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The $1.3 billion TSAR of Dar

At the age of 38, Mohammed Dewji employs 24,000 people and claims to contribute 3.5% to Tanzania’s GDP. Within the next five years, he plans to build a $5 billion empire out of Dar es Salaam.

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What most entrepreneurs don’t achieve in a lifetime, he did in just over a decade. Mohammed Dewji single-handedly turned his father’s trading business into Tanzania’s largest import-export group. He grew Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania (MeTL) 30-fold and increased revenues from $30 million to $1.1 billion, by diversifying into everything from cement and real estate to energy and mobile telephony. The man claims to be worth at least $1.3 billion; as the company is not listed, it is difficult to make an independent estimate.

It’s not surprising that many have a hard time imagining the humble beginnings of Dewji. Legend has it that his family, who stem from Gujarat state in western India, were blown in a dhow across the Indian Ocean, landing in Zanzibar with very little. They moved south and his grandmother opened a small trading shop out of their home in Singida, a poverty-stricken town in central Tanzania. In this simple house, built from sand and mud, Dewji was born with the help of a midwife from around the corner.

“That wasn’t very smart. My mother and I almost died because I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” he says.

His father, Gulam Dewji—who had, by the mid-1970s, turned his mother’s shop into a flourishing import-export business— was able to send his six children to good schools. First, in Tanzania’s third-largest city, Arusha, later in the capital Dar es Salam; in their free time, Dewji and his siblings played tennis and golf.

“My father spent a lot of money educating us. He also believed sport creates discipline. He didn’t want us to just play a sport for fun. He wanted us to push ourselves. We probably have a thousand trophies at home that we won,” he says.

Until this day, there is almost nothing Dewji undertakes as a hobby. He either aims for success, or doesn’t bother. And so, he plows millions of dollars into Tanzania’s national soccer team, the Taifa Stars, instead of being content watching the odd game or kicking around a ball on a Sunday.

“I have no moderation. My wife always complains. She says, ‘Mohammed, why don’t you do things in the middle?’ It’s either very much or nothing at all,” he says.

His favorite sport has always been golf. Dewji spent many afternoons on Dar es Salaam’s golf course, not only because he was good at it, he had a three handicap, but also because he realized, from early on, that many high-profile business deals are concluded on the world’s 18-hole courses.

“I already liked to network as a very young guy. I was told that the golf course is a good place to meet important people. So I started playing golf. At one time, I even wanted to become a golf professional,” he says.

When his father saw that his son showed potential, he enrolled him at the legendary Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida, where Dewji also attended Saddlebrook High School. A few years later, when it became clear that Dewji wasn’t going to make the cut as a professional golfer, he decided to study international business and finance with a minor in theology at Georgetown University, an elite tertiary institution in Washington D.C. The University has a long list of alumni: former American President Bill Clinton; former Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

During his time at Georgetown, Dewji learned what he says were key lessons in leadership.

“Georgetown really molded me. It took me a step forward. I understood that you need to be dreaming, but not daydreaming. You need to try to dream a reality. Then you have vision,” he says.

Pietra Rivoli, deputy dean of Georgetown University’s school of business, who taught Dewji international finance, remembers him as a student with boundless energy.

“While other students tried to stay awake through discussions of exchange rates, Mohammed would stay after class to talk about how the readings might pertain to the Tanzanian shilling, and how Tanzania could address its economic challenges. Even at the age of 20, or so, he was thinking about how to improve life in his country,” says Rivoli.

Dewji never questioned whether he should return to Africa, after graduating in 1998. He joined his father’s business, which had by then become a million dollar trade and transport group, as chief financial controller. Five years later, at the age of 29, he was promoted to managing director, after expanding his father’s business swiftly.

“I went into manufacturing and value-addition. I built a distribution system and created branches,” he says.

Today, MeTL Group is buying and selling more than 200 commodities in east, central and southern Africa, from sugar to rice, salt, fertilizer, second-hand clothing, motorcycles, bubblegum, yeast and ballpoint pens. The group also exports 50 of its own brands, taking advantage of the fact that Tanzania borders eight countries.

