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Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: The charismatic Buddhist tycoon speaks on Africa

The Russian businessman, politician and chess chief says Africa is the “future of human civilization.”

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Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian businessman, politician and former head of FIDE. ©Billionaires.Africa

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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov plays chess with children in 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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov playing chess with children in Africa.

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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov with Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.

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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov visiting Victoria Falls.

– 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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov pictured with fellow Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev (far left), who is commonly referred to in the media as “God’s Oligarch,” and an African dignitary on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019. Malofeev leads the International Sovereign Development Agency, which signed agreements to act as a consultant to the governments of Niger, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to attract $2.5 billion in funding via sovereign debt.

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.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov shaking hands with a monument to Nelson Mandela.

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.

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Ethiopian tycoon Negusse Hailu recounts his experiences with EABSC

Hailu said he was fortunate to have influential people in his life who shaped his outlook on life and business.

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Ethiopian businessman Negusse Hailu.

Negusse Hailu, a prominent Ethiopian businessman, was one of several Ethiopian partners who purchased the state-owned East Africa Bottling Share Company (EABSC) from the former Ethiopian Privatization Agency in 1995.

Abinet Gebremesqel, Munir Duri, Dereje Yesuworq, Shadia Nadim and Hussein Abedella were among the other prominent Ethiopian businessmen involved in the acquisition.

The five partners joined forces with the South African Bottling Company (SABCO) to purchase the business and then formed a private limited company, which was later transformed into a joint venture in 1999 under the name EABSC.

In a recent interview with Billionaires.Africa, the Ethiopian businessman sought to clarify a report published on April 3, 2021, has addressed concerns about his shares in EABSC as he recounts his journey as a successful businessman who built a fortune in Ethiopia from the ground up through hard work and determination to create shared wealth in the country.

— Walk me through your childhood and some of your major life events. What was it like for you to grow up; where did you go to school, and what are some of your earliest memories of your first entrepreneurial ventures?

I was born in Ethiopia in 1969 to a father educated at the American University in Beirut, who after graduation in 1953 had the opportunity during Emperor Haile Selassie to become the foreign exchange director, replacing then a British citizen, and a mother who graduated from commerce school but chose to be a housewife to raise my sister, cousins, and me.              

In Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, I attended Lycee Guebre-Mariam, a French international school. The school provided me with not only a great education, but also the opportunity to form long-lasting friendships with people from 48 different countries who now live all over the world.

My father, who has instilled in me the values of discipline, morality, and humility, was forced to flee Ethiopia during the Derg regime (Socialist-era Ethiopia).

In his absence, my godfather Antonio Varenna (an Italian national and businessman) and my uncle Abiselom Yehdego assumed the roles of father figures in my life, raising me to be a good citizen. Antonio Varenna was one of the first investors to come to the Derg era to invest in textiles, after being invited by two of my uncles.

Since the age of 10, each summer break has been spent as follows: working for two months, taking a 15-day vacation wherever I want with my family, and then preparing for the upcoming school year. My first summer job was in a family garage, where I worked for two summers in a row. Following that, I worked at a printing press and a bakery owned by my family, and my final summer job was at an Ethiopian government-owned shoe factory with an export managed by Antonio Varenna. Under Antonio’s supervision, I was able to obtain all of the certificates required for agriculture and textile from Europe shortly after graduating from Lycée.

Joining Antonio, the pioneer, to export Ethiopian garment products gave me the opportunity to be the first Ethiopian to export to the Italian market fruits and vegetables such as beans, strawberries, asparagus, and sweet melon with the help of my Italian family Case Anselmo. As a result, my entire childhood revolved around the family business. The farm was my idea, with the encouragement of Antonio Varenna’s Case Anselmo family, even though Antonio helped me until the end of his life.

— During a privatization exercise in 1995, you took control of EABSC from the government. What prompted your entry into the beverage industry, and what series of events led to your acquisition of the company? Tell us about the company’s history and how it got to where it is today.

