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Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

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The interview is at State House, the office of the President.

We drive past the armed guards and the imposing gate bearing Mauritius’ coat of arms emblem and enter a world far away from the azure waters and sandy beaches this African island-nation with a little over a million people is known for.

On the grounds of the State House or ‘Le Château du Réduit’, is the country’s most prized attraction that tourists don’t get to see – a lush roughly 100-acre tropical garden in every shade of green.

The State House itself is one of Mauritius’ most iconic buildings, conceived as an impregnable fortress surrounded by large expanses of landscape in the interior of the island, and built during the French colonial period. It has served as the official residence of governors, now Presidents and was even at one time used by the military.

Famed for its gardens with its old camphor trees, rose bushes, bamboo, fountains, ponds, even a peacock pen and turtle pen, it is an environmentalist’s dream, with an ecosystem reflective of rare flora and fauna found only on the island.

It’s the perfect setting for a President who has in her previous role as a biodiversity scientist spent all her time around plants, experimenting with them.

By the formidable fortress that is the State House, we are greeted by a swarm of men in black suits from her security team.

Back from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Durban, South Africa, only a week ago, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius – also the country’s first elected female President – is seated on a leather sofa in her stately office, a temporary one we are told as the main building is undergoing renovation.

It’s no surprise she has chosen a lime-green blazer and an emerald bracelet – green is an all-pervasive color in Mauritius.

The conversation revolves around “the three lives” she has led, the first as a scientist, then as an entrepreneur, and now as an African President for the last two years.

“I hope I have more lives,” she laughs in the end. “I think I would really like to keep on operating in that space where you can touch the lives of your people.”

Early years

The President grew up in a modest home in a small village in Mauritius located next to the airport. Except for the Roman Catholic school she and her brother attended, the village had few facilities or amenities.

“There was not that much in terms of leisure so the only thing we did was watch planes land and fly,” says Gurib-Fakim. Her father, a school teacher, and her mother, a housewife, insisted she read. A lot.

“They knew the power of education and were determined both my brother and I would have equal opportunities. It’s also worth pointing out at the time when they took that decision, education was not yet free.”

Education became free in Mauritius in 1976. Luckily, Gurib-Fakim had teachers who “demystified science”.

“When I was in secondary school, I had fantastic teachers and they in fact, infected me with the virus for science. As young kids, you would have all these silly questions as to ‘why plants are green, why are flowers this color, why is the sky blue?’ There was hardly any infrastructure for science [at school], so what the teacher used to do was to take us to the field.”

This was a time when knowledge about ecosystems and biodiversity was also just beginning to unravel.

By the time she finished secondary education, Gurib-Fakim’s father said to her: “What do you want to do? Do want to stay here in Mauritius and get a job?”

He gave her the option of either working or going abroad for higher studies, and despatched her to meet the career guidance officer.

“So the career guidance officer looked at me and said ‘what do you want to study’ and I said ‘chemistry’, and he said ‘why do you want to study science, because first of all, that’s a job for boys’. I listened politely and went home. My father said ‘so what are you going to do’? And I said ‘I am going to study chemistry, because that’s where my heart is’.”

She listened to her heart, and opted for a chemistry course at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom (UK). Her father, her “biggest cheerleader”, accompanied her on her first voyage outside of Mauritius.

Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim poses in front of the State House for FORBES WOMAN AFRICA; photos by Monnakgotla Motlabana

“It was one of the most daunting moments of my life. Because there I was growing up in a cocoon in a small village in Mauritius and was [now] left in the big white world with a completely new language, new food, new lifestyle… But I was determined that I will not sink, I will rather swim.”

She subsequently did industrial training with a big American organization, which is where she says she got “bitten with another virus – research”.

She signed up for a PhD in organic chemistry.

“Then I went to the University of Exeter and this is when I learned how important the link with industry was.”

Back home, she applied for a lecturer’s position at the University of Mauritius, and was appointed in 1987.

