A giant tobacco leaf carving greets visitors to Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, a few kilometers outside Harare city center, along the road to the Beitbridge border with South Africa. Carved by sculptor Dominic Benhura, the towering tobacco leaf is an embodiment of the past and present of the biggest tobacco auction floors in Africa.
The tobacco auction floor is part of a diverse business empire that was built by Roger Boka, one of Zimbabwe’s most controversial and successful black businessmen. Rudo Boka, the eldest of seven children, has been the CEO of Boka Tobacco Auction Floors since 2011, but only after an acrimonious battle to have the family inherit their father’s business, after he died onboard a private jet in February 1999. The 54-year-old was returning from the United States, where he had undergone treatment after a lengthy illness.
He is said to have been the first black Zimbabwean to own a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and was no stranger to controversy. At the time of his death, he was under investigation by the central bank for alleged money laundering. For 34-year-old Rudo Boka, and her siblings, who are co-shareholders, it has been a bumpy ride. Growing up, they had no interest in his business empire, which spans gold and chrome mining, agriculture, transport and construction. Rudo was more interested in the photography sessions her father, a former teacher, conducted. Today, Rudo and her sister, Chido, who is 10 years her junior, have a keen interest in photography when they are not busy during the peak tobacco selling season that runs from mid-February to October. When the auction floors open, Rudo spends seven days a week at work and rarely has time to relax.
“I literally live here when it’s auctioning season. I start at five in the morning and don’t go home until there is an acceptable level of satisfaction for clients. It’s always a long day,” says Rudo.
Boka Tobacco Auction Floors is the biggest and most lucrative entity under the family’s wings. It handles 15% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop of around 148 million kilograms. The company auctions 10,000 bales on peak days and pays up to $2 million a day. In 2013, the company auctioned tobacco worth $92 million, according to Rudo.
“This year we should exceed this because we have a bigger crop. It is our ability to function through all conditions that makes us the preferred auction floor for tobacco in Zimbabwe.”
Rudo’s first day at the company was also the worst of her career.
“My dad built this place in 1996 and he first operated as an auction floor in 1997. When he died, his other businesses, especially the bank, collapsed. ”
With the collapse of the bank, the liquidation process attempted to liquidate everything that Roger Boka had.
“I was only 19 years old and I had to start defending what my father had built. From 2000, these premises were leased to ZITEC and we battled, they didn’t pay rent and they ran the facility down. We eventually won the court case in 2010.”
Just when the family thought their troubles had ended, the following day they discovered that this was only the beginning of another taxing period.
“We had just won the court case and thought we are going to patch up the place and rehabilitate it, only to be told that the farmers wanted the place opened because they wanted to sell their tobacco,” she says.
Rudo had plans to use the premise for warehousing, while contractors worked to rehabilitate the sections that were in bad shape. And there was no money to start. So how did the company manage the situation?
“By the grace of God, I must say, the farmers were very understanding. They knew that we were not fully prepared, but they had pressures and they wanted money.”
The advantages of a family-run business is that the family motivates each other when times are tough. While some family businesses crumble due to fights over inheritance, this has not touched Roger Boka’s empire.
“All of us [the children] are accountable. All of us are involved in certain areas where we are qualified, some in accounts, others in marketing and we all go through performance appraisals. But we have external people who run this company and keep it going, like our finance manager and managers, they are all professionals whom we are not related to,” she says.
The credit for building the empire goes to the late businessman, but Rudo says that it was her late mother, who inspired him to pursue his dream of becoming one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest black businessmen.
“A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children. It was my mom who said to him, ‘why don’t we start something of our own?’ Sometimes it takes a woman to tell a man that you will do it. Not that you can do it, but that you will do it.”