The government announced the privatization of the Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Ambo factories in 1995. Munir Duri had the vision to participate in this venture. He had gathered all of the necessary paperwork, while I had gathered the financial information. Bereket and Kassim raised their own funds as well. Furthermore, Bereket, who has corporate experience, assisted Munir, while Alula continued to work on the day-to-day operations of our other businesses. Inchcape was our sole competitor in this new venture. We both failed on the first try because our offer fell short of the government’s expectations. We met the government’s expectations on the second try and were awarded the Addis bottling company. Our goal was to expand to Eritrea, Somalia, and other African countries, so we chose the name East Africa Bottling Pvt Ltd.

Kassim Houssein, Munir Duri, Bereket Haregot, Alula Araya, and I founded East Africa Bottling Pvt Ltd in 1995. A negotiation with the SABCO began in early 1996 and was completed in 1999 in an effort to expand the company. As a result, the name of the company was changed to EABSC. Personally, I believe that selecting SABCO as a partner was the best thing we could have done for the EABSC.

SABCO is a family-owned company that was already in the Coca-Cola business and worked from dawn to dusk. We only sold 5 million crates when we first started in 1995, with more difficulty during rainy seasons. Today, thanks to their expertise and capital injection, we have reached 100 million crates with no stock.

— Can you provide more background on the company’s operations and some of its major achievements to date, as the chairman of EABSC?

EABSC is a company that grows at a rate of more than 25 percent per year, the firm is a platinum taxpayer, and is well managed in the business world. The CEO is the company’s executive, while the chairman is in a non-executive position.

— How have EABSC’s operations evolved over time, and what has contributed to EABSC’s extraordinary success in Ethiopia: how big is it in terms of revenue, profit, and job opportunities?

For the last 10 years, EABSC has grown at a rate of 25 percent per year. After 2006, the beverage industry as a whole expanded. Coca-Cola has not only grown as a result of experience, but management has also managed to maintain a market share of 60 percent for the last nine years. Coca-Cola, as previously stated, is one of Ethiopia’s top five taxpayers. Our company has received the platinum price from the PM on a consistent basis.

— You have previously sold some of your EABSC shares. What is EABSC’s current shareholding structure?

My 26,000 shares were diluted to 11,054 by the end of 2017. After 2017, I had 121,000 paid-up shares and 5,000 unpaid shares. I sold 50,000 of my shares to three individuals in April 2021, and I still own the remaining 71000 paid-up shares and 5000 non-paid shares. I am still the chairman of the EABSC as well as the director of Ambo mineral water.

— What major obstacles, in your experience as a successful entrepreneur, must be overcome to encourage the formation of businesses?

I can’t take full credit for my success. I can only say that I was fortunate to have influential people in my life, including my father, uncles, and godfather. My father, an educated, generous, and knowledgeable man, showed me what it meant to be successful. My generous uncle, Abiselom, taught me how to socialize and be nice to everyone. My uncle Yehdego taught me about the wonders of nature and the joys of traveling. Most importantly, my Godfather Antonio, a generous man, taught me to be a strong, hard worker, and fighter. Last but not least, my Lycée classmates who have given me friendship, love, respect, and the ability to welcome me wherever they are. Most importantly, Amaretxh’s prayer group gave me faith, hope, and divine power.

— Most people identify you with your interests in Coca-Cola.  What are some of your other interests? 

My interests are in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining in Ethiopia and elsewhere, primarily in gold as a deal maker. I also represent various international companies in Arica’s east and horn. I am proud to be called “Negusse coca,” I fought so many battles that had nothing to do with my shares, but in every battle, people envious of my shares wanted to take me out of the EABSC, and thanks to the Lord, I survived, but I prefer to be called, “The Farmer.”

— What does success mean to you? 

