From the deserts of Rajasthan to the dunes of Dubai and the corporate dens of Africa, Rakesh Wahi has weathered the vagaries of life and business. When only 23, while serving in the Indian Armed Forces, he was electrofied and almost died. That early experience taught him to chase his dreams – and fulfil them, no matter what.
Wahi, founder of the Johannesburg-based ABN Group, including CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA, has been a leader in media, IT, telecoms and education. Also based in Dubai as Chairman of CMA Investment Holdings, prior to moving there, Wahi had served in the Indian army for about nine years, and for distinguished services to the country in peacetime, was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal by the President of India in 1985.
Wahi has built companies in over 22 countries, employing a little over a 1,000 people. “Extremely passionate about education”, it is his vision to set up educational centers of excellence across Africa. His first university was launched in Ghana in 2013. He is also the co-founder of Murdoch University Dubai.
Here, Wahi talks about education, innovation, and his debut book, Be A Lion, which will be unveiled at the finale of the 2016 CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Awards in Johannesburg on November 11.
What is Be A Lion about?
It’s about people and the impact they have had on me. I think this entire journey I have made is about how people have influenced me. First, on your way up, it’s your parents who are your greatest influencers as that’s where you get your identity from; and then, over a period of your lifetime, it’s the people who come into your life and make an impact, some positively, some otherwise. And that is the greatest experience you can talk about.
You own multiple businesses; what new innovative industries are you possibly looking at?
When it comes to innovation, the key is to focus on how the world is changing and how things are going to impact our existing businesses. You have to constantly think about how your consumers are reacting to your products and services, and constantly change and that’s what innovation is about; it’s about reaching your customers in a more efficient manner.
With regard to the education sector, it’s changing rapidly. The way children consume education is very different from our time. The traditional classroom environment is changing.
Now, is learning going to be classroom-based? Are holograms going to be the future of education? Can you superimpose a teacher sitting in New York into classrooms in core campuses across the world, and have concurrent teaching? A lot is changing.
Online is a very important aspect of where education is going, but I don’t believe that is the answer to it; I think the hybrid kind of education is what is eventually going to come around. Face-time with teachers is critical, the social engagement with peers is critical, so therefore a lot of things are going to remain constant with education, and the rest of it will evolve in terms of where technology and innovation can be used to make it more efficient.
What are your continuing goals for education in Africa?
We are setting up centers of excellence. In West Africa, with Lancaster University, we are going to be setting up an engineering college with strong laboratory-based learning. In East Africa, our focus is energy and a vast part of it will require simulators and modern training equipment, and we will be partnering with industry to make sure we get the best of breed. We will roll out energy programs in the rest of Africa, and encourage students from across Africa, Asia and emerging markets to come to Rwanda for instance, where we are partnering with the University of Aberdeen for our energy programs.
In southern Africa, we are looking to partner with one of the Scottish universities to set up a center of excellence for health sciences, including medical and nursing colleges.
We don’t want to bring in technology from the yesteryears just because it is cheaper, or because we think Africa is still an emerging market, we want to actually leapfrog and bring in the latest technical innovations into these centers.
CNBC Africa turns 10 next year; what are the innovations in the media business?
The entire way in which people are going to view television is changing, so are distribution channels. What remains consistent is there will always be demand for high-quality content. Our focus on creating quality content, which stays with the values of CNBC globally, is going to be one of our core competencies, but how you distribute it is going to actually evolve in the next 10 to 15 years, particularly in Africa.
The viewing habits of consumers are changing, they are no longer watching channels; they are watching programs, and able to customize their own grids. What is relevant is you will be able to watch what you want, at the time you want, in a scheduled manner.
On the one side, we have to make sure we create best and compelling content; on the other side, we partner with distribution platforms able to cater to the needs of the consumers at an affordable price.
How welcoming is the African economy today of innovation?
At conferences and workshops, people talk about innovation, but I am not very sure they are actually geared up for it. The practical elements of bringing innovation into your workplace, whether in government or large corporates, is about a change in mindset, when you have to change processes and the way you look at things. It’s about driving change, and also, the commitment of leadership.
You do find there are some leaders in Africa bringing about that change, and the one that I would single out is President Paul Kagame, which is why Rwanda is making strides the way they are. He has the ability to visualize the future. They also have restrictions in terms of the size of the economy, but when you are hungry, you are able to adapt faster.
Kagame has brought a culture of change in his country, and it is very visible in the way you do business in Rwanda. You can set up a company in six to 24 hours if you have your documents in order. Rwanda gives you the opportunity to adapt quickly.
How do you balance profit and philanthropy?
I think these are closely related. There have been great leaders like Mother Teresa who have devoted their time towards a cause. And she has touched the lives of our family too – she was very close to my mother, and has been to our home. But eventually, even to enable what she was doing, required money.
Over time, our own CSR and philanthropy as a family has changed. When Saloni [Wahi’s wife] and I were starting out in our life, even when we didn’t have much, we were always engaged in making a contribution towards causes.
Over the years, we found we needed to have a cause of our own, and after we set up the ABN Education Trust, we rationalized what made sense to us as a family. We focused on financial journalism, and also, on helping destitute women and the girl child, a cause Saloni is very passionate about.
Money is an important contribution but you also need to make time. Saloni and I work as a team. The heart sits with her, while I become the machinery for generating the income.
Your most prized possession is…?
Family. I am not a material person. If I were to pack my life, I could pack it all into one suitcase.
– Interviewed by Methil Renuka; for the full text of this interview, visit www.cnbcafrica.com; All net proceeds from the sales of Be A Lion, published by Penguin Random House, will go to charity and the ABN Education Trust.