Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is one of Russia’s most colorful public figures. An ethnic Kalymk, the businessman and politician was president of the predominantly Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia from 1993 to 2010, and later president of FIDE, the global governing body for chess, from 1995 to 2018. His business interests have spanned the oil and gas, media and automobile industries. While at the helm of FIDE, Ilyumzhinov traveled widely in Africa and developed a true love for the continent, its people and their perspectives and cultures.
In a lengthy and insightful conversation with Billionaires.Africa, Ilyumzhinov referred to Africa as “the cradle of humanity” and “the future of human civilization,” and as a continent that can help give rebirth to a global civilization that he sees as suffering from “artificially imposed excessive consumer standards” and “moral degradation.” His understanding of the world is philosophical and kind. It is a helicopter’s view guided by a gentle Buddhist touch, or exactly what you would expect of a man whose experience is as diverse as having been invited into an alien spacecraft in late-1990s Moscow, so he says, serving as Russia’s youngest MP and regional president, sparking a world chess revolution, and being named a “specially designated national” by the U.S. Treasury Department on allegations that he has time and again denied categorically to the media.
With that brief introduction, we hope that you enjoy our tet-a-tet with one of Russia’s most delightful public figures and one of its busiest men on the African continent.
– Mr. Ilyumzhinov, you, as the head of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), have made a dizzying career developing chess around the world. Do you have any ideas for the development of chess in Africa?
– I headed FIDE in 1995. I must say that at that time, the federation was divided and I had three main tasks: first, it was necessary to unite the chess world; secondly, to achieve the recognition of FIDE by the Olympic Committee; and the third task was a recognition of chess as a sport. I achieved all this. When I came to FIDE, it united just over 100 countries, and now the federation consists of more than 200 members. Then about 100 million people played chess and more than 600 million now. Tens of thousands of competitions are held.
At the same time as FIDE needed to increase the number of countries in the federation, it has always been important for me to increase the number of people who love this ancient game and play chess on our planet. Therefore, the principle I proclaimed sounded like one billion chess players means one billion smart people. I figured that one billion intellectual chess players could change the world for the better. This is a fundamental and strategic goal – to change the world through smart, developed and cultured people.
Literally, from the first days of working at FIDE, one of my main tasks was to develop chess in Africa, which I love very much. I have visited many countries and I have been to almost all countries in Africa. I consider this continent to be the cradle of humanity, and at the same time, I am convinced that Africa is the future of human civilization. It has its own untapped potential, and I am convinced that the common stamp of “helping Africa” may soon be replaced by Africa being able to help other countries, including the so-called developed democracies.
There are about one and a half billion people in Africa according to www.countrymeters.info/ru/Africa.
Africa is the richest continent on the planet in terms of its natural, energy and other reserves. Africa is said to be lagging behind in education and culture. But who is to blame for this? How did it happen that Africa was under colonial oppression for many decades or even centuries? European countries and the United States are now calling for providing help to Africa. But wasn’t it them who had taken people out of Africa to work on their plantations using slave labour for centuries? This system had plunged Africa into poverty and spawned illiteracy. If we talk about culture, it is African artefacts that make up the best collections of the largest European and American museums. How could this happen? Because many amazing cultural artefacts have been taken out of Africa and other “lagging” countries by representatives of the so-called developed and democratic states and, frankly, often not always legally.
It sometimes seems to me that the so-called developed countries are not interested in the real development of Africa, limiting themselves to one-time relief actions and periodically organizing fundraisers for providing clothing and food for starving African children. If they wanted, they would have built schools a long time ago.
I can say that it was Africa that pushed me to implement and promote several major programmes. These are “Chess in Schools,” “Chess in Villages” and “Chess in Families.” For example, in South Africa, the initiative found support from Nelson Mandela, and then from the subsequent President Jacob Zuma. In his native village, we opened the Chess Academy, which was attended by world champion Garry Kasparov.
Chess is a game for everyone, both old and young play chess regardless of nationality, gender and social status. There is no need to build stadiums, ice palaces and tennis courts. All you have to do is take a set of chess, a chess textbook and go to a village. This was the case during my travels in Africa – we played chess with the village children of Togo, Congo and other African countries.
For me, Africa is one of my favorite continents and I perceive it as one people, one continent that needs help. Education and culture should be the main areas of such help, as well as promotion of chess, of course. Now almost all African countries are members of FIDE, many competitions are held there. We held the first online tournament with the Tunisian Chess Federation, the African Internet Championship. The “Chess in Schools” and “Chess in Villages” programs, as I said, started mainly in Africa. I am glad that these programs proved to be successful later. They began to develop in Asia, Europe and Australia. Launched in Africa, these programs are now widespread across the globe.
– You have met with the most important world leaders. Of all the leaders you met, who impressed you the most, and who in Africa in particular? And why?
– My destiny was such that I started my political activity early. I was the youngest Russian parliamentarian and the youngest president. At the age of 27, I became a deputy of the Parliament of the Russian Federation, and at the age of 30, president of the Republic of Kalmykia. At the age of 33, I headed FIDE, one of the largest international sports federations.
Of course, during the 30 years of my international activity, I have met with hundreds of leaders of different countries and religions. But I want to point out that it doesn’t really matter who you are – a president, prime minister or prominent religious figure. I will say that if a person is elected by the people, then the country needs him, and what matters is not the position he held, but his personality. After all, today you are the president, and tomorrow an ordinary man. Sometimes I meet those who were once presidents, and now, as they call themselves, ordinary citizens. For example, in Lebanon I met with two former presidents.
Which of the world leaders would I single out? Everyone knows them. This is John Paul II, the former head of the Roman Catholic Church. We met several times and even played chess. Dalai Lama, leader of the Buddhists. The former Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia Alexey II left an indelible impression on me. Polish President Lech Walesa, the first and only President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In the United States, it is President Jimmy Carter and the famous American policymaker Henry Kissinger. I also should mention King Hussein in Jordan, who loved chess and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Whatever is said about him now, bad or good, still I reserve my personal opinion about him. I met with him – he supported chess and held tournaments. In 1993, we held the Symphony Orchestra Music Festival together in Babylon. He supported culture and was interested in archeology. I remember with what love he told me about the museum exhibits, archaeological finds and artifacts that were exhibited in the Museum of Babylon for free. And what happened next? Foreign troops entered Iraq, and the museum was destroyed and looted overnight. The same thing happened in Syria near Damascus. The “democratic countries” came, or rather flew on the wings of NATO planes and looted everything. What Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Gaddafi collected for the people has been plundered and is now on the black markets of Europe and America. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, about 90,000 Iraqi-owned archeological artefacts are currently being illegally located in the United States. Even barbarians did not do that!