For me, success is waking up when my body wants to, doing what pleases me, being known as a helper, and, most importantly, being a pioneer in what I do. My personal interests include farming and making deals in mining large contracts.

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Meet Osinachi Ukomadu, an African tech entrepreneur revolutionizing logistics

Heroshe allows Nigerians to buy products from any trusted U.S. online store.

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Osinachi Ukomadu.

Osinachi Ukomadu is one of many entrepreneurs using technology to revolutionize the logistics industry in Africa and Nigeria, taking last-mile delivery by storm through innovative solutions.

He is the founder of Heroshe, a platform that allows Nigerians to buy products from any trusted U.S. online store.

Through Heroshe, Ukomadu has been able to solve the problem of access to global commerce outside Nigeria for businesses and individuals who want products that are not locally available.

Under his leadership, Heroshe has evolved from assisting family and friends in Nigeria to shopping for and shipping goods from stores in the United States to becoming a fast-growing startup with more than 40,000 customers that deploys cutting-edge solutions to facilitate cross-border e-commerce transactions, last-mile delivery and payments for goods and services.

In a recent interview, the leading tech entrepreneur and businessman described his experiences in corporate America and as a businessman.

Heroshe, according to Ukomadu, has been built to last through a network of strong relationships with its first-leg, last-mile logistics and payment partners, allowing the startup to overcome challenges in its operating environment.

— Can you tell us about your upbringing in Nigeria and the United States? What it was like growing up in the United States, and how did your education shape your business outlook?

I was born and raised in Abia state. I grew up around different parts of Nigeria. I lived shortly in Port Harcourt, moved to Kano, and then to Lagos where I finished my high school education. I did JSS 1-3 in Adebayo Mukuolu College Ogba before leaving the country with my family to the United States. I finished my high school and university education there.

My upbringing in Nigeria, as you can see, was punctuated with a lot of changes. We moved around a bit. My father, who worked in the bank, was transferred very often to different parts of the country. It was always interesting to experience different cultures and languages. This is one of the many advantages of moving around the country. I look forward to doing more of this in the future.

Emigrating to the United States as a teenager was quite an experience. I initially struggled to adapt to the new culture. It took me a while to settle into the rhythm of life here. Schooling in the United States brought me to the reality of my otherness. It was hard relating to the other kids, who have formed strong bonds through years of doing school together. The Nigerian kids in school did not want to associate with me, because they wanted to protect their reputation from mingling with a Nigerian who still had a thick Nigerian accent. It wasn’t until new students came from Nigeria to the school that I began to feel a sense of belonging. I learned to adapt to these changing experiences.

This is one thing that has shaped my life and approach to business today. Adaptability was embedded into my core. With each move, my parents would register us in the school, and we were left to navigate the rest of the transition ourselves. I never valued those experiences back then. Looking back now, I see how those experiences have shaped the man that I am today. The adaptability and resilience that came through those experiences have shown in my approach to life in general and business specifically.

— What was it like to build your first startup, and how did you get the funding to get started?

The first company I ran was a home health services company. This came about as a result of life circumstances. My mom, who was a nurse, was thinking about leaving her full-time work to start a home health service and at that time I had just lost my first job right out of college. She shared the idea with me, and it made sense to be a part of it. I was young, fresh out of college, and looking to have an adventure. This was an opportunity. I didn’t think much about it. I jumped right on it. Being very inexperienced, I made every mistake you could possibly think of. However, the learning was immensely valuable.

The company was bootstrapped. We depended on the revenue from operations to run the business. This meant that we had to make consistent revenue every week to keep the business running. Without access to credit, this proved to be a daunting task, especially when we would not get reimbursement or the reimbursement was short. I remember times I would have to call a meeting on a Friday evening to tell employees that there were not enough funds to make payroll that week. This happened a few times.

