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The Rainbow Nation’s Whites-Only Town

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Besides white, perhaps the only other color that gets mentioned in Orania is orange.

Orania, a whites-only town flanked by the majestic and breathtaking Orange River, is about 160 kilometers outside Kimberly in South Africa’s Northern Cape province.

South Africa may have entered its 23rd year of democracy, yet this Afrikaner town has no desire whatsoever to be a part of the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Orania is secluded, separated and solo.

And so on a sunny Tuesday morning, I drive to Orania with my colleague from Soweto, photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla. Like him, I am black South African, from Harrismith in the Free State.

Who knew we would one day pull up into the streets of this arid town?

A rusty signboard greets us about 10 kilometers before Orania. We approach with trepidation, not knowing what to expect from South Africa’s only town with no black residents.

There are no walls, security or gates preceding Orania. No grim militarized borders – a la Donald Trump’s proposed Mexico wall – so now that’s a big relief.

Instead, next to a grocery store and the town’s petrol station is a wall rife with color, a festive reminder to the locals of the fun fair taking place later in the year.

– Carel Boshoff (junior)

Our contact is Orania’s Communications and Marketing Director James Kemp, who has agreed to meet us at this location.

The desolate gas station has two dusty petrol tanks; a young white attendant waits idly for the next customer.

While we wait for Kemp in our rented car, some of the locals stare at us, making us aware we are quite conspicuous.

Kemp arrives in a white Mercedes-Benz, and we follow him to a restaurant in a resort located in a leafy part of Orania. As we drive up, the locals we pass wave at us. Their welcome comes as a surprise.

The resort is Aan-die-Oewer, Afrikaans for ‘On-The-Banks’ – situated on the banks of the Orange River. Kemp tells us the area attracts holiday-goers and families through the year because of activities like bird-watching and fishing.

According to the information compiled in Orania’s tourism booklet, the town attracts almost 30,000 visitors annually. An increasing interest in Orania has helped the tourism sector and businesses such as guesthouses, restaurants and a spa have since opened.

We receive a warm welcome at the restaurant and I marvel at the captivating beauty of the Orange River, the largest river in the country.

Even though this self-styled 8,000-hectare enclave is isolated from the rest of South Africa, the community of Orania denies they live in remoteness.

Instead, they say they have chosen to embrace the community made up of Afrikaners only, in order to remain true to Afrikaans’ tradition and culture.

Dr Sonwabile Mnwana, a sociologist and Deputy Director and Senior Researcher at the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand explains Orania was established after Afrikaners felt threatened by issues such as poverty in urban areas and political defeat in the wake of a liberated South Africa.

In order to understand why a community like Orania came into being, Professor Kwandiwe Kondlo, a professor in Political Economy at the University of Johannesburg, says the political and historical context of South Africa needs to be taken into consideration.

In the 1990s, when the idea of a new government was taking shape, Kondlo says negotiations for national liberation were compromised.

“We had a situation in South Africa where the oppressor and the oppressed were declared both victors at the negotiation table, and that never works in the long run. The liberation movement [African National Congress] negotiated with its back against the wall,” he says.

– Annelize Kruger

The outcome of these negotiations was the country’s first democratic elections. And the elections saw a black president, Nelson Mandela, elected for the first time and a black-run government, the African National Congress (ANC), helm the country.

The 1994 elections had been long overdue. In 1989, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wrote a firm one-paragraph telegram to then South African President F.W de Klerk to provide a date for Mandela’s release from prison. The White House supported this request and pressure mounted on the Afrikaans leadership to free Mandela.

“On the 10th February, 1990, F.W de Klerk announced in Parliament that on the 11th February, 1990, Nelson Mandela will be released from prison. This announcement came as a surprise to everyone. Not even his friends in cabinet knew about it. The ANC likes to boast about many things… the old man [Mandela] could have died in prison if the Boers were not put under pressure,” says Kondlo.

Economists like Kondlo call the 1990s the New Phase of Financial Globalization, which pushed for a borderless world. However, after 2015, the global political economy started shifting again.

He says that is why, for example, Americans voted for President Trump, as a way of “applying brakes to the wave of globalization”.

 

A security valve

Orania was established in those turbulent years, in the early 1990s, when South Africa was pushing for unity with every race in the country.

“Orania is a security valve for Afrikaners in a negotiated democracy,” says Kondlo.

However, the notion of separatism and self-determination that Orania has been famously documented for isn’t unusual.

Dr Frans Cronjé, CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), says people that have actually “exited South Africa” and decided to live in seclusion, are those who live on golf estates and private housing establishments and not just in Orania.

“Even though in Orania, there is just over a thousand people, hundreds of thousands of South Africans have actually made the same decision of going to live in relative seclusion,” he says.

According to Kemp, anyone can move and live in Orania, provided they can fully adopt and express the Afrikaans culture and way of living.

Max du Preez is a veteran Afrikaans journalist and columnist who, in the apartheid years, founded Vrye Weekblad, an Afrikaans-language weekly and the first anti-apartheid Afrikaans newspaper.

“Orania is practicing separatism because they are motivated by fear of being swamped by the majority black society, fear that they may lose their language and culture, and fear of crime. Most Afrikaners don’t share their fears to the same extent. I cannot see modern, urban and professional Afrikaners ever feeling at home in Orania,” notes Du Preez.

However, Kondlo says the elite Afrikaners could “surprise everyone” and move to Orania if the South African government collapses in the years to come.

In the 1980s, the founder of Orania, Professor Carel Boshoff, was chairman of the Afrikaner-Broederbond, a movement known to be the Afrikaner think-tank.