I liked both Saddam Hussein and Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. The latter helped many in Africa. I was in South Sudan and stayed at a hotel that Gaddafi built and presented to the Sudanese people. Gaddafi wanted Africa to be a developed cultural continent.
I have met with many African leaders; it is difficult to single out anyone. But I can say who made a special impression on me. In South Africa, I met Nelson Mandela, who had served 28 years in prison. Of course, he amazed me. I cannot forget the story of how he played chess against himself in a solitary cell, which allowed him to maintain both sharpness of mind and cheerfulness of spirit.
– You are an experienced businessperson. Have you ever wanted to do business in African markets? Which countries interest you the most? Also, in what specific areas do you see opportunities?
– I want to emphasize once again that I see huge potential in Africa. Many times, I have brought to Africa my friends – business partners who would like to work or are already working in Africa. Directions of activities are very different like processing of resources, as, for example, in Zimbabwe, where there are lithium deposits. I brought RoyalGroup representatives there, who have already started and are successfully developing cooperation. Negotiations on agricultural development were held in Sudan.
I see my personal strategic goal as promoting Africa and attracting businesspeople. Dozens of times I introduced to Africa not only Russian executives. I brought Nathan Rothschild to Libya and other African countries and introduced him to local business leaders. I recommend all businesspersons to pay attention to Africa. Its potential is just huge. From extraction and processing of natural resources to high technologies.
I think there is no need to single out any one country – the whole continent is of great interest, including extraction and processing of natural resources, agriculture and, of course, tourism. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage site, Victoria Falls is one of the main attractions of South Africa. This is a unique place! Incidentally, I have already taken the initiative to hold the World Chess Olympics on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, because there have been no chess Olympics on the African continent yet. My initiative was to hold this first World Olympics in Africa at Victoria Falls. I think the whole world would have assembled there. On the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are a free zone and excellent hotels. There you can safely place several thousand chess players. Of course, the sound of waterfall can distract some chess players, but still it is very beautiful. Water is life, and chess is intelligence. I think I will make this dream come true after all. Maybe it will be the World Chess Olympics, or maybe it will be the Kirsan Chess Olympics. I would call it Kirsan’s Olympics. Now we are creating the International Association of Chess Fans, and we will hold the First World Chess Fans Olympics.
– What do you think about the current situation in the relations between Russia and Africa and how can it be strengthened?
– Now relations between Russia and Africa are developing rapidly thanks to the efforts of President Vladimir Putin. In October 2019, just before the pandemic, the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum took place in Sochi, in which I took part.
The summit brought together more than 40 leaders of African countries and was opened by the president of Russia. In general, officials from 54 African countries came to the summit. During the economic forum, roundtables were held with Russian businesspersons, both from state and private companies. This summit and the subsequent events gave a powerful impetus to business relations among our countries, but the 2020 pandemic disrupted many plans.
The vector, I am sure, which was set at the 2019 summit in Sochi, will be the basis of our future partnership and cooperation. There is a great deal of interest in the African continent in Russia. We have extensive experience in the extraction of natural resources, such as hydrocarbons, oil, gas, coal and bauxite. For example, Rusal worked in Guinea and Alrosa in Algeria. There is both equipment and technology, and most importantly, staff.
It should be noted that many strong ties between Africa and Russia have remained since the days of the Soviet Union. I visited almost all African countries and I met people, who studied in the Soviet Union and know Russian, in each of them.
The Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University was established in the Soviet Union. It is not far from MGIMO. We were friends with this university. Incidentally, it has a chess club, and I have opened chess tournaments several times there. Representatives from almost all African countries studied at this university, and still study. Its graduates have become leaders, presidents and ministers in their countries.
In Zambia, for example, the minister of sports is a graduate of Patrice Lumumba University. The minister of health of Togo graduated from the First Medical Institute in Moscow. I know that special meetings of graduates of Soviet universities are taking place in Africa now. More than a thousand people gather there! These are specialists in various fields, including mechanical engineering, medicine, various humanities disciplines and sports.
In every African country, there are people who studied in the Soviet Union and know the Russian language. For Russian entrepreneurs and for Russian business, Africa is a very favourable continent for investment and the creation of joint ventures, because Russians and Russia are treated very well there.
It should be noted that the African continent has developed greatly now. I remember my first visits in the early 1990s there, and I can say with confidence that the African continent has changed much. Many Africans have already received a European education, and their educational and professional level has grown significantly. I want to warn some European businesspersons. Today, many African entrepreneurs can give a head start to executives from so-called developed countries.
– You have recounted time and again to the media the story of your abduction by extraterrestrials in Moscow in the 1990s. Could you tell us a little about this and what you learned from the experience?
– It happened in September 1997. However, I want to clarify and correct: no one kidnapped me. I was invited. I had the choice to refuse or agree. I agreed. Our communication happened in one of dimensions. We still have three of them available, but scientists are already guessing that there are more than ten dimensions in the universe.
What lessons did I learn? We are still children and we need to develop. They said, “You’re not ready yet for communication – after all, you do not communicate with ants.” We need to raise our universal level. We have not yet reached the stage where we can meet such civilizations. We have not yet grown up in terms of our intellectual and cultural echelon.
An important leap in the development of our civilization has been the recognition that all animals are intelligent beings and have feelings to the same degree as humans. This is officially accepted at the state level in New Zealand. God created all of us at once and with feelings. Who will say that a cat has no feelings and that it does not suffer and does not cry when the owner is not there? All creatures, all creations of God, are with feelings.
Contact with an alien mind is still impossible. We are not yet ready to meet them either intellectually or culturally. Periodically, they show representatives of humanity that they are here. I was shown this. I saw the need to live a real life: to protect our planet, preserve nature and not to destroy other beings. Until we make a qualitative leap in our development and understand that we are not alone on Earth, they are unlikely to issue an official statement.