“You know the motto in academia is ‘publish or perish’. This is when I started thinking the only way I could survive in an academic environment was to try to carve out a niche in the world of chemistry which was my passion and still is. Then I started looking and got training in synthetic organic chemistry.

“I went into the chemistry of plants because I knew we were in a biodiversity hotspot – unique plants, and unique molecules not found anywhere else in the world,” says the scientist-President.

As luck would have it, there was a project being funded by the European Development Fund in 1989 on the study of aromatic and medicinal plants in the Indian Ocean.

“So because I was dabbling with plants at the time and I had a background in chemistry, the government and the university had signed this MoU, so I got involved with that project.

Between 1990 and 1995, I documented and studied the medicinal and aromatic plants of Mauritius, and that was a fantastic journey.”

In 1992, Gurib-Fakim set up the very first laboratory to look into the anti-infective potential of plants. She traveled to villages, interviewed people on symptoms and the plants they were using, and developed the very first database, as there was no documentation of herbal medicine at the time.

“I thought the best way to add value to that piece of research was to bring in that component of validation… This is when we set up the laboratory for testing for anti-infectives because we are in the tropics and of course infectious disease is a very important component.”

By 1997, she had published the entire database of the traditional knowledge of plants. The four books are in the public domain and she also set up the very first publication of the medicinal plants of Rodrigues Island, part of Mauritius.

By 2001, she was promoted as professor of chemistry at the University of Mauritius, “the very first time a woman became a professor”. By 2004, she was appointed dean of faculty, and by 2006, deputy vice chancellor of the university.

In 2007, Gurib-Fakim received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

“That was a very important moment because it added a lot of credibility, as people were still looking down on herbal knowledge; they called it witchcraft… so that was very important also in opening doors for more research grants. That really put the spotlight on Mauritius.”

But what was more important for Gurib-Fakim was a meeting before that with a French gentleman who had incorporated a company in Mauritius to do clinical trials.

“He said to me the area I was working in was very important for him because he was going to be able to use this or we could do it together to bring in innovative ingredients for these very important sectors, be it cosmetics, pharma, especially in the light of resistance to antibiotics and all that… That got me thinking that maybe there is something to do in that space as I didn’t know how to do it.”

Turning entrepreneur

Gurib-Fakim decided to take the plunge.

In 2010, with a consortium of colleagues, she had published the very first African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which provides botanical, commercial and phytochemical information on important African medicinal plants.

She applied for a leave of absence at the University of Mauritius and by 2011, turned entrepreneur.

“I decided to put in my money, my ideas and my heart and joined the company. It was interesting as at the time people thought it was academic suicide because nobody had done it before. No project in fact had really crossed the valley of death, as we call it, to get to the other side. So I thought you know you live once; at least one day, I will know I tried and it didn’t work; so be it because I have tried,” says Gurib-Fakim.

The business started creating a buzz. Initially called CEPHYR, it pioneered cosmetic and pharma research and development, and in 2014, went in for rebranding when it moved into a bio-park, the very first in Mauritius.

It’s now called CIDP (Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique), a state-of-the-art facility with sophisticated labs. Gurib-Fakim is not part of the business anymore, but Claire Blazy-Jauzac, Group Managing Director of CIDP, says about her: “I have known Ameenah closely for years. She has a vision for the country; she promotes research and she pushes for women and young people to innovate and believe in their potential.”

More on Mauritius

Life in politics

The next phase of Gurib-Fakim’s life was when the elections were coming up in 2014 in Mauritius. She received news of her Presidency from a reporter. With virtually no political experience on her CV, she was selected to be the Presidential candidate of the Alliance Lepep.

“I remember coming back from a global TED Talk in 2014 in Brazil and one journalist came up to me and said ‘you know ma’am, your name has been cited for Presidency in Mauritius’. I said ‘no ma’am, I think you must be mistaken, because I have no political ambition’. The very next day, I see my picture in the daily [and next to it] ‘Ameenah Gurib-Fakim for Presidency’ with a very small interrogation mark. I didn’t know. I was shocked,” she says.

