By Tolulope Adegoke
“The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by” – Felix Adler
I have no doubt that the wonderful model of destiny, The Nikola Tesla Story that we studied last week have been of tremendous blessing to you. As the Scripture says, “He who walks with the wise will be wise…” (Proverbs 1:20). It is for this reason that we must, once again, accompany some of the heroes of our contemporary time through the story of their life’s journeys, so that we can receive the necessary impartation of wisdom, guidance and inspiration for our own uplifting. So, here is another exemplar that you just cannot do without knowing about!
Strive Masiyiwa was born in 1961. By his 40th birthday, he had outwitted the dictator Robert Mugabe. By the age of 50, he was a multimillionaire mogul. Now, Masiyiwa – telecoms entrepreneur, philanthropist and proud Pentecostal – is among a cadre of African moguls aiming to turn the continent into a power house of productivity and entrepreneurship.
Masiyiwa’s story is full of trials and tribulations, including a battle against the government of Zimbabwe that earned him death threats and probably made him flee the country in the year 2000. But it is also replete with triumphs.
According to James Mwangi of Global Development Advisors, “Strive is one of a small but growing group of Senior African business leaders and entrepreneurs deliberately engaging in dialogue beyond business. Instead, those leaders are looking into Africa’s future overall, and in their broad-mindedness and sense of obligation, they are the latter-day Mellons and Carnegie.”
Like Cornelius Vanderbilt, who saw early on that railroad infrastructure would revolutionise the American economy, Masiyiwa is using his mobile phone network as a platform for economic development across Africa, from education to healthcare. This has made him a man in much demand. In addition to overseeing the multi-country operation of his $750 million firm, Econet Wireless, and his Kwese Satellite television, he sits on prominent boards like that of Rockerfeller Foundation. He appears on philantro-capitalist panels, is tapped by Richard Brandson for support, and dines with religious leaders at the White House’s annual Prayer Breakfast.
In 2016, Masiyiwa took up the board chairmanship of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a post previously held by his friend, Kofi Annan. It gives him an even broader Pan-African reach than he already had.
For all this, Masiyiwa presents as disarming and humble. He is a small man with a globe-like head, spherical and smooth. He favours gold-framed spectacles and light coloured ties, often in pastels that contrast nicely with the sharp black of his suits. He speaks softly and kindly, and punctuates his talk with jokes and exclamations. Masiyiwa would likely credit the Lord for his success. He turned seriously into faith during the darkest of his tribulations, in the mid-1990s, and has never let go.
“Do you read the Bible for an hour every day?” a CNN interviewer asked him in 2011. “Is that correct? I have read that.” “Oooh!” said Masiyiwa. “That’s when I am busy. I can read it for five hours in a weekend.”
Religion motivates his philanthropy, which involves orphans and schooling, and is very personal: According to June Wales, President and CEO of the Global Philanthropy Forum and World Affairs Council, “I spend most of my waking hours interacting with philanthropists but Masiyiwa really stands out. A lot of folks talk about engaged. Philanthropy – this is the real deal.”
Masiyiwa was born in what was then Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe) and was barely four years old when severe conflicts broke out in the country. The first major reason for the conflicts was getting independence from Britain and then rejecting white-minority rule. In 1968, Masiyiwa fled to Zambia, across the border. Their neighbours were Scottish, who had a son. That was more or less how young Masiyiwa landed in an Edinburg boarding school.
Masiyiwa returned to Africa in 1978, keen to join the guerrilla fight for independence. But a cousin in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, later to morph into Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, advised that independence was nearly won. The new country would need people to run. And so, Masiyiwa scored a scholarship to University in Wales. In 1984, he returned with an engineering degree to Zimbabwe, which was then four years into its nationhood. He worked briefly for the government’s telecoms company, but state enterprise frustrated him, he says.
After borrowing the equivalent of $75, Masiyiwa started a construction business. Not only that, he spent two years studying banking in order to procure a small business loan – this before the advent of Internet – and changed his social networks to better understand the business community. He learnt the language of the golf course and of balance sheet. According to him, “In money game, there is a way of talking that will have bankers and investors interested in what you do, and there is a way to talk which makes them shun and run from you, and it has nothing to do with where you come from.”
Many of the pieces he posts online evoke his stubbornness, tenacity and ability to educate himself into being better; his utter prescience, too. In the mid-1990s, only a few would have guessed that cell phones would become a major growth section in African countries. The government of Zimbabwe certainly did not. Masiyiwa did. He offered to develop a cell phone network in tandem with the State telecoms company, but the Mugabe-controlled government rejected his offer – a refusal that Masiyiwa wrote, “must surely rank amongst follies in the world of business: They could have owned the Econet Wireless Group, but instead they declared war on me!”