– What do you think about the future of Africa?
– Africa is not only the ancestral home of human civilization and the birthplace of all humankind. It is also the cradle of our future. Look around. What do we see in the so-called “developed countries?” Artificially imposed excessive consumer standards, moral degradation that breeds mental disorders, and, as a consequence, an increase in violence and hatred. The crisis of society, the crisis of the economy, destroyed nature and poisoned air. There is a decline in Western culture.
I see tremendous prospects in African nations. They are charismatic and passionate. I am sure that the revival will begin from this continent, including the introduction of new principles of existence on Earth without conquest of new territories or subordination of nature, but merging with it. Future Africa seems to me to be a common home for all its peoples, a rich and prosperous continent inhabited by open and highly educated people. And who all also love to play chess, of course.
African Judo Union President: ‘Businesses must support sport. It has the power to change the world.’
MP and AJU President Siteny Thierry Randrianasolo-Niaiko is one of Madagascar’s most dynamic public figures.
Siteny Thierry Randrianasolo-Niaiko is one of Madagascar’s most accomplished public figures. The businessman, politician and sports administrator was elected in May this year as president of the African Judo Union, the highest governing body for the combat sport in Africa.
A successful businessman, Randrianasolo-Niaiko’s interests have spanned telecom distribution and the media. He is the founder of Siteny Distribution – one of the largest wholesale distributors of Airtel products in Madagascar. He is also the founder of TV Plus of Toliara, a Free-To-Air (FTA) television station in the island nation.
As a sports administrator, Randrianasolo-Niaiko has served as president of the Malagasy Olympic Committee, president of the Malagasy Judo Federation and chairman of the African Judo Union.
Finally, as a politician and technocrat, he is a member of parliament in the National Assembly of Madagascar.
Randrianasolo-Niaiko recently spoke with Billionaires.Africa Editor-In-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe about his ambitions for the African Judo Union and his hope to attract more corporate sponsors to its activities. Seeding the historical values of judo into the hearts and minds of African youths, he believes, is a means for ensuring peace and economic and social prosperity on the continent.
— What ignited your interest in judo? What makes the combat sport so exiting and why should more Africans practice judo?
— I joined my first judo club when I was 13 years old. At the time, martial arts were just starting to make their way, and were becoming quite popular in Madagascar. Managing school and training was the first real challenge I felt in life. I learned to organize myself and reconcile between school and judo. My parents’ encouragements were instrumental all throughout my judo career. They considered judo to be an excellent way to instill important values such as a love for one’s family, oneself, and one’s country. My father used to say that judo is much, much more than a sport – it helps to develop self-confidence and respect.
Judo has played a formative role in my professional life and was a core driver of my success in business and politics. The competitive nature of judo is one of the most characteristic features of the sport. The objective of judo is to either throw or take your opponent to the ground. It teaches you about human-to-human interaction, how to engage, brotherhood… I strongly encourage my fellow Africans to practice judo. It is a tool for social development.
The International Judo Federation has contributed significantly to the development of the sport in Africa. It has donated many tatamis and judogi to national judo federations on the continent, as well as provided robust assistance in building dojos in numerous countries.
In geographic zones marked by conflict, judo has also served as an excellent instrument for bringing peace to local communities. I will say that, on a personal level, judo has guided my actions and helped me to overcome day-to-day challenges. It is a tool that not everyone has.
Dr. Jigoro Kano, the much-loved founder of judo, said: “Judo is the way to the most effective use of both physical and spiritual strength; by training you in attacks and defenses it refines your body and your soul and helps you make the spiritual essence of judo a part of your very being. In this way you are able to perfect yourself and contribute something of value to the world. This is final goal of judo discipline.”
If we could ensure that the values and discipline of judo were instilled in everyone in the world, it would be a more peaceful, prosperous and stabler place. Alas, this is, of course, not possible to achieve in reality. However, this does not stop us from doing the best we can.
The African Judo Union and the International Judo Federation are working hard to bring the best messages of judo to the African continent and the greater international community.
— Who is the “typical” judo practitioner in Africa?
— Today, judo is developing rapidly all over the world. This revered sport is gaining more media coverage and social media traction with every passing year. To me, this is really astounding, especially when we consider its long history. Judo is well over 100 years old.
The International Judo Federation is investing much effort into helping judo reach the largest number of youths possible worldwide to get them interested in practicing the sport.
Judo is also becoming more popular in Africa. If you look at the statistics, you will find that there is no such thing as a “typical” practitioner in Africa. Our judokas are of all ages and social categories. Today, more and more parents are encouraging their kids to take up judo.
This is because they see how the sport positively impacts their children. I am not speaking about the very clear physical benefits of judo, but rather how its values shape their minds.
— You have been involved with judo globally and within Africa for years, having served as the vice president of the International Judo Federation and president of the Malagasy Judo Federation. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the sport in Africa today, and what ideas do you propose for developing judo on the continent?
— My positions as the International Judo Federation as vice president and chairman of the Malagasy Judo Federation have helped me to have a broader vision for judo’s development.
It has also consolidated my approach for new strategies to promote judo throughout Africa.
One of our newest and most interesting initiatives is a joint program titled, “Judo at School.” We are working to teach judo’s core values at schools in Africa: friendship, honor, respect, modesty, courage, self-control and sincerity. We are convinced that children who practiced judo at one time or another will have an advantage for the rest of their lives. We are also finalizing a strategic development plan for the continent’s top judokas. We hope to qualify a larger number of athletes for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games in Paris and Los Angeles.
This is no easy task. But we are determined to reach our final goal. I am confident we will.
Judo in Africa would also benefit from more engagement from companies operating on the continent. Businesses must support sport. It has the power to change the world. Although judo is relatively new to the continent, more African companies are reaching out to us to cooperate. It is my sincere hope that, as more international companies enter Africa from countries that boast a longstanding historical relationship with judo – such as Japan, Korea, Russia, Brazil, Germany and France, and numerous others – we will see more, and better, opportunities to collaborate closely with the foreign business community as well. We can all work together, hand-in-hand, to foster values in Africa’s youth that will secure for them the best possible future. The way to do this is to get them into sports while they are still young.
