When she speaks, heads turn and minds change. The entrepreneur from Senegal is on an untiring mission, advocating her own brand of Afro capitalism. She turned an age-old African drink into a fashion accessory and raised millions. In 2013, Magatte Wade is back with another idea to tap into her African roots.
Every year, Wade speaks at more than 20 conferences across Africa. Her message is proving to be a popular turn in a business world hungry for hope. It rarely fails to disappoint those expecting a feisty African woman with a reluctance to mince words.
“You can’t just say it sucks and leave it,” says Wade of the continent’s shortcomings, at the Women of West Africa entrepreneurship conference, in Lagos in June.
“If you can’t do business in your country, leave and go to Rwanda!”
When one delegate complains that banks do not want to lend to start-up companies, Wade shoots back across the hall.
“Banks never want to fund start-ups, get over it. What about the money we, women, spend on weddings, millions ever year. Why can’t we put that money to better use in business?”
Wade, educated in Germany and France, has a good line in homespun homilies mixed with common sense in bite-sized pieces, in an accent that swings between New York, Paris and Dakar. Her critics could say she was glib, but that could be too dismissive of a 37-year-old woman, who has made a lot of money and noise. Whatever people say, Wade certainly holds a room with her strident free-market evangelism.
“I ran into a guy from Kenya the other day, who said his friend had quit her job as a banker to open her own hair salon, after hearing me speak in Nairobi. She is now securing private equity funding and has opened her two hundredth salon,” says Wade.
Wade, in the midst of a tiring day, tells FORBES AFRICA her story in the middle of a lounge in a plush Lagos hotel.
It all began at her grandmother’s knee. Wade grew up in rural Senegal, where her grandmother grew vegetables to sell at the market.
“She simply told me that no one could be better than me,” says Wade.
“Her influence was more important than anything else, it helped me become an entrepreneur. That is why I turned down business degrees at Harvard and Stanford, because they would have ruined me as an entrepreneur. These courses teach you to be a good manager, but not an entrepreneur.”
Wade proved herself early in life—she introduced the world to an age-old Senegalese drink made from the hibiscus flower. At the time, the drink was losing out to canned drinks and was dwindling in Senegal.
“All I care about is that now, in Senegal, people are beginning to understand the value of hibiscus. When I started that company, people laughed at me. It was cruel, really, but they laughed and said, ‘Oh, Magatte, after all your fancy education, you’re now going to make flower drinks,’” she says.
“Africans have a bad attitude towards indigenous resources and products… We have a tendency to believe that anything indigenous to us is not good enough and can’t wait to get rid of it, and that’s how they die off.”
The hibiscus drink was called Adina, which means “life” in Wade’s mother tongue. The slogan “drink no evil” helped it take off and the business accumulated $30 million in capital. It saw the shipping of mountains of hibiscus flowers across the Atlantic to factories in the States. It revived the hibiscus growing business in Senegal, attracted investment from Pepsi and made Wade a fortune.
In 2009, Wade left the company when she believed the venture capitalists were taking the brand in a direction that did not represent her. She formed a new company, Tiossan, which she hopes will do the same for the ethnic beauty products of Senegal that Adina did for the country’s hibiscus drink.
“I’m convinced that if people, like me, don’t do what I do, a generation from now, they will disappear because everyone is busy buying western brands at elite level, and at bottom level, buying knock off products from China. Africans don’t believe in the traditional stuff and indigenous knowledge is dying off,” she says.
This time, once bitten, twice shy, Wade wants to stay in control and has fended off investors. Either way, she accepts that business in Africa is not for sissies.
“I also really try to focus on people who have the right mind-set too. There’s a lot of laziness in the system right now but when you find like-minded people, who are not willing to take any shortcuts, I find those people, rally them towards me and I hope that together, we can begin to form a new metric,” says Wade.
For all of her fire, there is a fragile side to Wade. Tears roll down her face as she talks of times of frustration in Senegal.
“I went to the ports, when I started my company, and I saw the customs guys. I said to them: ‘I’m here—I’m a child of Senegal just like you are. I have all my diplomas and more passports than you can imagine. I don’t have to be here if I don’t want to. But, I have nowhere else to go because this is where I came from and I cannot live happily elsewhere, if this place doesn’t get better—I have tried it. At 25 years old, I bought my first home in Silicon Valley, where I was making tons of money, but how could I live that way when there is so much misery back home? I have nowhere to go, this is the only place I have, so let’s make it right but I cannot do it without you,’” she says.
“I would rather die than not have my dignity. People get so excited about money and material things but I couldn’t really care less.”
Money, business, Africa, women and dignity—Wade’s head is full and her legs are on the march. Whatever she says next is likely to be interesting and could change your life.