Serial entrepreneur, founder of the Sekunjalo Group, and arguably Africa’s most successful and largest investor in technology and innovation—Dr Iqbal Survé shows us how diversification in one’s business investments can reap rewards
When most investors in Africa were focusing on hard-core resources, Survé—who had exited the oil business in September 2013 after about 12 years—started focusing on technology and media technology.
“We have partnered with multinationals across the continent, and hence are present in about 50 of the 54 African countries between these partners. As such, together we have been able to change the way we engage and do business on the continent.”
In the world of investing, three words come to mind: Overwhelming. Intimidating. Scary. For us ‘average Joes’, the questions and challenges seem never-ending, but there are a few select people in the world who seem to have that Midas power—turning whatever they touch into gold.
Sir Richard Branson and Warren Buffet spring to mind, and right here in our own backyard, Dr Iqbal Survé most certainly fits the same bill. A few readers may only know him from some of the controversial mud-slinging matches he has had with other media powerhouses since taking over South Africa’s largest print media group, Independent Media. (This is not surprising, really, considering that media houses generally use their own mediums in print and digital formats to spin their versions of stories/agendas and hope they stick. It is and always will be the nature of that beast.) Wherever those media wars may end up is neither here nor there, as there’s no doubt this Doctor has ticked some incredible boxes with very clever investing in all the right places, especially in technology and innovation—and is busy creating Africa’s own Silicon Valley in Cape Town.
As this is Fast Company SA’s special edition for the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa taking place in May in Durban, and the fact Survé was honoured by the WEF on many occasions—including being the first chair of its “New Champions”, the Global Growth Companies Board (according to WEF chairman Professor Klaus Schwab, the GGC are leaders in innovation and technology), as well as being vice-chairman of the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Multinationals—we thought it would be an apt time to look into some of his incredibly diverse and successful business interests. (At the time of press, Survé was also appointed to the highly prestigious position of chairman of the BRICS Business Council.)
Our interview takes place in Survé’s plush executive ‘man cave’ of an office in Claremont, which is clearly the mothership for all his varied interests and investments. He says he has always had his private investment office/family office separate from his investments/corporate office. Three personal assistants scurry around him taking notes, making calls and frantically trying to keep up with his brain and requests that seem to be moving at freight-train speed. They look driven to succeed in an environment where the Doctor apparently is always on the go from the early hours of the morning to late into the night. I battle to imagine how any of his worker bees have much of a social life, but they don’t seem too concerned about it.
Where it all began
Dr Survé is a physician, entrepreneur and an ardent philanthropist, born and educated in Cape Town. He was known as the “Struggle Doctor”, because of his provision of medical care to victims of apartheid brutality, including some of those imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island. He had a personal and/or professional relationship with many former prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Govan Mbeki upon their release from the Island.
In 1997, President Mandela made an impassioned plea for black professionals to enter the mainstream economy of South Africa in order to bring about meaningful transformation of the socio-economic landscape, with the aim of redressing the legacy of apartheid. This resulted in Survé leaving his first love, medicine, and founding the Sekunjalo Group—which is today wholly owned by the Survé family. He serves as executive chairman of the group, with its headquarters in Cape Town. Sekunjalo has more than 200 investments across Africa, with an intrinsic market value exceeding $4 billion (R53.9 billion)—an amazing feat considering Surve, who came from humble beginnings, founded the group a mere 19 years ago with an investment of only $20 000. The group is the shareholding/equity partner to a number of multinationals on the continent, including Siemens, Nokia, Saab, BT, Solidago and Coriant, among others; Survé serves as chairman or deputy chair of many of these companies’ boards.
The group is recognised by the WEF as one of the world’s fastest growing companies and a New Champion/Forum Advisory member; Survé is a regular contributor and participant in the Davos and Summer Davos meetings. Its investment portfolio includes Oil & Gas, Food, Fishing, Aquaculture, Power, Resources, Transport & Mobility, Telecoms, Civil Security & Defence, Media, Technology, Biotechnology, Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals, and Asset Management. The group also pioneers many social impact investment initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa.
Survé Philanthropies, the philanthropic foundation of the Survé family, has seven separate foundations supporting children’s, women’s and human rights; education; music, arts and culture; entrepreneurship; social impact investing; climate change; and healthcare. The Sekunjalo Group distributes 90% of its annual dividends received from its investments to these foundations, with the aim of impacting positively on the future of the people of Africa. Sekunjalo also recently launched a R500-million social impact fund.
