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From Football To Fashion



On a scorching hot day, we travel to the Zola area of Soweto, a township south of Johannesburg in South Africa.

Despite the soaring mercury, the trip is worth it.

Zola was known to be home to some of South Africa’s greatest musicians including Brenda Fassie, Mandoza and M’du, as well as soccer players John ‘Shoes’ Lesiba Moshoeu of Orlando Pirates and Mongezi Joel ‘Ace’ Mnini of Moroka Swallows.

Now, it’s also home to a promising fashion designer.

The small town, with a rough population of 44,000, is where self-taught South African designer Zamaswazi Nkosi crafts his creations for the city’s catwalks.

Nkosi greets us by the corrugated gates of the entrance to his compound dressed in a blue golf shirt featuring an African print pattern – the same shirt he showcased at the South African Fashion Week (SAFW) Spring/Summer 2017. His pants complement the look, along with blue loafers and a white fedora.

Ushering us in, he politely offers to carry some of our equipment. The genial, soft-spoken Nkosi then shows us around.

His workspace, which was once a garage, is attached to his bedroom. Clothes hang on a rack next to the door. Two sewing machines sit at the corner of the room with fabric, needles and thread neatly stacked beside them. Next to them is a table where he irons his garments. You can tell he is a one-man army.

The wall on the opposite side of the room is filled with a collage of photographs, newspaper clippings and awards. A headline from The Citizen reads: “A daring designer”.

“My love for fashion started the day I had no clothes to wear,” Nkosi opens.

READ MORE: New Kids On The Fashion Block

Growing up with a single mother and as one of six siblings, he was forced to improve his circumstances at home. He developed the art of restoration.

“It started with reviving the old to new. Sometimes I would take my sisters’ clothes and redo them so that I could have something to wear,” he says.

Little did he know at the time his innovations would one day be part of the fabric of high fashion in South Africa.

Nkosi began by sewing clothes using his mother’s old sewing machine. From there, he would piece together fabric lying around the house.

“I took my mother’s tablecloth, I stole it actually,” he admits.

Nkosi then crafted the tablecloth with a shirt of his to create an entirely new piece. He enjoyed reinventing things and it’s evident in the clothes he designs and puts together today.

However, Nkosi wasn’t always into fashion. On the wall with the photos, are also the trophies and medals he has won, not for fashion, but for football.

They all date back to the time Nkosi was into soccer. As a teenager, he was a midfielder.

“I was called ‘Teko’ from Teko Modise,” he says.

He imagined becoming a world-class football player in his 20s limbering up preparing for soccer war in the stadiums.

But that dream was shattered when an injury changed the course of his life forever.

This happened when he was 16, playing football in Soweto.

“I got tackled from behind. That was when my knee twisted,” he says.

He didn’t see a doctor, and continued to play. Only now does he regret not going for treatment.

“I thought that maybe if I felt better I could play. Only to find out that I was damaging it and it became worse. Then there was a point where I realized it was no longer working.”

Nkosi was devastated that he may never get the chance to play football again.

He was grieving the loss of his first love not knowing he would find something he would enjoy doing, again.

His sister consoled him and encouraged him to start something new. That’s when he did some serious soul-searching. After weighing his pros and cons, he started thinking of himself as a fashion designer.

“Being a fashion designer, it’s somewhat like a calling. Because I didn’t just wake up and decide to be one or be inspired by someone,” he says.

Fashion taking over his life came as some sort of divine intervention. He says he has never looked back since.

Zamaswazi Nkosi. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

He accepted this calling and hosted fashion shows within his community, in Zola. It seemed the needle – in more ways than one – was turning in his favor.

His first show had only 10 people attending, but that did not discourage him.

Nkosi then attended a SAFW event with the hope he could one day showcase his work on the platform. He watched closely the designs of one of his favorite South African designers, David Tlale, on the runway.

“I told myself ‘no man, I can do this’.”

There was just one hurdle. He had no academic qualifications for the job.

“On big platforms like SAFW they normally require fashion qualifications like a diploma or anything that relates to fashion. So, as Zamaswazi, I had nothing on paper. I only had skill,” he says.

After countless rejections, he one day garnered the courage to speak to the founder of SAFW, Lucilla Booyzen. A nervous but determined 24-year-old Nkosi walked up to her after one of the shows.

Booyzen told Nkosi to do what he had already done before. “Just apply,” she said.

But Nkosi was not having it. The young boy from the township was determined.

“I was like, ‘no if you need paper [qualifications] and I’m dressing my own clothes and it’s proper, why can’t you let me showcase’?”

READ MORE: Designs For Africa, And Michelle Obama

She then told him to come to her office and talk about opportunities. And the rest was history.

He had to prepare a proposal and showcase his work to a number of top fashionistas. It included creating a fashion portfolio, storyboard and designs of his pieces.

“It took me two weeks to even know what ‘portfolio’ is. That’s how I learned,” says Nkosi.

He was then shortlisted for the ‘scouting menswear collection’ in association with GQ magazine in 2015.

The platform brought his designs to life and Nkosi got his first break at SAFW.

Nkosi has showcased his designs at SAFW events, designing clothes for men that are modern with an African twist. His signature is the hemmed-in African print on to modern clothing. Much like the shirt he is wearing at this interview.

Nkosi relates this to his heritage and humble beginnings that forced him to merge different kinds of material into one. Unlike some of the other designers at sought-after fashion showcases such as SAFW, Nkosi says he designs and sews his clothes himself.

In his hometown Soweto, his friends and neighbors still can’t believe the boy who once played soccer swapped the ball for a sewing machine.

After the interview, he courteously helps us again to carry out our equipment.

Parked outside his house is his red vintage Beetle car with the word ‘Zamaswazi’ engraved on it. He bought the car last year.

Even though the engine doesn’t run he says he plans to work on it so he can do the six-hour drive to attend the annual Durban July.

The trendy man in the white fedora riding a red vintage car through the scenic green landscapes of South Africa to attend a premium horseracing event – it’s a pretty picture indeed.

Zamaswazi Nkosi designs and sews his clothes himself. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.


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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