Every household has a dirty carpet and that’s where I literally made my first buck as a businessman,” says Base Sebonego, beaming at the memory.
That first buck came in 1995 with a one-man carpet cleaning company. Sixteen years later, Sebonego is a multimillionaire through turning ideas into money.
In a highly educated and developing country, where the private sector has relied heavily on government patronage for its survival, Sebonego is the exception. In fact he shatters the historical mould of a successful Motswana businessman in a country where you find well-schooled university graduates in the most menial of jobs. He failed high school; has never been to a business school; started his business with no bank loan or help from government empowerment schemes. Yet, at the age of 37, he has rubbed shoulders with Botswana’s movers and shakers and amassed a fortune.
Sebonego’s investment portfolio straddles property, insurance broking, textile manufacturing, road construction and he has recently added mining to his repertoire.
Sebonego’s life is the quintessential rags to riches story. Standing at just over 5’4”, his unpolished English vocabulary belies the medley of ideas his brain is constantly digesting. Doing this interview was not easy either. With several appointment cancellations, more than a couple of double bookings that resulted in postponements, the piecemeal interview suffered the interruptions of a mobile phone that rang incessantly and streamed a barrage of SMSes.
“I have so many things happening at the same time, but nowadays I have come to accept that I do need a personal assistant,” he says rather apologetically. As disorganized as he is, that is his modus operandi, and it seems to have worked well for him.
Sebonego was destined to be a businessman. Despite being one of the best students doing pure sciences at high school in Maun in the late 1980s, he often skipped school and spent much of his time at the “driving school of a family friend, fascinated by the number of clients he had and the money this guy was making”.
“I was… (he counts with his fingers) …just 15 years old. What else was I supposed to do with my father away on trips half the time?”
In 1994, after obtaining a certificate in Animal Health and Production at a technical college, Sebonego worked for the government for six months before absconding to sell insurance. This helped him buy his first car, a brand new Toyota Tazz, a far cry from the Range Rover Sport and CLK 63 AMG he currently drives.
The following year, armed with a bucket, brush and a car wash pressure machine, he headed for Francistown, Botswana’s northern city. He did his insurance work alongside washing carpets.
“I targeted schools where government housed teachers in a village set-up. I would literally knock at any of the front doors and offer to clean their carpet for free. The neighbor would see the carpet hanging on the fence to dry, and by the end of the week all the carpets in that neighborhood would be clean and my pocket would be full.”
But charging 20 pula ($2.95) to clean a carpet was not enough. He moved to a bigger client, Supreme Furnishers, a furniture company where he charged an unbelievable P9,000 ($1,330). This job, he says, was a watershed that showed him he could actually make a lot of money.
It was at this time that Sebonego met a woman who operated a cash loan business from Palapye, 160 kilometers away. The two of them talked, she liked his entrepreneurial intuitiveness and determination; the following week, Sebonego was in Palapye working as a partner in the business. In 2001, cash loaning by non-commercial banks was a relatively new business system in Botswana. Sebonego’s contribution to the business was the introduction of a commission-based sales team, a concept he borrowed from his three-year stint in the insurance industry. He targeted people like teachers, unions, bank employees and even parastatal institutions. The pair opened up outlets in four other towns because, like Sebonego observes, “people will always need money, and how far it comes from, they don’t care”.
The money and power bug bit him and he wanted more. He wanted to be in control, so he parted ways with his partner and took over the Palapye operation.
I ask him if he is a greedy businessman. The man, who never fails to extol God and his eternal belief in Him, jumps out of his chair before settling back down.
“Let me tell you something, I am a seriously, seriously, seriously spiritual guy. When I see someone struggling I feel really bad. I once pounced on the property of a client of mine who worked for a local bank. She was dodgy because she had evaded me several times instead of renegotiating her repayment plan. I took possession of her TV and radio set. I remember feeling terrible about it, but I was going to sell them off if she hadn’t come to pay me, which she did that evening.”
Even though the cash loan business gave him more than a healthy bank balance, it was to be his next business that would catapult him into the multi-millionaire league. It began with a chat over a barbeque with some lawyer friends and gave rise to his next big idea. His friends complained of having trouble with their clients, many of whom were unable to settle their legal bills. Sebonego’s brains were already in overdrive.
After a year of research and product development, Sebonego launched Mosele Legal Services in 2004. The idea was simple; a legal aid subscription-based business that would outsource clients’ cases to other law firms. He approached the Citizen Empowerment Development Agency (CEDA) for a P100,000 ($14,730) loan but was turned down. “They said it was not a viable project even though I had no competitor, it was a tried and tested model in South Africa and if they had the capacity to give millions of pula worth of loans, what was the problem?”