An entrepreneur shows the Oranian currency, Ora

“The Afrikaners are very forward-thinking people. Orania was established as a tactical strategic exit for the Afrikaner, should the new South Africa run into serious crisis. They will then have a place to preserve themselves,” says Kondlo.

In 1991, as the country headed towards a democracy, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to as the Rainbow Nation, a group of 40 Afrikaner families led by Boshoff proceeded to start their own state in the Karoo.

Even though it was established in 1991, the land Orania sits on was initially built in 1963 by the Department of Water Affairs and known as Vluytjeskraal, referring to the place where the town was established. Colored workers lived there, whilst working on building irrigation canals connected to the Vanderkloof Dam.

As the wheels of change started to roll, Boshoff, who is former South African Prime Minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd’s son-in-law, bought the abandoned 500-hectare land, which has since expanded to 8,000 hectares, for R1.5 million (approx. $521,000 at the time).

He envisioned tens of thousands of people occupying it, yet today, 26 years later, Orania is home to only about 1,300 residents.

Cronjé says this low number shows there isn’t a high demand for an establishment like Orania amongst other South Africans.

Orania’s annual population growth is reportedly about 10% and over the years, political leaders like Mandela, Jacob Zuma and EFF President Julius Malema have visited the community.

“The ANC is moved by numbers and due to a slow rise in Orania’s population, they [ANC] don’t see them as a threat. But remember, an elephant can be killed by an ant,” says Kondlo.

Whether Orania is a community that only has self-preservation at its core or if it’s indeed an enclave for Afrikaners should South Africa experience crisis, remains a burning question.

Boshoff’s son and the current president of Orania, Carel Boshoff (junior), says his father was attracted to the idea of “a sort-of Commonwealth South Africa” and in the 1970s, he had the impression that the idea of a white minority government was unsustainable.

“He did not see a white minority government being replaced by a black majority government very attractive, because [to him] it was just turning the picture around,” he says.

In 2011, after 10 years of leading the community of Orania, Professor Boshoff died aged 83 from cancer. He is buried next to his mother-in-law, Betsie Verwoerd, in a small cemetery in Orania.

The cemetery has several simple tombstones of people who once lived in Orania. A pointy tower rests atop a round tombstone located at a higher point in the big yard, which serves as a monument for Verwoerd’s late wife, Betsie, and Boshoff.

A stone’s throw away is a decrepit water mill structure used in the 1960s. Overlooking the cemetery is a lush green maize field, giving the brown surroundings verdant appeal.

Volkskool Orania

An intentional community

Agriculture is Orania’s mainstay. The town has over 15,000 pecan nut trees as well as wheat and corn fields.

Self-sufficiency is the norm here. All labor in Orania is undertaken by residents and according to records on Orania’s website, the unemployment rate is under 3%.

“If you are lazy and not willing to work for yourself, you will not survive in Orania,” says Kemp, who lived in Pretoria before moving to Orania three years ago.

The residents do all the work such as building houses, service delivery, plumbing, fixing cars, administrative work at the municipal office, farming, legal matters, healthcare, teaching and construction.

A German who brews craft-beer is the only non-Afrikaner we meet in Orania. He moved here 18 months ago and sells his beer in Orania. Kemp says the beverage has proven to be a favorite among the locals.

A soft-spoken Carel (junior) says Orania carries the concept of an intentional community, which means, as a community they are not only looking back but forward as well.

“When people move to Orania, the important questions we ask are ‘what are your intentions, aspirations and ideas for the future’. I am confident to say – in the broader sense – what my father had in mind when he bought Orania is what is still being done,” he explains.

Be that as it may, Lindsay Maasdorp, national spokesperson of The Black First Land First movement, says he has nothing against people who want to preserve their language and culture, but feels differently about the residents of Orania.

“The people in Orania have the highest form of white arrogance,” he says.

Maasdorp says areas like Orania destroy the idea of the Rainbow Nation and instead, its residents only practice racism.

“The idea that white people can cut themselves off the entire country, may seem like they do not want to interact with black people. It’s a stigma attached to us [black people] and the only way we can break that is to take all the land back including Orania,” he says.

A lingering question is how, in working towards a united South Africa, the right to self-determination and a self-governed community was granted to Orania’s founders. Their support is a clause stipulated in Chapter 14, Section 235 of the Constitution of South Africa.

“[In it], the aspect of national self-determination is referred to in broad terms and does not speak specifically to historically-oppressed groups. This aspect was signed by both sides of leadership and the Afrikaner’s strategy was very calculated. That is why in terms of law and the constitution, it is very difficult to confront Orania,” says Kondlo.

The residents of Orania exude a sense of forced friendliness and appear used to the media attention their lifestyle, beliefs and livelihood attract.

Carel (junior) admits scores of journalists have visited Orania, and from his responses, it’s easy to see he knows his answers well.

“We are not multi-cultural activists, we look at our culture and the idea of the uniqueness of culture in a positive way,” he says.

Du Preez opines Orania is not threatening anyone and the community is not a burden on the state.

“I believe they should be left in peace. They’re not the first ethnic/cultural/language community in the world who wants to withdraw from broader society,” he says.

Municipal workers in a van enroute to work

Orania’s entrepreneurs

Sarel Roets is a minister-turned-businessman who moved to Orania five years ago. He owns several businesses and properties here, including a commercial office park. It is modern and located with a perfect view of the Karoo’s brown and rocky plains.

Most of the infrastructure in Orania is stylish and up-to-date.

