Strive Masiyiwa, the executive chairman of Econet Wireless International has attained an almost mythical status in Zimbabwean and African corporate lore.
Fortune Magazine describes him this way:
“Masiyiwa’s entrepreneurship has had a major impact in Zimbabwe, his home nation, and on the African economy more generally. Econet, the telecommunications firm he launched in the 1990s, helped pioneer mobile loans and cashless payments on the continent, sparking a wave of adoption that has expanded economic well-being for millions of unbanked people in Africa—while also helping Masiyiwa become a billionaire. Now based in London, Masiyiwa is a board member at Unilever and Netflix, among other big Western companies—helping each do business in Africa with local development needs in mind.
But his most urgent current role is as the African Union’s special envoy in charge of acquiring the materials to fight Covid-19. Masiyiwa spearheaded the creation of the African Medical Supply Platform (AMSP), an online marketplace designed to make it easier for the AU’s 55 member nations to order PPE, drugs for treating COVID-19 patients, and above all, vaccines—consolidating their buying power to help them to compete with wealthier nations. While the effort is far from reaching its goals—Masiyiwa recently said that the continent had secured long-term commitments for a total of 700 million doses, for nations with a total population of well over a billion—his leadership and global business ties are leveling the playing field.”
The softly-spoken man of diminutive stature packs a very serious punch in terms of international influence. Masiyiwa was recently appointed to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to serve on its board.
The Foundation wrote a glowing bio of him relating his business and philanthropic exploits. Prior to his appointment to the Gates family’s philanthropic arm, few would be aware that Masiyiwa was appointed to the board of Netflix, the giant media, and streaming US company. His appointment to that company’s decision-making body is to drive the company’s strategy to enter the African market.
Masiyiwa has also served on the board of Unilever the UK based fast-moving consumer goods and personal care company.
The list goes on and on. As early as 2003 Masiyiwa served on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation. Few Zimbabwean citizens can boast such credentials.
Strive Masiyiwa was born in Zimbabwe in 1961 and moved to Zambia in 1968. His mother was an entrepreneur and developed interests in retail, small-scale farming and transportation. His father worked in one of the nearby copper mines but soon joined the family business. At the age of 12 the young Masiyiwa was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland for his education. In 1983 he graduated from the University of Wales with a degree in electronic and electrical engineering. After a brief stint working in Cambridge, he returned to Zimbabwe in 1984 to help rebuild the newly independent nation. Upon arrival he joined what was then known as the Zimbabwe Posts & Telecommunications Corporation (ZPTC) as a senior engineer and soon was promoted to be the principal engineer. It did not take long for frustration with government bureaucracy to set in, as is the case with typical entrepreneurs.
Masiyiwa then set up Retrofit Engineering in 1988, an electrical contracting firm and two years later won a coveted award of being the youngest businessman of the year in 1990. Looking at the man now and the success he has achieved over a business career spanning almost 35 years, it is easy to dismiss the great heights he has attained as either a fluke or something that landed on his lap because he was just dumb lucky. The reality could not be further from the truth. The man has had to endure the worst of experiences including exile from his homeland to persecution from the state.
Beginnings of the trials and tribulations
Mobile telephony has great potential on the African continent. Its convergence with every sphere and aspect of human existence has made our hand-held devices indispensable parts of our everyday lives. Connecting with loved ones, managing our finances, and accessing health care are possible enabled by a device you can strap to your wrist, put in your pocket or briefcase. Strive Masiyiwa recognized this potential for the African continent as early as 1993 when Econet was born. In the 90s telephone, density was very low.
This was especially true in the sub-Saharan region where it was common to have only two fixed-line telephones for every hundred people. Such a metric is difficult to fathom today but that was the case in those days. Another opportunity presented itself from the low tele-density.
Wireless networks would be quicker and less expensive to build than land-based networks that required stringing miles of telephone lines across rough terrain. Wireless telephone service would also be less vulnerable than traditional landlines to the theft of copper wire for resale. Masiyiwa first approached ZPTC about forming a mobile telephone network in Zimbabwe.
The company was not interested, however, saying that cell phones had no future in the country. Such short-sightedness should be criminalized.
It is also tempting to think that realizing such a gap in the market Masiyiwa would have just set up a rival company—the success of the venture would be automatic. After selling his electrical engineering outfit and funding his new mobile firm through his family’s holding company Strive Masiyiwa then encountered fierce opposition for his new venture from his erstwhile employer, the ZPTC, which argued that it had monopoly in the telecoms market.
Even more opposition came from the government whose representatives and officials wanted bribes to facilitate the licensing process. The founder of Econet has never made a secret of his Christian faith and so corruption in any shape size or form and overtures for illicit payments have always been met with an unyielding stance.
Forbes Africa magazine which once carried a profile of him on its cover reported that he said that corruption in Africa was easy to deal with, “just say no…” the publication read. After a four-year court battle, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe finally granted a license to Econet and dismantled the monopoly held by ZPTC.
While awaiting licensing in Zimbabwe, Masiyiwa was able to set up a mobile network in Botswana called Mascom which is reportedly mulling a decision to go public by listing on that country’s stock exchange. After Zimbabwe’s licensing of Econet Wireless, the Christian entrepreneur went on to spread his company’s presence in 15 countries which include the United Kingdom, Kenya, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Econet’s foray into Nigeria is very telling of Masiyiwa’s tenacity and willingness to take on the establishment. This phase in the entrepreneur’s career and the history of his company is especially intriguing. Econet was one of the first companies to be granted a mobile operating license in the most populous country in Africa together with MTN and Glo Mobile.
The licenses were auctioned for no less than US$185 million apiece and to be able to afford the license and set up a network in the country, Econet put together a consortium of financial partners with themselves as the operating partner. The governments of Lagos state and Delta state were partners in the venture and as soon as the license had been granted the governors of those states demanded illicit payments from the company.
True to his nature Masiyiwa would have none of it. What ensued would make an excellent Oliver Stone movie.
Masiyiwa and Econet were removed from the Nigerian operation and the partners sold the company to two other operators Zain and Bharti Airtel. That dispute went on for years and was eventually settled in Econet’s favour in 2010. The rest as they say is history.
Strive Masiyiwa and Econet Wireless have prospered immensely earning the founder a tidy fortune estimated by Forbes to be in the region of US$3.1 billion and the well-deserved moniker of being the richest Zimbabwean businessman. Econet’s Zimbabwean operation has done very well.
It commands most of the Zimbabwean mobile network market; the other players in the market are flailing and inefficient. For its part Econet is diversified now. At one point it owned a bottling company, Mutare Bottling Company; it owns a bank and an internet service provider.
Strive Masiyiwa has no plans to slow down if his recent business moves are an indicator to go by. One of the companies he is the chairman of, Liquid Telecom, secured funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) which is the private sector arm of the World Bank to the tune of US$250 million in November 2021. This financing package is meant to assist Liquid Telecom’s operations on the African continent.
This funding package was announced in an interview during the COP 26 conference last year. Strive Masiyiwa is neither bashful nor boastful in nature. He has come a very long way and is going far. His success in business is matched only by his exploits in the field of philanthropy.
Through his Higher Life Foundation he provides education for thousands of children in Zimbabwe.