— You are now five months into the job as president. What have you achieved so far? And what are your short-, medium- and long-term plans for the union and for combat sports in Africa?
— After my election in May, I have been working hard with my team to develop a strategic plan for the next Olympic quadrennial. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that we not only meet but surpass the expectations of our national federations and partners.
The greatest challenge for us today is to keep up the momentum – to propel the African Judo Union forward so we remain at forefront of African and international sports.
Today, judo is undergoing profound changes. We need to launch new innovative projects that will help us consolidate our sport’s influence and attract the media and sponsors.
To do this, the African Judo Union will start to digitize its programs and processes. We are making plans to do this right now. The International Judo Federation offers us a well of knowledge and experience. We will build off this knowledge and experience while taking into account our own realities and peculiarities. Each geography is different in its own right.
Because we are part of the International Judo Federation, it is important for our continental events to adhere to its highest standards. We are working diligently in this regard. To further improve in this area, we plan to set up training and retraining programs for those coaches, who prepare our best athletes on the continent. We also plan to invite high-level experts to support our judokas, referees and coaches. We also want to consolidate the concept of judo at African schools in partnership with African governments and our national federations.
— Could you tell us a bit about your political background – you presently serve as an MP in Madagascar – and future goals? What role has judo played in your life in your development as a human being, a politician and a leader?
— Judo strengthened me mentally and physically and really contributed to my development as both a leader and a human being. It gave me self-confidence and for this I am grateful.
But judo needs broad political support to reach the level of global development that it really deserves. I have said this already and I will say it again. Returning to the innermost values of judo, I believe that the world would be a much better place if everyone practiced or, at least studied, the sport. My position as a member of parliament has helped me promote judo in Madagascar. I have developed strong relations with mayors nationwide and with the media. Thanks to their kind support, judo has made progress in Madagascar and come a long way.
I often quote one of Africa’s greatest political leaders, Nelson Mandela, who said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” Our goal is to inspire more African youths to practice judo, while imbuing them with its values. We are fighting as a union to root deep within the continent the sociological tenets of the sport.
— On the major challenges facing the development of sport in Africa is a lack of sponsorship funding. What can be done to help deal with this issue?
— Funding is extremely important for the Olympic sport movement. Here at the African Judo Union, we are well aware that we need to develop a new marketing strategy to help us sell our continental events. We are studying the International Judo Federation’s experience to find new ways of attracting sponsors to support competitions and activities. I think that it is important to increase the awareness of our organization and our events. I have appointed two strong individuals – who are themselves longtime associates and business partners – as special advisors to my office to help promote the union’s global reputation and exposure.
They have significant international networks and a belief in what we are trying to achieve.
I think that this is a positive step forward for the African Judo Union. Previously, we invested most of our efforts into developing our training and professional capacity, while we placed less of an emphasis on strategic marketing and developing corporate relationships.
We are going to try an added approach to see how this affects the union’s future growth.
— Interesting. Who are they and what are their backgrounds?
The first is Anton Pisaroglu. He is a Romanian political operator, who served as senior counsel for international affairs to the former prime minister of Romania and advised former President of Guinea Alpha Conde during the 2019 referendum. He has managed and contributed to presidential campaigns in Romania on both sides of the aisle. Anton advises political actors independently and together with his partner, Marshall Comins. Previously, he was a distinguished member of the Romanian National Rugby Team and, last year, he was elected as vice president of the Romanian Rugby Federation, where he is helping to bolster media exposure and international relations. Anton brings extensive networks on both a business and a governmental level, which will help us solidify relationships throughout the European Union, the Middle East and beyond.
The second is Marshall Comins. He is a strategist and international affairs consultant who served as a senior advisor to one of the world’s best-known election campaign managers, where he led special projects and digital. He has a deep focus on Eurasia, and has advised political actors, state- and privately-owned companies and high net-worth individuals across that region. His roles have included senior advisory positions with politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Forbes-listed African and Eurasian businessmen, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Russia and Eurasian corporations. He also ran a wildly popular campaign to turn an ageing American former UFC legend into a superstar in Russia, crafting for him a trajectory that resulted in him receiving Russian citizenship and being elected to political office. Marshall’s relationships internationally and in Eurasia will help us strengthen ties, particularly from a corporate and government sponsorship standpoint.
So, they are a robust addition to our team, and I believe they will add real value to our work.
We remain deeply persuaded that the union is on the right track.
Randrianasolo-Niaiko’s Newly Appointed Special Advisors
– Romanian political consultant Anton Pisaroglu.
– Strategist and international affairs consultant Marshall Comins.
Meet Hamis Kiggundu, the 37-year-old entrepreneur who built a property empire in Uganda
Kiggundu is one of East Africa’s most revered young entrepreneurs and a real estate mogul of note.
At just 37, Hamis Kiggundu is one of East Africa’s most revered young entrepreneurs and real estate moguls. Through his company, Ham Group, he owns a property portfolio in the heart of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, that includes landmark shopping centers, office buildings and hotels.
He is currently building Ham Palm Villas – a private gated community that will accommodate 500 luxury homes in a swanky location in the city. He is also constructing a replica of the White House in Kampala, which upon completion will serve as the headquarters for some of the newer businesses he is developing – an agro-processing company and a string of Web and mobile tech startups. But perhaps his most important project at the moment is the reconstruction of the Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium. In 2017, the Ugandan government entered into a joint venture with Ham Group to effect major renovations at the stadium, involving an improvement to grounds, increasing seating from 30,000 to 35,000 and constructing retail shops inside the outside walls of the facility. The project, costing millions of dollars, is funded by Kiggundu’s company.
Kiggundu was born into privilege – and he admits that much.
Two decades ago, his father provided him with capital to start a trading business. But it is to Ham’s credit that he parlayed that small financial gift from his father into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that directly and indirectly employs more than 5,000 people in the country today.
Hamis Kiggundu recently spoke to Billionaires.Africa’s Editor-In-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe about his journey and his plans.
— Can you tell us about your upbringing in Uganda and how your early years shaped your outlook on business?
