By Jon Swain
NOT for nothing has Strive Masiyiwa been called “the Bill Gates of Africa”. As the founder and head of telecommunications giant Econet, which operates in half a dozen African countries including
its most populous – oil-rich Nigeria – as well as Britain and New Zealand, Masiyiwa runs one of Africa’s most successful corporations and is one of the continent’s most powerful and influential businessmen.
He puts his phenomenal success down to knowing Africa “very well”. But he says he is equally open to investing in other countries in the world. “We don’t have to be anywhere where our money is not working,” he says.
“Money is very timid, not a lion but a gazelle. A lion will hang around. But a gazelle – one little sound and it has gone. So if you say or do the wrong things, the money will be out of Africa and in Russia tomorrow, for example. This is today’s global environment.”
Masiyiwa laments how tough doing business in Africa still is. Though he insists he has seen an improvement and is optimistic for the future, he believes the key to a brighter Africa is institution-building – the parliaments, the courts, the police forces – so that the rule of law becomes institutionalised and not dependent, as it has so often been in the past, on which leaders are in power at any particular time.
“For example, Nigeria is great for Econet to do business in at the moment. To see the changes in such a big country over a six-year period is quite breathtaking, but we do not know what will happen after President Olusegun Obasanjo goes in two years’ time and another leader takes over.”
One of the things that Masiyiwa applauds is Africans at last beginning to invest in their own continent. But it is still a novelty, he says. The barriers need to be broken down so that Africans trade with each other and not just with the outside world.
“Internally, we have a lot to do. The political mindset, security and transport infrastructure are all obstacles.” It is easier for him to send an Econet executive from Johannesburg, where he now lives with his family, to New Zealand, than to Nigeria. So bad are African air routes that it is sometimes necessary to travel from South Africa through Europe to reach some West African countries.
Another stumbling block to progress is tariff barriers. Another is a lack of skilled African workers. He says African leaders are to blame for this because they have consistently failed to invest in the training of their people. Africa, he says, compares very unfavourably in this respect with Asia. African leaders do not see human skills as an important wealth.
Consequently, the set-up costs to build a factory in much of Africa are very high even though labour is cheap.
Masiyiwa laments the fact that doing business in Africa inevitably means being confronted with corruption on a daily basis. He bases the decision on whether to invest in a particular African country on whether the corruption is due to an inherently corrupt leadership – which he’d steer clear of – or whether it is due to institutional weaknesses where the corruption has become localised. In the latter case he believes it is possible to do business with care.
He criticises another African phenomenon: the need to get the agreement of the presidents of African countries to do business in their countries. “I do not have to go and see Tony Blair or a minister to invest in Britain. There is too much micro-management at government level in Africa, and that is not healthy. Econet tends to look more at countries where we do not have to talk to the leadership, but just look at their policies.”
Such a country is Botswana, he says. “Our most successful business is there. It is an extraordinary country. I do not know how they do it. I wish more African leaders would spend time in Botswana. Whether you are dealing at an administrative or official level, they have one agenda: to make things easy for investors.” – Sunday Times (London).