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The Multi-Millionaire In The Mirror

Tim Tebeila went from nothing in a series of tight turns in business to a $28-million fortune. One of the tightest turns is his next one, from coal to making smartphones in Africa.

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The say, never put all your eggs in one basket. Tim Tebeila never does. This mining magnate is well on his way as a multimillionaire thanks to the many baskets of Sekoko Holdings.

The new egg is Mint Electronics, which is set to launch South Africa’s first smartphone and tablet, called Mint.

It’s a new and bold venture for one of the determined veterans of the post-1994 South African economy. His dream is simply to build a new Anglo American and it hasn’t been easy.

Tebeila started off with Sekoko Resources, mining coal, iron ore and platinum. He then started Tebcon Developers, which is now managed by his wife, building hospitals, schools and houses in townships across the country.

Tebeila is born of struggle, the third of seven children to a laborer in the remote village of Sekhukhune, in the Limpopo province. He walked barefoot through the mountains to school, 15 kilometers each way. He sold apples on the streets for a living.

Post 1994, he was an insurance broker before becoming an entrepreneur. In 2013, he founded one of South Africa’s first fully licensed black-owned insurance companies, Reliance Life.

Then came electronics. Earlier this year, Tebeila announced the launch of Mint Electronics. It is a subsidiary of Sekoko Holdings which acquired a 75% stake of CZ Electronics, a factory in Boksburg, 52 kilometers east of Johannesburg.

CZ Electronics, established in 2002, used to make equipment in South Africa for France’s Alcatel Lucent on behalf of Telkom and other clients. The company builds circuit boards for television brands like Sinotec.

Tebeila says Android 5-inch smartphones and 10.1-inch tablets will be designed, developed and manufactured in South Africa for the mass market. He claims this will be the first tablet with a USB port.

“The smartphones and tablets will be sold through major retailers, operator stores and our branded shops. The branded shops will launch in all major malls,” says Segran Pillay, chief executive of CZ Electronics.

Tebeila adds that the tablets will be available in both the seven-inch and the 10-inch screen sizes.

“My target with this tablet is that every school learner in South Africa should have one,” he says.

Tebeila hopes the devices will be on shelves in about 11 Mint Electronics branded stores and in other existing mobile shops.

With manufacturing already underway in Boksburg, Tebeila plans to franchise Mint Electronics by the end of 2015. The businessman hopes to roll out manufacturing plants and sell across the continent.

But this man is known for wanting to turn Sekoko Resources into Anglo American. It was difficult.

Tebeila didn’t want to buy other companies, but he wanted to get the mining rights and develop this company on his own. He was turned down 10 times, but never gave up.

It was a dream almost stillborn. Mining rights proved a nightmare.

When he eventually got them, he needed R1.5 million ($145,000) for exploration and struck on the idea of gathering money from people who lived in the villages near where he grew up.

An old blind woman was one of the first to shuffle into Tebeila’s offices on a winter’s day, handing over R15,000 ($1,450) in cash – her life savings.

When all the money was put together, he paid R600,000 ($58,000) to a firm of geological consultants and R900,000 ($87,000) to drillers to explore for coal at Soutpansberg.

A few weeks later, he found out that the consulting firm, which had been riven by strife, had dissolved almost overnight and the geologist had fled to Australia with the exploration report.

He had lost money, paperwork and information which had consumed his meagre capital. But because he was hands-on during the exploration, he knew the laboratory that was used by the consultants and the people who worked there. The lab was able to salvage two pages of the exploration data for Tebeila. It contained all the drilling information. And other experts were able to finish the rest.

Coal mining was to be the foundation for his $28-million fortune.

In April 2005, the government granted Tebeila a license for Soutpansberg, which was estimated to hold 200 million tons of metallurgical coal under 11 farms, covering 8,000 hectares, near Musina on his home soil of Limpopo.

“Coal of Africa made me an offer to purchase 74% of the assets for R70 million ($6.7 million). They also pledged to spend R100 million ($9.6 million) to take the project to a bankable feasibility study,” says Tebeila.

This was the biggest deal he ever had closed on a cellphone while driving. Two years later, they offered him R20 million ($1.9 million) for the remaining 26% and gave him the capital to finance the Waterberg Colliery. It will mine up to 15 million tons of coal a year by 2019.

Sekoko Resources will supply Eskom with about 10 million tons of coal from Waterburg.

Eskom is building Kusile and Medupi power stations in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, while producing around 35,000MW of electricity, twice that of Nigeria, to ease the power shortages in South Africa.

“By September, we will be done with signing the agreement that will allow us to start with operations early next year. Our feasibility study has also allowed us to create an environment for our export market. Part of the coal will be going to export and part of it will go to Eskom,” he says.

Tebeila says plans are still on track for Sekoko Resources to reach a turnover of R10 billion ($1 billion) a year by 2019.

This turned his life around to what Sekoko Resources is today.

But like many other multimillionaire entrepreneurs, philanthropy is close to his heart. Tebeila gives away portions of his fortune through a foundation in his name. His latest charity project, coinciding with the winter season in South Africa, is giving tracksuits to school children.

“If you don’t give, you won’t make more money. Africans must give more,” Tebeila says.

While driving in the back of a car to see the newly acquired CZ Electronics and Mint Electronics factory in Boksburg, Tebeila turns to me sharing another dream of building a bakery.

“I like bread,” he says.

And therein lies the whim of an entrepreneur. The man who is always on the move, who sees opportunities when others do not, or in Tebeila’s case, pick up another egg and put it in another basket.

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