The State telecom refused to grant Masiyiwa a license to cell-frequencies, claiming it had a monopoly. That was when Masiyiwa sued in 1994. The case went on for five years, and at one point early on, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled against Econet, leaving, apparently, no chance to appeal.
As Masiyiwa recounted, “When we lost the Supreme Court case in June 1994, I was totally devastated. Two years of work appeared to have gone down the drain. My dream was shattered. The lawyers made it clear that there was no appeal possible, and we packed away all the files.
“Although four years earlier, I had survived abduction by what I believed, at the time, to be divine intervention; I never pursued this further from a spiritual perspective. Church for me remained a place of funerals and wedding ceremonies.
“When we got married, my wife tried very hard to get me to go to church, but whilst always respectful of her values, I never went. On Sundays, I would drop her and our then young daughter, at her church and go for my weekly squash game with “the boys” and dutifully pick her up, after the service. She was then pregnant with our second daughter.
“On the Sunday after our Supreme Court defeat, I was still too gutted to go and play with the boys, but I took my wife to her church, as usual. She begged me to come in with her, but again I refused. I drove round the block and decided to return…I sat in the back, by myself.
“My wife did not know I had returned. It was the first time in my life I had listened to a church service, without the compulsion of duty for an event held there. It seemed as though everyone in the room, except me, was so happy! The young American pastor was preaching about Jesus Christ, whom I thought I had known all my life. And yet now I realised that I did not know Him; I only knew of Him. Disturbed, I left hurriedly and went and sat in the car.
“Throughout that week, I continued in my miserable daze, but I was also disturbed by what I had heard in that service. I went back the following week. At the end of the service, there was a call for those who wanted to “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”. I stood up, and went to the front. This is, and shall ever remain, the most important decision of my life. ‘Now that you are ‘born-again’, you must read your bible everyday’, the Pastor said, to the small group of us standing in front of him, after he had led us in prayer.
“Arriving home that day, I realised that the misery of my court defeat had completely lifted. It just seemed so unimportant. Sitting down that afternoon, with a borrowed copy of the New International Version Bible, I sat down to read the Bible for the very first time, in my life.
“Since the Pastor had said, “read the Bible”, I presumed that you must read the whole thing (cover to cover); and my wife did nothing to disabuse me of that: I just read, and read, and read…Often, I would read the whole day, and the whole night. Finally, I finished it after about three weeks.
“What I did not tell anyone at the time (including my wife) was that almost every night I laid my head down to sleep, I would begin to have quite extraordinary dreams. One evening, I attended a special church event, held at a local hotel. The Pastor preaching had never met me. As he preached, he suddenly stopped:
‘There is a man in this room; you have been having these dreams. In these dreams, you are building towers, rather like broadcasting towers, everywhere, all over the world. God is asking me to tell you that He is the one giving you those dreams, and He is going to make it happen. He has also given you a new heart; you are going to have such compassion. Please come forward, if you are that man.’
“There could have been 500 people in that room, that Sunday evening. I got up, and made my way to the front of the room. A few days later, a miracle would occur, which would take us back to court, in a very dramatic way…”
To put in a nutshell, some years later, Masiyiwa won the case. Econet now has a majority share of users in Zimbabwe and operations in more than 15 countries. It started offering mobile banking through its phones a few years ago, and within 18 months, some 20 per cent of Zimbabwe’s GDP was passing through its networks.
This reveals one of the keys to his success: foresight. At the time he was fighting the Mugabe government over his licence, hardly could anyone have imagined that mobile phone networks could become platforms for banking, or that they would so dramatically affect economic and healthcare infrastructures.
Masiyiwa has come to relish obstacles and challenges. When asked, “What are you doing with the challenges around you?” He replies that they are opportunities in disguise. And like other prominent African businessmen, he believes that “Ultimately, Africa’s development challenges are also its business opportunities.” Gaps in infrastructure, healthcare delivery and the like are “huge opportunities to unlock value,” not barriers to entry. Once those barriers are addressed people get more disposal income, and market opportunities grow – creating a phenomenal virtuous cycle.
And that, perhaps, was what Masiyiwa meant in the year 2016 when he sat on a panel with Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Paul Kagame and others, and told the audience to stop considering Africa “exotic”. Instead, he said, it is a business climate like any other – defined by challenges and opportunities – and one that rewards innovation, determination and homework.
Masiyiwa is, indeed, a living proof of the power of TENACITY. Added to that is the ability to FOCUS on the crown and not the crisis. And most importantly, his story reveals the strength of divine grace that comes through salvation! He went through the painful processes to get ultimately paid. He carried his cross to get his crown. He empowered himself with relevant skills and knowledge and applied them all through divine wisdom to solve challenges in a changing world. Being a lover of God, he became empowered and conquered his zero, then, emerged a HERO!
The key question is, what have you learnt from all these inspirational narrations and experiences so far? And what will you do about it?
Exemplars of Greatness Series continues next week…