A couple of weeks ago, Forbes contributor David Williams published his personal list of the top 10 business leaders he considers most influential in terms of “innovative thinking, focus on customers, and their desire to serve the less fortunate.”
I thought it was absolutely brilliant, so I resolved to make a similar list focused on African business leaders. So, here it is: my own list of the ten greatest African business leaders alive today. Each of them has built a world-class business with a considerable regional and international presence. They’ve disrupted industries, created new markets, pioneered innovation, created jobs for thousands of Africans and most importantly, they’ve made profound social impact in their respective environments.
Without further ado and in no particular order, I present to you my personal Top 10:
Allan Gray, South African
Founder, Allan Gray
As mythical and mysterious as he is reclusive, Allan Gray, 74, is the founder of Allan Gray Limited, the largest privately-owned investment management firm in Southern Africa. The Harvard-trained money manager founded the firm as a one-man company in Cape Town in 1973 and pioneered performance related investment management fees in Southern Africa. Today, Allan Gray manages over $10 billion in investors funds. Gray is also the founder of Orbis Group, a Bermuda-based group of Mutual Funds. Also one of Africa’s most generous philanthropists; in 2007 he endowed his Allan Gray Orbis Foundation with $150 million, one of the largest gifts in South African history. The foundation offers full high school scholarships to South African students to cover tuition, hostel fees and living expenses at leading South African High schools.
Mo Ibrahim, Sudanese
The Sudanese telecoms magnate bagged a PhD in mobile communications from the University of Birmingham and worked as a communication engineer at British Telecom. In 1985, while working as a Technical Director at BT, Ibrahim helped invent the United Kingdom’s first mobile phone network. Ibrahim subsequently went on to found MSI, a consultancy and software company; but he opened Africa to a whole new chapter when he founded Celtel, a mobile phone company which served 23 countries in Africa and the Middle East before he sold it off to MTC Kuwait for $3.4 billion in 2005. Ibrahim now devotes his energies towards his Mo Ibrahim Foundation which publishes an annual Good Governance index and awards $5 million annually to former African leaders who have delivered the dividends of good governance to their people.
Sheikh Mohammed Al-Amoudi, Ethiopian
Founder, Midroc Derba
The richest black person in the world is as Ethiopian as he is Saudi. Sheikh Al-Amoudi immigrated to Saudi Arabia with his parents as a child and built a name and fortune by executing construction contracts for the Saudi Royal family. Al-Amoudi has interests in petroleum refineries and oil wells everywhere from Sweden to Morocco, but these days, his largest investments are in the country of his birth: Ethiopia. Earlier this year, Al-Amoudi announced that his Midroc Derba conglomerate will be investing as much as $3.4 billion in Ethiopia in gold mines, agriculture, cement production, steel and transportation. Al-Amoudi funds and supports the Ethiopian soccer team.
Raymond Ackerman, South African
Former Chairman, Pick ‘n Pay
After getting fired from his top managerial position at Checkers, a South African food retailer, Ackerman, 81, used his severance package and a bank loan to acquire four stores in Cape Town which traded under the name ‘Pick ‘n Pay’. Setting out with 175 employees, Ackerman went on to dominate South Africa’s retail markets by implementing his now famous ‘customer sovereignty’ philosophy. Key to success in retail business: “Fight for the customer, and she will fight for you.” Today, Ackerman’s Pick ‘n Pay is easily South Africa’s pre-eminent fast moving consumer goods retailer. Portfolio: 450 stores in South Africa, Zambia, Mauritius and Mozambique. Staff strength: 45,000 people. Pick ‘n Pay is also an investor’s delight. According to South Africa’s Financial Mail, the company’s stock is easily the most successful long-term investment on the JSE over the past 4 decades. For perspective: $150 invested in Pick ‘n Pay in 1970 is now worth more than $150,000 today.