Roets grew up in a conservative Afrikaner home and says like most Afrikaners, were “originally pro-apartheid”.

He says Orania has exposed the Afrikaners to a life of self-reliance. Most of them had grown up with domestic workers and gardeners who did all the manual labor in and around their homes.Now they do it all on their own.

“We used black labor everywhere we went and had a black lady doing laundry in the house. That is legalized slavery,” he says.

One of the buildings on Roets’ property is Roelien de Klerk’s jewelry shop. Oranzi Pop sells offbeat jewelry, all handmade by her and her assistant who sits at the back of the store. The shop also sells colorful scarves, bags, sunglasses and small, intricately-carved treasure boxes.

My colleague grabs a pair of small flower-shaped wooden earrings for his 10-year-old sister. I too am tempted to buy something, to serve as a souvenir from Orania, but think twice seeing some of the price-tags.

De Klerk has been living in Orania for over 20 years now and says her dream is to start a jewelry school. She desires to pass on her jewelry-making skills to the next generation since she knows there is a gap for such expertise in South Africa.

A majority of the jewelry in her store gets ‘exported’ into the rest of the country, which has helped grow her business and in a small way, contribute to the town’s economy.

Residents are proactive in making a living for themselves in Orania and the town prides itself in being eco-friendly. Every corner in town has clearly-marked bins with labels of what should be thrown in for recycling. Also, every building in Orania is required to have a solar panel.

This part of the country is dry and the sun is scorching, so around midday, all the laborers drop their tools and head indoors to cool off.

We pass a swimming pool and see a mother and daughter walk out with towels around their waists. In front of the swimming pool is a large monument of a koeksister, a sugary deep-fried treat enjoyed mostly by the Afrikaners.

A street away from the pool is a contemporary white building with wide open wooden doors. A few cars are parked in a spacious parking bay on the side of the building. The building is a hair salon owned by Annelize Kruger.

“Oh I fixed my hair just for you guys,” she gushes as we enter her stylish salon. The burgundy walls are decorated with paintings of flowers and other eye-catching drawings. A petite woman sits behind the high counter, looking on silently with a smile.

Kruger says she moved to Orania from Pretoria three years ago because she could no longer take the traffic in the city.

“In Orania, it takes me five minutes to get to the shops, another five to go home and I would still have another 45 minutes to relax before coming back to work,” she says.

Kruger is bubbly and friendly. She says her hair salon is one of many in Orania, and in order to stay ahead, will be opening her own hair academy.

“In Orania, you need to do more than one thing in order to sustain yourself. I asked the Lord what else I can do here and He said I should use what I have. It has been a faith process,” she says.

Kruger says students can come from anywhere in the country. They would have to apply first and then come for interviews before training.

So far, she has one student and says she gets accreditation from the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations for the training.

Kruger willingly smiles for the camera and agrees to pose for the several angles my colleague suggests.

“You can come here all the way from Johannesburg and I can do your hair!” she jokes with me as we leave.

Orania also has its own currency, the Ora. According to Orania’s website, Die Orania Beweging, the Ora has been used since 2004 and was created to promote local spending. It operates like a coupon system whereby, if used to purchase goods in the town, residents are given discounts on their purchases. The value of 1 Ora is equal to R1.

The community uses the Ora to keep their own cash in circulation, while their rands are placed in banks and accumulate interest.

“Since we don’t get funding from the government, we have international partners – called Friends of Orania – who help us with funding. Currently, there is R500 million [$37 million] invested in Orania,” he says.

Monument Hill where former Afrikaner leaders’ busts are displayed

On their website, Friends of Orania is a group of people in Europe, working on creating an “autonomous European organization” with the aim of supporting the Afrikaans community.

Orania also has a community radio station, Radio Orania. The studio is located in the town’s municipal building and boasts basic audio equipment. It is accredited with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and its frequency stretches to a radius of about 40 kilometers.

Their programs range from community announcements, poetry and Afrikaans folk music. They don’t have frequent news slots or shows on current affairs. The town also has its own community magazine, Voorgrond.

A 10-minute drive from the radio station takes us to Monument Hill. Here, bust-statues of former Afrikaner leaders look down on the parched town.

Paul Kruger, JBM Hertzog, Verwoerd, DF Malan and JG Strijdom encircle the town’s totem, ‘Die Klein Reus’, Afrikaans for ‘The Little Giant’. It’s a statue of a young boy rolling up his sleeves, demonstrating his readiness to work.

Even though the original artwork of the boy was made by German-born South African artist Elly Holm and given to Verwoerd as a gift, the leaders of Orania have since made this piece of art their icon. Carel (junior) says the busts represent their heroes and choosing to keep them was the obvious thing to do.

“We can’t look at those leaders from the early stages and allow their busts to get buried under dust in store rooms. We need to be true about where we come from as well. It’s not to say they never made mistakes but we are owning up to our history – bad and good. We don’t believe it was only bad,” he says.

In 1948, the National Party governed South Africa led by Verwoerd and because of his role in implementing the apartheid policies in the country, he is mostly called the ‘Architect of Apartheid’.

In a central part of Orania is Betsie Verwoerd’s house, now a museum. Joost Strydom, a Junior Communications Officer at Orania, takes us to it. It looks like any other home, except for Verwoerd’s bust at the front gate that reminds us this is a museum.

Along the pathway leading to the front door, my colleague and I pluck juicy grapes hanging off a steel arch. It feels strange eating from the Verwoerds’ vine.

The museum is filled ceiling to floor with Verwoerd’s pictures, clothing, gifts, collectables and everything else that belonged to him.

