Four South African companies taking on the world

Interestingly, Sasol has a town in South Africa named after itself. Sasolburg was established in the early 1950s in order to provide housing and facilities for Sasol employees working on an oil-from-coal pilot plant. After the town’s establishment, Sasolburg’s vehicle licence plates were distinctively marked with the letters OIL. To this day, the company remains a major employer in Sasolburg.


Bidvest was co-founded by current chief executive Brian Joffe. He started his entrepreneurial career in 1978 when he bought a stake in a pet food manufacturing business. He later acquired full ownership of the business and sold it to a major industrial group.

Bidvest was launched in 1988 with the idea to raise capital to acquire, fix and develop underperforming services companies. Today the company has over 140,000 employees and its reach extends into every sector of the South African economy – households, commerce, government, industry and mining. Its main businesses include food, freight management, automotive retailing, industrial and commercial products. Bidvest has expanded internationally and about one-third of its trading profits are generated from foreign operations.

Joffe recently enhanced his reputation as a master dealmaker by acquiring a strategic stake in the pharmaceutical company Adcock Ingram, a business he plans to “reinvigorate”.


Another global challenger that will be familiar to most Africans is mobile telecommunications group MTN. It operates in 21 countries across Africa and the Middle East and has recently crossed the 200m subscribers mark. It has a reputation for doing business in countries perceived to be tough business environments, such as Syria and Afghanistan.

One of MTN’s biggest international success stories is Nigeria, where it is currently the market leader with over 55m subscribers. In 2001, when MTN bought one of the three mobile licences on offer in Nigeria, the country was just emerging from decades of military rule and failed attempts at democracy. “There were positives and negatives at the start in Nigeria, but we were persistent and persevered, mainly due to a lot of resolve by senior management, who were committed to a longer-term vision,” said Andrew Bing, former chief financial officer of MTN Nigeria.

MTN is currently diversifying its business beyond voice revenue, which is under continuing competitive pressure. Data already accounts for close to 20% of the group’s revenue. MTN recently bought a stake in Africa Internet Holding, which owns a number of ecommerce websites across the continent. It is also focusing on its MTN mobile money platform and broader financial services offerings.