Telecoms tycoon Strive Masiyiwa on the role of woman entrepreneurs in Africa

Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa

“The African woman entrepreneur is the heartbeat of entrepreneurship in Africa.”

This is according to Zimbabwean telecoms tycoon Strive Masiyiwa. Speaking to a group of investors and entrepreneurs in Nairobi at a Global Entrepreneurship Summit pre-conference side event, the Econet Wireless Group founder and chairman argued Africa’s future growth is tied to the success of its women. He condemned laws and old traditions that continue to limit women’s ability to thrive economically.

“Women in Africa, they don’t have the right to accumulate wealth,” said Masiyiwa. “[Majority] of the food that we eat in this continent is grown by women, yet they have no right [to own land].

“Our most important task is to bring visibility to the African woman entrepreneur. That is where we start if we want to change Africa. We have to empower the girl child, we have to educate the girl child. We have to accept the fact that because of [women, Africa] is well fed.”

Masiyiwa paid homage to women and their contributions to society, narrating his interaction with a group of West African women he bumped into at an airport in São Paulo, Brazil. After talking to them, he discovered they were traders. They had flown through Angola, stopped in Brazil and were headed to South Korea. Along their journey, they would buy goods in one market to sell in the next. In South Korea they were to purchase electronic goods to sell in their home countries.

“I said to them, ‘is that profitable?’. One of them looked at me and said, ‘I have a son just like you at Harvard [and] I pay for his [tuition]’.”

Challenged by a banker

Masiyiwa also recounted how one woman banker “challenged” him early on. He started his business journey in 1986 with just US$75, going around suburbs fixing broken lights and gates. After running the business for a while he needed additional funding, so he went to a Barclays bank branch seeking a loan. He drove his car, parked it outside the bank and went in to pitch to the banker.

“After listening to my pitch, she said ‘is that your car?’. She said ‘go sell it and I will match whatever it is you sell it for because that is my way of knowing whether you are serious’. So I took my car away… I sold it [and] I came back the following day. I had [the money] in cash, I put it on her table and I said: ‘Where is yours?’. And I haven’t looked back since.”

Masiyiwa noted there is need to shine the spotlight on Africa’s women and their contribution to the continent’s growth because often this is “invisible”. A staunch supporter of woman entrepreneurs, he often posts on his Facebook page stories about inspiring women entrepreneurs and sometimes endorses specific women-owned businesses.

Lessons from mother

He has also attributed his success in entrepreneurship to lessons he learned from his mother.

“My mother was like a little squirrel, always hiding away small amounts of money. If she made a little money, she made sure that she saved as much of it as possible, for a rainy day.

“This capacity to save money, and live within one’s means, was always taken to the extreme in our household,” Masiyiwa wrote on his Facebook page in April. “Whenever I have seen people fail in business, sadly I usually find that they were not disciplined in this basic and foundational area of success.”

Masiyiwa is one of Africa’s most wealthy and celebrated entrepreneurs. He runs Econet Wireless, a diversified telecommunications group with operations and investments in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia. His other business interests include financial services, insurance, renewable energy, bottling for Coca-Cola and hospitality ventures.

According to Forbes his net worth was US$600m last year.