In one room, Betsie’s old-fashioned belongings hang from the cupboard knobs and family pictures crowd the small tables in the room.

Atop a doorway leading to the rest of the house, is Verwoerd’s fishing rod. Pictures around the rod show him revelling in his many fishing outings.

His portraits are on small, medium and large canvasses. Small sculptures of him fill almost every corner of the house. His pictures are all framed and one particular image of him is placed in a colorful round-glass bubble.

In one room, in a large glass case, lies the suit he was wearing when he died after being stabbed four times by Parliamentarian Service Officer Dimitri Tsafendas, in September 1966.

Next to the navy-grey suit are things that were in his possession at the time of his death. In a little room next to the glass case, are piles of handmade wooden Basotho, Khoisan and African craft stacked on a counter.

Different kinds of bows and arrows and spears hang on the wall. We are told these were gifts he received from his black counterparts and leaders during his reign.

After 15 minutes at the house, we exit and walk into a warm afternoon.

For a moment, the pleasant weather makes us forget where we were.

Life in Orania

Like the stillness around us, the community of Orania is content. They handle their own affairs and continue building their establishment.

However, internationally, in view of a re-igniting of right-wing populism and changes in the new world order, it can never be clearly known what a community like Orania can grow into, especially if the major state – South Africa – starts facing serious challenges, as Kondlo says.

The advantages that Orania could gain in that respect remain unknown. He avers while the majority of South Africans are pointing fingers at Orania, in hindsight, it is the rest of South Africa that is exposed and vulnerable.

A democratic South Africa could be “a fallacy created to stop bloodshed and apartheid”. Yet, in a place like Orania, it is what could have led to the establishment of “a secured, private enclosure that will shield the minority group in the event of a greater crisis”.

For now, the people of Orania are going about their lives, solo and satisfied.

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‘Worth Millions And Billions’

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Terence Terenzo, the award-winning South African hairdresser and founder of hair salon group Terenzo Suites, on his biggest investment decisions and blunders.


What is your investment philosophy?

One of my philosophies is to really analyse ‘is this an investment or is it a money pit… Are you sure you got a good investment and not a liability?’… Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to invest in things that don’t absorb all my time and energy.

So if someone were to say to me, ‘you can work your butt off seven days a week and we will give you a million rand a month, or you can take it super easy and do the absolute minimum but you can have R400,000 ($27,700) a month’, I would rather take the R400,000 because that would free me up so much more.

I would have time to do things that are important and other projects. So, for me, it is about setting up passive income businesses instead of creating businesses that need huge amounts of management.

What are some of the big investments you have made over the years?

Most of them were in property but this, Terenzo Suites, is one of the biggest investments I have ever made. It was many many millions. And then on the stock market, I’ve played around on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where we have invested quite heavily. I would use it, then look at the market and sometimes pull the money out and move it. I have also invested in Naspers.

Have you had any regrets?

If any entrepreneur tells you that he hasn’t had that [an investment blunder], he is lying. So, what happened was I bought a property in 2008, just before the [recession]. I was stuck with it for years and even when I sold it, I sold it many years later at the same price I bought it.

I bought it in an absolute inflated stop end, and it was really at an all-time high and I had to sell it at an all-time low… But the main thing for me about those kind of things is that you learn from them and you must not beat yourself up for too long.

Try and see what you learned from them.

Why did you invest in the hair business?

I think the hair industry is going to explode in South Africa and the whole continent, if you just think of the possibilities of wigs, hair pieces, hair colors and relaxers. Millions of women before weren’t so worried about their hair but as the world has changed so much, all of them want to look amazing and they want to look current, fresh, sexy, and that is all a part of the hair industry.

What should you consider first before you invest in your hair?

I think the one thing is to have a professional conversation with someone instead of just doing your own thing and, usually, hairdressers are quite happy to consult with you without charging you before you make a serious investment in hair pieces or wigs.

How big do you think the hair industry is in Africa?

I think it is worth millions and billions… and I think it is an undiscovered industry that is still going to explode. I don’t think we have scratched the tip of the iceberg with this.

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A Germ Of An idea

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The microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Babajide Ipaye started making good-looking shoes to fit his size 48 feet but decided to create them for others as well.


Selling shoes was probably the last thing Babajide Ipaye, a microbiology graduate, envisioned doing. But when by the age of 10, he was already wearing his father’s shoes, a size 44, he knew that some day that he would step in that world.

The only child of his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was only 11, Ipaye was raised by his grandparents and extended family members who shaped the early years of his life.

“I had a lot of people who were trying to nurture me and they had different professions. So for example, one was an artist and I was endeared to him, another one was a medical doctor, so my granddad wanted me to study medicine and another uncle was a computer scientist, so I was kind of confused growing up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I kind of lived the life of almost everyone that influenced me,” says Ipaye.

READ MORE | The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers

That confusion helped Ipaye cut his teeth in various industries early on in his career. His medical doctor uncle influenced his career as a microbiologist where he worked with Ideas International Bio Technology Services, spending his days cleaning up oil spills and bacteria.

Then followed a stint in Information Technology (IT), a move also inspired by another uncle, where he worked with Tranter IT Infrastructure Services and Computer Warehouse as an analyst deploying managed technology services for multinationals like Guinness, Total and KPMG.

“At this point in time, IT was very hip and we happened to be one of the early pioneers in the tech space which was a very exciting time and considering where I was coming from in microbiology, it was a new field for me, I was working with multinationals and the exposure was amazing, it gave me a very broad sense of how organizations function.”

