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What do electrical engineering, telecommunications and agriculture have in common? They arouse the passion of Strive Masiyiwa: Thirty years ago, he started an electrical installation company with $75, later riding the telecommunications wave as a pioneer. Today he is committed to transforming African agriculture.
Dozens of mobile phones light up softly like fireflies when a small man in a black shirt and dark corduroy trousers enters the room. As he walks to the front row and sits down, the small devices send messages. #StriveInBerlin is the hashtag on Twitter, where they are all united again.
Then a show begins. The man walks up to a desk on the stage and exclaims: ‘Africa is on the move; the signs are everywhere. The future can only be bright!’ Sitting in the Senate Hall of the Berlin Humboldt University, where the paintings of Nobel laureates hang and scientists like Albert Einstein once lectured, the mobile phones and their owners seem to absorb every word.
Today, a cardboard at the entrance proclaims: ‘Youth Town Hall with Strive Masiyiwa’. The man is here to answer questions. Many arms are raised, but he says to a student who asks him for advice: ‘Don’t sit down. How come you ask so many questions? You are the best we have. Instead of asking questions, you should answer them yourself!’
Agrobusiness is the next big thing.
Strive Masiyiwa, 57, is not a preacher or a guru. He is an entrepreneur. And yet he captivates his audience as if he wanted to provide every single person with everything it needs to revolutionise African agriculture: ‘I don’t want you all to become farmers, but we'll see each other back in Africa.’ The audience: Mostly doctoral candidates from Africa doing research at German universities. And Masiyiwa: Billionaire, philanthropist and chairman of AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Masiyiwa made his money in telecommunications. But this evening he is talking about agriculture.
‘As an entrepreneur, I want to know the customer’, he says. ‘This time it's the smallholder.’ Agriculture in Africa is strongly influenced by them. ‘Agrobusiness is the next big thing’, he exclaims. AGRA is an organisation that wants to advance the transformation of African agriculture. Founded in 2006, it advocates for greater productivity and entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector, with the goal of: The continent needs to be able to feed itself, reduce expensive food imports and create jobs; the latter is urgently needed for a rapidly growing population. No wonder AGRA and Masiyiwa fit so well together – they both think big. ‘When farmers work the soil with a hoe, that's not romantic – it's tragic’, he says angrily. ‘Hoes belong in the museum!’
The audience is typing along. Masiyiwa is not a random rich man who now wants to give something back to the world. According to Facebook, he is the business leader with the most followers worldwide. How does he do that? ‘When I step on the platform, I don’t talk about my business in a top-down fashion – I just tell stories.’
His own story sounds like that of an impatient and visionary boy. Born in Zimbabwe, he got a job at the state-owned telephone company in his mid-twenties, but left soon thereafter. ‘I never got answers to the simplest questions’, he will say later during a coffee break between two appointments, ‘the bureaucracy was inflexible’. Masiyiwa was young, single and free. He borrowed money from his family and friends, and with a start-up capital of just $75, the graduate electrical engineer opened his own company. ‘I already knew how to think like an entrepreneur; my mother ran a furniture shop.’ This was at a time when a construction boom began in Zimbabwe, and Masiyiwa's company with its electrical installation work grew with it. He says: He never intended to grow a big business but simply pursued the two questions: ‘What is possible? And what do the people need?’
He quickly realised: In the nineties of the last century, just one per cent of Africans had a telephone. In Zimbabwe, back then people had to wait 20 years for a connection. Masiyiwa applied for licenses, filed complaints for years against monopolies and recognised the potential of mobile technology for the rural African countries early on. The rest is history. Today, he runs companies that invest in telecommunications, but also in financial services, renewable energies, television and other media in 20 countries.
40,000 children receive educational scholarships from his foundation, and in 1998 the World Junior Chamber of Commerce named him one of ‘10 most outstanding young leaders of the world’. In 2014, Fortune Magazine named him one of the 50 most influential business leaders in the world. And now AGRA. Its co-founder, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, convinced him to join; he often talks about him here in Berlin.
It's late in the evening; the speech and the question and Q&A session are over. But young people still surround Masiyiwa; students stand in front of him and ask questions, while other students stand behind him in awe, and nobody wants to step aside. They wait for an opportunity to snap a selfie. But the next appointment is due. He says once again: ‘I'll see you at home!’
The next day, a press conference is on the agenda at noon. He will be joined by the Parliamentary Secretary of State Maria Flachsbarth from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Everyone is waiting for – Masiyiwa. He rushes in, but with a face that does not show any signs of stress. ‘There are many fertile soils in Africa’, Flachsbarth begins, ‘and Africa exports jobs.’ She enjoys working with AGRA, she adds. Then Masiyiwa opens up with one of his anecdotes involving Kofi Annan.
‘In 2007, I was travelling with him in Mali. The local farmers showed us their harvest, which was actually good, but they also said: ‘The weather is changing.’ They did not know the word climate change, but they were aware of its consequences. Furthermore, we saw only the women working in the fields while the young men were hanging around the village. Then Kofi said to me: ‘If we don’t do something for the young men, there will be problems.’ Six months later, serious riots broke out in Mali.’
AGRA is an accelerator, not a displacer.
Therefore, AGRA supports a transformation of the agricultural sector. ‘The study of old crops like cassava, sorghum and millet, which are more resilient in the wake of climate change’, he says. Flachsbarth reminisces about how crop yields in Germany looked 100 years ago, ‘20 tonnes of wheat per hectare; today it's only 80 tonnes’. Masiyiwa picks up the ball, and for the first time his otherwise quiet, calm and confident voice gets a bit louder here in Berlin. ‘There are a few myths about AGRA’, he grumbles. ‘However, in reality we don’t work with any big companies in the seed sector, but only with small producers. AGRA is an accelerator, not a displacer.’
Flachsbarth and Masiyiwa run each other for a second time in the evening. The BMZ presents a discussion forum, and the Secretary of State speaks in front of about 200 guests in the hall about the common goals and about the need for innovations in agriculture: ‘Africa shares two per cent of the global trade’. When Masiyiwa starts his lecture, he captures the attention of everyone in the hall with the first sentence. ‘Did you take my speech?’, he asks Flachsbarth. And again he tells the anecdote with Annan in Mali; it captives him. ‘If water ceases because of the weather, and the men stop working – that’s when the extremists show up’, the businessman says to summarise the political situations.
Masiyiwa makes a move and is already on this way to the airport. He has fallen out with the rulers of Zimbabwe and now lives in London. Or rather everywhere. And strangely he remains relaxed. For him, his efforts over the last few years is more than just payback.
For years, he has been a sort of cult figure for many young Africans. He reaches them through digital media with his calls to action and to self-empowerment. His charisma, his wealth, his political influence – all of it arouses desires and attempts to draw his attention to various projects. But he prefers working with AGRA due to the relevance to the continent, necessity and opportunities. It’s as if it drags him, the communications service provider, into the fields instead: All that’s happening with agriculture in Africa, he says, ‘reminds me of the beginning of the mobile boom.’