“The goods that I am mainly dealing in are FMCGs [fast moving consumable goods]. It’s goods that touch people’s lives, that are needed by the common man,” he says.

The distribution of FMCGs is not easy in a vast country such as Tanzania, which measures one million square kilometers and where 80% of the population lives in far-flung villages. But with more than 100 trade outlets countrywide, MeTL Group has managed to undercut multi-national giants such as Unilever and drive them from the market.

“I have a big basket of goods. I have warehousing and logistics. I have over a thousand trucks. It’s all complimenting each other. It’s very difficult for people to come from the outside and compete with me,” says Dewji.

He invests in whatever sector he sees opportunity and growth potential. Or to say it differently: the only two industries Dewji is not involved in are beer and tobacco.

Agriculture is another key sector for MeTL Group, with 50,000 hectares of arable land, it is the largest private landowner. The company employs 24,000 people, making it the country’s biggest employer. Dewji’s sisal farms, tea gardens and cashew fields are good money makers. Nearly all the cashew kernels are shipped to the United States.

Always thinking two steps ahead, Dewji has been planning how to profit from his land, as Dar es Salaam, a city of 4.4 million people, grows quickly. He is turning a 17,000 acre plot, which he bought cheaply several years ago, 25 kilometers outside the capital, into a dry-port with an internal container depot. A railway connection will feed into Dar es Salaam’s massive harbor, which is slowly, but surely, running out of space. It will, of course, also generate huge profits.

Since MeTL Group already contributes 3.5% of Tanzania’s GDP, according to Dewji, it is fast outgrowing national boundaries.

“If you compare, for example, Tata and the MeTL Group, we are like Mickey Mouse. But if you look at their contribution to India, vis-à-vis my contribution to Tanzania, mine is bigger. You end up competing with everybody in your own country, and I don’t think that’s healthy. It’s a risk area. It’s a good time for us to replicate what we are doing in Tanzania in other countries,” he says.

A workaholic at heart, Dewji rarely thinks small.

“Slowly, slowly, I am planning to take on the whole continent. I am very bullish,” he says.

His five-year plan is to turn MeTL Group into a $5 billion empire.

“We have to constantly revisit our visions, because we are outgrowing them so quickly. Who would have thought we could turn our business from $30 million to $1.1 billion in only 12 years? I believe that by 2018, we will be a $5 billion business. Easy. It’s a no-brainer. If you look at the business we are in and the growth potential that there is, it’s amazing. My philosophy as a businessman is not to be satisfied with what I have got, but to always work harder to achieve more,” he says.

The MeTL Group, with Dewji at the helm, has expanded so drastically that it has outgrown the coffers of Tanzania’s banks. Dewji has found a solution. He goes to one of the continent’s powerhouses, South Africa, to finance new ventures. Most recently, he secured a $100 million syndicated loan through a grouping of banks.

“If I think of a top African businessman, Mohammed comes to mind. He works very long hours, is always on the move, has an eye for opportunity and a very good business sense. He is levelheaded and pays extremely close attention to detail,” says Helmut Engelbrecht, head of investment banking in Africa at Standard Bank, one of the financial institutions working with the MeTL Group.

Every venture Dewji pursues, links closely into his country’s national policy. When Tanzania’s government launched a national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction in 2005, that was geared toward entrepreneurship, Dewji saw opportunity.

“I bought a lot of sick industries, including soap production, grain milling, rice and sugar blending. I also went into the edible oil business and the textile industry,” he says.

He first expanded MeTL Group’s edible oil refining capacity from 60 to 600 tons. This year, Dewji almost quadrupled the business when he purchased an additional 1,650 ton refinery, increasing his output to 2,250 tons of edible oil. It comes as little surprise that he has caught the attention of some of Africa’s wealthiest investors.

“I am being approached by many big boys, by multi-national companies that want to partner with me or buy me out. But I am not ready to sell yet. I can see so much more opportunity for growth. I don’t want to be paid based on what I am earning today, because I can see the tremendous potential. I am always looking five to 10 years ahead,” he says.

