‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Gerald Mahinda, managing director, Brandhouse (South Africa)
1. What was your first job?
After high school I did a vocational job at Kenya’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF). I had a big title – Dockets Reconciliation Officer – earning US$10 per month. It was basically a clerical job.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My parents because they pushed me to not just get an education but to understand why I needed to have an education. Living in an environment where I saw them work hard and what they got, drove my ambition.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I sleep at night. It is a question of confidence. When I see a problem I sometimes look forward to it because I want to find a solution. When people say talent is an issue I go ahead and develop talent. It is a Kenyan mentality; turning problems around and looking for the opportunity within. Why always see problems? That is a big issue we need to deal with in Africa. Why is it that 15 years ago people were dying of hunger in Ethiopia and today we say Ethiopia has enough land to feed the whole of Africa? It’s just not right. We should always look for positive nuggets; convert the so called problems into opportunities. In short, I sleep at night.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I started seeing the potential in Africa a long time ago. I have never worked overseas; I have worked for four multinationals in Africa. I have had a very advantageous position being a senior person within these multinationals where I am able to influence the multinationals’ decisions about Africa and at the same time for the benefit of Africa. For instance, in East African Breweries Limited (EABL), I launched the graduate programme that was a huge benefit to Diageo, but also a huge benefit to East Africans. My career has been driven by my vision and view of Africa. It is more fun to do business here because of the opportunity to pioneer things.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
The people. I have worked in 23 Africans countries and I travel a lot. I admire the resilience of Kenyans. What I love the most is the entrepreneurship; everybody does something to better their life. That is a very rare thing.
6. And the worst?
Too much politics. I think entrepreneurship should take the number one slot in driving Kenya. Now that we have concluded the elections, we should use our biggest asset, which is entrepreneurship, to take us to the next level.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to give back from what I have learnt as an executive in multinationals across Africa. I think there is a lot I can give back because there is a uniqueness about Africa that you would not get from anybody else. People who have worked in Africa, who understand Africa, who are from Africa, are in my view able to almost point in the right direction in terms of where we should be going, for the benefit of Africa.
8. How do you relax?
Spending time with family.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
If there is this big opportunity in Africa, then what are you actually doing about it? I think we need to inculcate risk taking in young people and also provide them with the necessary tools and know-how. When people get data detailing Africa’s potential it should trigger off the opportunities. Look at Nigeria, which has the second largest movie industry in the world; how many people know that?
They also need to start pioneering change beyond their countries. You can set up your business in Kenya and address 30 million people which is a sizeable market. But when I was running EABL our market was 220 million people because we catered for the region. You can start with your local market but eventually you will need to start thinking big.
We need to learn from what has happened in Asia and Europe but it is not necessarily the solution for Africa. We should use Africa’s arable land to feed our population, generate energy and build infrastructure to drive the African economy. We need to build a self-sustaining economy.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We hear this impressive statistics but do we know what is going to get us there? Do we actually believe it? When people say that consumer spending will be just close to $2 trillion in 2020, do we know that it is just seven years away? How many people are planning for that? I don’t think people have woken up to the reality that it is happening in Africa. Ten years ago The Economist got it wrong by saying Africa was the hopeless continent and then recently they had an ‘Africa Rising’ cover. I am not sure a lot of people have smelt the coffee.
We need to start demystifying the myths about Africa. We have all these impressive statistics about what is happening in Africa and they are real. We can see the GDP growth, we can see the consumer spending, we can see mobile telephony and banking growing. But we say that the same consumers do not have talent and are unemployed. Something doesn’t add up for me there. We need to decode that. When we say there is unemployment, are we taking into account self-employed people? Because somebody is spending. There are 18 million handsets in Kenya and about 30 million in South Africa; that doesn’t sound to me as people who are unemployed and uneducated. It doesn’t add up.
Gerald Mahinda is the managing director of Brandhouse, one of the leading premium alcoholic beverage companies in South Africa. He previously served as the managing director of East Africa Breweries Limited and was strategy and change director at Guinness Nigeria.