Vusi Thembekwayo loves to talk. He says he will do for talking what Muhammad Ali did for boxing. Ali told the world he was “The greatest”. So does Thembekwayo.
To him, great public speakers, like boxers, are not trained, they are born. His wit is the glue that binds his diverse audiences. John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia called him the “rock star of public speaking”; global strategist and scenario-planning guru Clem Sunter said he was “simply riveting”; Sir Bob Geldof said “Vusi is a f*cken great speaker,” according to Thembekwayo.
Thembekwayo has always been an overachiever. At 21, he ran a successful consulting firm, then South Africa’s only black-owned Forensic Marketing agency. At 25, he was the youngest director of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, a bourse turning over $1.3 billion a year. At 29, he delivered 214 presentations, in 21 countries charging up to $8,000 a time. At 30, he influences over $300 million in seven companies he holds shares in. His companies operate in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria.
As a child, Thembekwayo studied by candlelight and used to wake up before dawn to prepare for school. His father had started a business with their house as collateral.
“The bank was about to repossess our house so my mother and my siblings had to move in with relatives. We stayed in a small backroom and had to wake up very early, make fire and make porridge to eat,” he says.
“One minute we had a home and were being dropped off at school in our father’s car and the next we were suffering commuting kilometers in taxis to school. That experience shapes how I look at the world and my understanding of risk. I understand that whatever it is you have, tomorrow it could be all gone.”
His father resolved the debt situation but couldn’t escape tragedy. Thieves shot him nine times leaving him to bleed to death at the side.
“This was a very difficult time in my life. My dad and I were best friends. We did everything together and went everywhere together. The only reason I wasn’t with him that day is because my mum was ill and I stayed with her at home when my dad was shot for his cell phone.”
At this moment, a tear forms in Thembekwayo’s eye. “South Africa has a violent past and that narrative continues to find expression in modern South Africa, we condone violence because we find reason to defend why it’s ok to do it and we have a justice system that isn’t sufficiently punitive for people who perpetrate the act. We need to come together as a society to say no matter the reason it is not ok to take a life.”
Left with a single mother, at the age of 15, his big mouth got him into trouble long before it became his fortune. He was forced to take up public speaking as punishment for misbehavior in high school. He was booed off the stage for what everyone thought was a male chauvinistic speech titled: What Women Want.
“The best way to get me to do something is telling me I can’t do it. When they booed me off stage I started working harder to get to where I am,” he says.
Thembekwayo studied for a BCom degree at the University of the Witwatersrand but dropped out because of money. He believes entrepreneurship is practice more than theory.
“Some of the people who get the education are the people who will not move the dial in any meaningful way. The education system in South Africa is and continues to be archaic. I also did a course at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) which was supposed to be a year but took me three years because they didn’t understand how I think. South African business schools are behind on how you educate a Vusi.”
“You don’t need too many things to start a business. Start where you are. South African young people are really challenged. They have access to DSTV and they see the world in a particular way but the reality doesn’t reflect the world they see. You must recognize what’s around you and build with what you have. If you have a vision for the future, it is important to know nobody starts where they end up.”
This is not just advice for him. It is exactly how he started building his fortune after receiving a standing ovation for a speech for which he was paid a mere R35 (less than $3).
“Former president Thabo Mbeki was the keynote speaker at the event and he gave me a hug and endorsed me at that event telling people to give me more work,” he says.
He used the R35 to make phone calls to all the people he met at that event. He says entrepreneurship is starting something that other people don’t see and getting them to see it, believe in it, buy in it and help you build it.
Even when he became a well-known figure, life has not always been milk and honey. When he decided to start his company, My Growth Fund (MGF), it ushered in six of his worst months as an entrepreneur.
Thembekwayo failed to acquire funding for the company. When he had money, in the 2011-2012 financial year, he invested $274,000 in a steel company. Excited, he neglected to do proper due diligence. The investment went into a black hole. There were neither contracts nor legal documents to save him.
“I wasn’t thorough. I didn’t check if the company I was buying into had legacy liability or legacy issues. I was over eager. The entrepreneur convinced me that everything was going to go well, only to find out my money was used to pay off her debts. She had creditors and suppliers who she owed and she did not disclose this to me. She also had the South African Revenue Services coming after her.”
Part of this $274,000 was supposed to pay his own staff.