— I was born to Mr. Segawa Haruna and Mrs. Nakayiza Jalia on Feb. 10, 1984, and was raised in the small village of Kalungu, Uganda, which is in East Africa. Kalungu village is part of Masaka, which used to be a bigger town, but it’s now a city.
I went to primary school in Masaka and, as a child, I would help my father who was a textile trader in his shop during our school holidays. During the period I was to attend high school, my family relocated to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and from there, I went to Kabojja Secondary School. Later, I attended Makerere University and graduated with a bachelor of laws. By profession, I am a lawyer, but today I’m more of a businessman than a lawyer.
It was during my middle-school holidays in 2005 that my parents gave me some capital to start a business. This gave me the opportunity to test the entrepreneurial waters. I started small, buying garments, furniture, ladies’ bags and other commodities from large importing wholesalers and selling them locally at a profit. As my margins grew, I began to source directly from international markets and became a firsthand importer myself. I imported clothes and commodities from China, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and distributed them wholesale both in Uganda and in neighboring countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Congo and Sudan.
As I accumulated more capital, I upgraded to real estate, mainly buying and selling land and properties at a profit before I incorporated Ham Enterprises (U) Ltd. and progressed to constructing and owning my commercial properties. Yes, I did follow in my father’s footsteps because he is equally a businessman.
— So you started your business journey by trading garments, furniture and ladies‘ bags. Why did you choose to trade in those specific items at the time?
— I chose those specific items because it was those commodities that my parents were dealing in then. Like I said, I started small with reasonable startup capital from my parents – reasonable in the sense that it was not too much for me to simply spend it on my personal needs then as a young man, nor was it too small for me not to start. As my trading business thrived, I opted to venture into a more sophisticated business and real estate was a natural fit for me.
— What was it like building your first commercial property in Kampala, Ham Towers?
— It was exciting. I had some challenges like any other entrepreneur, but as a personal principle, I choose not to reflect on the past challenges. I prefer to focus on the present and the future because challenges and mistakes are only a stepping stone forward as they give me the ability never to make the same mistakes again. So, Ham Towers was the first building in our portfolio and our flagship property. Located just opposite Makerere University, it is an A-class shopping, accommodation and leisure center with offices, restaurants, supermarkets and a serviced apartment.
After Ham Towers, I had mastered the game of commercial real estate. Looking at the mistakes I had made in my first project, I was able to move a bit faster because I knew what to expect when it came to the space of commercial real estate. In 1.5 years, I made progress and managed to erect my next property — Ham Shopping Mall. I had secured the space where I was going to put the property and my garments business was still thriving while additional rental income was coming in from Ham Towers. Because of these, I was able to easily secure financing with the banks because I had reasonable collateral.
— What has your experience been like in regards to raising money from banks and other financial institutions?
— With banks and financiers, it is not about trust or emotions, it is about making business sense. Banks are equally driven by a profit motive just like private companies. If you think your bankers are your friends, then you’re mistaken; those are your business partners. That is why they foreclose immediately as soon as you make a default on your payments. In my opinion, banks are a good source of start-up and expansion capital but never for long-term sustainable progress.
In my view, one can only reasonably benefit from banks if they hold relatively equal or reasonable bargaining positions to negotiate fair interest rates and fair trading terms. However, in Uganda and most African countries, interest rates stand at as high as 25-30 percent. There are very narrow chances of small businesses succeeding and enjoying long-term sustainability with these kinds of rates. With time, I have mastered the art of growing my operational capital internally thus outgrowing the need for exploitative financing from banks for now.
— You are building some ambitious real estate projects like the Ham Palms Villas, where you are building 500 gated luxury homes set on 200 acres; the stadium which you are practically rebuilding, and other projects like the replica of the White House. How are these projects coming along?
— The 500 modern homes under Ham Palm Villas are a means for capital accumulation. The investment we’re making there is gradual and at a controlled pace, yet in the long run, we envisage huge returns on the investment. I can easily sell them gradually once I need financing. The project is like a bank; it secures capital for future investment while providing service to my community or society at the same time.
The White House will house the headquarters for all my companies but will also serve as a tourist attraction. It will equally stand as an illustration of possibilities for my fellow Ugandans and Africans at large. If the Americans have something so grand over there, we too can have it here. Africans should not chase their dreams out there, but rather put in an effort and struggle to implement their desires in Africa. I have always admired the white house as a young man and based on reason, why go to America as a tourist to visit the white house when I hold the means to build a lookalike here at home.
I embarked on the reconstruction of the stadium as corporate social responsibility for community development and equally as an example to other Ugandans and Africans that if I can pull off such a huge project with private funding, so can they. The only way to pull Africa out of poverty to prosperity is for us Africans to accept it as our responsibility and obligation. The stadium project equally makes business sense because it is surrounded by a number of commercial premises such as shops and restaurants which will bring income for us.
— Ham Enterprises also has a property portfolio in the United States and UK. What are some of the flagship properties you own there, and what prompted you to look to the west for your company’s growth?
— I own a commercial property in the UK situated at 375 Moston Ln, Manchester M40 9NB, trading as Ham International UK Ltd. I also own a logistics company trading as Ham International Express Logistics LLC based in Euless, Texas, with a number of trucks throughout the United States. I equally own Hamz Link Ltd, a multimedia platform company based in Edmonton Canada. I invested in the West because business is all about taking risks with courage and determination to move into unfamiliar new economic zones all on a balance of probabilities.
— In your 2018 book, “Success and Failure Based on Reason and Reality,” you argue that Uganda’s educational system is outdated and does not necessarily equip students with the practical tools needed to succeed in life. In your opinion, how can African governments redesign the education system to combat financial illiteracy and prepare students for successful wealth-building, accumulation and stewardship?
— Uganda and other African nations should redesign their educational systems in line with their society’s prevailing realistic circumstances to reflect the challenges of their people, so that graduates have the capacity to forge corresponding solutions to the actual problems in such societies based on reason and reality.
— Your company, Ham Group, is also venturing into large-scale agriculture with the construction of a multimillion-dollar agro-processing facility. Tell us about that business.
— Uganda is an agro-based economy with a very good climate, fertile soils and a young energetic population that survives on imported goods that are always processed from our own agro-produce that we export as raw materials at very low cost compared to the processed imports that we usually buy expensively.