Once again drawing on his past experience as an insurance consultant, he carried on with the concept of sales reps. He offered shares to an attorney, whose responsibility was to interact with fellow lawyers. The company soared to dizzying heights, reaching around 20,000 subscribers in a couple of years.
“A very productive and ambitious young fellow who always aimed for greater heights,” says Paul Chitate, Sebonego’s former boss at Botswana Life Insurance. Chitate now owns First Sun Alliance, a successful insurance broking firm. “I am proud of him as a person I trained who went on to use his experience as an insurance consultant to develop his own products.”
Booze flowed, women were plentiful and entertainment was endless until everything came down like a pack of cards. In 2008, the company was dragged before the high court by its underwriter, the Botswana Insurance Company (BIC). BIC sought an audit of Mosele Legal Services after reports of illegal insurance practices, fraud and money laundering. BIC flexed their muscle. Comprising a consortium of political, business and legal heavy-weights, including former president Festus Mogae, it was a given that battling with a giant like BIC was going to be messy. It was. It was also a public relations nightmare for Mosele.
“They just wanted to rattle my business from under me,” says Sebonego. He spreads his hands on the table as if distracted. “I saw it as a hostile takeover. These guys are the titans of the economy and I don’t have a big surname or the money on my side, but the truth set me free.” The high court threw out the claims as unsubstantiated rumors.
Sebonego claims Mosele now has 34,000 subscribers. But with such an extensive investment portfolio, how much is Sebonego really worth? Getting such information as the net worth of any businessman is a tough business in Botswana. A culture of secrecy tantamount to the culture of Swiss banks prevails amongst businessmen who refuse to divulge their investment interests. Even a bill that seeks to compel politicians to declare their assets has been floating around parliament for over a decade. But for Sebonego, divulging details about his worth is a particularly sensitive subject which borders on paranoia.
“There is a serious problem of the ‘pull-him-down’ syndrome in this country. When people see you climb the ladder or when they know how much you are worth, they want to see you down—down—down,” he jabs the air with his index finger pointing downwards. “We don’t band together like the Chinese or Indians or Zimbabweans to help each other. This country is dirty,” he continues. “You survive best when people don’t know anything about you.” Sebonego says this kills entrepreneurship which survives on role-modeling for upcoming entrepreneurs. This reference to the ‘pull-him-down’ syndrome is such a common thread throughout the interview it is hard to imagine it as anything but the truth.
Seasoned Sunday Standard journalist Prof Malema admits to the difficulty of finding information on the assets of businessmen in Botswana. This is compounded by the fact that many of these businesses are not floated on the Botswana Stock Exchange. He concurs that Sebonego may be a multi-millionaire, but he says the Mosele Legal Services court case dealt a huge blow to his net worth. “His construction business is not so big but his new company, Home Assist, the one modeled on Mosele, has the potential to become big.”
Home Assist is one of Sebonego’s latest pet projects. It is a home maintenance guarantee scheme for subscribers. Another is the setting up of a weekly newspaper to report “the real stories”.
Preparations are at an advanced stage and the weekly is expected to hit the streets within the next two months.
“Five years from now, I want to be the biggest small-stock producer in Botswana or the region and have my own commercial bank,” he giggles and rubs his hands together as if he can’t wait.
For a man claiming to be the cleanest businessman in the land and to win business without political connections, it sure would be a giant leap from the carpet cleaner of 1995.
Sebonego’s rags-to-riches story mirrors that of his country. At independence in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world with a largely illiterate rural population. The country has since observed the highest average growth rate in the world, thanks to huge diamond deposits and a government that exercised prudent fiscal management.
The economy is slowly recovering from the hard knocks of the 2009 global recession.
But the International Monetary Fund says the economy is staging an impressive recovery with the help of rapidly rising prices for rough diamonds. The IMF says since the second quarter of 2010, Botswana’s pace of economic growth has been one of the strongest among middle income countries.
The government of Botswana expects the country’s 2011-2012 GDP to surpass the P101.5 billion ($15 billion) mark in current prices. The country continues to enjoy good credit ratings internationally. Unemployment stands at 17.5% with more than 30% of the population living below the poverty line. The government has embarked on a privatization drive and outsourcing of non-core services, albeit at a slow pace.
Foreign exchange reserves stood at P54.9 billion ($8.1 billion), enough to cover 18 months of imported goods and services. The average year-on-year inflation was 6.9% in 2010 according to the country’s Ministry of Finance.