“I didn’t know what to do. All that I had was gone. What was I going to tell my staff? They also had their own lives and bills. But this situation taught me that if you are honest with people they understand. I told my staff the truth about what had happened and they worked hard, booked me for more speaking jobs and I was able to pay them,” he says.
“I learned an important lesson to take my time. Where you are going is guaranteed. There is no doubt, so don’t rush, follow the process.”
Thembekwayo started over.
“No matter how much you trust the other person when doing an investment, make sure the numbers support it, make sure you cover your basics, and the legal side holds water,” he says.
Today if he buys into a business he moves all the capital and operating capital into a separate business to make sure there is no history to infect the investment. Public speaking is one of the ways he makes money as an entrepreneur.
“Vusi is a very funny guy when he gives his talks. He is always well informed on the subjects he talks about such as business and investment opportunities. I always watch his YouTube videos and follow his advice,” says Thato Mokoena, a South African small business entrepreneur.
Thembekwayo studied by candlelight, his father was brutally killed, business schools didn’t understand him, he was booed off stage, he lost millions, but survived to tell the tale from the stage where he was once scorned.
Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing
As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed.
Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.
Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.
Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.
A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.
We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.
As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”
With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.
Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.
In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.
For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.
Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.
– Unathi Shologu
Having A Ball With Data
Stephan Eyeson started a basketball business at the age of 19. That venture failed, so he tried the data business instead. He is working and playing hard.
First, the facts.
Africa has a data problem. For all the talk about data being the new oil, the continent comprises about 12.5% of the world’s population but only accounts for less than 1% of research output, according to global information and analytics firm, Elsevier.
And Survey 54, an AI mobile survey platform solving the problem of data collection on the continent, wants to offer a solution. Founded by Stephan Eyeson, Survey 54 focuses on providing good quality data essential for governments and private businesses to accurately plan, fund and evaluate their activities.
READ MORE | Owning The African Narrative
“Data in Africa is such a prevalent problem, in a sense of when you are going to start up a business, it is hard for you to get consumer data on say ‘how many people eat out in Lagos every day? what is the transactional value? what are the types of things that people eat? what do they want to eat etc?’ All these things are available in the West but for people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them and not just for a startup but for even governments and larger businesses,” says Eyeson.
Fresh out of a master’s program in innovation and management from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom (UK), Eyeson joined Survey Monkey, an online survey development cloud-based software as a service company, as part of the team responsible for building their enterprise function in London as well as looking after customers in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). After learning the ropes, he decided to branch out to start his own company to offer a more robust and tailored solution for the African market.
“For people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them?”
“The problem around data in Africa and emerging markets is a massive one. So, for us, it’s about how do we become a data platform not just for a company but for governments to help them understand their people easier.”
Data is the first step. Then you need intelligence around that data to enable you to make objective analysis that will shape your decision-making process, as well as provide the foundation for policy-making and budgeting.
“Instead of hiring an agency to go to Ghana and do a face-to-face interview, for example, we look at how governments can get mobile data faster and then how they are able to manipulate that data to get the results they need,” says Eyeson.
Due to the dearth of knowledge, Eyeson’s unique understanding for the data space is relied on by many startups and larger businesses who depend on his expertise to drive results in Africa.
“Stephan has great expertise in strategy and high-level corporate business development. Survey 54 has and will be instrumental for companies to make decisions within Africa and emerging markets, making it easier to use and understand consumer data. A platform like Survey 54 is essential for companies operating on the continent,” says Nana Adomako, head of UK & Ghana growth at Taptap Send.
Born to Ghanaian parents in London, Eyeson’s first stint at entrepreneurship began in his early years at university, when his dream to become a professional basketball player was shattered.
“I had a scholarship into America for basketball and that scholarship was taken away due to some technicality with my results so I couldn’t go and so I started a basketball business instead when I was 19. It helped Americans play in Europe and Europeans play in America. I made the system easier. So, players paid a monthly fee to get seen and coaches paid to get access to talent.”
But unfortunately, the business failed to take off because the market was not big enough for Eyeson to remain profitable.
The data business, on the other hand, is huge: worldwide revenues for data and business analytics are forecast to reach $189 billion this year and $274.3 billion by 2022, according to technology market research firm IDC. Even though Survey 54 is in its first full year of business, the company has already secured contracts with multinationals like Colgate, amongst many others.
