Private equity investor on what he learned from his South Africa-Ethiopia motorbike ride


Gerhard Visagie, investment director at private equity firm Acorn, on his motorbike trip through Africa

As someone who invests in African businesses for a living, I spend countless hours behind a laptop, researching the continent. This year I was curious to experience the realities on the ground.

After many months of planning (and years of dreaming), I finally jumped on my motorcycle in July, to ride from South Africa to Ethiopia and back over three months. I wanted to experience first-hand what these countries, and the many in between, are like.

What rapidly became evident is that Africa is not well understood from the outside. People tend to focus on the negatives and risks and reasons why not to invest or do business on the continent.

But, for example, throughout the entire trip I never felt unsafe. Nor was I asked for a bribe, or hassled at a border post or check point. To the contrary, I felt welcomed like a long lost brother. Being on the ground allows one to obtain a balanced view of the risks and constraints, compared to the mountain of opportunities.

You also don’t have to be on the road for long before you realise that, as is often said, Africa’s greatest asset really is its people. The friendliness, resourcefulness and willingness to help a stranger (sometimes at great personal expense or effort) of many of the people I met have created a lasting positive impression on me.

It’s no wonder that the continent has a strong tourism industry. Victoria Falls, the gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, white-water rafting on the Nile River, flamingos at Lake Bogoria, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the Danakhil Depression’s lava lake, Simien Mountains National Park, and the Serengeti each left me breathless.

Tourism not only helps to diversify economies, it also introduces affluent tourists to the opportunities in these countries – something that might just convince them to do business there.

Agriculture is another opportunity. As you ride through Zambia, Ethiopia, and the highlands of Tanzania and Kenya, you are greeted by rows upon rows of maize (and sometimes wheat). Subsistence farming will be part of people’s lives here for a while, but a slow and steady move towards commercial farming, as well as good agricultural practices, is evident.

The biggest challenge is access to markets for the produce. The expansion of food retailers, agricultural services and logistics companies, mean that this will likely be addressed, although not overnight.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges currently faced by the continent is a lack of infrastructure such as quality road networks, railways, power and water. This is is an impediment to economic growth.

An example of this problem is the Kazangula border between Botswana and Zambia, where vehicles have to cross the Zambezi River via ferry. I was lucky enough to be able to ride past the 500 metre queue of trucks waiting to be loaded onto the ferry, one at a time.

However, upon reaching the Zambia side I was relieved to see construction on what will be a bridge across the river, a piece of infrastructure that will decrease the time it takes to cross the border immensely.

And so, throughout Africa, you may be confronted by a lack of infrastructure, but even more so you will be struck by the development that has and is being undertaken.

Another major constraint to unleashing Africa’s full potential is a lack of strong political governance. We require more leaders who place their countries and people above the interests of themselves, their parties and their political supporters – leaders who are good stewards of the immense resources entrusted to them, and who spend it wisely.

We are seeing increased cases of nations rising up to hold their governments to account, for example in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Social media has definitely played a valuable role in mobilising such movements.

We are also seeing the rise of presidents like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and John Magufuli of Tanzania, both of whom are revered by their electorates. I hope for a future with more presidents such as these.

The countries that were most impressive were Kenya and Rwanda. Kenya’s high level of development compared to its neighbours, as well as the resourcefulness, determination and creativity of its people, where what struck me most.

Rwanda was an enigma. From the moment my bags were searched at the border post and all plastic bags confiscated – plastic bags are banned because of their pollution risk – I realised that Rwanda is different (and clean).

For a country to go from genocide in 1994 to the levels of development and opportunity currently exhibited in Rwanda is an economic miracle.

Coincidentally, Kenya and Rwanda also rank very high among their peers when it comes to ease of doing business.

Based on my travels I believe that Africa is evolving, that the opportunities are immense, and that my life’s work will be to invest in the continent and to contribute a significant portion of the investment gains to uplifting it. The road will not always be without bumps. But what is an adventure without that?

Gerhard Visagie is investment director at Acorn, a private equity firm specialising in sub-Saharan Africa and SMEs.