Gordon Ramsay Plots 100 US Restaurants With New Private Equity Deal
On a given day at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, chef Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous pub and grill will make around $20,000 from fish and chips. The 1,200-square-foot space sees around 1,300 guests a day. Since debuting on the strip in 2012, Ramsay has added another location in Atlantic City.
Combined, both have sold more than 300,000 fish and chips dishes. “It’s taken the nation by storm. I look at the lines outside the door,” Ramsay told Forbes on the phone earlier this week.
His steak restaurant, which launched seven years ago at Caesars’ Paris Las Vegas Hotel, has meanwhile expanded to Atlantic City and Baltimore, luring diners with beef Wellingtons (more than 250,000 sold since 2012) and sticky toffee puddings (more than 200,000 sold).
That kind of demand needs to be taken advantage of quickly. Which is why a year ago, Ramsay started looking for a partner to help him rapidly expand these brands. “I wasn’t ready to pedal this bike up a hill on my own. That would take me another 15 years,” Ramsay says. “Let’s get this thing done.”
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And now Ramsay has inked a deal with Lion Capital, a private equity outfit with offices in London and Los Angeles, which has scaled restaurants like wagamama, the pan-Asian noodle chain, as well as brands like Kettle chips and Jimmy Cho. Lion now owns 50% of Gordon Ramsay North America, while the other 50% is controlled by Ramsay.
He declined to comment on the size of the transaction, but the deal stipulates that Lion will invest $100 million over five years to build an empire of Gordon Ramsay restaurants across America. The joint venture expects to open 100 new locations across the U.S by 2024.
“I fell in love with this country 20 years ago. There’s a will here. My goal, right now, is to establish one of the most exciting food brands in America,” Ramsay says. “Being a control freak, I needed the right partner on board. There’s a lot of businesses that don’t like that kind of stranglehold. For me, the partnership was crucial.”
Ramsay already has eight restaurants across Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Baltimore in partnership with Caesars Entertainment. There’s five concepts in Las Vegas, of which three are brands that will be expanded through the new deal — Gordon Ramsay Steak, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips.
“Vegas has been the most amazing platform. Everyone thinks it is just full of partying and entertainment, but it’s one of the most severe and revered culinary capitals anywhere in the world. You don’t get a second shot at it,” Ramsay says.
The deal will also bring two more concepts to the U.S.: Gordon Ramsay Street Pizza and Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen, which he calls “a modern Cheesecake Factory.” It already has successful locations in London, Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore.
Ramsay is a six-time Celebrity 100 listmaker who earned $62 million last year, mainly from his television deal with Fox, in which he produces and stars in shows MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef Jr. as well as 24 Hours to Hell and Back.
“It may seem aggressive, but we’re not opening up 80 or 90 of the same restaurant. We’re crossing over with a multilayered brand. That’s the bit that I’ve worked hard at. We’ve divided and conquered.”
Ramsay’s 15 restaurants in London won’t be impacted by the Lion Capital investment. The announcement comes just a few weeks after British chef Jamie Oliver announced that all but three of his 25 restaurants in the U.K. will close.
“It’s a very oversaturated market there, and you need to be very careful with that level of expansion. It’s unfortunate to see the situation he got himself into, but that’s what happens when you’ve got a juggernaut that’s out of control, as opposed to being in control,” Ramsay says. “I’ve sat patiently, learning from other people’s mistakes.”=
-Chloe Sorvino; Forbes Staff
Pain, Poison And Potential
For a man who wanted to end his life at one time, it is quite ironic that Steve Harris is today one of Nigeria’s most successful life and business strategists.
Being born into a lower middle class family is one thing; trying to make a name for yourself after dropping out of university twice is another. That is what Steve Harris, a life and business strategist and motivational speaker, fondly known as ‘Mr. Ruthless Execution’, has accomplished.
Harris learned the sinusoidal motions of the entrepreneurship journey very early in life.
At 40, he is the Chief Executive Officer of EdgeEcution, an organization that helps high performance individuals and institutions bridge the gap between their performance and potential.
Today, he is among one of the most downloaded, quoted and followed personal development trainers in Nigeria, a feat that is outstanding when you consider that he almost committed suicide before this journey even began.
The events leading up to his worst day began to unfold when Harris gained admission into the University of Benin in Nigeria. His parents wanted him to become an engineer but his failure to attain the required grades meant he had to take the Industrial Maths class instead. That is when his emotional saga began.
