Strive Masiyiwa: the philanthropist who connected Africa

Strive Masiyiwa made his fortune bringing the mobile phone to the masses in Africa. Now he’s the first black billionaire to join the ranks of The Sunday Times’ Rich List.

When Strive Masiyiwa fought in Zimbabwe’s highest court for the right to launch a mobile telecoms business – an application contested for five years by the then Mugabe government – he was armed with a “killer” stat, says the Financial Times: “70% of Africans had never heard a telephone ring”.

That was in 1993 and the rest, as they say, is history. By 2010, Masiyiwa was reporting that nearly 70% of Africans own a telephone – many of them tapping into networks provided by the company he founded, Econet Wireless.

A portfolio of directorships

The growth of Econet and its offshoots across Africa made Masiyiwa, now 60, very rich. When the FT caught up with him a decade ago, the stake he held in his Zimbabwean holding company was, at $345m, worth more than 10% of the local stock exchange.

A long-time exile from that country – he settled first in South Africa and then in London – Masiyiwa was last week named as the first black billionaire to make The Sunday Times’ Rich List, notes The Times.

But one suspects that officially joining the ranks of Britain’s super-rich is the least of his preoccupations. As the African Union’s special envoy on the pandemic, Masiyiwa is “trying to fix one of the planet’s most pressing problems”: sourcing vaccines for Africa’s 1.3-billion-strong population. 

As one of Africa’s most prominent businessmen (albeit from afar), Masiyiwa is also much in demand on the boards of Western companies – his portfolio of directorships includes Unilever and Netflix. But it is his single-minded focus on improving individual lives on the continent that has set him apart.

As Fortune noted in 2017, “few people have shaped modern Africa as much as Masiyiwa” – whether battling to bust corrupt state monopolies or funding the education of Aids orphans. The thread that runs through his whole career is a deep-seated belief that “entrepreneurs like me… can use business to do good”. 

Born in 1961, in what was then Rhodesia, Masiyiwa and his parents fled Ian Smith’s white-minority regime to neighbouring Zambia when he was a child. But from the age of 12, he was educated in the UK, says The Times. His “lioness mum” – whose business funded his school fees – had heard good reports of the Holt School, near Edinburgh, from a British neighbour.

After school, Masiyiwa studied electrical engineering at Cardiff University. In his 20s he returned to Zimbabwe, to take up a post at the state-owned telco ZPTC, but was quickly disillusioned by the bureaucracy and cronyism he found there. Ironically – given its implicit support of apartheid South Africa at the time – the institution that backed his first solo business in 1988 was Barclays. 

An undeserved reputation

A clubbable man, Masiyiwa has always been adept at nurturing connections in high finance. Together with his absenteeism, and vast wealth, that has often proved a recipe for distrust in his native country. When President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power after the 2017 coup that overthrew Mugabe’s dictatorship, notes the FT, he pledged to be “open for business”.

But repeated abuses of power and corruption scandals have returned Zimbabwe to “international pariah status”. Inflation, which hit a peak of 837% in July 2020, is still running at around 194%. Masiyiwa points to his business investments in the country as evidence of his patriotism.

But, as journalist Hopewell Chin’ono reported on Nehanda Radio this week, news of his elevation to the UK Rich List prompted “the usual dark and unrestrained vitriol against him”. The message to Zimbabwe, he added, is that Masiyiwa is not the problem. “Give the brother a break!”

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