The most painful part of this experience was looking at the faces of these men and women who have trusted us, working diligently for weeks, only to be told there was no money to pay them. It was a painful experience. I could only imagine what they had to tell their families. One thing we had going for us was the culture we built. It was such an empathetic place to work. I was surprised when Monday rolled around, seeing them all still trooping into work while waiting patiently for the funds to be sorted. This taught me a great lesson on culture. The company went on to do millions of dollars in revenue over time. I exited to pursue other interests while the company continued to operate successfully.

— Can you share with us the key milestones you achieved in terms of strategic partnerships, customer base, and revenue in the recently concluded fiscal year compared to the first year of Heroshe’s operation as a business?

We grew our customers to 40,000. We deployed our mobile app. We grew revenue by 24 percent month-on-month in the fourth quarter. We did more than 100,000 in tonnage.  

– Heroshe takes pride in delivering value to customers through its operations, which are linked to the company’s commitment to solving e-commerce logistics, access and payments challenges in Nigeria. How has the company been able to deliver on this promise, particularly with payments and the country’s recent transportation and logistics rigidities?

Our primary focus is to link Africans to global commerce. Logistics, access and payments are the mechanisms by which we accomplish this. We are not immune to the global logistics challenges everyone is facing. However, we have been very strategic in making sure to build the right partnerships to enable us to deliver delight consistently. We have built a set of robust relationships with our first-leg, last-mile logistics and payment partners enabling us to overcome these challenges.

We spend time building and maintaining these relationships that ensure our delivery is assured. There are so many challenges to be solved in Africa that you can’t build fast enough to solve all of them, so working with the best of breed in each space to leverage existing infrastructure helps us to further our mission. Our goal is to continue to nurture these relationships to enable us to build towards our mission.

— The supply chain was strained in 2021 due to growing consumer demands and capacity-related issues that crystallized key discussions in the industry in 2021. With the structural difficulties in Nigeria, can you tell us how Heroshe has been able to manage some of these issues competitively, while turning challenges into strategic opportunities?

We’ve been affected by the global supply chain challenges everybody is facing. However, our volume has continued to grow. Nigerian logistics may have some structural challenges; however, there are a few players who have done a great job solving these challenges. We seek them out and selectively partner with them to deliver on our promise.

We are taking advantage of our growth to strike the right partnerships that drive better value for our customers. We make sure to only work with first-leg and last-mile partners who are aligned with our culture of delight. Increased volume gives us so many options when it comes to partner selection. Choosing the right partner has been the game-changer in the continuous delivery of a delightful experience to our customers.

— According to some supply chain experts, the COVID-19 pandemic created more opportunities for companies in the logistics industry than it caused. What are your thoughts on this, and how did it affect Heroshe’s performance during the two pandemic years?

 I agree that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the industry. We saw unprecedented growth in the last year as a result of increased demand for e-commerce. Prior to COVID-19, people would travel out of the country to shop. Since COVID-19, people have depended more on shopping online. More people have gotten accustomed to shopping online. People got used to shopping online locally as a result of social distancing, this also translated to shopping online outside the country.

The fear of shopping online has been broken by several people. There is no going back now. We see this trend continuing into the future. Not only will more people shop online locally, but they will also shop online globally as the barriers between countries shrink due to the impact of technology. 

— What are the key strategic inputs you brought to Heroshe from your extensive experience with iconic brands and organizations such as Apple, Hasbro, ExxonMobil and T-Mobile, and how did this translate into company growth?

Working at these iconic brands gave me the opportunity to see execution at a different level. I found one thing consistent among the top-performing companies where I worked — they knew their core competencies and focused on them. Everything else was de-emphasized or completely ignored. I brought this strategy to Heroshe. I know that for us to stay alive and grow, we had to do very few things that we were very good at doing and were core to our DNA.

We learned to be laser-focused from the onset. We learned to experiment quickly, take what is working and discard what is not working. This level of ruthless execution helped us immensely in our beginning days. We were met with so many options to pursue. My constant refrain was “focus.” Focus, in the beginning, looked like we were missing so many opportunities however, in the end, it became what has kept us delivering consistently. 

