Dream Big Start Small My Brother

 I want to start a revolution. Don’t be mistaken. I am not planning a second round of the Arab spring. Besides, if I were to set myself on fire like Mohammed Bouazizi, I would not start a revolution. My own African brothers and sisters would probably think I’m the second Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave who was set alight during the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, and would fuel my burning by throwing more tyres on me as they pass by on their way to dinner or church. My revolution is to get our generation of young Africans to dream big but start small. To have visions that extend beyond ourselves and extend to our children and their children. This thought came to mind when I encountered three inspiring stories. But before I recount these stories, allow me to share some observations with you. In my line of work I meet many young African brothers and sisters who have big dreams and need funding for their dreams. A typical meeting starts with the prospective entrepreneur placing all of his accessories on the table around which his potential financiers are already seated. The accessories usually include, but are not limited to, keys to a German-made sedan; expensive sunglasses; an Ipad and the obligatory two cell phones, which will most likely be a blackberry and an Iphone. Once the accessories have been neatly laid on the table, the distribution of business cards begins. Despite the fact that this entrepreneur does not have any money to start his business and his business idea is still a vague concept, he has gold-printed business cards with his title published as chief executive officer or more humbly director. His ideas, which are as bold and bright as his floral shirt,  are any of the following – buying a wine estate or a farm; starting a brewery; starting a property investment company; starting a cell phone company; bottling juice; starting a cement factory; building a shopping mall for just meat. Though some of the ideas may be commended, the little detail that Mr Pointy Shoes has forgotten to look at is the fact that he does not have any experience in the industry he wants to get into. He does not have money to start the business, meaning that he will need to start his new venture with huge debt. Without adequate insights in his industry of interest and with a heavily-indebted company, this dreamer’s business will stutter in the first few years and will eventually not survive. Now to the three stories I referred to earlier. The first one is about Bell Equipment Limited, a JSE listed company that manufactures among other things Articulated Dump Trucks (“ADT”) which are exported from their manufacturing base in Richards Bay, South Africa to Africa and the rest of world. You may have seen their trucks being used in heavy construction works and in mines. A brief look at this company’s financials will tell you that in 2010 they made ZAR3.4 billion (USD455 million) with profit of ZAR36 million (USD4.9 million), and their Net Asset Value is ZAR1.4 billion (USD190 million). Bell Equipment was started from humble beginnings by Irvine Bell. Bell was a trained fitter and turner who started his trade after serving five years in the South African Army Corps of Engineers. He started off drilling bore holes for a living and moved on to start a farm machinery repair service in 1954. 10 years later in 1964, after years of understanding the needs of his customers, Irvine Bell invented a self-loading sugarcane trailer and a gantry crane for local farmers, two products that have been the basis of this multi-million company now run by his grandchildren. The second story is about a gentleman called Ishmael Naidoo*. Naidoo is a man with a big vision that belies his slight frame. At 51, he looks like an ordinary father with his unfashionable spectacles and fading shirt. His well-worn face and amputated middle finger tells the story of a tough life. Being of Indian heritage in apartheid South Africa meant that Naidoo did not have much to start life with. But he had  for a father a vegetable seller who instilled in him important life and business principles. He also had a passion to do something big on his own terms. After many failed attempts with various business ventures Ishmael Naidoo started making sweets in his wife’s kitchen 18 years ago. Today his business has a turnover of ZAR48 million (USD 6.5 million) and profit of ZAR1.7 million (USD241 000). These are not big numbers but what makes Naidoo special is that he has a vision beyond himself –he wants to leave a legacy that his kids will benefit from. Now on to the third story about a man I met recently called Dumisani Pemba*. On first sight Pemba looks like a common labourer. We met in the fashionable business district of Sandton and I was surprised that he was brave enough to come and meet financiers wearing blue overalls. His fiery red eyes revealed a man who has worked hard without getting much out of life but who is determined. He did not have much and was not afraid to admit that he does not know much either. The borrowed computer he had took 30 minutes to start up and still failed to work. Pemba has worked as a common labourer all his life but in his last job in a feed mill, he learnt enough about the business to realise that he could start his own feed mill. Among his mostly rural livestock farming community, he realised that getting good quality feed consistently at a reasonable price is difficult. With the help of a small grant from government and an abandoned warehouse he had started a rudimentary feed mill about a year ago with a turnover of about ZAR100 000 (USD 13 385), supplying feed to his village and surrounding villages. That is small but I smell the beginnings of a great venture. What can we learn from these three stories? Small beginnings do not belie big visions. Small beginnings usually precede big ventures, and these small beginnings often do not include the flashiest cars or the flashiest phones or the flashiest titles.  In fact, this has been the basis upon which some immigrant communities in Africa have been able to become more successful than locals. My East African brother will probably not like me for saying this, but the wealth of East Africa is for the most part in the hands of third and fourth generation Indians and Arabs whose grandparents started off as one-table grocery sellers and passed on their wealth and skills to their children who now have a substantial share in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of East Africa. This is the same for the Lebanese and the Chinese in West Africa and the Indians in South Africa. I fear that we, the current young African generation who are enjoying the benefits of a more stable continent, have a myopic consumer mentality, which will prevent us from being as successful as the Irvine Bells and Ishmael Naidoos of today. A quick drive through Johannesburg will confirm this. Driving through Johannesburg, one cannot help noticing many young Africans driving the most expensive cars available. It is good to live the life but what are we investing in? How are we putting our wealth to use? Are we saving for the big dreams that we have? Are we saving enough so that one day I can ask my brother Daudi to help me build an agro-processing plant in Kisumu in order to take advantage of the agricultural potential in that area? Are we saving enough so that one day I can ask my brother Arinze to help me build a hospital in Abuja? Are we saving enough so that one day I can ask my sister Efi to start a rock crushing plant in Takoradi to take advantage of this area’s resources? I leave those questions for you.   * Not their real names

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