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The Billionaire Diving Into The Depths Of The Diamond Business

Why is one of Africa’s richest men ploughing millions of dollars into a business many are running from?

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When he talks, people listen; when he moves money, markets react and when he invests, many follow.  He is Christo Wiese, Africa’s third richest man after Aliko Dangote and Nicky Oppenheimer & family, according to FORBES’ list of Africa’s 50 richest, and the creator of Africa’s largest retail store. He is ever busy as he adds to his $6.5 billion fortune, but his last investment raised a few eyebrows.

As we meet, Wiese is dressed in black pants and a black sweater; you may mistake him for an ordinary bloke on the street in Cape Town, South Africa. But, there is nothing ordinary about this man when it comes to business. His creation, Shoprite, earns revenue of $9.9 billion a year, at a time when retail is struggling. Steinhoff, the parent company of Wiese’s retail company PEP, brings in $11.8 billion. Combined, they net almost $2 billion in annual profits, operate more than 9,000 stores in 30 countries and employ over 200,000 people. He made his fortune from smart investments that earned him billions. So, why is he looking to venture into Africa’s glittering, but struggling, diamond industry?

The family businesses, Cream Magenta 140 Proprietary Ltd. and Metcap 14 Proprietary Ltd., bought close to 50 million shares (23.54% each) in diamond company Trans Hex. This adds up to a dominant stake of just over 47%.

This isn’t entirely new territory for the risk taker. Wiese was in diamond mining in the late 1990s through an investment in Ocean Diamond Mining Holdings (ODM). He sold ODM to Namibian-based diamond miner Namco.

“I used to be in the diamond industry 40 years ago and the opportunity arose to acquire a controlling stake in Trans Hex which is one of the junior diamond mining companies and one I think has potential,” says Wiese.

The cold fact is South Africa’s once thriving diamond industry is suffering atrophy. It has no more than 200 diamond beneficiators remaining from a historical peak of about 4,500 and a decline in investment, according to Mining Weekly.

“Rough-diamond prices are too high for manufacturers, who cannot profitably polish goods at such levels. Polished-diamond prices have declined, in turn, reducing demand for diamonds from South African mines, as well as throughout the world,” it says, quoting World Federation of Diamond Bourses president Ernie Blom.

Trans Hex has not been immune. Their 2016 results suffered heavily from a sharp decline in rough diamond prices.

“The diamond market was severely impacted by excess stocks in the polishing industry and a resultant decline in demand for rough diamond. Average prices received for rough thus decline by 23.5% year-on-year. As a result, the Lower Orange River operations, which are earning the end of their reserves, moved into loss overall,” says Bernard van Rooyen, Trans Hex Chairman in the company financials.

Piet Viljoen, Alternate Director at Trans Hex, says its share price has come under pressure but the business has tried to ride the storm.

“The problem creates value in a very lumpy way. It earns a lot of money one year and then makes big losses the next year… so its share price doesn’t seem to go anywhere ever, that’s why it creates the impression that the business is under pressure,” he says.

Viljoen says it helps to have shareholders like Wiese who have vision.

“The shareholder reference can act as a provider of capital when the business needs it, do acquisitions or to fund projects.”

Trans Hex Group incurred a disappointing loss of R100.8 million ($7.3 million) and Viljoen has called it “a difficult year” but Wiese is optimistic.

“It is going well, except the exchange rate is not in favor of diamond exports because the rand is stagnant. With the diamond industry, you are not running a shop where you always know what your sales are going to be,” says Wiese.

Wiese is known for taking risks and smart investments. More than 60% of his wealth is in Shoprite and Steinhoff, while another 30% or so comes from his shares of investment company, Brait. His stock in Tradehold, a real estate firm, accounts for much of the remaining 10%. He has made investments in the United Kingdom (UK) such as clothing retailer New Look and gym chain Virgin Active. He says there is no secret behind the success.

“In this company, we have always had a philosophy, in terms of which we run our group of companies. These are the five pillars as we call it; faith, positive thinking, enthusiasm, compassion and hard work. Hard work is probably important but you’ve got to be a positive person and able to put teams together and motivate them. I am not a person running the business, I play a different role. The good business leaders like Whitey Basson and Markus Jooste are people who can put teams together, motivate them and steer them in the right direction,” he says.

There have been several enormous setbacks like the currency upset in 1985 when the rand lost about 50% of its value in less than a year, Brexit, which badly affected the share price, and great disappointments in people. It is wealth that hasn’t come easy.

“Oh yes, plenty [of bad investments]. I can’t even remember the worst one but there are many adventurous investments that just didn’t work out. I am heavily invested in wine farming and that’s not a very big lucrative business but it gives other pleasures such as the beauty of it…”

“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world,” goes the proverb. According to Wiese, success is more than how much money you have, it is about whether you can look at yourself in the mirror and say maybe it’s very small but my contribution made life or the world a slightly better place. Following this mantra, he is helping the poor gain title deeds to their homes. He is a sponsor of the Free Market Foundation, which is working with First National Bank to give people land tenure, and gave more than 100 title deeds to residents of Ngwathe, a municipality in South Africa’s Free State province.

“The Free Market Foundation looked at South Africa and found that there are between seven and 11 million households where the occupants own the structure on the land by they do not own the land, so they launched an initiative cooperating with the local, provincial governments to give people title to their homes. My family decided to get involved in that to make financial contributions in order to help people to acquire the title deeds to their homes,” he says.

“It is an enormously important thing for people to have a sense of ownership. People that are used to owning things do not realize how much it adds to a person’s dignity if he can say ‘this is my home. It may be a modest little home, but it’s my home and I can leave it to my children and be assured they have a roof over their heads.’”

Wiese says positivity rules his life.

“If you are positive about life, you ignore the unfair criticism. A lot of the criticism is totally justified but you don’t focus on either the nice things people say to you or about you too much or equally you don’t concern yourself too much about the bad things people say…”

“I don’t remember anything bad people say. I always say to entrepreneurs, ‘if you start rising above the average, you become a target’. People say, ‘but that guy is not cleverer than I am, why does he make a success and I’m so clever and I don’t make the same financial successes?’ You have to know you will have people tear you down; it’s part of the game,” says Wiese.

We leave him preparing to jet off to the UK for meetings. Some may not understand his decision to dive back into diamonds, but Wiese seems to see money where others don’t.  Maybe the smart investor should take a look at the diamond business.

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Agriculture

Green-Sky Thinking

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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.”

READ MORE| Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

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.

READ MORE| Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

“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

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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.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

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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Entrepreneurs

The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya

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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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