This prompted me to opt for import substitution through setting up agro-processing and value-addition plants as the only way to correct the revenue imbalance given the fact that it is the only realistic way forward towards actual prosperity for our young nation, while at the same time giving Ugandans a chance to become productive and direct participants.
I, therefore, invested in research, and divided Uganda into 10 agro-zones depending on the different agro-products coming from all different parts of Uganda.
I came up with a plan to set up Integrated Agro-Processing Industrial Parks (IAIPs) in each of the 10 agro-zones, with a projected cost of $156 million per industrial park, totaling $1.56 billion for all the 10 IAIPs. However, this kind of funding is currently not available in Uganda.
I, therefore, decided to start with a pilot project of one integrated agro-processing plant in the central region with God’s blessing as a constant factor hoping that the government and other Ugandans will join me along the way for full implementation to cover all the 10 zones in Uganda.
— You recently donated money to the Ugandan government to purchase 150,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to combat COVID-19 in Uganda. What motivates your philanthropy, and what are some of the other charitable projects dearest to your heart?
— Money is only one of the tools of survival. It stands useless if it can’t save people’s lives. After all, no man is an island. I always help where and wherever I can since my individual personal survival is only limited to a very narrow scope of basic needs. I own and fully finance a charity organization operating as Ham Foundation.
Once one is blessed with success it’s only reasonable that they start their struggle towards collective society development rather than individual-centered prosperity because success amidst a poor society only stands as a liability rather than an asset. A poor society can only pull one downwards, never upwards. So, it is best you pull everyone you can for collective welfare based on reality.
— Your group employs more than 7,000 people all in. What are some of your top people management tips for first-time managers?
— Managers must have emotional intelligence and stamina. They must be malleable. Malleable leaders are those who can adapt their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to the changing environment in which they operate. You must be able to adapt to change. This matches with my philosophy of applying reason in any prevailing circumstances.
— Any words for young entrepreneurs who desire to achieve the level of success that you have?
— I advise them to take social responsibility, connect their vision to their personal values. They must have the ability to anticipate change and most importantly they must be courageous enough to abandon their past. In fact, I highly encourage them to find time and read my books, “Success and Failure based on Reason and Reality,” and, “Reason as the World Masterpiece,” with an open mind.
All developments, past, present, and future, discoveries to come, were, are and will always be a direct reflection of the reasoning capacity of the people of such a given time frame.
South African mining magnate Quinton van der Burgh speaks on life, business and the future of fiat money
Van der Burgh is a serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and one of the wealthiest people in South Africa.
Quinton van der Burgh is a South African mining magnate and one of the wealthiest people in the country. He is a serial entrepreneur whose business is largely focused on the energy sector.
Van der Burgh is the founder of Quinton van der Burgh Investments (Pty) Limited, a diversified business conglomerate. Through its subsidiaries, he manages investments in the mining, property and media industries.
The South African is reputed to have made his first $1 million before turning 21. However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the tycoon, who lost everything at the age of 26 in London, only to then pick up the pieces and build it all again from scratch.
With a large heart for generosity, the 44-year-old is passionate about changing the lives of South African youth and wants to help South Africans who are living in poverty to become financially free.
In a recent chat with Billionaires.Africa, van der Burgh recounted his business successes and challenges, passion for philanthropy and views about the future of a global digitized financial economy.
— In South Africa, the name “Quinton van der Burgh” is synonymous with a goal-getter, a philanthropist, and a man with a diversified business portfolio. Who is Quinton van der Burgh? Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what informs your life decisions? Were you born wealthy? Or did you start from scratch?
— I think it’s more about how I was raised, being Christian, and being taught by my mother at a very young age to give back and make sure that people around me are more important than what I think my life is, otherwise. So, I always put other people first over myself, and I think those relationships, over time, talked for themselves. I have a lot of trusted relationships. My handshake means everything. Honor means everything.
Although it’s challenging in today’s times, because everything is a contract, and most people don’t abide by their contracts. Which is a very competitive version of how I was brought up. But I still believe in a handshake and this has benefited me. People who have done business with me understand that if there’s a mistake, I make sure that it is made up. Even if it takes time to make it up, I’ll stick to my word and stick to the fact that if I owe you 10 Rand and I can’t pay today, I’ll tell you how I’m going to pay you that 10 Rand.
In business, it’s not all smooth sailing. Every single billionaire will tell you the same story. They’ve gone through many trials and tribulations and many ups and downs. And I think that character is what pulls you through and why people would want to deal with you again. Especially if you have had a default or problem in your life, to know that if it ever happens again, you’re good for your word, and you’re good for making it happen again. So it’s not always a glorified story.
Obviously, many things have happened in my career from 21, as you said, making much money in London. I had a lot of businesses and much success. But through that, at 26 years old, I had a massive issue that hit me from a global auditing perspective. My accounts were frozen. Then, I had the goal of making it bigger and better and ensuring I never got back to that point again. I didn’t come from a family of money or trust funds. I had to make all that money in London by myself. I had to stand on my own two feet every time I hit a roadblock or a problem in my career, which has happened three times.
So yes, it’s a character thing, and I think that’s what I believe in, which makes me who I am. I’m a firm believer in people and in the upliftment of people. However, people have faulted me for that because they’ve said: “people are taking you for a ride” or “people are using you” or x, y, z.
But, that’s not on me, you know. If you look at the Christian way, that’s on them. I’m not going to be judged for that. They’re going to be judged for that one day.
So, I’m going to stick to what I do and what I’m good at doing. To just always be a good person. I think that’s what makes the difference between a lot of wealthy and successful business people today. I look at their shortcomings, and a lot of them are based on being self-centered. They want to hoard money for themselves and to make that success for themselves.
And you will always hear me in my statements. I never refer to “I.” I always refer to “we.” If you always see anything I’ve done online, any interviews, otherwise, the success is not owed to me. The success is owed to the people who have stuck by my side, the companies I have run entrepreneurial roles with and the people who I have groomed and developed over time to be the success they are. And I think that’s where my success has stemmed. I have a great team behind me.
— What are the core values that have shaped your business life?
