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The 60-Year-Old Industrialist




Michael Manaka

Michael Manaka is a self-made artisan building oil purifying plants from his home garage in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg. He is mature, to say the least. In 2010, when his peers were heading for retirement, the 60-year-old founded Machoroma Oil Specialists following an epiphany in his sleep. He vows to work until his last breath.

“I had a dream visiting my boss Edward Michael Povazan on his farm in Drakensburg. He told me: ‘I have a garden full of grapes. You can have the seeds and make your own garden at home. You will enjoy them with your wife and children’. This is a man who taught me everything, from designing and building machines. I knew the dream wasn’t about grapes but was opening my eyes about starting on my own,” says Manaka.

It all started in 1982, when Manaka, at the age of 25, was working at a company in Johannesburg called Fluidex Engineering. In those days, during apartheid, Manaka was denied opportunities because he was black. Povazan, an engineer from the Czech Republic, taught him everything he knows, including how to build oil purifying machines.

“In 1986, I was sent to Olifantsfontein Trade Test Centre to get a qualification as a machine designer and fitter, and I was the only black man being tested that week. My white counterparts told me I won’t make it. Indeed, I was the only one who failed,” says Manaka.

READ MORE: Meet The Young Robotics Entrepreneur Who Got A Dream Deal With Apple

Despite not getting a qualification, Manaka worked even harder for success. It paid off; he was promoted to chief designer until the company was bought by Remex Engineering in 2007.

The new owner promised Manaka shares after he spent two years recruiting and training others. One of his recruits was his nephew Johannes Manaka, who still works with him.

“Johannes is now a designer and a machine builder like me. He learned from the best and my son, Sello, is an academic person, so he is our paperwork guy,” he says.

While working for Remex, Manaka says a Malaysian businessman gave his team work to build machines for export. Manaka went to Malaysia to train people to build and maintain these machines.

“After I worked for two years for Remex I went to remind the boss about his promise of shares, but I was hurt a lot when he told me it was just a verbal agreement. He said I can go wherever, he wasn’t honoring that. So, I pulled out.”

In early 2010, with his teacher wife, Manaka took his pension fund to register his family business Machoroma Oil Specialists. The company designs and builds turbine oil purification plants, transformer purification plants and hydraulic purification plants, for mines and engineering companies.

With the little money he had, Manaka could only design a prototype machine but he struggled to get businesses to buy in. He went to Kelvin Power Station, owned by Investec and Nedbank Capital, with a proposal.

“I went there with piles of paper to show them designs for my prototype machine. They told me they couldn’t help me because they needed to see a physical machine that I can show them. I tried by all means to raise money, I even went to Nedbank for a personal loan,” he says.

Manaka got a R100,000 loan ($7,000). With this loan, and the money from his pension, Manaka built the first machine in his garage.

“I started buying and putting parts together building components until I was in the process of building a prototype plant costing roughly about R300,000 ($21,000),” he says.

But the money wasn’t enough to complete the machine, so Manaka took a job as a maintenance foreman at Baymont Holdings to earn the rest.

On weekends, Manaka continued assembling the machine in his garage.

READ MORE: Entrepreneurs Born Or Made?

When the machine was built and standing, Manaka says it was difficult for him to penetrate the market. He went back to Kelvin Power Station to show them his machine that produced up to 10,000 liters of recycled oil per hour. Unfortunately, the power station was no longer interested.

Early this year, through the Ekurhuleni Municipality in Johannesburg’s East Rand, Manaka learned of Lepharo, an engineering and base metal incubation center in Springs.

“Manaka is one of over 100 clients incubated for the purpose of assisting with overall business compliance, access to fund and access to market. The workshop he is renting is subsidized by the center, however he can only rent it for a period of 12 months, this is to ensure that he pays marketed related costs to ensure competitiveness,” says Matimba Makaringe, Business Development Manager at Lepharo.

“They are helping us with marketing and paperwork,” says Manaka.

While Manaka is waiting for his payday for his oil purifying machine, he has not given up on his dream of teaching.

Manaka says he is inundated with calls for his expertise, but none have money behind them.

When FORBES AFRICA visited his home in September, Manaka was in his garage designing a new wax water oil separation machine commissioned by ChemSystems, a company in Chloorkop in Kempton Park.

“I call myself an industrialist, because I start these machines from scratch and I make them happen. I am the best man to build these machines to specifications. If I were to build a machine, I need as little as R250,000 ($17,500) to over R5 million ($350,000), for a machine or plant that can be used at a parastatal, like Eskom. But, as a black company and small company, businesspeople are still reluctant to work with us and see how we can help the country move forward,” he says.

Manaka says countries around the world are encouraged to stay away from nuclear and coal-powered stations – and that’s exactly what his creations are about.

“If I’m allowed the space and resources, we will be able to build machines for Africa and for exporting… The kind of machines that are out there are the same as those I built in 1989, nothing has changed except operations, meaning that they are only changing from manual to automatic. There are no innovations,” says Manaka.

Like his machines, Manaka wants to run as long as he can. – Written by Permla Ramakobya


Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm





Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”


– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria



With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.


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The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck




Don’t tell Akin Alabi there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. He just might tell you off.

At 41, he has built multiple businesses and is making money and time for more.