“I had altercations with my lecturers and I was flunking because I was not cut out for math. I had issues with my lecturers because at the time, my department was the most corrupt department in the university and if you wanted to pass, you needed to bribe your lecturers. So they were pretty much a cartel and if you didn’t pay, you wouldn’t pass, so someone like me who at best was a C student became an F student.”
As a result, he scored 4% or 11% in his exams even when he had prepared well enough.
“I eventually got kicked out [of university] in 2004.”
Harris managed to get into a private university but this time, he was required to start all over again.
“I couldn’t go the distance and I dropped out in my seventh month. I couldn’t handle it because my mates were already working. My younger sister was also already working and I was going back to my first year of university. I started having suicidal thoughts and I couldn’t handle it anymore so I dropped out.”
Those suicidal thoughts would come back to haunt him later.
Being the first-born of three children, Harris was the one most likely to succeed. As fate would have it, his two failed attempts at university made him the black sheep of the family.
“I remember coming back home and my younger sister had graduated and my parents were super stoked, and here I am, the first child and I didn’t even get it together. Very quickly, she got a job and started earning money. She began buying things for the house and taking care of responsibilities and started giving me an allowance. I remember she gave me N10,000 ($28) and I was very grateful because I didn’t have any money,” says Harris.
“Like all African parents, my parents started complaining and reminding me about how I wasted their money and how I failed. How the children of others were working in [companies like] Shell and I was just at home.
“I would hide from friends and family members when they visited so I wouldn’t have to tell them my situation. The next month, my sister gave me N5,000 ($14) and I couldn’t ask her where the other N5,000 had gone. She was such a high-flyer that within six months, she moved into her own place and bought a car and here I am, first-born and I couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas card,” avers Harris.
Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“One day, my sister asked me to come over to her house for my monthly allowance. I went in and she had everything I wanted, she had a flat-screen TV, the whole nine yards, and I was just sitting there comparing my little sister with myself and I was thinking ‘there is no way I was ever going to catch up with her’. We were talking and in the middle of the conversation, I pissed her off and she said, ‘I am not even going to give you any more money’ and she kicked me out of her house.
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“I felt so embarrassed and ashamed and here I was, the one who everyone thought was most likely to succeed and I was being kicked out of my younger sister’s house because I didn’t have money. That messed with my mind. I remember sitting at home and I had bought rat poison. I kept thinking that it would be so much better to die than being alive and subjected to the misery I was giving my parents,” says Harris.
As he sat down with the box of poison, mentally preparing himself to end the pain and embarrassment he had brought to his family, one of his siblings walked into the house, in the nick of time.
“That is what stopped me. Then, I also found out that if you commit suicide, you will go to hell and here I am, living my own hell on earth and if I died, you are telling me I am going to be in hell forever?”
That was the wakeup call Harris so desperately needed.
He began to work his way up, starting off with volunteer jobs such as being a church driver for his pastor and also working as an office assistant with Fela Durotoye, a management consultant and recent presidential candidate of the Nigerian elections.
Harris grew through the ranks until he became a management consultant before starting off on his own entrepreneurial journey. Amid the challenges of finding his true purpose, certain thoughts came to his mind that changed his outlook towards life forever. He began asking himself: ‘why am I on this earth?’, ‘how can I make enough money to take care of myself and my family?’ and ‘how do I use my talent to help others?’
He found the answers in books on business written by authors such as Tom Peters and Michael Porter. That is when Harris first discovered he had a penchant for success.
And with his ability to overcome failure, Harris is now on a mission to empower millennials to look inward at their strengths and inner power, and with his able guidance, build brands that can beat the odds and survive, just as he did.
Rewriting The News On Africa
African media can reverse the downward spiral affecting newsrooms across the continent, says APO Group chairman, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard.
The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. As a result, newsrooms have been forced to make monumental changes such as reducing the staff complement to keep up with the demands, or they have simply had to shut down.
With some African newsrooms being written out of history, there has been an emergence of international media setting up shop on the continent. This interest serves as a double-edged sword for African media that often finds itself under-resourced.
Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, the founder and chairman of the APO Group, is of the view that the African media landscape has faced challenges that precede digital migration, which have compounded existing problems. An incident that stands out for him, before the digitizing of media, was a lack of access to information for African reporters, and that propelled him to start one of the foremost media relations firms on the continent.
When he was a journalist for online publication, Gabonews, and the deputy president of the Pan-African Press Organisation in France, between 2005 and 2007, Pompigne-Mognard says this was a recurring problem hampering the productivity of African reporters.
“If you wanted the right to attend an international press conference, you would need an official card.