READ MORE | A Germ Of An Idea
“I was one of Survey 54’s first clients and it has been a pleasure watching Stephan grow the company into what it is today, working with some of the world’s largest brands.
“There is a significant lack of data in the region so the need for a sophisticated data insight product is essential and I believe Stephan’s mission-driven leadership style will enable the company to become one of the largest software businesses driving investments to the content,” says Yvonne Bajela, Principal and Founding Member at Impact X Capital.
The company has recently secured a spot on the coveted Startupbootcamp platform in Cape Town. While Survey 54 is trying to secure a first-mover lead in data on the continent, challenges remain. As the company scales, they will need to overcome the language barrier across the African continent and learn to interpret data by bringing the cultural context into the surveys organizations are seeking.
Eyeson has his eyes set on moving into the US markets as a long-term plan, but for now, the goal is transferring the abundant and ubiquitous asset of data in Africa into millions for his startup.
The $100 Trillion Opportunity: The Race To Provide Banking To The World’s Poor
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account.
Two years ago, Amylene Dingle lived with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in Payatas, an impoverished Manila neighborhood with the largest open dump site in the Philippines. Her husband worked on the security staff in a government building, earning 4,000 pesos a week, the equivalent of $80. She had always wanted to start a business, but she was unemployed, had no money saved, no credit history and couldn’t get a credit card or a bank loan.
Dingle’s fortunes took a dramatic turn after she responded to a Facebook ad for Tala, a Santa Monica-based startup that makes small loans through a smartphone app. After granting Tala access to her phone, through which the app cleverly parses mobile data to assess a borrower’s risk, she got a 30-day, $20 loan. She paid 15% interest and used the money to buy cold cuts, hamburgers and hot dogs. She marked them up 40% and sold them door-to-door, earning $4 in profit after paying back the interest and a small processing fee.
Today Tala lends Dingle, 42, $250 a month for her now thriving food business. Her $70 in weekly profits have nearly doubled her family’s income and funded their move to a two-bedroom home in the quiet, clean Batasan Hills district. Tala is thriving, too. Founded in 2011 by Shivani Siroya, a 37-year-old former Wall Street analyst who had worked at the United Nations, it has raised more than $200 million from top U.S. investors, including billionaire Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund. With estimated 2019 revenue of more than $100 million, Tala is valued at close to $800 million.
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account. Providing them with the basics of credit, savings and insurance is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the century. With access to the financial system, people can buy a car or a home. They don’t have to resort to loan sharks if they face a medical emergency. They are happier. They live longer. They are more productive, and their increased productivity will help lift their nations out of poverty. Serving the unbanked will generate some of tomorrow’s largest fortunes. It is both capitalism’s moral imperative and the route to one of the most significant untapped markets.
While the unbanked pay for everything in cash, an even larger swath of people, the more than 4 billion “underbanked,” may have accounts but struggle to make ends meet, racking up steep fees when checks bounce and resorting to high-interest alternatives like payday loans. Traditional banks alone could boost annual revenue by at least $380 billion if they turned all the unbanked into customers, according to a 2015 Accenture report.
The multiplier effects are staggering. The GDP of emerging-market countries would surge $3.7 trillion by 2025, or 6%, if they adopted a single innovation—switching from cash to digital money stored on cellphones, McKinsey estimated in 2016. Diego Zuluaga, an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary & Financial Alternatives, has studied the likely effects of full financial inclusion: “If we were to give the unbanked and underbanked in the developing world the same kind of access to credit and investments that we have in rich countries, you could easily create an additional $100 trillion in financial assets over the next 50 years.”
Tala founder Siroya was raised by her Indian immigrant parents, both professionals, in Brooklyn’s gentrified Park Slope neighborhood and attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan. She earned degrees from Wesleyan and Columbia and worked as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse and UBS. Starting in 2006, her job was to assess the impact of microcredit in sub-Saharan and West Africa for the UN. She trailed women as they applied for bank loans of a few hundred dollars and was struck by how many were rejected. “The bankers would actually tell me things like, ‘We’ll never serve this segment,’ ” she says.
Where banks saw risk, she saw opportunity. For the UN, she interviewed 3,500 people about how they earned, spent, borrowed and saved. Those insights led her to launch Tala: A loan applicant can prove her creditworthiness through the daily and weekly routines logged on her phone. An applicant is deemed more reliable if she does things like regularly phone her mother and pay her utility bills on time. “We use her digital trail,” says Siroya.