Another ailing sector Dewji tried to resuscitate is Tanzania’s textile industry. Knowing that the east African nation is the continent’s third largest cotton producer, he decided to buy and refurbish four run-down mills: three in Tanzania and one in Mozambique. His next steps will be into Zambia and Malawi, he says, considering Ethiopia as a potential fifth standpoint.

“We were quite lucky. Tanzania’s previous, socialist government had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure to build textile mills. But under socialism everything collapsed. So we were able to acquire these industries very cheaply. Obviously the machinery was all run-down, the technology obsolete. We had to rehabilitate the mills by investing in top European and American machinery,” says Dewji.

He has turned MeTL Group into sub-Sahara Africa’s largest textile player, integrating the entire value-addition chain from ginning to spinning, weaving, processing and printing.

“This year, we are going to produce more than a hundred million meters of cloth. That is more than 2,500 times the circumference of the earth,” says Dewji.

Due to his entrepreneurial vigor, Tanzania is able to compete with the world’s largest and cheapest textile producer, China—at least within its own borders where government policies, including import tariffs on textiles and a standard value added tax (VAT) of 18% help protect the industry.

“Today, overall textile production is cheaper in Tanzania than in China. Labor is competitive in terms of pricing. Tanzania’s big advantage is that we have cotton, while China has to import cotton. So they cannot compete with me in my market,” says Dewji.

His success speaks for itself. This year, he will earn at least $85 million after taxes, he says.

“People often ask me: ‘Who is smarter, you or your father?’ I ask them back: ‘Is the person who goes from zero to 10 smarter, or someone who goes from 10 to a thousand?’ Obviously, it’s much easier to go from 10 to a thousand than to start from zero. So I believe that my father is much smarter than me,” he says.

Nothing could be further from his mind than taking it easy.

“People in Tanzania look at my wealth and think I must be sunbathing and playing golf all day. But I work really hard. I put in a hundred hours a week. It’s a never stopping game. You can never say, ‘I’ve worked hard enough now’,” says Dewji, who has 60 divisional board meetings every month, or two per day.

Every morning, Dewji—who lives with his wife, daughter and two sons in one of Dar es Salaam’s exclusive neighborhoods—starts work at 6AM, spending the first hour responding to emails and reading commodity reports. He runs meetings until lunch, by which time he has already put in almost seven hours of work.

“When I feel my energy levels starting to drop, I drive to the gym near my house. Every day, I run three kilometers and lift weights. I like to keep fit,” says Dewji, who is slender and the proud owner of a six pack.

After gym, he goes home for lunch and to play with his three children, for 15 minutes before he returns to the office until late at night. The only day he takes off is Sunday, when he spends time with his family.

“Until about four years ago, I also used to work on Sundays, until my wife almost divorced me,” he jokes.

Dewji is not only growing his own empire. He is putting Tanzania on the map, making sure the east African nation—which boasts the continent’s third largest gold reserves, as well as recently discovered uranium and gas reserves—will become one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s big economic players, alongside South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.

Already, Dar es Salaam is the second fastest-growing African city after Lagos. Tanzania, which boasts an average of 7% national economic growth over the past decade, has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. According to the World Bank, Tanzania’s per capita GDP more than doubled from $730 in 2000 to $1,500 in 2012.

“There’s no doubt that the country’s purchasing power is increasing,” says Dewji, who believes the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, which currently has an overall growth rate of 4.8%, could achieve double-digit growth figures, if countries are well-governed, politically stable and attract investment.

As if Dewji didn’t already have enough on his plate, he is also in politics. The decision was made when he visited Singida, where he grew up, after returning from the United States. As he walked the city’s streets, he encountered an old man who was scooping yellowish water out of a dirty puddle. It was drinking water for his family.

“A lot of people die from water-born diseases in rural Tanzania. But every life has the same value. So I decided to run in the next elections to change the dire situation these people live in. I was 24 years old. My parents thought I was crazy,” he says.

Whatever Dewji sets his mind to, he turns into a success. In 2005, he was elected as a member of Parliament in the National Assembly of Tanzania. Five years later, he was re-elected in a landslide victory with 80% of votes. Not being a fan of politicking, Dewji, who is fluent in English and Kiswahili, says he decided to put his own spin on the role of an MP.

