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.