But Ipaye soon became dissatisfied with being put in a silo. There was too much structure and rigor due to the size of these multinationals and he became bogged down with a lot of systems and processes, which ultimately stifled his creative juices. His solution was to start his own IT company, Torque Technologies.

The company began providing IT equipment and technology services in its early days to multinationals before quickly creating a niche for itself in the fiber optics space. In early 2003 to 2005, the Nigerian telecoms era had just started booming and Ipaye and his partner saw a first-mover advantage in fiber optics by providing training to firms in Nigeria, which they did for the next 10 years.

READ MORE | ‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

By 2015, Ipaye decided he wanted a new challenge outside the IT world. After parting ways with his partner, he began to ponder about his life-long struggle with footwear.

“So I said to myself ‘why don’t I make my own shoes?’ So I went on the internet, did a bit of research and came across a school in the Netherlands called SLEM. I called them up and found out about the shoe-making course and I said since I was on holiday, why don’t I take some time off the business and explore how to make my own shoes and I went to the Netherlands.”

Keexs was born. The goal was to make shoes that fit Ipaye’s size 48 feet but also looked aesthetically pleasing. But making shoes for him alone would prove to be too costly.

Ipaye decided to make shoes for others as well. He would focus on the athleisure market, which is a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’, a market that has grown to the stage where it is no longer a trend but a mainstay in Nigerian fashion.

To stand out in the competitive footwear market, Ipaye decided to add some African elements to his innovative footwear brand and focused on outsourcing the production to a factory in the Netherlands while he focused on the product and design to save on cost.

The aim in the long run was to move production to Nigeria where he could fulfill the brand’s social mission of providing employment and skills training to unemployed youth. However, to make the business viable, he had to make a minimum of 1,000 pairs of shoes to achieve economies of scale. Next came the challenge of securing startup funding.

“From my previous experience of starting my technology business in Nigeria, I came to realize that the cost of funding in Nigeria is very high and also there are a lot of businesses chasing funding and the risk level of most potential investors in Nigeria is very conservative and they don’t want to invest in stuff they are not sure about.

“So I read about crowdfunding and consulted a company in the Netherlands and I came across a site called kick-starter which is a US-based platform that offers a global crowdfunding platform to innovative ideas and projects, hence we started the first innovative and social focused brand in Africa,” says Ipaye.

In just over two years Ipaye has managed to grow the business through leading e-commerce sites like Jumia and Konga as well as via its own website which receives orders from countries around the world. The shoes sell for anywhere from $40 to $60, with over 8,000 pairs of shoes sold till date.

Keexs has about 18 outlets in Nigeria with retail partners in Kenya, South Africa and Guadeloupe and Nairobi.

The company also sells through social media channels where they boast over 15,000 followers on Instagram. The long-term goal for Ipaye is to secure enough funding to set up a factory in Nigeria, which he is looking to raise through an amalgamation of funding sources including grants and loans.

“We realized very quickly that economies of scale is critical to drive the growth of this business therefore there is a need for a lot of capital. There are four sides to this chain; production, design, distribution and retail. The problem with a lot of businesses in Africa is that they are expected to do everything from start to finish along that entire value chain and what that does is, it stifles the growth of the business,” says Ipaye.

The big-time hit when CNN profiled Keexs on its African Voices show. Since then, they have managed to establish themselves as an innovative social brand focused on empowering unemployed youth in Nigeria. Next on the to-do list for Ipaye is establishing a production line in Nigeria, and then taking his brand global.

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The Madhvanis: The Industrialists Who Have Tasted Sucrose And Success

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The Madhvanis started with sugar and now lead diversified global businesses. In a rare interview from their home base of Kakira in Uganda, Mayur and Kamlesh Madhvani, the Joint Managing Directors of the Madhvani Group, share a century-old tale of extraordinary family enterprise and how they are continuing the legacy of their forefathers. 


It’s  a bumpy 100km drive from the Ugandan capital of Kampala to the town of Kakira in the east. Past the swaying sugarcane plantations and green hillocks and roundabouts intermittently featuring the words ‘Madhvani’ and ‘Sugar’ that announce you have arrived, a tranquil avenue, immaculately lined by pine trees and acacia, leads to Kakira.

From this little town, an international empire was built, with a reach in far and distant lands. To this little town, have many a cavalcade, bearing presidents and global business tycoons, made its way.  

At the sugar factory that is the pulsating heart of Kakira, the quiet of the verdant landscape rapidly gives way to the deafening sound of production. 

The sound of enterprise, the sound of African industry.

Close to the equator and Jinja, the source of the Nile, I am in the ‘cane yard’ of Kakira Sugar Limited, watching giant machines noisily swallow up truckloads of sugarcane and crush them into pulp.

READ MORE | Uganda Sees 11% Growth In Sugar Output This Year

Under the sweltering African sun, these monsters, also known as feeder tables, are four in number around me, relentlessly chopping tons of sugarcane fed by a long line of at least 400 trucks piled high with unruly cane stalks gathered from the fields in this eastern corner of Uganda. 

This is the back-end and the beginning of a well-oiled factory process that will eventually turn sugarcane into foamy rivers of juice and finally sugar.

The entire process, from feeder table to sugar crystal, is completed in eight hours, resulting in bags of refined sugar at the other end.

Inside the factory, even the air is calorific, with the saccharine-sweet smell of sugar – and success. The factory is the soul of the 14,000-hectare Kakira Sugar Estate, which provides a livelihood to some 9,300 direct employees, and sugar to the rest of Uganda and East Africa.       