“I don’t really have time for politics. I don’t go to Parliament, and I don’t get involved in national politics, because I don’t want it to conflict with my business interests. All I do is serve my constituency because I believe people see hope in me,” he says.

He puts his money where his mouth is. Every year, he donates $500,000 of his own money to help the people of Singida. In the years Dewji has been representing the central Tanzanian district, the number of people with clean water has increased from 23% to 75%, while the number of secondary schools from two to 18.

“I studied theology as a minor because I feel that religion is complementing me. It makes you strive to become a better person. I am very conscious of everything I do. If you get too engrossed in making money, you lose focus on life. Life is very short. I don’t want to die with all this money,” he says.

In the meantime, he is a man who can afford to look good.

“I have a huge wardrobe of suits and over 200 glasses. I like to match the frames with my glasses. I like to match the frames with my suits. At the moment I am not very happy with my brand, because they have stopped distributing color frames, which means I can only wear black suits. You have to live well, but you don’t have to live lavishly to the extreme. You need to be humble. I could buy a plane, a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. But I don’t. If drilling a borehole costs $20,000, you tell me to buy a watch for $20,000? To make a decision that has an impact on people’s lives is a one-second decision for me. If you get too egocentric, you lose your vision. It deceives you.”

So speaks the Tsar of Dar.

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Packing Light In School Bags

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Former South African rugby star John Mametsa provides alternative energy solutions for the state. With his wife Tumi, he says their future in the business is bright.


In his prime, former Blue Bulls winger John Mametsa had rugby fans screaming in delight at his try-scoring exploits at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Between 2001 to when he retired in 2010, he had brought smiles on people’s faces.

Hidden beneath the rugby bravura on display on a weekly basis were Mametsa’s entrepreneurial exploits, which led him to co-found Soltech, a solar technology company he started with his wife Tumi.

Soltech has bridged the gap between solar technology and user-friendly consumer products by creating school backpacks, outdoor umbrellas and lifestyle bags custom-fitted with solar power.

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The smiles are back but Mametsa has brought them in a different form.

Soltech’s main aim is to help companies achieve their corporate social investment targets and make a real difference in the lives of school children who might not have electricity at home, or whose access to electricity is limited.

“Generally, I love giving back. Just to see the kids smile brings joy to me,” Mametsa says.

“It is the best space I could have asked for. Other than when I was involved in rugby, this is the best thing I could have ever been a part of.

John Mamemtsa. Picture: Supplied

Putting smiles on kids’ faces is the best thing. Because we are dealing with children, we have aligned ourselves with people that want to make a difference.

“We don’t stop at just giving them the bags where they can charge phones and study at night but we also educate them about the social ills that come with roaming on the internet and social media.”

During this period of Eskom blackouts, uncertainty about South Africa’s energy and a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, he says Soltech’s products make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.

In a sense, they’ve taken the might of solar technology and put it right in people’s hands. The school bags come with a solar-powered battery, which has a night lamp and cellular phone battery charger installed.

“With everything that’s going on at Eskom now, they (citizens) are using millions of liters of diesel per month, just to keep the lights on,” Mametsa says.

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“Hence, it’s coming back to hit our pockets and they (Eskom – South Africa’s national energy provider) are raising the electricity prices again. Such things we have to read about so that, as we grow, we educate the people that we are selling the bags to.

“At some point, you need to convert [to reusable energy sources], you need to start using solar energy. We are still fortunate that there’s an Eskom in the first place. What about those countries that don’t even have electricity at all?

“Yes, we have power cuts but the people that really need the bags are people in the rural areas.”

Admittedly, Mametsa was the pretty face and Tumi conceptualized the idea when they started. But their partnership was perfect in more ways than one. Tumi, just like her husband, had a massive entrepreneurial drive.

While Mametsa was playing rugby, he would dabble in taxi and printing businesses – an uncommon trait among sportsmen and sportswomen who are at the peak of their powers. Tumi was no different. As a student, she would sell hair and cosmetics products, something that sharpened her business senses.

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And despite a successful 11-year career in corporate as an accountant and financial manager for companies such as Alexander Forbes and the Film and Publication Board, Tumi took a bet on herself and dedicated her time fully to building Soltech.