Aliko Dangote, Nigerian
Founder, Dangote Group
After studying Business Administration at the Al Azhar University in Cairo, Dangote returned home to Nigeria to work briefly with his maternal uncle in the commodities trading business. He subsequently received a business loan from his uncle and went on to start a commodities trading outfit- an operation which metamorphosed into the Dangote Group, West Africa’s largest industrial conglomerate. The group’s operations span sugar production, flour and cement across more than 11 African countries. Workforce: Over 20,000 employees. Dangote is now divesting his food interests to devote his energies towards his cement business. Africa’s undisputed Cement King owns sub-Saharan Africa’s largest cement manufacturing plant- a facility in Obajana, in Kogi State of Nigeria. The plant produces over 5 million Metric tonnes per annum. Dangote Cement also owns plants in Zambia, Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania, among other African countries. Dangote plans to list his cement business on the London Stock Exchange next year.
Manu Chandaria, Kenyan
Chairman, Comcraft Group
In 1916, Chandaria’s father moved to Kenya and opened up a small provisions store in Nairobi and subsequently acquired a floundering aluminum plant. That small plant formed the foundation of the Comcraft Group, a multinational industrial giant which manufactures steel, aluminum and plastic products in 45 countries and employs over 40,000 people. Chandaria, 83, is the group’s chairman and has spearheaded the company’s global operations for several decades. East Africa’s most respected business leader is also one of its most generous; Chandaria has reportedly given millions of dollars to causes in education, health and the arts. Also holds the title of the Elder of the Burning Spear, one of Kenya’s highest civilian honors.
Onsi Sawiris, Egyptian
Founder, Orascom Group
In the early 60s, Onsi Sawiris founded Orascom Onsi Sawiris & Co, a small construction contracting firm with operations in Upper Egypt. The firm went on to become Egypt’s largest construction company, making it an easy target for Egypt’s socialist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization program. When his business was nationalized, Onsi went in exile to Libya, returning in 1977 under the business-friendly administration of Anwar Sadat, upon which he rebuilt his Orascom business from scratch. This time around, he went beyond construction, diversifying his operations to include telecoms, infrastructure, hotels and tourism. Today, the Orascom Group is Egypt’s largest conglomerate and all the companies in the group are run by his three sons- Naguib, Samih and Nassef.
Brian Joffe, South African
Founder, Bidvest Group
In 1988, Brian Joffe founded South Africa’s Bidvest Group with a $1 million cash shell. He built it into a $10 billion (annual turnover) international services, distribution and trading conglomerate. The group employs over 100,000 people and its portfolio companies include Bidvest Freight, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest privately-held freight management business, and Africa’s largest food service outfit. Bidvest also has thriving subsidiaries spanning financial services, automotive retailing, printing and corporate travel.
Strive Masiyiwa, Zimbabwean
Founder, Econet Wireless
Strive Masiyiwa challenged the Zimbabwean government’s monopoly on telecommunications services and went on to found Econet Wireless, now Zimbabwe’s largest mobile telecoms firm. Subscriber base in Zimbabwe: 6 million. Econet also has strong operations in Lesotho, Burundi, Kenya, Botswana, Rwanda and Nigeria and has a market capitalization of roughly $700 million. Masiyiwa, a devout Christian, famously runs the company on biblical principles; subscribers even receive daily scripture via SMS.
Wale Tinubu, Nigerian
The Nigerian lawyer started a small oil trading operation in the late nineties; went on to buy a floundering government-owned petroleum products marketer and transformed it into Oando, a $300 million (market capitalization) indigenous integrated energy services provider with active operations in West Africa. Oando plans to become Africa’s first oil major and is the only indigenous Nigerian energy company with activities spanning the entire energy value chain- downstream, midstream and upstream. New ambitions: Power. Oando is competing with several local and international firms to acquire key electricity distribution assets currently being unbundled by the Nigerian government in its ongoing privatization program.
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Manu Chandaria, Photo Credit: Forbes Africa
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