“I went to Harvard to seek new experiences, new global influences. I travelled to New York, to Silicon Valley. I met people like [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg. I saw how Americans were using technology to foster entrepreneurship, and I inevitably asked myself: Why am I in a corporate job? How can I build a legacy? How can I do more?”
Inside South African business mogul Romeo Kumalo’s plans to impact Africa through an ICT revolution
Beneath the politics and the headlines, African entrepreneurs go about the business of restoring the promise of their beloved continent. One such entrepreneur is Romeo Kumalo, a former captain of corporate Africa who has now, together with former SuperSport CEO Happy Ntshingila, created Washirika Holdings, which is looking to be at the forefront of a great leapfrog into a new development phase of the African economy.
According to Kumalo, at the heart of this great transformation is technology, which ultimately represents the potential of a connected, mobile-centric continent—with all the access to information, banking and markets implied by such connectivity.
Seeking to be at the heart of this tech revolution, Washirika focuses on three sectors: construction (in which it positions itself as a complete design and build entity); clean energy (focusing on solar and natural gas); and ICT (with some exciting new ventures in the mobile-data sector in the pipeline).
Kumalo, familiar to South Africans as one of the ‘sharks’ on our country’s edition of the reality show Shark Tank, left his position as head of international business at Vodacom last year, as he was looking to leave a legacy, to make an impact—and he felt he could best do this on his own terms. After tasting corporate and media success with Metro FM, SABC and latterly Vodacom, he wanted the opportunity to leave an even bigger footprint.
With a background in advertising, Kumalo had leapt into broadcasting in his 20s. He transformed Metro FM into a national radio player (increasing listenership from 1.8 million to more than 6 million), was at the heart of the golden age of South African television in the ‘90s, and was then headhunted by Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig to find himself in the trenches of the mobile revolution.
Convergence was just beginning to emerge as the next wave of media, and he sought to be at the coalface. He managed Vodacom’s operations in Tanzania, and would eventually manage all the company’s international business. Those were heady times as 3G was launched and data began its rise. He travelled the continent, looking for new licences, markets and fresh territories. But at the height of his corporate success, a study sabbatical at Harvard led Kumalo to a crossroads.
He returned to Vodacom for another three years, but with a firm belief that mobile tech could change Africa, and that he could do more as an entrepreneur. He branched out in 2015 with an explicitly African vision: “I love Africa. I don’t think about China, South East Asia, Latin America. I don’t need to look at other markets—what I want to do is impact Africa.”
Kumalo doesn’t see himself as a Zuckerberg-type entrepreneur—a pioneer straight out of college—but rather as an entrepreneur who can leverage decades of corporate experience in media and telecoms to create wealth and mentor a new generation of black industrialists.
And he and his partner, Ntshingila, have a three-pronged strategy to do just that.
Kumalo has been in the headlines recently as whispers abound about a huge new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in the works, with Washirika at the forefront. He cannot yet provide any details concerning the venture, as confidential discussions (likely with Vodacom) are still ongoing, but he has said he is getting ready to “launch something that will change the face of the mobile industry in South Africa.” This is of a piece with the broader vision of Washirika, which is to be at the heart of a South African revolution in infrastructure—in construction, energy and data—and thus underpin an African Renaissance hitherto only spoken of by idealist politicians.
One cannot help but be reminded of Elon Musk when Kumalo explains why Washirika chose its three areas of focus. Musk, of course, chose the Internet, renewable energy and space travel as the three pillars of humanity’s economic future. Kumalo, with his great African vision, is not dissimilar. He first makes clear that any business venture is reliant upon opportunity and expertise (which he shares with his partner), but underpinning these two prerequisites is the desire, like Musk’s, for impact.
Firstly, as Africa modernises its infrastructure, Washirika wants to be at the heart of new design and construction, particularly in the health and financial sectors. Secondly, Kumalo believes information and communications technology is set to kick-start a new wave of African economic development: “ICTs will transform Africa, and allow us to move quickly into the mainstream world economy. In rural areas, people are moving directly to smartphones. This market penetration will empower young entrepreneurs and give them access to the economy. In every sector—government, agriculture, mobile money—technology is set to make business mobile-centric.”
Thirdly, Kumalo is of the opinion that a lack of energy is currently holding back African development. Washirika’s involvement in gas and solar (with a notable project under way in the Northern Cape) is set to be at the forefront of a move to provide the continent with sustainable, affordable and reliable power. “What’s holding us back? Clearly, it’s energy,” he says. “If you fix the energy problem, you can fix the economy. At the moment, Spain, a single European country, uses more power than the entire continent. It’s a shame. Pictures from space show only a bright South Africa, with pockets in Nigeria. This is why we are the so-called dark continent. It’s clear we are nowhere near where we need to be—yet—in terms of energy.”
