Alpesh Patel has a sharp eye for business and a silver tongue. It’s easy to believe the mobile entrepreneur is king of the corporate jungle. What’s hard to believe is that he was born in a real jungle when his parents were on a Safari in Uganda.
“So I’m a real bush baby,” jokes Patel in the CNBC studios, a few blocks away from his home in Sandton, South Africa.
Patel is the founder of Mi-Group. He’s sold over 1.5 million of Africa’s first branded smart phones, the Mi-Fone. He’s also launched a credit card for Africans with Visa, MasterCard and Western Union.
The man, whose company generates revenue of $20 million, has been on a journey longer than the Great Migration of the Masai Mara. Patel grew up in Uganda among a family of cinema owners. His grandfather bought the Odium Franchise. As part of the deal the likes of Steve McQueen and John Wayne came on safari holidays and shared lunches with them.
It was cruel fate that ripped this lavish lifestyle from his family in 1972. Idi Amin, the then president of Uganda, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Indian and Pakistani minority. Within 90 days, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, a $100 and a couple of pillows, Patel’s family were marooned. They flew to Britain, bound for a detention center along with 27,000 other Indians.
“I went from a lifestyle of being in the cinema to my mother working three jobs and my father as a state worker. The United Kingdom was not a very friendly place for us,” he says.
It did bring fame, says Patel. The BBC filmed him holding his blanket as he left the plane; the scene became an iconic shot throughout the world.
Patel claims entrepreneurship is in his blood. At school he would sell leather handbags, brought back from Morocco on holidays, to Nigerian vendors in London. After graduation, Africa drew him back; this time selling first generation mobile phones. Patel describes them as the giant bricks of the 1990s. His big break came with an order for 183 cell phones from a businessman in China. The only provision for the deal was that he had to be there to hand over the box. He saw a gap in the market and flew to Asia to sell more. By the age of 23, Patel made his first million, being one of the first people to sell mobile devices in that continent.
His worst day was on the horizon. A combination of a lavish lifestyle in Hong Kong and competition as big mobile brands woke up meant Patel’s days were numbered. Mobile giant Nokia came to China in 1993. The stiff competition sucked Patel’s market dry, he says.
“I was young. My biggest mistake was not investing in the business. I thought I could keep going the way I was. I was a millionaire at 23, but I lost it all. It kind of wakes you up. If you are not mature enough to handle that oncoming challenge you immediately self-destruct and that’s what happened to me. You wonder how you are going to take on the big guys. You lose faith. Everything starts going bad. Deals wouldn’t work out. Suppliers would come in with something cheaper. My income was getting less; meanwhile my lifestyle was still being maintained. Savings started dwindling.”
Although I was offered a lot of opportunities at the time, I didn’t see them. I was offered one of the first chain stores in Hong Kong for internet cafes, and I was like ‘what is that?’ It’s opportunities that you get presented that you don’t have the vision to take. If you are the first to sell phones in China you should be the first to do many other things. But I didn’t,” he says.
Patel returned to South Africa with nothing. He worked his way around the telecommunications arena as a manager for Motorola and the Harris Radio Corporation.
“Every day is my worst day. The easiest day was yesterday. Problems come all the time but I looked at them as opportunities to fix,” he says.
Patel’s biggest lesson he learned was that he needed to sell like a corporate.
“I went back to the basics. I was selling products with nothing but a suitcase and a bunch of brochures… In three years I sold five million units in Africa with Motorola. It was tough… I think it’s what I needed. I never had that corporate experience. To be where we are today you need to have some experience. Unless you are a fantastically talented singer, you need to get some training somewhere to know how the system works,” he says.
Armed with the knowledge of the African market, Patel launched his own company in 2008, the Mi-Fone brand of mobile devices; a new name in a fast-growing emerging market. They sold 200,000 units in the first year. In 2013, they have sold over a million.
“I put my life savings into it. I’m my own angel investor. We don’t have any private equity. We are living proof that you can build a business today in Africa, a pan-African business, with zero,” he says.
With his cell phone brand growing, Patel is not done. Last year, he launched a Mi-Card credit card. Patel says his plan is simple: if you want to give people power, give them a cell phone in the one hand and a credit card in the other.
“Despite the millions that are made in this market, [Africa] it is still seen as a dumping ground for older technology. One of the biggest challenges we face is being an unknown brand in Africa. There is a perception that it’s a cheap Chinese phone, but Apple is also made in China. Apple is so successful because they have created a brand experience. My mission is to create a brand that caters for mass-market African consumers as opposed to rich guys in the West,” he says.
Beaten and bloodied, Patel is as tenacious and as rugged as the Ugandan bush he was born in.
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My Worst Day With Atedo Peterside, Founder Of Stanbic IBTC
Atedo Peterside is one of the most respected bankers in Nigeria.
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Burned But Not Broken; The Tale Of Fiery fashion
Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile and designer clothes; beneath his tough exterior is a layered story of depression and despair.
On a rainy autumn morning in Johannesburg in March, we meet Adrian Furstenburg in the small affluent suburb of Parkhurst.