It is the core business of The Madhvani Group, Uganda’s biggest sugar producer. And everything within a 10km radius from here, belongs to the group.

Generations of the Madhvani family have been based in Kakira, and much has happened here over the last century: success, strife, destruction and resurrection. 

It all started in 1908, when at the age of 14, the family’s venerable patriarch, Mujlibhai Madhvani undertook the long and arduous journey from India to Uganda, to join his uncles Vithaldas and Kalidas Haridas in their shop in Iganga. By the time he was 20, Mujlibhai was tasked with opening and managing a shop in Jinja, a town at the source of the Nile River.

The waters ran deep in his veins as he was determined to make a success of his enterprise. He was appointed the Managing Director of Vithaldas Haridas & Company, which in 1918, bought around 800 acres of land in Kakira. The sugar factory subsequently started operating here in 1930, with a cane crushing capacity of 150 tons per day.

Mujlibhai built his empire on sugarcane, and laid the foundation for Kakira’s development, also empowering the communities within. Kakira grew around the factory and family home.

Soon, Mujlibhai Madhvani & Co. was also manufacturing sweets, soap, cooking oil, ghee, tea, margarine and pastry shortening. It also made cotton and became the agents for imported goods such as Goodyear tyres.

The late Manubhai, Mujlibhai’s second son, writes in his book, Tide of Fortune, an account of the family’s tale, with British author Giles Foden: “My father was the first person in Jinja to own a radio, which he bought in 1938. He purchased a record player in 1940 and soon afterwards, he became the proud owner of a 9.5mm film projector. His love of cars led him to purchase an extremely expensive powder-blue Buick, as well as an Oldsmobile.”

After Mujlibhai’s death in 1958, his eldest son, Jayantbhai, took over the business. Manubhai worked closely with him. By 1970, the Madhvani Group, according to Tide of Fortune, was at its peak with rapid annual growth of at least one new manufacturing unit a year. Manubhai says of his brother Jayantbhai: “I admired his humility and his commitment not only to serve the family, but also the community at large.”  

The factory is the soul of the 14,000-hectare Kakira Sugar Estate, which provides a livelihood to some 9,300 direct employees, and sugar to the rest of Uganda and East Africa. Picture: Forbes Africa

And he further pens: “How did we select the industries we were expanding into? It was a combination of two or three policies, really. The first was to seek vertical integration. If you make beer, you will need bottles, so why not manufacture them and some plastic crates as well?”

Unfortunately, for the Madhvani family, tragedy struck when Jayantbhai died of a massive heart attack in 1971.  

Politically too, Uganda’s destiny was changing.

When Idi Amin came to power in 1971, Manubhai was thrown into the Makindye military prison, an infamous hell hole, by the ruler for 21 days. The Madhvanis, along with the rest of the Asians living in Uganda, were notoriously expelled by Amin in 1972. The family relocated to London and then Kenya.

The sugar mill operation, which was producing 83,000 tons of sugar and contributing to 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was destroyed, looted and run down.

“Production had been at a standstill since the end of 1983 and the great hangar where sugar had once been produced was now a home to birds and animals,” says a line in Manubhai’s book.

When Amin was toppled, the Madhvanis returned, to the vestiges of their farm and factory, and a family squabble, with a segment of the family taking over the business in 1980.

The property was returned and the process of recovery started in 1985, with Manubhai and Mayur, Mujlibhai’s youngest son.

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“When you repossess assets that are completely destroyed and run down, there is obviously a great emotional side to this,” says Mayur, the Madhvani Group’s Joint Managing Director, when we meet him in his offices at the Kakira sugar factory on a sun-filled afternoon in March.

The offices he shares with his nephew and Joint Managing Director, Kamlesh, Manubhai’s elder son, are adorned with tasteful MF Husain paintings, family memorabilia and redolent with the smell of incense. The British-educated Mayur, wearing a crisp white linen shirt, warmly invites us to his office space.

“For us, it was not so much a business decision, I think it was more of an emotional decision but it ran into the business arena because we knew that once the industry would come up, there would be growth,” continues Mayur about the challenging 1980s.

Kamlesh, 64, who joined the business a few years later, and is the younger of the two, chips in: “Kakira is where the roots of the family are. What we learned very quickly was that it is far easier to build something new than to rehabilitate something that is in total disrepair. It is not only the physical assets but also the mentality of the people.”

They had to work hard to return it to the glory days of the past.

“When we were here before 1972, we had connections with a lot of leaders. Mrs Indira Gandhi visited us, and also the Kennedys; they all used to visit Kakira. Martin Luther King was here, to meet my brother. My father of course is the pioneer. I mean if you look at the way the estate is laid out, it was this man in the early 1950s that laid it out,” recalls Mayur.

 Today, the Madhvani Group is one of the biggest diversified private-sector businesses in Uganda, with assets of $750 million for the Kakira sugar business, producing 180,000 tons of sugar, 74,000 tons of molasses and 22 million liters of ethanol.

The sugar factory also makes green electricity. Very little of the sugarcane is wasted. The fiber from the process, or the bagasse residue, is burned in large boilers to generate steam that drives the turbines.

The facility also generates 51MW of electricity daily and of that, sells 32MW to the national grid, “enough to light up Kampala”, says Mayur. This is one of the biggest bagasse co-generation power plants in Africa.

A tour of the sprawling factory is rounded off with a visit to a storage warehouse with mountains of 50kg sugar bags, stacked from floor to ceiling at any given time, ready to be hauled onto waiting trucks. 

