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.
31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help
The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis.
“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”
Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses.
“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”
Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand.
The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.
“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”
Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online.
“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”
There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.
Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.
Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cards, fundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers.
Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist.
“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”
Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business
Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.
Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.
“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”
Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking edibles, her celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.
Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.
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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.
The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.
“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”
Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age
By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler
Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.
Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.
Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy
While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.
Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.
Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.
Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.
Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.
Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.
The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.
Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.
We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.
Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are
working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.
In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.
At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.
COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.
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