— Trust. People can look at me and see that I’m open and I’m trusting. I could walk into any room, and any boardroom, and that energy that I project is that of trust and that of getting the deal done. And I think people look for that perseverance and persistence. They look for that energy. That’s what rubs off and people can pick it up. Whether you are not an energy person, I am. So I can tell very quickly whether I can do something with you. I can see whether you’re a go-getter. I can see whether you have the same level of thinking and aspirations.
An entrepreneur loves, eats, sleeps and drinks business. I think that’s what my character is built upon. It’s pure energy. I’m a trusting person and when it gets to a deal, I can see through the bullshit.
If you come in here with a story, speak openly and honestly about what you know. That itself goes a million miles while we have another conversation.
— You would agree that the year 2020 was unprecedented and disruptive for the global market. Most business people and investors were forced to recreate boxes as the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic made people scramble for ways to live with the new normal. How was the Quinton van der Burgh brand able to stay afloat at the pandemic’s peak in 2020, especially in South Africa, which happens to be the hardest hit on the continent?
— Okay, so it affected everyone, I think, in more than one way. But my business is explicitly energy-related, which is a necessity and essential service. So, we struggled in the first two, three weeks. I think that market prices had depth, specifically with what we do from exports. And I think that everyone felt it. The times were hard, but I pushed myself harder because I saw the default in not doing so. In other words, what I’ve gone through as career breaks and seen in the downtimes, I saw that in COVID-19 and it worried everybody because we didn’t know how long it was going to last.
You know, when everyone said “shut down,” businesses shut down, mine shut down. I was kind of thinking, “Oh, shit, here it comes again.” Just when you think you’re ahead, you know, slam dunk! And everybody’s back to zero again.
It made me realize that everybody was starting from the starting block again. It gave everybody an equal opportunity to prove themselves, because many big corporations saw bad times, too. And they had to pick up the pieces themselves. They were also going to concentrate on just keeping their doors open, as many opportunities would be available to the open market again and to many young entrepreneurs, more diverse people, and people seeing the breaks within logical operational faults.
So for me, I picked up a lot of good things during COVID-19. In the same sense, I saw more business opportunities. I hustled twice as hard. I made sure that on the mining front, I developed things from COVID-19 when it first started in March. I began developing mines when everybody was running away from it. So now, what’s happening in our market today? I’m seeing the benefit of that because I’ve developed to see the good times again during the bad times. And now that everyone is trying to get back into it, it is a bit too late, you know. The year 2020 was good for me for many reasons, like rebuilding myself mentally, physically, and otherwise.
— Quinton Global Commodities (QGC) is a significant player in South Africa’s mining industry and a key coal supplier to Eskom, the national grid. What has revenue turnover been for QGC since Eskom began experiencing severe power cuts between 2019 and now? Has it been a struggle?
— We did much good business from COVID-19 to now. Eskom has always been a struggle for us, you know. We deal through a lot of indirect contracts — people who short-supply and otherwise. But our biggest strong point is making sure that every day we persist with new transactions. Sales and marketing are our forte to ensure we get multiple angles to moving coal specifically and other minerals we trade in. I myself will never take a day as a mistake or as a misread market sort of delay on what we’re trying to achieve. So yes, I’ve just built.
In the last year, I think we’ve doubled our capacity. We’ve pushed harder. We’ve gone into multiple angles to distribute our product, even though the market is down, even though Eskom is not taking any product.
— In 2015, you launched Generosity Water in South Africa to provide clean drinking water to millions of people throughout Africa. In conjunction with the Quinton van der Burgh Foundation, you have donated a portion of the proceeds to building boreholes throughout the country. Also, between 2018 and now, you succeeded in helping more than 200,000 people gain access to clean drinking water. Is this gesture only for South Africans? Are there other African countries already benefiting from this initiative, or are plans underway for that to happen?
— About 12 years ago, Generosity Water was formed in the States. It was a foundation. I sort of progressed to taking that model into Africa, South Africa. It’s been in Haiti, India, worldwide. But more so in South Africa. We’ve concentrated heavily on schools. To uplift schools because sanitation and water are not there in our schools, and government assistance hasn’t been there either. So I took it upon myself.
I’m self-funded as a foundation. I do not look or seek money from anybody because I’m highly passionate about it. I’m extremely passionate about change. I see the flaws in the government, and I see the flaws in what has not been provided to the people. And for me, as a South African being brought up the way I am, I just want to make as much impact as I can before I depart from this world and hopefully leave a legacy that I can extend. If I die, I hope that my foundation will continue for the next 25 years doing good work, and that’s what I have put in place to fund to make sure that it continues. We are helping families come out of financial debts by giving them financial advice and helping them pay their debts off. We are also helping schools and orphanages.
Pretty much half of my life goes towards thinking about how to change other people’s lives. And the most important thing for me is when people get to a similar level of business, check to know if it is about greed. What are you doing with that money, and what impact can you make for your society around you? That is what counts. It’s not about the cars or clients or houses that you own. It’s really about what you’re doing to impact your country’s society positively.
There’s a lot of good people around the world doing that, you know. I think many people are passionate about it.
— You recently launched a coffee table book, “100 Making a Difference,” where you spotlighted over a hundred globally renowned celebrities, including Serena Williams, Dwain Johnson, Usher, Oprah Winfrey and many others, who are actively contributing to charitable causes on the international stage. What inspired that book and what is the long-term goal you hope to achieve with it?
— The book is, actually, a brainchild of a guy called John Russo, a world-renowned photographer who only shoots A-list celebrities. I’ve known John for some time. He came to me when the book was still in concept, basically conceptualizing what he would do with that and I wanted to partner with him. I want to be remembered for having South Africa or Africa as a reach for the foundation and having a global reach, and leaving a legacy for global impact.
And so, we got into this seven years later. Russo shot every single person in that book firsthand. You know, we’ve got 143 foundations, with probably 70, or 80 of the biggest names in the world, A-listers. Firstly it’s a coffee table book, something you can put out there and be proud of. But it’s 100-percent foundation driven. So, in other words, every single cent from purchases of this book goes towards those 143 foundations’ support. We’re doing this work to bring attention to global foundation or philanthropy work, like Ronaldo, for instance. Everyone’s got their foundation. Everyone’s passionate about it. But how many people knew that half these people ran these foundations? So we are bringing a voice to it, one that brings credibility. And I think the social reach of the people in the book is 1.6 billion. So I think that pretty much the entire social media platform is in that book if we can get that reach.