Tala is scaling up quickly. It already has 4 million customers in five countries who have borrowed more than $1 billion. The company is profitable in Kenya and the Philippines and growing fast in Tanzania, Mexico and India.
Rafael Villalobos Jr.’s parents live in a simple home with a metal roof in the city of Tepalcatepec in southwestern Mexico, where half the population subsists below the poverty line. His father, 71, works as a farm laborer, and his mother is retired. They have no credit or insurance. The $500 their son sends them each month, saved from his salary as a community-college administrator in Moses Lake, Washington, “literally puts food in their mouths,” he says.
To transfer money to Mexico, he used to wait in line at a MoneyGram kiosk inside a convenience store and pay a $10 fee plus an exchange-rate markup. In 2015, he discovered Remitly, a Seattle startup that allows him to make low-cost transfers on his phone in -seconds.
Immigrants from the developing world send a total of $530 billion in remittances back home each year. Those funds make up a significant share of the economy in places like Haiti, where remittances account for more than a quarter of the GDP. If all the people who send remittances through traditional carriers, which charge an average 7% per transaction, were to switch to Remitly with its average charge of 1.3%, they would collectively save $30 billion a year. And that doesn’t account for the driving and waiting time saved.
Remitly cofounder and CEO Matt Oppenheimer, 37, was inspired to start his remittance service while working for Barclays Bank of Kenya, where he ran mobile and internet banking for a year starting in 2010. Originally from Boise, Idaho, he earned a psychology degree from Dartmouth and a Harvard M.B.A. before joining Barclays in London. When he was transferred to Kenya, he observed firsthand how remittances could make the difference between a home with indoor plumbing and one without. “I saw that $200, $250, $300 in Kenya goes a really, really long way,” he says.
Oppenheimer quit Barclays in 2011 and together with cofounder Shivaas Gulati, 31, an Indian immigrant with a master’s in IT from Carnegie Mellon, pitched his idea to the Techstars incubator program in Seattle, where they met Josh Hug, 41, their third cofounder. Hug had sold his first startup to Amazon, and his connections led them to Bezos Expeditions, which manages Jeff Bezos’ personal assets. The fund became one of Remitly’s earliest backers. To date, Remitly has raised $312 million and is valued at close to $1 billion.
Oppenheimer and his team can keep fees low in part because they use machine learning and other technology to bar terrorists, fraudsters and money launderers from transferring funds. The algorithms pose fewer questions to customers who send small sums than they do to those who send large amounts.
Remitly transfers $6 billion a year, serving senders in 16 countries, including the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and recipients in 45 nations. In the first half of 2019 it added 15 receiving countries, including Rwanda and Indonesia. The company is not yet profitable, but last year estimated revenue came to $80 million. Oppenheimer sees a huge growth opportunity. Fewer than 1% of the world’s 250 million immigrants are Remitly customers.
In 2012, Dorcas Murunga lived in Gachie, a crime-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi. She earned $80 a month babysitting and cleaning houses, and her husband made $120 installing elevators. He covered most of their expenses while she struggled to save money. Whenever she had cash, she says, she spent impulsively on clothes, junk food and alcohol. She managed to put aside the $5 minimum balance required to open a savings account at Equity Bank of Kenya, but she had a hard time coming up with the $3 monthly fee. To make a deposit, she took a bus an hour each way and waited in line for an hour at the bank. She closed the account after just one year.
Like most Kenyans, Murunga was already using M-Pesa, a service created by Safaricom to send money via text message. In 2012, Safaricom, a subsidiary of British telecom giant Vodafone, introduced M-Shwari, a savings account and loan service it integrated into M-Pesa. Two years later, it started offering an account that locked up a customer’s funds for a fixed period at a fixed interest rate.
Determined to improve her finances, Murunga committed to saving $1 a day through her locked account. When she got the urge to buy vodka or a pair of shoes, she says, she’d make deposits through her phone instead. She cut her spending by two thirds, to $10 a week. By 2016, she was saving $300 a year. She had started a business making handbags, and the savings helped pay for design courses. She has invested in real estate with her husband and says she spends more than $200 a year helping friends and family.
The spark for M-Pesa (pesa means money in Swahili), the first mobile money provider in Africa, came in 2003 from Nick Hughes, a Vodafone executive who managed a five-person team tasked with creating wireless products with a social impact. Hughes’ idea: set up a digital money-transfer system that would operate through personal cellphones.