“They came to me and said we need a neutral person with some credibility and we are going to run.

“So I said ok if I can serve my country at the highest level, why not?”

It was a “risk”, but she decided to take it.

“The one thing I have to say to young people is embrace the idea that you have to take risks because no business school will teach you to take personal risks.”

The party won with a landslide victory, and she had a week to prepare for the Presidential post. Gurib-Fakim was sworn in on June 5, 2015.

“This is when you realize you are in a position where you can make a difference. You can be the voice for so many things.”

She decided to push for sustainable development, women in science and the diversity of Mauritius.

“We are a country which is a microcosm of the world. We have shown to the world that we have diversity but we have managed to live with each other… we have again taken a pledge to advance the cause of science, because science, technology and innovation will be the tools we have to embrace to face climate change, to face job creation, to face the youth bulge, and women, because women feed Africa.”

Gurib-Fakim has reiterated the issues of climate change, global warming and innovation on global forums, and says building collaborations and partnerships is the way forward.

“At WEF in Davos in January, we launched the Coalition for African Research and Innovation [CARI] and this has been done with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the Wellcome Trust, NEPAD, so all these agencies are coming together recognizing the potential that the youth has, and more importantly, the need to create the ecosystem to leverage diaspora as well.”

Speaking of diaspora, Gurib-Fakim says her family goes back four generations to a village called Mirzapur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She travels to India often, and says is currently in talks to get India’s biotech pioneer Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw to Mauritius in July for a forum connecting art and science.

“There is plenty to do,” says Gurib-Fakim, who is also working towards promoting sustainable conservation of germplasm for food, especially in light of climate change.

She is also pushing for Africa’s scientific independence.

“Africa should own her agenda in terms of generating Africa-centric data, Africa-centric projects but we need to leverage collaborations and partnerships with institutions where these things are already happening,” she says, adding that the youth needs to be empowered through education in science-technology-innovation.

“The youth is our biggest asset and the sooner we add value to that asset the better it is going to be for the continent… This is something I keep saying all the time. If you index your dollar to raw material it will go down. If you index your dollar to knowledge, the growth will be exponential…

“My biggest success will be if I have touched the lives of so many youth to make them successful,” says Gurib-Fakim, a mother of two. Her son, 25, and daughter, 19, are both at university in the UK. Her husband Anwar is a surgeon, who specializes in general surgery and urology.

“I say he’s a plumber,” laughs Gurib-Fakim, who says he supports her in her work by “being indifferent”.

“He doesn’t meddle with what I do and by being busy himself, he’s left me plenty of space to do what I want to do.”

One of only two female African presidents on the continent (the other being Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is retiring later this year), in 2016, FORBES listed Gurib-Fakim one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

You can tell her staff enjoy working with her. Her head of security says she has “an infectious positive disposition”.

Rachna Seenauth, the State House’s Assistant Maintenance Officer, who has worked with Gurib-Fakim long enough to know her well, says: “She is a great mentor and most helpful. She makes you dream and brings out the best in people. Being a person of science, she does things differently. She is putting the country on the international map.” But praise apart, like any African President, Gurib-Fakim has had her share of ups and downs and political trouble and controversies at home. More excerpts from the interview with her:

Gurib-Fakim On Being A Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

Mauritius has a 3.8% growth rate, which is fairly good…? 

Growth matters but the quality of the growth matters more. Because we can have jobless growth as well, this is where developing the medium for entrepreneurship is very important.

What are the new pillars of growth?

Now, we are going into the high end of the financial services… We are looking at the high end of education; we are starting to build an education hub. And then go into the ocean economy, which should not be perceived as fisheries alone even though it is an important component.

For me, the ocean economy is renewable energy; it’s exploration of the fauna and flora of the marine environment.

And then, bio-tech. Again, the pilot we did with the bio-park is proving to be very interesting, capitalizing on our diversity because we have a diverse population.