The more people who buy that book, the more money is going towards good causes that will be spread amongst these 143 foundations. And for me, I’m very proud to have put my time, money and effort into making sure that that was a global success.
We’ve done a soft launch. We’re waiting for the hard copies to be released in the next coming weeks. Once that is, and even COVID-19 lifts, we’ll be doing some pretty large launches around the world next year. And we’ll be getting involved with a lot of these celebrities firsthand to make sure that they bring the voice, as well, to the book and to the foundations.
— We found you to be interested in the progress and self-advancement of young South Africans. You believe youth is the future and you do what you can to support them. Recently, your company offered a Johannesburg home to Bright Hlongwane, an ambitious young entrepreneur. He was looking to relocate to Johannesburg. We find that quite inspiring. To what length do you want to go for the South African youth?
— The old generation or the generation from my era or after still has a systemic issue that will not go away anytime soon. And I think the only way you’re going to rebuild this country is for us to be united. And that messaging will come from the youth, who are the future leaders of this country.
So, as a white South African, I want to positively bring that messaging to say we all want to work together or need to work together. We need to quickly forget about fighting and going on past aspects for which none of us are to be blamed today.
Unfortunately, in Africa, especially South Africa, unemployment is not going to be an easy fix because the unemployment rate in South Africa ranks as the highest in the world. Something we’re not going to just get away from.
And people need to understand that and then each understands its economics before they can start judging it and questioning it and start blaming somebody for it. And obviously, who is the natural person to blame is the Old South Africans that ran the country. So you know, I’m really trying to develop and bring that positive energy back into the youth. And obviously, people that take this country, and hopefully change what is systematically wrong right now. Something that I cannot fix. Something that no one can fix right now.
I think it’s going to take 10, 20, 30 years for that to change progressively. And when it does, hopefully, the people would be helping with the messaging that is positive and upliftment of youngsters and young people in this country. To promote education on a world platform, not just a South African or African platform, young people could scale themselves in competing in international markets. I think I’m very passionate about that. So that’s why I’m focusing heavily on schools, education, and financial distress because that’s the three areas that I believe need help right now. And yes, that’s all I can try and do. I’m one person. I’ve got a support channel with my company behind me. Still, I’m saying that to one person that I’m trying to do what I can in my space, you know, and try and bring that messaging to other people to do the same thing, hopefully.
— In the global market, not everyone has entirely accepted cryptocurrency, given its volatility. Are there statistics that show that your crypto brand, AXIA Coin, has had a steady sail since its inception and what major headwinds have you been able to surmount?
— So, we launched about two months ago. I’d say it’s more of a soft launch in my opinion. AXIA is not a cryptocurrency alone. It’s a currency that is competing against the dollar and other world currencies. More so, hyper deflationary, which means there will be a finite supply, which means it’s always going to increase in value.
So we burned the actual access coins and anything that will be used as interest or charges and otherwise. People can bank you in AXIA. You can utilize this money anywhere in the world. It’s not crypto that is hard to trade or hard to transact like Bitcoin. You know, Bitcoin is a store of value alone. In my opinion, it is very difficult to use.
In my opinion, we are building out a massive platform. It is multi-tiered. It’s an entire ecosystem that we are building, like a normal world economy like you see today in Africa and globally, and we’re doing it from the ground.
So it’s going to be an interesting journey to follow. It is truly unique in its design, enabling users to make money over a period of time. It is truly rewarding to the individual because of its no charges from tier to tier. So if I transfer to you, there are no charges. It’s extremely safe to transact. You get a bank card. You can spend it anywhere in the world, dollar, pound, euro. In Nigeria, wherever you are, you can spend your money.
It is designed like an institutional bank today, but within its back is a decentralized cryptocurrency with all its value curves. You have the browser, monetary rewards, and you have a dozen things that AXIA does that no one else does. So combine what you know of the natural world today. We’ve got everything you can imagine from a financial point of view, plus rewards, applications, our emailing system and our integration.
— How does a layman get to use the AXIA Coin? Do people have to download an app or contact an agent to connect them?
— So basically, it’s a straightforward process. You visit axiacoin.org or go to AXIA capital bank to open up a bank account and do your certification, which is a straightforward process. From there, you transfer your money from your existing bank account to AXIA, and you can utilize it any way you please.
It’s easy to subscribe, and you get your bank card given to you wherever you are in the world. We will send you a bank card, and you can spend your money freely as you wish. You also get 12-percent interest rates in our bank, which is not heard of anywhere else. It’s an offshore jurisdiction, which is helpful to people that are trying to put some money away for a rainy day or otherwise. And it’s fascinating about how many values you earn just by banking, with the bank, and how many different applications you can use to advance your life daily.
It’s not a quick fix. It’s going to be a slow “progresser,” but one that you want to get in early because you will look back at it a couple of years later. It is going to be one of those things going up in value because we’re asset-backed.
At the moment, we’re sitting with a $30-billion asset backing launch. This means our currency holds weight, holds value, and holds an actual concentric value that people can say, “Oh, okay, it’s not just imaginary money.” It’s something that you can hold on to.
The more businesses we acquire, the more applications that grow, the more people who join the ecosystem and spend on their credit cards, all that money gets earned for the individual.
So yes, it’s hard for the layman to understand that because they’re looking like, “I don’t understand digital. I don’t understand what crypto is. I don’t understand what to do with it.” You don’t have to. Just put your money in a bank, spend it how you want and get a little reward on the back of it. Simple!
The layman’s simple explanation is that I can put my money into cold storage, it’s safe, and it’s protected. I then get a bank card, switch on my computer, see my bank balance. If it’s $1,000, or $5,000, or $50,000, it doesn’t matter. And I’m able to spend it wherever I like as long as I’ve got a tap and go, where I’ve got a transactional Visa card station that I can use it on. It’s easy to use.
So that’s the point. Everybody wants to access, see and touch. And I want to be able to do what I want with it right at any given time.
Cryptos, in general, are just challenging to transact because you got to go to wallets. You got to go through specific elements of trying to trade it. But with AXIA, it is very different. It’s like a regular bank.
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