Africa’s time is now
The story of Africa’s rising (Afro-positivism and Afro-capitalism) is an important narrative to which the Survé family and Sekunjalo have committed themselves by investing in businesses across the continent. “The group is really a large entity with more than 115 000 people employed directly and through its affiliated companies,” says Survé proudly. “So when we talk about affiliated companies: Say we have a shareholding in Siemens or Saab or Nokia or Pioneer Foods—these are all some of the companies in which the group has invested. The group is the biggest and most successful technology investor on the African continent.”
This is indeed quite a statement, so I delve a little further and ask the Doctor to give us some more information on his business interests in technology. The question is, how did a South African entrepreneur and technology investor based at the southernmost tip of African achieve dollar-billionaire status? And what is it that he has invested in, and what are the sectors—and why?
When most investors in Africa were focusing on hard-core resources, Survé—who had exited the oil business in September 2013 (good timing and good luck at the peak of the oil price) after about 12 years—started focusing on technology and media technology. “Our approach, in fact, was a dual strategy. Firstly, we wanted to partner with multinationals and become shareholders with them on the African continent, including our first multinational partner 19 years ago, the Siemens business unit in sub-Saharan Africa. This led to the second strategy, which was to use the dividends from these multinational investments to fund entrepreneurs and businesses in new technologies,” he explains.
I’m reminded of an article in The Economist of December 2016, which boldly listed Siemens and General Electric as the two companies in the world to watch, as they were the ones leading the way in terms of integration of engineering technology and the Internet of Things digitalisation. I mention this article to Survé, and he knows exactly which one I’m referring to. “Yes, most definitely!” he agrees. “I was one of the founding members of the Siemens Global Advisory Board on Sustainability, and as part of its plan, it pooled some of the top guys in the world on sustainability and technology to serve on the board to work on the direct links between sustainability and technology. The whole issue was looking at the latest innovation and technologies, and the application thereof globally.” He adds that the Siemens Global Advisory Board was completed 18 months ago, but that the insights into the areas of potential growth in the technology space—and how it could be applied in areas such as power generation, locomotives, healthcare, security and many more—have set the massive foundations for Siemens to grow from strength to strength.
Communicating across the continent
The second investment was in Nokia Solutions, a technology communications business. “We own 30% of Nokia Solutions investments in sub-Saharan Africa, and we’re talking about the latest businesses like 3G, 4G, 5G, its applications and fibre-optics, to name but a few,” Survé reveals. “This is Nokia Solutions—not to be confused with Nokia mobile handsets—and the expansion into Africa on the back of mobile operators has been very successful.”
His third investment in this arena was acquiring 30% of British Telecoms Global Services Africa, which is the network solutions business of BT that’s looking at providing complex solutions for companies on e-commerce platforms involving card computing, data flows, telecommunications, voice activation and a host of other technological breakthroughs. “This has been a really successful investment land, and we are dealing with the latest technology applications on encryption, and cutting-edge innovation,” Survé says with a boyish grin.
Then we move swiftly on to the next few companies he has on his books, and my head starts spinning at the sheer size and scale of these businesses across Africa, and indeed the globe, in the technology and communications sectors. “The next company is Saab [Saab Grintek Defence], of which we own 25%. Here we are involved in civil security, airborne defence systems, border-control technologies, missile defence and radar systems. We are even looking at UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and drone technology in a separate investment.”
He goes on to explain that his group is also invested in other technology companies such as Coriant, another African telco. Coriant develops innovative and dynamic networking solutions for a fast-changing and cloud-enabled business world. The Coriant portfolio of transport solutions enables network operators to create new revenue-generating services optimised for the evolving demands of business and consumer applications including video, mobile and cloud.
“We have partnered with multinationals across the continent, and hence are present in about 50 of the 54 African countries between these partners,” says Survé, who’s clearly very proud of this achievement. “As such, together we have been able to change the way we engage and do business on the continent. These are what I call our foundation investments, in other words, investments that have allowed us to be able to make a lot of investments with other technology pioneers by using the dividend flows from these multinational investments.”
Power to the people
The energy sector was next on his wish list. “The renewable energy investments run into billions of dollars, and we have approached it differently to others. We did not want to be the entity that contracted directly with the governments, so we rather became an OEM—we became the supplier to many of the companies that had successfully tendered for the contracts, so we were not involved in any of the contracts directly. We took a strategic decision that we did not want to be the owner of the projects; we simply wanted to be the original equipment manufacturing supplier,” Survé explains.
With this aim in mind, and the Siemens global technology behind him, Sekunjalo got involved in Siemens-built wind farms and other renewable energy-projects, including solar, in South Africa. “Siemens has been very successful in the energy, power-generation sector, and specifically also in the area of wind. We are also the first to use some renewable-energy technology, specifically solar power, in our aquaculture farm in Gansbaai. I think we are probably the first in the world in that area, keeping to our philosophy of using technology for sustainability, and doing good and doing well at the same time.”