The result was that, in just the company’s second year, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland solar technology company Tespack. Tespack founders Caritta Seppä and Yesika Robles were last year named in Forbes ’s 30 Under 30 Europe.

The joint venture will see Soltech come out, among other things, with a solar-powered, fast-charging power bank, which should totally disrupt the smartphone accessories market.

Tumi Mametsa. Picture: Supplied

“There’s going to be skills and knowledge transfer,” Tumi says.

“The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) is also backing us on the partnership because we need them and their funding to assist us. We will be hiring South Africans to work the machinery, which was something that was very attractive to the DTI.

“The Tespack partnership confirmed my belief that our company could grow from a small tree to a forest someday. Once we manufacture in-house we can streamline the process. And there are so many other ideas for products I have, such as ladies’ handbags and stuff.”

Here at home, Soltech has partnered in CSI projects with Liberty and Exxaro and they hope to grow their client base in the next couple of years. It is a huge endorsement of their products and should see them salve some of the hurt from the country’s electricity crisis, especially to those who need it the most.

-Sibusiso Mjikeliso

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‘Worth Millions And Billions’

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Terence Terenzo, the award-winning South African hairdresser and founder of hair salon group Terenzo Suites, on his biggest investment decisions and blunders.


What is your investment philosophy?

One of my philosophies is to really analyse ‘is this an investment or is it a money pit… Are you sure you got a good investment and not a liability?’… Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to invest in things that don’t absorb all my time and energy.

So if someone were to say to me, ‘you can work your butt off seven days a week and we will give you a million rand a month, or you can take it super easy and do the absolute minimum but you can have R400,000 ($27,700) a month’, I would rather take the R400,000 because that would free me up so much more.

I would have time to do things that are important and other projects. So, for me, it is about setting up passive income businesses instead of creating businesses that need huge amounts of management.

What are some of the big investments you have made over the years?

Most of them were in property but this, Terenzo Suites, is one of the biggest investments I have ever made. It was many many millions. And then on the stock market, I’ve played around on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where we have invested quite heavily. I would use it, then look at the market and sometimes pull the money out and move it. I have also invested in Naspers.

Have you had any regrets?

If any entrepreneur tells you that he hasn’t had that [an investment blunder], he is lying. So, what happened was I bought a property in 2008, just before the [recession]. I was stuck with it for years and even when I sold it, I sold it many years later at the same price I bought it.

I bought it in an absolute inflated stop end, and it was really at an all-time high and I had to sell it at an all-time low… But the main thing for me about those kind of things is that you learn from them and you must not beat yourself up for too long.

Try and see what you learned from them.

Why did you invest in the hair business?

I think the hair industry is going to explode in South Africa and the whole continent, if you just think of the possibilities of wigs, hair pieces, hair colors and relaxers. Millions of women before weren’t so worried about their hair but as the world has changed so much, all of them want to look amazing and they want to look current, fresh, sexy, and that is all a part of the hair industry.

What should you consider first before you invest in your hair?

I think the one thing is to have a professional conversation with someone instead of just doing your own thing and, usually, hairdressers are quite happy to consult with you without charging you before you make a serious investment in hair pieces or wigs.

How big do you think the hair industry is in Africa?

I think it is worth millions and billions… and I think it is an undiscovered industry that is still going to explode. I don’t think we have scratched the tip of the iceberg with this.

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A Germ Of An idea

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The microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Babajide Ipaye started making good-looking shoes to fit his size 48 feet but decided to create them for others as well.


Selling shoes was probably the last thing Babajide Ipaye, a microbiology graduate, envisioned doing. But when by the age of 10, he was already wearing his father’s shoes, a size 44, he knew that some day that he would step in that world.

The only child of his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was only 11, Ipaye was raised by his grandparents and extended family members who shaped the early years of his life.

“I had a lot of people who were trying to nurture me and they had different professions. So for example, one was an artist and I was endeared to him, another one was a medical doctor, so my granddad wanted me to study medicine and another uncle was a computer scientist, so I was kind of confused growing up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I kind of lived the life of almost everyone that influenced me,” says Ipaye.