Alabi is the founder of NairaBET, Nigeria’s first and leading sports betting platform, a company he started in 2009 after he identified what he calls “a starving crowd”.

By that, he means a customer base willing and able to pay for services enough for him to make a sizeable profit.

Besides NairaBET, Alabi owns a small football club, has a book-writing business, is into digital marketing, business coaching and seminars, and is also contesting for a seat in parliament in the 2019 Nigerian elections.

The entrepreneur-investor likes to spend his days identifying specific gaps in the market and providing solutions to address them.

READ MORE: Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

Over the years, he has identified many ‘starving crowds’. He found the first one just after completing a diploma in business administration in 2001. At the time, there was a growing desire for Nigerian youth to travel abroad, especially to Canada, in search of greener pastures.

According to data from the Canadian immigration service, as many as 27,625 immigrants from Nigeria were residing in Canada by 2011.

Alabi tried his luck too.

In 2001, after his visa got rejected, he decided to collate his experiences navigating the complicated visa application process and sell that knowledge online to first-time applicants.

“So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,”

“I started downloading information tutorials and videos about the Canadian application process. I put all the information together and said some people will be interested in this so let me put it out there for sale. So in January 2003, I launched my first business, which was selling information products, and the first information product was this Canadian visa package,” says Alabi.

The guide was an instant hit. Alabi was selling it at N10,000 ($28) per copy and over 100 copies later, he knew he had struck a gold mine. It was time to find other crowds. Alabi decided to share his experiences making money online through his new startup in another how-to guide, which also found demand. After the success of the two digital products, Alabi decided to register his company at the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).

“I went there myself and I did everything myself and I was surprised I didn’t need a lawyer. So I created another information product – how to register your business with the CAC without a lawyer in 21 days or less. I put that out and people were buying. So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,” says Alabi.

He had stumbled on a booming industry. According to Stratistics MRC, the global e-learning market accounted for $165.21 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $275.10 billion by 2022 growing at a CAGR of 7.5% during the forecast period. The flexible learning, low cost and easy accessibility of the market bolstered by the increasing proliferation in the internet during the dotcom boom, presented Alabi with a hungry market eager to grab anything offered online.

Akin Alabi. Photo provided.

Alabi’s story is one of organic growth. Setting goals and achieving them is a prominent theme in his new book Small Business, Big Money: How to Start, Grow, and Turn Your Small Business Into a Cash Generating Machine, where he presents a practical guide for startups looking to scale.

“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be rich. I was fixated on wealth because I did not experience wealth growing up. It is something I believe gives you freedom. Freedom to do things you really wanted to do and freedom to impact this world. You can help the less privileged and also give your family the basic comfort of everything they want,” says Alabi. “I know money is not the most important thing in life but it is reasonably close to oxygen in terms of importance.”

After the success of his digital offerings, business began to slow down, but Alabi wanted more growth. He decided he would venture out of Nigeria to the land of milk and honey, in search of that elusive wealth.

“I got to the UK and wanted to work. I looked at the potential of what I could make and after four months, reality dawned on me. I didn’t want to become an illegal immigrant and felt I was better off doing what I was doing in Nigeria. So I said ‘I had something going for me, it might not be big but there was potential’. I said ‘let me go back and make it bigger’. I was not investing in the business so it was time to do it properly.”

But before leaving the UK, a chance encounter with the bookers would lead to the serial entrepreneur’s most lucrative venture yet. His brother called him from London while he was in the town of Milton Keynes to make a bet in an online sports shop for a football game so they could win some money.

“So I played and I made some money and then I played again and I lost and I played again and I won. And I said ‘wow, anybody can do this and people in Nigeria will love it’. So I wrote down on paper, how to make money from football betting. It was just 14 pages and I put it online and I called my friend in Nigeria to help me go and run an advert in the local newspapers,” says Alabi.

He invested N200,000 ($555) in the advert and made N450,000 ($1,248). That demand was going to progress from online content to a new customer base wanting a platform to bet on sports.

READ MORE: Success Is In The Bag For This Entrepreneur

“So those that bought the information product from me started reaching out to me that the website I recommended they should bet on did not work in Nigeria. And I was like ‘wow, you people are actually taking this seriously’. They wanted to place bets from $100 to $750. So I got thinking, these people are actually sending money to me abroad to place bets for them. Isn’t there anyone in Nigeria that has a business like this? And there was no one. So I said to myself ‘I have to create this platform’.”

That was almost a decade ago. He could not afford the software to create the platform at the time, which cost almost $1 million so he used a local developer to create his first platform. Today, NairaBET, a major player in the online sports betting market, has steadily transformed itself from just a football betting platform to a 360-degree sports booking platform covering digital, SMS, apps and retail betting. And, they have a new million-euro software upgrade in place, according to Alabi.

The total value of the global sports betting market is difficult to estimate because of the lack of consistency in how it is regulated in some parts of the world. Betting makes up about 30% to 40% of the global gambling market, which also includes lotteries, casinos, poker and other gaming, according to a report in Reuters.

This has led to challenges regulating the sector in Nigeria with issues arising from double taxation from the Lagos State government. But Alabi is hopeful these issues will be resolved once there is proper legislation of the sector. In the meantime, he is betting on a career in Nigerian politics and the corridors of power.

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