“As an African correspondent, the only way for you to have that card and get access was to prove that you were getting at least €1,000 ($1,121) of earnings, and most of them didn’t have that,” says Pompigne-Mognard.
“It was rooted in disparity. If you have two journalists and one of them has the right card and the other doesn’t, then of course, the other one cannot do his job. He cannot earn money or write articles.
“More than that, it reinforced the dependence of African media on international media. They had no other choice but to rely on the information provided by the biggest media.”
To remedy the circumstances that seemed to disempower his peers on the continent, Pompigne-Mognard founded APO from his living room, using $11,000 in savings.
APO has grown since its inception as it provides a variety of media offerings such as press releases, videos, photos, documents and audio-files.
The company has sources such as global Fortune 1,000 companies, reputable international and Africa-based PR agencies, governments and international institutions.
“I didn’t start it to make money. I didn’t start it as a business. I wasn’t an entrepreneur at the time. I was a journalist and I wanted to address a problem. At the beginning, I wasn’t even aware that companies were paid to distribute press releases.”
Pompigne-Mognard has since realized many things through the medium of his company as APO delivered growth of 60% in 2018, representing a turnover that has more than doubled in two years.
As a correspondent of Gabonews, before the inception of his company, Pompigne-Mognard was covering Europe, and he had to report Africa-related news and needed information. As a result, he would ensure he was receiving as many press releases as possible; however, this came with its own logistic challenges.
“That’s when I realized it was extremely difficult to actually ensure I received all the press releases from institutions like the United Nations, as an example. There was not one point where I could get all the African information issued by the international system.
“Journalists had to rely on information that was on websites. It was very time-consuming to get access to all the content…
“It got me thinking about how if international media was not receiving information from our most important institutions, then what does that say about our voices in the world?”
A single conversation propelled him to make decisive change, Pompigne-Mognard says.
“I had a serious meeting with the president of the African Development Bank at the time, Donald Kaberuka, and he told me something that was instrumental because that’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it.
“What he told me is that the destination of information about African economies contributes to the growth of the continent, because at the time everybody was talking about poverty, war and struggle.”
Over the years, Pompigne-Mognard has observed a similar trend in the way press releases are compiled and disseminated.
He feels this has contributed in transforming the narrative on Africa.
“Something that is specific with press releases is that 95 percent of them convey good news. Usually, when a company issues one, it is to say that they are appointing a new CEO, they are opening a new branch, or they are expanding into new markets.
“We (APO) have been participating, for several years now, in changing the African narrative. We are in a unique place where we have a chance to influence the narrative and make sure that Africa has its own voice and is not influenced by the bias of international media.
Although information is accessible to those who seek it, he says there is currently another challenge that African media needs to resolve in order to maintain autonomy and make money to sustain itself.
“I think there is a big problem coming towards us and it is coming fast,” says a concerned Pompigne-Mognard.
“Nigeria is starting to watch more international media than the local media. Think about the international companies which are willing to expand on the continent. What if 10 years from now, the conclusion is that in the most developed economies on the continent, the nationals are watching more international media? Where exactly do we think the international companies are going to spend on advertisements?
“As an international company, why would I deal with five national TV stations in different countries, if I can approach a single international station and get, not only those five countries, but also better coverage?”
Pompigne-Mognard says the continent is ripe with potential and international media companies, which have observed the budding possibilities, are striking while the iron is hot.
“They know the population is going to grow, the middle class is growing and that purchasing power is growing.”
Finances remain a colossal inhibiter to the growth of newsrooms, as many have had to retrench to make ends meet.
The ripple effect is that the quality of the content produced eventually suffers.
“On a global scale, the media landscape is in a challenging position. It has become very difficult to finance content and to find new ways to make money. Africans also have the same challenges, but often they don’t have the same means or resources.
“I would prefer to be wrong on this matter, but if I’m right, in 15 years’ time, the media landscape in Africa will be completely different – in a bad way.
“I want Africa to have a strong media landscape. But in order to do that, people need to understand that media companies need to be run as businesses.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for African media; Pompigne-Mognard sees hope. He says the status quo can be reversed if there is a joint effort to curb the problem.
“One of the solutions is to create pan-African media,” he says. “The person who is going to crack the code and make it happen could be extremely rich. It doesn’t have to be [entirely] pan-African, even 30-35 countries are more than enough.
“There’s a thing about Africa which is a strength and a weakness; it’s that doing something here will always be more difficult. But the good news is that for those who manage to do that thing in Africa, they can do it anywhere.”
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