At an altitude of about 4,000ft, Kakira is lush, fertile territory offering year-round harvest. The sugar factory stops only for a month every year for maintenance. It processes its own cane but also buys from the farmers, or the out-growers, living outside the nucleus of the estate. This is an association built from Mujlibhai’s time.

Kamlesh and Mayur Madhvani, the Joint Managing Directors of the Madhvani Group. Picture: Forbes Africa

“There was a genuine affection when we came back [in 1985]. But it was very nice to say the Madhvanis are back but the Madhvanis are not magicians,” recounts Mayur. “It takes a lot of hard work and strategizing, and with government support (President Yoweri Museveni was newly elected at the time), we managed, through our small efforts, to instil in him, the aspect of business not necessarily being a bad thing. He was the one that allowed us to move forward and put this company right and pay taxes.” Fast forward to now, and the group’s focus continues to be to build its core businesses.

It is commencing a new $150 million sugar project in the northern district of Uganda named Amuru, working closely with the government. It has a sugar project in Rwanda, and projects in South Sudan and Tanzania are also on the cards.

“If you are manufacturing food commodities, it’s going to grow and this is the bread basket of the world. The Ugandans went through hell with Idi Amin but you never heard about famine because we can put anything in the ground here. We are so blessed,” says Mayur.

Cashing in on the salubrious climate and natural resources, another focus area for the group is tourism. There are nine lodges that it currently operates in Africa including in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.

One of the ways in which it opts to stay relevant is with partnerships. 

 “In the past, we used to think we can run [the business] ourselves and have those old-fashioned conglomerates. Those days are gone. You need to tap into the international market and get good world-class partners to work with and work with the right value for the African context,” offers Kamlesh.

And this applies to management as well, to further professionalize what is a family-run business.

“Most businesses that have started have been family businesses, if you look at Walmart, Ford, etc. But what you have to do is move away from the family business and let it become a little bit more professionalized,” adds Mayur.

“You want to avoid falling into the trap where the first generation creates, the second generation enjoys and the third generation destroys. We are the second generation moving to the third. The Madhvanis have broken the mould, but now [it’s not] for us to think we are infallible. We need to set up something that other family businesses can emulate, and follow other families that have succeeded in this. For that, you need to have a business that is professionally-run, yet have the family involved to give direction and not lose total touch or control.”

For this reason, the group mandatorily organizes three meetings a year in Bermuda, attended by family members and stakeholders.

But why this location in the Atlantic Ocean, far from Kakira? “We set up our companies in Bermuda in 1958, so we have been there some serious years now,” says Mayur. “In those days, perhaps it’s correct to say Bermuda was a tax haven, but now, the corporate tax structures have changed. Bermuda becomes a good venue because it is one of those tax havens that is also respected by various jurisdictions and for us, it is a historical fact that we were based in Bermuda. Our boards are all there.”

In Bermuda, the family also meets with members not actively involved in the business. Even the youngsters who are a part of the business have to report on their activities.

 “We present our reports to the family and I think the secret that myself and Kamlesh are looking at is that the business has to be such that it survives this turmoil of create, enjoy and destroy and there is transparency. The secret is transparency. The more transparency you have in a business, the more likely it is going to survive the long-term because then individuals are not allowed to mess up the day-to-day control systems,” says Mayur.

“Leadership is something that you grow into by an accident of life. I am not the oldest of this family. I have two brothers but they are much older. Kamlesh’s dad, and my elder brother Jayant, sort of had the experience of my father. So did Pratap and Sur, my elder brothers and then things changed. We came back here and I worked closely with Kamlesh’s father and he had a lot of knowledge and I had the advantage I had. We got on as a team wonderfully, and in any business, you always need the ying and the yang. Kamlesh and I work very closely but you will find that each one of us is very good in certain aspects of the business. That is so important.”

As Joint Managing Directors, their offices are adjacent to each other.

“We have this little window and we shout at each other or talk to each other whenever we want,” laughs Mayur.

“We are more like brothers, but he is still my nephew. As children, when we were at boarding school in the United Kingdom, his mother was always worried and I had to look out for him.”

Looking ahead, the Madhvani Group plans to produce rum, vodka and gin, predominantly for the export market. All of these are by-products of the same crop – sugarcane. The distillery at the estate produces 22 million liters of Extra Neutral Alcohol or ethanol a year.

“Sugar is the main product, [but] it’s quite possible in the time to come that some of these other activities from the by-products will become the main product. Such as electricity and alcohol… We are even putting up a plant for carbonated waters coming up next year,” says Mayur.

The Kakira sugar factory back in the day; the original sugar mill of 1930 is preserved to this day within the factory compound at Kakira. Picture: Supplied

But Uganda, a part of the East African Community (EAC), has a population of about 45 million and a poor rating score in the EAC when it comes to corruption. Surely, that’s discouraging for investors?

“The biggest problem we have in Africa is nearly 58% of the population is below the age of 30 and these individuals really do not want to hear about the wars because it is history. They are looking to see Africa catapult itself to another level. What the businessman needs is political stability and structured legal systems so that you feel comfortable doing your activity and I think [that is the only way] you will see Africa grow,” says Mayur.

“And yes, we do have corruption; it is endemic, you have corruption in every country. You have got to stop it. You have to have the right systems in place and you have to have total transparency on how businesses are conducted. Countries have gone through these stages and I think you have got to make an effort to try and eliminate corruption actively, without lip service. Now, action needs to be taken. If you look at Rwanda, it has progressed amazingly. As a businessman, what I have seen is the efficiency in which the government works, and the government takes decisions very pragmatically. That is the kind of model one needs to follow.”