Currently, Kumalo acts as the CEO of the holding company, with a hands-on focus in the ICT sector, while Ntshingila is the chairperson with special expertise in marketing and communication. They have an advisory board, too, and the overarching vision of all the stakeholders is to be at the heart of a major shift in the economy as technological innovation accelerates and democratises opportunity.
Kumalo sees himself chiefly as a mentor, whose role is to help new entrepreneurs scale up their ideas and operations, and empower them with capital and tech expertise and access. “I like backing the entrepreneur: a person with passion and guts, preferably with skin in the game in the form of his own money invested.” But for Kumalo, the idea is at the heart of entrepreneurship: “The second criterion is a question: ‘Is your business solving a societal problem?’ Uber is solving a problem, for example. There is ultimately nothing the public sector can do in response, because it is clearly solving a consumer problem. If your business does this, then you have a long-term, commercially sustainable proposition.”
He notes there is absolutely no shortage of ideas and innovation in South Africa; he does not have to go looking for investment opportunities. Nonetheless, he believes the country requires more and more entrepreneurship. In short, he is looking to propel a new wave of black industrialists, ready to build up the country and the continent. “Entrepreneurship is the only way to solve South Africa’s problems, chief of which is unemployment. We have graduates unable to find work. But if you start your own business, suddenly you are employing other people, paying taxes—and the ripple effects begin to grow. This is why I believe in young people . . . South Africa is full of young people, as is Africa. If you look at Europe and Asia, their populations are ageing. We have to use this advantage.”
In order to seize the moment, Kumalo wants to inspire young people to start their own businesses, to understand money, and to celebrate entrepreneurship. His appearance in the Shark Tank, where young people compete for investment from the experienced ‘sharks’, is a part of this drive.
It is perhaps then no surprise that Kumalo has also found himself in the mix when it comes to the #DataMustFall campaign in South Africa. As a businessperson, with decades of experience in the mobile sector, he is well-placed to weigh in on the continuing controversy. And he makes no bones about the fact that, yes, data prices are far too high. “Expensive data is holding back our economy. And the incumbents in the market must realise that this is an opportunity to relook their models of pricing and distribution, and bring the price down for the sake of the economy.”
In a digital economy, the government has a responsibility to regulate the data spectrum in such a way as to allow access, but Kumalo hopes it will not get to the point where heavy-handed government intervention is necessary. “The current operators must look to be innovative, before government has to intervene. At the end of the day, the regulator licenses the operators. And our current situation of a duopoly is not good for the consumer. We need to open the market.”
This is also an issue of transformation, which Kumalo implies is a question of providing opportunities for the sake of the common good, thereby creating new fields of innovation for deep and rapid infrastructural development. “The regulator has failed to open up the markets and thus create new opportunities for black industrialists. Icasa [Independent Communications Authority of South Africa] needs to pull the lever that is called spectrum to create these opportunities and therefore transform the market.”
This is in line with Kumalo’s view of the ideal relationship between business and politics: “Politics needs business, and business needs politics. There needs to be a collaborative effort to create the society we want.” Of course, this means that ruptures within the government—between the regulator and the Communications Ministry—must equally be harmonised.
At the core of Kumalo’s (and Washirika’s) vision is this idea of concert, symphonic harmony, and such a vision implies connectivity. This connectivity has to be relational, but equally technological. Here it is clear that Kumalo is something of a techno-optimist: “For every 10% of broadband penetration, there is a 1% increase in GDP . . . In 10 years, this continent will be completely different—energy, agriculture, government and finance will all be revolutionised in a connected, mobile-centric continent.”
And Kumalo has no doubt that he and Washirika will be in the engine room of this revolution. “We will make an impact on society. We will use technology to change lives.”
When he says this, one cannot help but believe him.
30 seconds with Romeo Kumalo
CEO, Washirika Holdings; venture capitalist
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” —Steve Jobs
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen
New York City
Favourite tech gadget?
Suunto Ambit3 GPS watch
Your ideal day?
“Spending quality time with my children.”
How do you unwind and relax?
“Reading, and playing golf.”
The meaning of life?
“Being content and living in gratitude.”
On how to succeed in business:
“You’ve got to have the right vision . . . If you have a clear vision of what you want to do—if you have audacious goals of where you want to be—that’s what’s going to make you successful.”