Since M-Pesa launched in 2007, it has exploded in size and popularity. Kenyan taxi drivers complain when riders try to pay in cash. Ninety-six percent of Kenyan households now transact through M-Pesa. Before M-Pesa, only 27% of Kenya’s then 38 million people had bank accounts. Kenya’s population has since risen to 51 million, and 83% have checking or savings accounts. The service has spread to eight countries, including Egypt and India. Sending less than 50 cents is free. M-Pesa charges 1% to 2% for larger amounts. Through its various subsidiaries, M-Pesa generates some $840 million in annual fees for Vodafone.
The adoption of M-Pesa has had a tremendous impact on Nairobi’s startup scene. Durable-goods providers have introduced pay-as-you-go plans that bring in millions of new customers. For example, three-year-old Deevabits, based in Nairobi, sells $80 home solar systems in remote villages with no access to electricity. All its customers use M-Pesa to make an initial deposit. They pay the remainder through M-Pesa in 50-cent daily increments over eight months. “The presence of M-Pesa has transformed how business is done in Kenya,” says Deevabits founder and CEO David Wanjau, 32. “We couldn’t operate without M-Pesa.”
Dixie Moore used to strain to make paychecks last to the end of the month. A 25-year-old single mother with two small children, she earns $12.25 an hour as an assistant manager at a Bojangles’ fast-food restaurant in Canton, Georgia. In 2011, she was paying $30 a month for a Wells Fargo checking account, but when a bounced check and multiple overdraft fees left her with a $1,200 negative balance, she lost the account. She regularly paid up to $6 to get her paychecks cashed. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says. Then a friend told her about MoneyCard, a Walmart-branded product offered by Pasadena, California–based Green Dot, the largest provider of prepaid debit cards in the U.S. Now her employer deposits her paychecks directly onto the card, and she uses it to pay for everything from groceries to dentist appointments. “It has really been a blessing,” she says.
Green Dot offers a financial lifeline to people like Moore. Until she started using the card two years ago, hers was among the 7% of American households—representing some 14 million adults—that get by entirely on cash. Founded in 1999 by a former DJ named Steve Streit, the company initially focused on teenagers who wanted to shop online. But seeing a larger opportunity, in 2001 Green Dot shifted its focus to adults who were using the card because they had bad credit or couldn’t afford commercial bank fees.
One advantage of cash cards: When users spend all the money on their card, it’s like running out of paper cash. They avoid overdraft fees that can run as high as $35 for a single infraction. The cards also make it possible for users to buy online.
Streit, 57, says that nearly 40% of Green Dot’s 5 million customers were previously unbanked.
In 2007, he struck a deal with Walmart that was a boon for the chain’s then 130 million customers: a cash card with a monthly fee of just $3 (today it’s $5). That’s down from the nearly $8 monthly fee paid by users who bought their cards at stores like CVS. The surge in Walmart card sales helped make up for the shortfall from the lower monthly charge.
In 2010, Streit took the company public. Though Green Dot generated revenue of $1 billion last year, its stock slid 40% this past August as it lowered its revenue expectations, citing the increase in well-funded competitors entering the market. But bad news for Green Dot is good news for America’s unbanked. Smartphone-based cash offerings from venture-backed startups like Chime, a six-year-old digital bank based in San Francisco, and digital-payment company Square’s Cash App are signing on millions of customers.
Harvard Business School professor Michael Chu, a former partner at KKR who cofounded Mexico City-based Compartamos, Latin America’s largest microfinance lender, says the opportunity to serve the underbanked in the U.S. is “huge.” But paradoxically, the richest nation on earth poses some of the greatest barriers to financial-inclusion innovators. A patchwork of state laws intended to protect borrowers from predatory lenders and federal laws that guard against money laundering requires startups to navigate through a maze of red tape.
Another problem: The technology that transfers funds between U.S. financial institutions is old, slow and expensive. While M-Pesa zips mobile money across Kenya in seconds at virtually no charge, an electronic fund transfer from Miami to New York can take two days and cost as much as $40.
But in the grand scheme these are minor obstacles. The Fed has promised to build a new and improved U.S. transfer system by 2024. Entrepreneurs will lobby—or innovate—their way around the bureaucratic barriers. After all, there are billions of dollars to be made—and countless lives to improve.
Additional reporting by Anna Corradi.
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