At this point, Kamlesh interjects to say decisions taken must be implemented too.

 “It leads to frustration. In Uganda, you have the President who has tremendous vision, and his vision towards the private sector driving the economy becoming the engine of the economy is absolutely spot-on, but there is no follow up,” agrees Mayur.

As in other countries of the EAC, in Uganda too, private-public partnerships may be the way forward and it takes effort from the private sector to lead that charge.

  “The politics of Africa is very similar. Leadership is important but then [you have to] have growth cycles driven by the private sector. I remember there was a time when in Uganda, prior to the expulsion of the Asians in 1972, to do business was criminal. If you were a businessman, you were regarded as a crook. Today, it is instilled that everyone should do business; business is a good thing. There are positive changes.”

The Madhvani Group’s sugar project in Amuru, in northern Uganda, for example, will be owned 51% by the government and 49% by the group and it will be managing it.

“Eventually, the government will offload the shares to the general public, but I think it is important for all private sector businesses to try to involve the community, the population around you,” says Mayur.

“Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta gave a good analogy when we left Uganda. He said ‘in the case of you Madhvani, you are the tree and the tree has fruit and if you share the fruit with the local community, the tree will get water’… For instance, we make the products, but we don’t do the distribution, we allow the others, we have our out-growers.”

 “The farmers benefit more, we have a very successful joint venture NGO with them,” adds Kamlesh. “Essentially, we convinced the farmers to contribute a certain amount of money which we will also contribute and this money goes to finance roads, clinics, health facilities and orphanages. This is one quite unique experiment. The farmers have voluntarily sort of parted with money.”

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 For farmers like 48-year-old Naitema Godfrey, who owns 48 acres of land and has been an out-grower for the Madhvani Group for the last 15 years, sugarcane is everything. Calling himself a “sugarcane millionaire”, he says: “The food crop has given us money, power, sugar and electricity.” 

Another out-grower, Robert Waako, who has been supplying sugarcane to the Madhvanis for the last 26 years, says he has been able to put his six children through school and college; four of them are software engineers today.  

On the cards for the Madhvani Group is a possible listing in the future. The group also operates properties in India, and is big on religious tourism with hotels in famous pilgrimage sites.

“Indians are very religious, they go to these sites, but don’t have a good place to stay. We built a beautiful four-star hotel in Tirupati. We are now opening one in Bodh Gaya, and we have in Rajkot. At Rishikesh, we have the land, and we are looking at Shirdi and Benares. They are all in the pipeline.”

Back home in Uganda, the group are also big in packaging and steel.

The discovery of oil in the country has made investors and the private sector sit up to the opportunities to fund development.

The Madhvanis are also keen to hop on to the bandwagon.

“We are looking for good partners to work with. We have our infrastructure companies, also working on the logistics side,” offers Mayur, but says Africa’s real strength is the green economy.

“I think oil is overplayed, and is not going to solve our problems. I think oil brings problems in itself, from an environmental point of view and the point of view of not becoming too reliant on this one product. Look at Nigeria and Saudi Arabia; they are all looking at alternatives now. The one thing you have got to remember in Africa is we have the weather, and we have vast tracks of land that are fertile. I think Africa can be a great grain basket for the world.”

The next generation of the Madhvanis are in line to take the company to the future. Mayur’s 34-year-old daughter Tanya, who is based in Rome, is responsible for managing the hotel business.

His nephew Ronnie was tasked with reviving the packaging business and he has built it into “a multi-million enterprise through his creativity and marketing efforts”.

The caveat is that family members who are involved in the business must contribute to its growth. Kamlesh and Mayur too came up learning the ropes the hard way.

“We have enough youngsters in business. But just employing family members for the sake of employing them and giving them a posh office is totally wrong and it hasn’t worked. What you have to do is contribute, and when you do, you also get a share of the success as an individual,” says Mayur.

“Basically, we are all fortunate we had good role models to follow. If you read my father’s book, you will know we had our own turmoil in the family. Kakira did not come to us and say ‘here is the key’; we had to fight for it. We had to fight for it from other family members as well. We are not the perfect family; we had to prove ourselves [in addition to] the passion we had [for the business]. That is the type of determination that made it work,” says Kamlesh. 

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“We started at zero…” adds Mayur.

Today, the family members all have their own businesses too, and in different countries. “I have my own companies. Kamlesh has his. I have vast real estate in Orlando, we all have assets in Europe, North America and India. But we have been taught to be low-profile,” says Mayur.

The family live in bungalows near the factory in Kakira, minutes from each other. There is nowhere else they would rather be. They have their own airstrip and private planes.

“This is utopia for us,” says Kamlesh.

Succession planning is key in ensuring the Madhvani legacy lives on. Mayur is cognizant of this truism.

“We have reached an age where we know the inevitable is coming. We have to witness the change so we can actually guide that change to some extent, rather than create a vacuum and arrive at a situation where there is no smooth handover,” he says.

“We will have to leave that to the next generation. The important thing is to make sure that whatever business that we have, we maintain a world-class lead in them. Today, our sugar factory is the most modern in the world, and more and more we are moving towards automation, and everybody is going to still need sugar,” says Kamlesh.

“In the end, you don’t work for the money, you work for the passion of it all.” The bags and packets of sugar that go out of this little town of Kakira are testament to the fertile bounties of the land, and the story of a family from India that, through enterprise, resilience and industry, found its fortune in the fields in a beautiful corner of Africa.

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