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That confusion helped Ipaye cut his teeth in various industries early on in his career. His medical doctor uncle influenced his career as a microbiologist where he worked with Ideas International Bio Technology Services, spending his days cleaning up oil spills and bacteria.

Then followed a stint in Information Technology (IT), a move also inspired by another uncle, where he worked with Tranter IT Infrastructure Services and Computer Warehouse as an analyst deploying managed technology services for multinationals like Guinness, Total and KPMG.

“At this point in time, IT was very hip and we happened to be one of the early pioneers in the tech space which was a very exciting time and considering where I was coming from in microbiology, it was a new field for me, I was working with multinationals and the exposure was amazing, it gave me a very broad sense of how organizations function.”

But Ipaye soon became dissatisfied with being put in a silo. There was too much structure and rigor due to the size of these multinationals and he became bogged down with a lot of systems and processes, which ultimately stifled his creative juices. His solution was to start his own IT company, Torque Technologies.

The company began providing IT equipment and technology services in its early days to multinationals before quickly creating a niche for itself in the fiber optics space. In early 2003 to 2005, the Nigerian telecoms era had just started booming and Ipaye and his partner saw a first-mover advantage in fiber optics by providing training to firms in Nigeria, which they did for the next 10 years.

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By 2015, Ipaye decided he wanted a new challenge outside the IT world. After parting ways with his partner, he began to ponder about his life-long struggle with footwear.

“So I said to myself ‘why don’t I make my own shoes?’ So I went on the internet, did a bit of research and came across a school in the Netherlands called SLEM. I called them up and found out about the shoe-making course and I said since I was on holiday, why don’t I take some time off the business and explore how to make my own shoes and I went to the Netherlands.”

Keexs was born. The goal was to make shoes that fit Ipaye’s size 48 feet but also looked aesthetically pleasing. But making shoes for him alone would prove to be too costly.

Ipaye decided to make shoes for others as well. He would focus on the athleisure market, which is a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’, a market that has grown to the stage where it is no longer a trend but a mainstay in Nigerian fashion.

To stand out in the competitive footwear market, Ipaye decided to add some African elements to his innovative footwear brand and focused on outsourcing the production to a factory in the Netherlands while he focused on the product and design to save on cost.

The aim in the long run was to move production to Nigeria where he could fulfill the brand’s social mission of providing employment and skills training to unemployed youth. However, to make the business viable, he had to make a minimum of 1,000 pairs of shoes to achieve economies of scale. Next came the challenge of securing startup funding.

“From my previous experience of starting my technology business in Nigeria, I came to realize that the cost of funding in Nigeria is very high and also there are a lot of businesses chasing funding and the risk level of most potential investors in Nigeria is very conservative and they don’t want to invest in stuff they are not sure about.

“So I read about crowdfunding and consulted a company in the Netherlands and I came across a site called kick-starter which is a US-based platform that offers a global crowdfunding platform to innovative ideas and projects, hence we started the first innovative and social focused brand in Africa,” says Ipaye.

In just over two years Ipaye has managed to grow the business through leading e-commerce sites like Jumia and Konga as well as via its own website which receives orders from countries around the world. The shoes sell for anywhere from $40 to $60, with over 8,000 pairs of shoes sold till date.

Keexs has about 18 outlets in Nigeria with retail partners in Kenya, South Africa and Guadeloupe and Nairobi.

The company also sells through social media channels where they boast over 15,000 followers on Instagram. The long-term goal for Ipaye is to secure enough funding to set up a factory in Nigeria, which he is looking to raise through an amalgamation of funding sources including grants and loans.

“We realized very quickly that economies of scale is critical to drive the growth of this business therefore there is a need for a lot of capital. There are four sides to this chain; production, design, distribution and retail. The problem with a lot of businesses in Africa is that they are expected to do everything from start to finish along that entire value chain and what that does is, it stifles the growth of the business,” says Ipaye.

The big-time hit when CNN profiled Keexs on its African Voices show. Since then, they have managed to establish themselves as an innovative social brand focused on empowering unemployed youth in Nigeria. Next on the to-do list for Ipaye is establishing a production line in Nigeria, and then taking his brand global.

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