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The Tech Czar Who Gave $5.5 Billion Away

On his first visit to South Africa, Indian tech billionaire and Wipro chairman Azim Premji talked business, philanthropy and why the country is in his top five.



Arriving at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on his first visit to South Africa, Azim Premji, the silver-haired Indian tech tycoon, steps out of a white Mercedes-Benz and greets us warmly. For a billionaire, he’s dressed in an understated black suit, white shirt, and black and white tie. It only takes a few minutes to realize this is a man of few words, and many values. His currency: integrity.

“What is unique about Premji is that there is only black and white, and nothing grey, when it comes to his focus on integrity. And he will pay any price for it,” says Shailendra Singh, the Johannesburg-based general manager and head of Wipro’s Africa business.


Integrity has been at the heart of the New York-listed Wipro empire the 69-year-old Premji has set up and built in India since 1966. His philosophy: if you have values, success in business will follow.

“His unflinching commitment to values, unflagging philanthropic spirit, deep social conscience and proven success make him one of the tallest business leaders India has produced. Working with him is in many ways a lesson in living one’s life,” says TK Kurien, CEO and Member of the Board at Wipro.

Famous for taking India’s information technology services to the world post the country’s liberalization in the 1990s, the Wipro chairman has consistently been on global wealth lists. According to FORBES’ 2014 rich list released in October, Premji is the 45th wealthiest person on the planet with an estimated fortune of $16.5 billion. He is India’s third richest.

Often hailed by Indian media as ‘India’s Bill Gates’, not only for his software riches, but also his headline-grabbing charity donations, Premji has contributed a large chunk of his wealth to social causes, notably education, and is now also ranked as one of the world’s biggest donors.

Premji has donated 21% of his shareholding of Wipro, about $5.5 billion, to the Azim Premji Foundation, set up in 2001 to remedy India’s public education system. Last year, he became the first Indian to sign The Giving Pledge (a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy), with the likes of Warren Buffett and Elon Musk.

Premji has also influenced other business leaders in India. His close friend and India’s biotech queen Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the CMD of Biocon, calls him a torchbearer for philanthropy.

“I have known Azim for several decades and have tremendous respect for his entrepreneurial acumen which is driven by a strong set of ethical values and a quest for global leadership… I have been deeply influenced by him and see him as a mentor in my own philanthropic endeavors. I think he is one of the most inspirational business leaders of our times.”

In 2013, Premji had surprised India’s business world when he said he supported a government proposal to tax the super-rich. Premji has often been written about in the Indian press as a man with a modest lifestyle despite his billions, very much like India’s other tech billionaire, Infosys’ NR Narayana Murthy.

On The Giving Pledge website, Premji quotes his mother, a medical doctor and philanthropist, as the most significant influence in his life. He says he was also influenced by Gandhi’s notion of holding one’s wealth in trusteeship, to be used for the betterment of society and not as if one owned it.

Premji was only 21 when he had to return from the United States (US) to his hometown Bangalore in South India following his father’s untimely death. This was a year before graduating from Stanford, where he was studying engineering. He had to take over the family’s $2-million cooking oil business, Western India Vegetable Products Limited (later renamed Wipro).

Premji focused on building Wipro into a successful and professionally-run organization. He leveraged India’s engineering talent to manufacture computers, turning his family’s hydrogenated vegetable fat business into a leading software services company and outsourcing giant.

Today, the Bangalore-based company is India’s third-largest software exporter and a $7-billion revenue IT, BPO and R&D services conglomerate with a presence in 60 countries. Wipro has been in South Africa for the last three years. The company is currently in the process of identifying universities and colleges it wants to engage with for internship programs across South Africa. Wipro’s 1,600-strong Africa workforce is 40% localized.

Premji’s September visit to South Africa was to explore those opportunities in skills development, using South Africa as a springboard for the rest of Africa. And there will be significant investments in the country.

“South Africa is a high-growth market for us,” says the soft-spoken Premji.

“We will continue to expand and localize here. We have trained about 400 interns here, out of which we have employed 70 percent. We are now planning to engage with the universities in South Africa, upgrade their curriculum, and re-train their teachers. Once trained, we find our interns [in South Africa] to be first-rate… We then give them a three-month rotation on the job and many of them perform as well as people [in India] in terms of output, productivity and commitment to the job.”

Education is top priority for this philanthropist. In India, the Azim Premji University established in 2011 is focused on teaching and research programs.

“I do what I think is the right thing to do vis-a-vis philanthropy. I consider my wealth a fiduciary responsibility and my family supports me on that, importantly,” says Premji, who has been very vocal about the issue of the wealthy giving back.

He has hosted philanthropy meets with Bill Gates in India.

“I have been chairing a movement in India for the last two years, similar to what Bill Gates is doing in the US, trying to encourage people to be more philanthropic. It’s a slow process, but there is a lot of generosity among the new rich professionals who have made it big in terms of start-ups. There is probably more generosity there than amongst the very wealthy.”

Premji believes there is a distinction between the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of a company and personal philanthropy.

“People often get the two [mixed] up. I think there is a trend towards companies trying to build an image with society that they care, trying to be sensitive to the environment in terms of the resources they use to increase their CSR as a percentage of their revenue and as a percentage of their profit. This is a good trend. Some people confuse the company’s CSR with individual philanthropy and say we are doing a lot in the company, we don’t need to do anything ourselves, which is unfortunate.”

In October 2005, Financial Times included Premji in a global list of 25 people dramatically reshaping the way people live, work or think. TIME listed him among the world’s 100 most influential people in April 2004 and again in April 2011, for improving India’s public education. In 2011, he was conferred the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award.

Premji’s two sons are also taking his legacy forward. His eldest, Rishad, has been with Wipro for the last eight years; his youngest, Tariq, is with the Azim Premji Foundation.

Premji has great faith in India’s new Narendra Modi government, and is equally optimistic about Africa.

“India is a key market for us. Indian customers are very demanding in terms of technology, quality and price; you cannot take them for granted. We are [also] very serious about Africa. We [Wipro] are in a very niche area – IT services and solutions. Without question, the Narendra Modi government will forge better ties with Africa.”

Premji promises to be back in South Africa next year. Hopefully, by then, he would have won over the rest of Africa as well.

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Green-Sky Thinking



In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.

Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

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After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

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“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020



FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.

JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.


Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya



He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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