Tackling world health issues
The next sector is close to Survé’s heart due to his background as a physician, but now he gets to use innovative technology in the companies in which he has invested in the biotechnology and health information systems sector. “What is not known to many people is that we own the largest biotechnology research and development company on the African continent. The company is called Genius Biotherapeutics (formerly Bioclones), and its main subsidiary is Ribotech. This we are looking at listing in 2018, on either the London Stock Exchange main board or the Nasdaq. We are just waiting for the clinical trials to finish,” he reveals. “We have 24 global patented technologies principally in two areas. The first is what is called personalised medicine for cancer therapeutics. Here we have worked with some of the top scientists in the world in terms of cancer therapeutics, where we are able to look at vaccines to overcome breast cancer, prostatic cancer, melanomas etc.” He tells me they are already in phase-one clinical trials for breast cancer, and this specific technology has a global patent.
This seems like a potentially incredible breakthrough on the medical front, and I’m amazed by what Survé tells me: “If you have cancer, we take your body’s dendritic cells [which initiate the immune response] from your body, we stimulate these with our patented biotech stimulant, and then inject it back into your body—that’s why it is personalised; it is not like a drug for everybody. Those cells become intelligent cells. It’s unlike chemotherapy or radiotherapy where they hit every cell, healthy and cancerous—that is why you lose your hair, you lose your skin, you vomit and all those things. This is targeted, personalised medicine. We take your own cells and we send them to the cancer directly, and we direct them to destroy the cancer.” He excitedly adds that they are about a few years away from this going to the market in terms of therapeutics.
Survé explains that at Ribotech biotech company, there’s a manufacturing facility for granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (GCSF), which makes the bone marrow produce white blood cells to reduce the risk of infection after some types of chemotherapy. “We have a world-class, state-of-the-art facility based in Cape Town, which is equivalent to the best in the world, where we are able to manufacture GCSF. Hence it is called biotechnology, because basically you are using a mammalian cell and using technology, and you are getting it to be like the human body to produce the hormone.” This medical terminology is now going way over my head, but I’m riveted.
He continues, “In Centurion in Pretoria, we have a facility where we produce a hormone called EPO [erythropoietin]. Now, EPO you would use for kidney failure or you would use it to stimulate your performance—which is obviously illegal, by the way. [Cyclist Lance Armstrong was banned for using EPO.] But when you take a chemical drug for cancer, it kills your red blood cells and white blood cells. By taking EPO, you once again stimulate the red blood cells. You have to use GCSF to stimulate the white blood cells. It’s a great process to actually go and see—it’s fascinating to see how mammalian cells from hamsters are stimulated to produce hormones like EPO. We know that there’s a competitor in the US also working on DDCV technologies and retro-inverso peptide technology, although we have global patents on these. It’s very unique for an African company to have 24 global patents—very, very unique.
“When I bought this company 10 years ago, it was owned, believe it or not, by SA Breweries [today part of the beer giant, Anheuser-Busch]. And the reason is because all biotechnology companies started out of brewery companies. Do you know why?”
“Yeast?” I proffer a wild guess.
“Exactly, because they used microbes to ferment or change the beer, and from that developed research and biotechnology by manipulating the microbes. They were able to then go into new fields, and that’s how most early biotech companies started,” Survé enlightens me with a grin. This subject is clearly of much interest to him. “Together with SA Breweries, we have spent hundreds of millions of rand, not skimping on this breakthrough research. We hope to realise our investments many times over with a listing on an international stock exchange in the near future.”
In addition, Sekunjalo’s Health System Technologies provides state-of-the-art hospital information systems to many medical facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, and Survé is proud that through this investment his group is able to assist with getting quality healthcare delivered to the populations who need it most.
Packing cash with perlemoen
Sekunjalo has also invested heavily in abalone aquaculture, and has one of the largest aquafarms on the continent, in Gansbaai in the Cape Overberg. Abalone, or perlemoen, is extremely popular overseas—particularly in Asia (which is why, sadly, our own oceans are almost depleted of these delicacies).
“It is one of the most modern technologically driven aquaculture farms, with infiltration systems and a hatchery using the latest genetic science,” says Survé. “But, more importantly, as I mentioned earlier, it is the first aquaculture farm to use solar power. The biggest costs in aquaculture in the world today, outside the feeds for your animals, is the energy costs, because you have to filter the water and pump it continuously to be able to get it flowing and the nutrients going into the system. This farm is going to generate as much profit as the whole of Premier Fishing [a large-scale lobster exporter, and another of Survé’s many companies in his vast empire] within two years, because we have now just bought more than six hectares of land and we are investing another few hundred million rand to grow the farm. It’s all export earnings and currency-driven, so it’s a great business. We did that from scratch, using technology.”
