A shortage of cables was one of the gaps Salimo Abdula saw in the market in post-independence Mozambique and it made him one of the country’s richest men. Nearly thirty years later, he drives a white Jaguar, as well as a Ferrari, through the streets where he once rattled unnoticed.
Not bad for a man who grew up shooting snakes with his catapult in the bush near where he was born in Quelimane, in northern Mozambique on June 18, 1963. He remembers independence night on June 25 1975, with that warm, open, smile born of a small town.
“I remember people happy in the house; people saying we are now free. My mother was cooking and all of us went to the soccer stadium at midnight to see the raising of the new flag,” says Adbula.
Independent Mozambique proved hard for Abdula. He spent his teenage years serving drinks and sandwiches at the cinema, where his father worked, and playing basketball in the evening; all to earn a crust for his younger brothers. In these tough early days, he tried his hand as an entrepreneur on the streets of Quelimane.
“I remember I had saved some money. A friend of mine wanted to sell dry fish to customers in another province. I had 30,000 meticals and he asked to borrow and pay me back. I am still waiting. This was my first lesson in life. I was too young.”
Harder times were ahead as the glow of independence faded. In 1977, the civil war broke out and in 1979 Abdula was called up to the army. Luckily for him, an injury saw him discharged and he went to study at a commercial school in Beira.
Abdula carried a lot on his young shoulders; he had to support eight people, as well as study. This led him into part time work in a lighting shop in Beria called A Illuminante. It taught Adbula the electrical supplies business. Study did not go so well, as the now provincial government wanted Abdula and his fellow students to opt for the new Marxist-Leninist economics. Abdula wasn’t so keen, so, in 1981, he looked south to Maputo for a new college.
“People would say to me, ‘If you go to Maputo you will get lost because they have more buildings than trees,’” says Abdula.
Getting there wasn’t easy in a country in the grip of civil war. Adbula spend days talking his way into one of the last seats in a Russian Antonov military transport plane for a cold and noisy two hour flight to Maputo.
“I remember a Russian guy and a Mozambique guy going around asking people for money and putting it in their shirts. I had small money and held it tight. They said to me, its ok, it’s enough, you don’t need to pay. At take-off, the Mozambique guy said we are not going to Maputo but to Nacala for a military mission. I believed it, but thankfully we got to Maputo instead.”
On the ground, it was no easier. Abdula had to walk the streets to find Eduardo Mondlane University because he had no idea where it was. At night, he climbed the stairs, to a friend’s 18th floor flat, to rest his head.
It took a week for Abdula to apply to the university, before officials sent him back to Beira, then from pillar-to-post back to Maputo where he found he was too late to enrol. It took piles of forms and persistence to get into Eduardo Mondlane Commercial Institute of Mozambique to study IT.
In the third and final year of study, Abdula got the fright of his life.
“People used to say once you have finished you have to go Russia to work for intelligence for the military. It was a rumor, but I was scared.”
Amid the fear Adbula took a phone call from a former colleague at the lighting shop in Beira.
“She told me, Salimo, the store is abandoned, the guys have fled to Portugal we have no management. We have 30 days and if no one takes over the government will auction it.”
Abdula was a mere 20-year-old basketball-playing student. He was being asked to save the jobs of 77 workers, who had not been paid for months, with the paltry coffers of a paralyzed company.
“I bought a ticket to Beria and flew on Friday and called the lady for a meeting. Then, I spoke to her colleagues; everyone was worried. I said to them, ‘I have no experience, I have no money—what should I do?’”
Abdula wrote a letter to the government to say he would take over the salaries and debt; the government agreed.
“The government wanted to get rid of the problem, I bought the problem… my friends said to me: ‘what are you doing are you crazy, you don’t know anything about running a company.’”
The debts ran into millions and Abdula signed and started to pay.
“Then I came back to the office, almost to cry. We had no equipment; we had one very old car, a Peugeot, that we had to push start.”
The only answer was swift income. The blessing of Beira was that it was the only place in Mozambique that made cables—for which, demand far exceeded supply.
Abdula had used his Maputo network to contact CFM, the government-run ports and railways and a big cable customer, to discuss supplying thousands of meters of cables. He bought enough copper to make 100,000 meters of cable and the business turned out to be an entrepreneur’s dream.
Customers in Maputo agreed to pay Abdula in advance; the factory in Beira wanted only 50% of the payment up front. It meant solid cash flow for Abdula, plus profits of 2,000%, as hotels, shops and offices couldn’t get enough of the scarce cables. He paid off his debts in two years with the help of leg work.
“I used to wrap the cables around myself and deliver them on a motorcycle in Maputo,” he laughs.
Expansion followed and in 1996 Abdula bought the cable factory for $500,000. Today, the building alone is worth $5 million.
In the same year, came another decision that was to transform his business; the decision to marry his wife Maria, a businesswoman to the core who acquired the nickname in Maputo business circles of Marechal—Portuguese for general.
“She is the iron lady,” says Abdula.
In 1997, the couple began building Intelec Holdings, 75% of which is owned by the cable-selling Electrosul and 25% by shareholders. It has a turnover of $170 million and is the 17th largest company in Mozambique.
Abdula also spent a term in parliament. He was elected in the country’s first elections in 1994, serving as member for his home town of Quelimane. He admits it helped him to network.
“He is quite a good lobbyist and likes to mix business with a bit of politics,” says Maputo-based journalist and publisher, Fernando Lima.
Abdula won’t say how much money he has, but says his net worth is healthy. His country’s economy is not.
“I believe doing business and the government working in the private sector has improved a lot. Bureaucracy is still there… Infrastructure is a problem, roads and electricity are improving, but we have a long way to go,” he says.
“I don’t think any government has the capacity to revert back to control. The private sector today has its own capacity to penetrate and dictate the rules of the economy. No African country can be an island. Mozambique is a good example; it shows growth of the economy of 7 and 8 percent because of the private sector. I am one of the fighters for the private sector to lead the economy.”
When Abdula celebrated his birthday this year it was at a lavish event in Maputo with his mother, eight brothers and 600 VIPS. It was a proud and emotional moment for the family that showed how far a small-town family had come.
“Luck we have to look for, the bad luck is always with us. That is my principle,” says Abdula.
Homespun philosophy from a man who rose from a rattling motorbike to a sleek Ferrari in just under 30 years.
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