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The Man Who Founded One Of Africa’s Luxurious Trains

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The private railway station at Capital Park in Pretoria suddenly turns into a scene from a colonial movie, complete with sound effects.

A locomotive noisily chugs into view on the platform, returning from a three-day journey to Cape Town. Liveried staff formally line up to welcome the arriving guests.

“It’s finally here,” says Rohan Vos, the tall elderly gentleman on the platform.

A hiss and a screech and the locomotive, complete with suites, lounges and dining cars, grinds to a halt. The Rovos Rail train has arrived.

A mobile stairway is set up for guests whilst staff collect luggage. Vos waits to greet the alighting passengers.

“Welcome to Pretoria,” he says cheerfully, shaking hands.

Receiving guests has been a tradition for Vos for 29 years, ever since he started Rovos Rail.

“It started off as a hobby I suppose and at the end of the day, I can only be happy pursuing my hobby as an occupation,” Vos tells FORBES AFRICA of his successful – and growing – railway business.

READ MORE: The $2,000 Train Ticket

An hour before the train’s arrival, we meet Vos in the luxury carriage of another one of his locomotives with red and green velvet upholstery, and featuring classical furniture and glossy wood panels.

Rovos Rail offers five-star services onboard, taking discerning passengers to Cape Town, Durban, Victoria Falls and Namibia, from its hub in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria.

A ride on the luxury train can cost between R18,000 ($1,338) and R40,000 ($2,971) depending on the suite-options. Vos’ clients are from all over the world.

Rohan Vos greets his guests everytime they step off the train. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“Seventy five percent of our passengers come as a result of our efforts in getting them to South Africa. And that’s a very pleasing thought,” he says, proud of being able to contribute to South Africa’s tourism sector.

“Initially, we were living off tourists already in the country. But after five to seven years of operation, we were creating tourists [for] the country.”

A cross between a luxury hotel and a train tourism service, Vos says it took him a while to get it rolling.

It all started with Vos wanting to save the steam engine locomotives from being phased out and replaced by modern diesel trains. It was a challenge he was willing to take up.

Having been involved in the automotive industry, Vos and his friend at the time would collect old spare parts of trains and refurbish them.

He soon wanted his own locomotives.

He then decided to service the trains and sell tickets for each journey in order for it to become a lucrative business.

But one thing hindered the then 40-something Vos at the time. He had no experience in the railway and locomotive industry, nor in the tourism industry.

Yet, he attempted to sell both the experience of a train journey and inland tours.

He says it took the business five years to break even.

“I was petrified for at least three of the five years. The first two years were fun, settling down and getting to understand the product. But when we were chucking money every day, it becomes a bit boring especially when you run out of it,” Vos says.

It was a complete nightmare for Vos and his family. Luckily, his wife, Anthea, stood by him and raised their four children whilst he tried to keep the business afloat.

In gratitude, Vos decided to name the different locomotives of Rovos Rail after each of his children – Brenda, Bianca, Tiffany and Shaun.

“By then, I had sold my house, my cars and boats and planes…I had sold everything I could possibly sell to rake in cash,” he says.

Despite the losses and lack of sleep, Vos endured. He was determined to make it work.

“I had been my own boss since the age of 20, so to suddenly face the idea of failure was just not acceptable,” Vos said.

It was this tenacity that helped despite the naysayers around him. He didn’t care for them.

“I didn’t think we could compete at all but I was quite happy with that thought because I thought our product is so different to everybody else’s and that we have a niche and we must just polish that niche,” Vos says.

In 1996, the business began to pick up slowly and thereafter, started to attract more customers through word-of-mouth.

Today, Rovos Rail employs 415 staff, up from the 70 he started with. The company now runs six trains at a time; something Vos is proud of.

Next year, Vos and his team celebrate Rovos’ 30th anniversary.

“If you had asked me then did I think if we would be where we are today, I would have laughed, I would have not thought it was possible,” he says now.

Vos is the type of leader who involves himself in every aspect of the business, be it doubling up as an accountant, or even playing electrician and tour guide. His staff attest to it.

With Vos busy in preparations for the train to arrive, Rovos Rail’s sales manager Ian Morrison had taken us for a tour around the facility and the yard.

The teams keep the rolling stock in order, spray-painting the trains’ royal green exteriors, sawing wood for the interiors and also packing food parcels for the next trip.

Everything for the train is created or recycled at the Rovos workshop.

“Vos has been incredible in [creating] luxury in such a small space,” says Morrison, who has been with the company for the last five years.

“Rovos Rail is a first world business in a third world country.”

Gert Van Vuuren at the Rovos museum says steam locomotives have been his passion all his life. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Morrison takes us to a museum where one of Rovos Rail’s first drivers is now turning his love for locomotives into a hobby. The museum has inside it miniature trains, tracks and stations, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

In 1998, Gert Van Vuuren started his journey as the driver of a steam train.

“My whole life, I have enjoyed steam locomotives. It’s my passion,” he tells us.

Five years ago, he became a pensioner.

“Mr Vos asked me to come back and build this museum for him from scratch, so now I’m back on track,” he says smiling.

A miniature version of the Rovos Rail built by Gert Van Vurren. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Vuuren is one of the many who has seen the business grow to where it is today. In his office are old photos of him, in the driver’s seat of a steam train. He holds these memories very close.

As for Vos, at the age of 72, he still has enough energy to keep the business going. He plans to expand the routes into Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi.

“Wherever there’s a railway line, I am now attracted and I think [the] railways are beginning to gain traction again in Africa,” says Vos, signing off.

His train chugs out of the station, whistling and fading away into the horizon and the sunset to yet another dreamy journey and destination.

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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