At this stage, I explain to the good Doctor that we are running out of time—and magazine space—so we cannot go into all the other companies, but should stick to the technology side of his investments. So he briefly explains what is happening at Premier Fishing in terms of technology: “We are exploring using the shell of lobster, which contains a compound called chitin. Chitin is very well-known, used in plasters/Band-Aids. On the factory ships on the sea, they would usually just discard all the lobster into the ocean when they cut off the rest of the body, as the tails alone would be imported to America. So now we are thinking of utilising the shell and the chitin to create things like plasters and wound therapeutic products, seeing as it is a very good binder.”
Survé adds, “We are also producing one of the first organic fishmeal products called Seagro. We take fishmeal and use a bit of technology and innovation to convert it into high-growth fertiliser for plants. It’s a premium fertiliser product, part of a global market, that we export now.”
Taking over the media
Sekunjalo has recently invested significantly in the African tech media sector, and Survé is the chairman of one of Africa’s largest print and online media groups, Independent Media, which has 24 major newspaper titles and a daily readership of 10 million—including the only pan-African newspaper, The African Independent. In 2015, Sekunjalo founded the continent’s first global news, text, picture and video content-syndication service and social media platform, the African News Agency (ANA), which currently distributes African content across the world and reaches more than a billion viewers/readers each day through its platforms. Two years after launching, ANA successfully placed 15% of its shares with global partners at a valuation of $1.6 billion (R21.4 billion).
Says Survé, “We are now going full steam ahead with ANA Pics and ANA Video, which will be a syndication service for pictures, video and texts and also a social media platform, for example like Facebook, allowing for user-generated content. By 2020, we will definitely become the pre-eminent content provider for the African continent for a global media audience. We have now in excess of 40 media partnerships across Africa, and we are about to roll out offices in London, Boston, Chicago, Paris, Shanghai, Mumbai and New York.
Also in the tech media space, Survé has invested in e-commerce with a 75% stake in Loot.co.za, one of the top three e-commerce businesses in South Africa. Loot is on target to quadruple its revenues since this investment, and is buying into data analysis software to be able to expand rapidly into the rest of Africa.
“We are invested in a number of technology companies that focus on IT software systems and software development,” he adds. “These include Saratoga, Afrozaar, Technology Solutions Limited [now known as Ayo Technology], ATMH [African Technology and Media Holdings], Emergent Energy, and recently Puleng Technologies.”
Survé starts explaining how Sekunjalo is also about to invest in voice-encryption technology and satellite systems, but I have to cut him off there, although I’d love to continue hearing about more of the incredible investments he has on the cards. “I have also set up the $50-million [R670.3-million] Impact Fund, which is going to focus a lot on technologies that make an impact for social good. It is very important that I say these are just our technology investments; these are apart from our core investments in power, telecoms, fishing, healthcare, mobility, resources, in food, in music or jazz, or travel or entertainment. If you take just our tech investments—whether they are tech media, tech aquaculture, tech healthcare, tech information systems, tech energy systems, tech pharmaceuticals—you’re probably looking at about a $3-billion [around R40-billion] valuation of our investments. That is really significant for an African company. And great for the continent.”
I thank the Doctor for his time, and he offers me some sushi which we eat while he gets back to the business of his day. His staff run around and get cracking on further instructions. It doesn’t seem like the man ever sleeps. And after hearing about only a handful of his savvy investments, I can certainly see why.
30 seconds with Iqbal Survé
Founder and executive chairman, Sekunjalo Group
“Do good and do well.”—Nobel laureate Amartya Sen
“Many favourites, but the one I have most recommended to friends when facing a life crisis is Tuesdays with Morrie [by Mitch Albom].”
“Cape Town, for its sheer natural beauty.”
Favourite tech gadget?
“My Android smartphone and its many applications. I’m a tech junkie and love exploring the use of technology for social good.”
How do you unwind and relax?
“Reading a great book, watching a good movie or series, eating out at great restaurants; walking in the forest and meditating on top of Table Mountain at least three times a year; yoga (when time permits); and occasionally talking to my four dogs.”
“Ordinary people who do amazing things and have succeeded in overcoming adversity.”
The meaning of life?
“To live simply with purpose, and to treat everyone equally with respect and dignity, no matter their status in life.”