There is the perceived threat of rising sea-level in Mauritius…

We are number 13 on the world’s risk report, but we are working quite a bit. If you look at the hotel sector, we have to be ISO-certified, it gives a lot of plus… When we try and build for example, we are now mindful of the fact that the sea or ocean might rise. In fact, it’s already happening in the Pacific; if you look at some of the countries, they are already under water. And you are talking about climate refugees, and that is already happening on land.

Most people think Mauritius is not Africa… why?

Some people have called us ‘outliers’ (laughs). We are very much a part of the community, we belong to the Indian Ocean Commission, we belong to SADC, we belong to COMESA, we are very active in the African Union.

But you know we are very important as well. We straddle two continents. This is where we are also using our strategic positioning to build the infrastructure, for example, for financial services, because we would really like to see Mauritius being the bridge between Asia and Africa. And if Asia can go through Mauritius to Africa and vice versa, it is going to be very important for us and for both continents.

Do you aspire to be a Singapore?

We aspire to be a small country of high earners and improve the lives of our people. And I still think we have a good quality of life here in Mauritius. Everything to me is work in progress; we can’t afford to sit down on our laurels because the day you sit still is the day you’re going back.

You have said before you have never worked a day in your life…

I thought I was being original and realized it was Confucius who said it before me. But I will say it until my last breath – always be passionate about what you do. There is nothing worse than coming to a job you don’t like. In fact, this has been the way I have run my life. People say to me ‘how do you manage your time being a mother, being a career woman’… You have to have priorities and I decided from a very young age that I will have a career and a family.

How did you do it?

Just stay focused; being a woman is not easy in that space, that’s for sure. As women, we like to do everything, but in one day, there is only 24 hours, so you have to make choices. You can’t do it all.

And in politics, as President…?

Stay focused, and know what you want to do. I identified a few pillars I would like to do at the beginning of my mandate and I will do it; I will keep on doing it even after I finish my mandate as President. That’s in three years. I think it’s still long enough to be able to do many things. But again, it’s a question of staying focused and knowing what you want.

Can you apply for a second term?

Constitutionally, you can get renewed one more time, but we’ll see. Right now, I am enjoying the ride of doing things.

Do you think it’s difficult for a woman in politics?

It’s not easy for women; there is a lot of misogyny.

In politics, you have had a lot of trouble coming your way… do you think it is because you are a woman?

It can be attributed to being a woman.

How have you handled it?

You just stay focused and have to look at yourself and your conscience and say to yourself, ‘have I done anything that is wrong, which is not proper?’ And if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.

Mauritius is a conservative country, but has a female President, and this is unprecedented…

Again, this is a paradox, because when people voted, I was the only President whose name was flagged before the elections. Because usually, it’s a parliamentary election, and after the elections, they propose a name. But when they voted, the people voted for a package, they voted for a woman President and that’s maturity.

What do you envisage doing once your term ends?

To be honest, I have no idea. Just like I came into this post having no idea at all what to expect, here I am. My life has changed but I think it’s a very powerful position to make a difference and that’s what I want to do.

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Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

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The New Wealth Creators is the first of its kind list by FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Herein is a collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.

These 20 women have been selected because they have created significant impact in their respective sectors by transforming a market or company, or innovating a product or service, and are pioneering their organization(s) in generating new untapped streams of income.

These women come from across the continent, from the villages and the suburbs, and are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. They have all adopted sustainable development initiatives in one way or another to help solve Africa’s problems.

They may be wealth creators but their businesses, ironically, did not stem from a need to make money,  but rather from the need to solve Africa’s persisting socio-economic challenges.

 Economically empowering women has shown to boost productivity. It increases economic diversification and income equality, in addition to other positive developmental outcomes.

Simply put, when more women work, economies are likely to grow.

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA put in months of rigorous research, searching near and far for these inspirational entrepreneurs.