Ironically, he is dressed in black – a symbol of grief – to recount the day when his design studio, including stock and equipment worth R70,000 ($5,800), burned and was razed to the ground.
“The damage was so painfully clear in the bright, winter morning light,” says Furstenburg.
To get to this story, it is important to start from the beginning.
Furstenburg was only four years old when he first said he wanted to become a fashion designer.
“I was at my granny’s house and we were watching a fashion show on television, and as we were watching, that is when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Furstenburg.
However, his father, a farmer, had, other plans – he wanted him to pursue law.
Somehow, Furstenburg found a way to persuade his father to allow him to enter a career not so distant from the fashion industry.
“It was the early 2000s and it was pretty cool to study graphic designing, so he said ‘that’s okay, I will pay for you to study graphic designing’,” he says.
In his last year at college, he specialized in textile design, which led to him crafting a career as a handbag designer.
“I think that is one of the wisest decisions that I have ever made, there are definitely no regrets,” says Furstenburg today.
As part of a college assignment, he was required to do a practical project.
“I weaved this beautiful piece of fabric and then I actually made a handbag. This project is where my passion for handbags started,” he says.
After he graduated, he started freelancing as a designer and stylist, set on his journey of one day being a fashion mogul selling swanky handbags.
But his worst day was lurking around the corner, ready to throw him into a state of melancholy.
It was June 6, 2012.
“The day isn’t etched into my memory. I recall it from a much deeper, more visceral part than that,” he says.
He and his business partner at the time, Nkululeko Msibi, of 2souls clothing, had recently set up a small studio just off Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, where they produced every kind of clothing and accessory to keep their bank balances and ambitions afloat.
“We landed one of our biggest projects producing costumes for a major dance production. We spent hours planning, designing, sourcing, selecting, sewing, stitching. Their budget was strict and the schedule was even tighter with virtually no room for error,” says Furstenburg.
But a disaster that would discredit him and Msibi was about to blaze through their studio.
Furstenburg was picking up materials from a supplier before heading to the studio that Wednesday morning when he received a frantic phone call from Msibi.
“Fire was really the only word I got from the conversation,” says Furstenburg.
He describes how surreal everything felt in the bright, winter morning light when he arrived at the studio.
“The thick smell of smoke hung throughout the building. Inside the studio, sooty black licks ran up the walls where the fire had devoured our machines, stock and the rails of costumes for the production,” says Furstenburg.
This was just three days before they had to deliver the costumes to their client. They were also not business savvy-enough at the time to have insurance.
“We sat sobbing on the ashy floor. The nausea swam in my stomach as the reality of the situation gained momentum in my head.”
“I called the client, trembling. The shouting started on the telephone and didn’t stop until they left our charcoal pile with a few pieces that had escaped the flames while stored in another studio,” Furstenburg recounts.
They were livid – understandably so.
“They were so outraged, because I was dealing with their dream as well. It was a costume production. They had a look of utter hatred and disgust on their faces,” he says.
They lost the clients.
“I spent two weeks in a blur of fear and guilt… Almost no one trusted us with their work and the landlord suspected that we were to blame for negligence,” says Furstenburg.
He went home, depressed for weeks, not knowing what his next move would be.
“I don’t have children but my business is my child. I have fought very hard for it. Seeing it die was the worst day of my life. I took about two weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he says.
Fortunately, it was soon established that the fire was caused by old wiring. They salvaged what they could and Furstenburg decided to change his focus from production to styling – that is how he slowly managed to recover from what was his worst day.
He started from scratch, working on freelance projects making very little money.
“It was far from ideal and barely sustainable but somehow my resolve strengthened not to allow this incident to raze me permanently,” says Furstenburg.
The passion for designing handbags ignited within, in 2013, he equipped himself with business training at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.
When he completed the three-month training, the center placed an order with him for 70 small, original-design messenger bags to be given as gifts to guests at an event held during one of FORBES AFRICA cover stars Richard Branson’s visit to South Africa.
“It could be said that someone else spotted what I had to offer before I had known exactly, and acting perhaps more in response to a veiled instruction than personal confidence at the time, I started making bags,” he says.
“Amusingly, whatever I might have lacked in self-belief was effectively offset by a desire to wow anyone and everyone and so I almost simultaneously entered the Independent Handbag Designer Awards of that year [in New York],” says Furstenburg.
It took four years of applications before he was accepted in 2016 into the All About the Logo by Guess Handbags category. He was the first South African applicant accepted – and the first to win. This opened doors for him locally and internationally.
Furstenburg is currently working on a procurement deal with an international airline. If successful, it will be the golden game changer that takes his business to the goal of netting an annual profit of $1 million by 2019.
Six years after his worst day, Furstenburg is not without challenges. But he is continuously taking it one step at a time, ensuring that the fire he has for designing world-class handbags never burns out.
“I must admit that I get a little breathless reflecting on the trajectory that the business has followed in the last 15 months, not least because of the risks we’ve survived and the gratitude I feel to those who’ve guided and supported me,” he says.
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