries and spare parts. If a drone smashes into a flag, they can repair it on the spot. In this sport, a handyman is as good as a dashing racer.

Mayday! Mayday! I’ve Been Hacked

“The pioneers in the scene seven years ago were taking components they could find that were everyday – CCTV cameras or everyday transmission video systems. They would then figure out how to put that on a plane or a quad and start flying it,” says Ball.

“It was a cool time to do it. I was building my own flight controllers from old gyros from helicopters, and assembling that. Some racers would use Sony cinematography goggles, what you would sit on the couch and watch TV with. They put those into snowboard goggles and hacked them together themselves.”

Ball’s first drone was a hack job – a three bladed Tricopter. With soldering iron and an open mind, he built it using a plan he downloaded from the internet, a cut out mainframe from copper PC board and 10mmx10mm meranti wood for arms.

“It’s a great platform to learn about technology and electronics. We are using it today at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology’s workshops, teaching [students] about remote control and how things work in flight,” says Ball.

Ball’s hack jobs are a far cry from what he builds now. In May, he launched his own drone, called the EchoQuad-X. Ball says in the racing scene everyone is now building their own.

“The X-range is almost like Meccano. [Drone racing] is a very DIY hobby; you build your own drone, you fix your own drone when you are sitting at your work bench at night. We thought let’s give people options to build it their way and inspire creativity to come up with their own configuration that suits them and how they want to be,” says Ball.

You Can’t Get The Kids Off The Computer

Clearly drones are how Ball wants to be as an entrepreneur. His other ventures didn’t work out. The first shot at entrepreneurism was importing cement, which didn’t kick off. He then tried selling video jukeboxes to music stores. He also took a shot at developing app games, which brought in some cash when he started working with Naspers. It was the business of his heart that proved a winner.

“I was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. Maybe they didn’t work when I put them back together again. When I was a kid I was building my own computer. I built model airplanes and full-sized gliders. I was drawn to the thrill of flight.”

Drones are also tearing through social media faster than they rip through the skies. Drone racers share their movies and experiences online. YouTube is often the glue that binds the small band of racers in Africa.

“People are coming up with new tricks all the time. The only way to see it is on YouTube. Every time there is a new model that comes into the community it’s all shared and distributed through YouTube.”

“It’s accelerated everything that’s related to the hobby. Initially it was online forums for online pilots. I think things have moved out of the forums and into the technical celeb space where you have your YouTube channels. We learn from them.”

There is no denying that drones and their ability to fly cheaply have made themselves indispensable to entrepreneurs looking for an innovative edge. Drones have been used to map mines, deliver pizza and photograph weddings. Once, a bunch of drones flew together to make a hovercraft.

The Nerd Herd

But, Ball warns, there are pitfalls.

“You are not allowed to fly a drone higher than 50 meters. You are not allowed fly 50 meters near roads or buildings, which means you are not necessarily allowed to fly in your backyard. Privacy is obviously a big thing.”

“Now with the drones being so easy to fly, it makes it easier to take a photo of their house, but what they don’t realize is there is someone else in their back garden that could lead to other things happening.”

In Australia, in 2014, a property company used a drone photograph to advertise a house on sale on a large billboard. The company didn’t realize that, at the time, the neighbor, Mandy Lingard, was tanning topless next door.

“It went through all these checks and only when it was on the billboard did the lady who owned the house notice that she was tanning in her back garden. It led to a large lawsuit,” says Ball.

There is also the rising fear of drone hacking.

“Yes, it’s true. A hacker that is a Remote Control [RC] enthusiast hacked a known protocol that drives the drone, the radio control, and took over the drone. He proved it was very easy to take over control of any RC plane or drone.”

Fear or not, the buzz of the drone is likely to get louder over the skies of Africa in the next decade.

Entrepreneurs

Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent

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The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.


The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron

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Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.


cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers

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South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.


A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.

The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.

Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.

The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair. 

What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.

“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.

Artist Conor McCreedy. Picture: Supplied

After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.

A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.   

“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.

Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.

“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.

He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.

In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.

“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.

Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.

McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.

But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.

“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.

His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.

The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.

White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.

The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.

It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.

Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.

“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.


Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.

“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”

But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.

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