We took into account their business model, new ideas, potential, struggles, social impact, growth, influence, resilience and most importantly, their innovation.

Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA last year at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “Innovation [is] becoming the cornerstone for our economy going forward.”

As Africa’s population is reported to increase by 53% by 2100, according to the United Nations, new solutions must be created in order for us to keep up.

One question remains: can Africa translate its significant population growth into economic development, and invest this wealth to improve the quality of life?

Entrepreneurship could very well be the answer, or at least, one of the answers.

Last year, the Founder and Chair of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma paid Africa a visit to discuss tangible investment and technology development.

He encouraged African entrepreneurs to take giant leaps in solving the challenges facing the continent and to take advantage of the digital economy.

From left to right: Rachel Sibande, Arlene Mulder, Miishe Addy, Sarah Collins, Dineo Lioma, Jessica Anuna. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla
Assistant Photographer: Gypseenia Lion

He said that opportunities lie where people complain.

And these women, through their businesses, have identified just that.

Vijay Tirathrai, director of the Techstars Dubai Accelerator, shared the same sentiments with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

“The new wealth creators, for me, are entrepreneurs who are very conscious about finding solutions in the market place, but from a lens of having social impact or having impacted the environment,” he says.

Tirathrai believes that while servicing consumers, new wealth creators are also “making a safer and a greener planet in the process, eliminating diseases, improving health conditions and advocating for equality for women”.

Women on the African continent have been making headway as drivers of change, and in many ways, they embody new wealth.

They are the true wealth.

As FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, we seek to celebrate such women.

Through this list, money is no longer the central indicator of new wealth creation.

It is about job creation, contributing to healthy societies, recycling waste, giving agency to those who are financially excluded and developing solutions for some of the socio-economic problems we grapple with.

These women may all come from different places but they are bound together by one common thread, and that is the thread of new wealth creation.

This compilation is innovative, exciting, inspiring and shows what businesses of the future may look like.

Meet the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA New Wealth Creators of 2019.

The list on the pages that follow is in no particular order.

-Curated by: Unathi Shologu

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The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

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It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.

Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.

The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few. 

A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.

The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”

His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.

In 1992, he did.

“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.

On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.

Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.

“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”

Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.

The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.

For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest. 

“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.

From this exercise an important lesson was learned.

“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”

Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.

Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.

“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”

“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.

Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.

“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.

The rationale for diversification 

What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.

Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”

The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.

“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”

Reinvesting profits

The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.

“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”

‘Reputation very important’

But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.

Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.

Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.

Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.

Analogue to digital

Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.

Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz. 

“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”

From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.

In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.

Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.

The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.

But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”

Balanced life

The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.

“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.

The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.

“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.

 “When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”

Philanthropy, education and inclusion

It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.

The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.

In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.

The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:

“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”

It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.

“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.    

In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.

The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.

His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.

Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.

His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.

“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.

“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.

Succession planning

Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.

Additional inputs:

“Ylias Akbaraly’s reputation precedes him,” says Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Goulet says the work Akbaraly does “has crossed oceans and France admires him. He knows how to share his knowledge and is a special kind of businessman”.

Goulet lauds Akbaraly’s altruistic approach to business, in particular his relationship to the youth and refers to him as “socially responsible and someone who loves his country very much”.


Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Picture:Supplied

“He is someone who is open to the world. The personal touch he brings to his approach makes him unique. You can tell he loves his family, and society,” she says. 


Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”

Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”


Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations. Picture:Supplied

Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many.  “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”


“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.

“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.

Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL and Africa’s youngest billionair as per FORBES.

“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire

-With inputs from Unathi Shologu

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A Solution To Improve Madagascar’s Local Economies

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Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.

Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.

President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.

Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.


Patricia Wright is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Picture: Supplied

Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.

CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.

Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.

READ MORE | Putting land To Good Use: Food Security In Our Backyards

This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.

The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.

This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.

All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.

READ MORE | The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.

If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.

We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.

We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?

Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.

With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.

The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.

There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.

– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar

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