— Is Heroshe planning a capital raise to scale the operation in light of the recent growth in the logistics industry? If so, where do you intend to invest this capital in your business?

Yes, Heroshe is looking to raise capital to grow its product and reach more customers. We have spent the last couple of years figuring out the customer, market, and product. We are at a place where we have a high level of confidence in the product roadmap. We will invest significantly in the product.

We will focus on building products that solve for specific segments of users. We have built out our core logistics infrastructure which is broadly serving the market. The next set of products would build on top of this logistics infrastructure to enable more tailored services to our various customer segments whose use cases are unique.

— What’s next for Osinachi Ukomadu and Heroshe? Are you setting your sights on expanding into other countries in Africa? 

Eventually, we will expand to other African countries. Our current focus is solving deeply for the Nigerian market. When we have solved cross-border e-commerce access, logistics and payments deeply in Nigeria, we will set our eyes on another anglophone West African country before venturing to other parts of Africa. We want to facilitate the opening up of markets across Africa and the world. 

— Do you have any words of advice for young Africans who are afraid to start something?

Your youth is a gift. You still have time to make mistakes, learn and iterate. This is the best time to get started. It becomes more difficult when you have more responsibilities. Acquire a skill that is currently in high demand. While using that skill to build your career, find time to also use that skill to build your future.

Someone once reminded me of the “food crop” and “cash crop” strategy, which we were taught in the agriculture class. Our forefathers employed this strategy, and it worked for them. Your career is your food crop, since it provides for your daily living; however, your side hustle can become your cash crop that pays for your future. You can’t afford to grow one at the expense of the other. What is your current food crop? What is your cash crop? How much time are you dedicating to each?

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Meet the South African woman who has created the world’s first ocean water distilled gin

Jess Henrich is the founder of Amari Ocean Gin, which is inspired by the icy Atlantic Ocean.

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Businesswoman Jess Henrich.

South African businesswoman Jess Henrich always wanted to create a gin inspired by the ocean. In 2016, after more than a decade working in the advertising industry – first as a client account manager and then as a copywriter and creative director — she took a dive into the murky waters of entrepreneurship and partnered with her university friend Niel du Toit to start A Mari Ocean Gin. The gin is inspired by the icy Atlantic Ocean, and sea water is utilized in the distillation process where it is infused with indigenous Cape coastal fynbos. Her A Mari Ocean gin has now become a favorite among South Africa’s young, urban, upwardly mobile professionals.

Henrich recounted her business story to Billionaires.Africa Editor-In-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe.

— Walk me through your early beginnings in life and some of your major milestones. What was growing up for you like? Where did you go to school and what are some of your earliest memories of your earliest entrepreneurial ventures?

— Growing up was pretty magical, as I was born in Kenya. We had the sort of wild freedom there as children that I think today is pretty rare. My time, when not in school, was spent either in the Ngong forest, on the coastline, in Lamu, or exploring some rugged beautiful part of this incredible country. I went to Banda, then Switzerland, and then back to Kenya and Hillcrest, and was then sent to Swaziland for two years at Waterford. My earliest entrepreneurial venture involved, at age seven, trying to buy Masai goats with my pocket money to resell to my mum’s friends as lawnmowers. Hugely unsuccessful sadly.

— What did you did you do before starting A Mari Ocean Gin company, and what are the series of events that inspired you to create your gin and distillery?

— I am a brand strategist and copywriter by trade. The story of A Mari starts on the small Spanish island of Ibiza, where I was living and working.

At a dinner party one night I heard about the Ibiza Preservation Fund, which aims to kickstart agriculture on the island again by granting free land ( and sometimes houses) to people with agri-projects.

Ibiza used to be a prolific producer of fruits and vegetables and now imports most of its produce as the farmers have gone into tourism and the land is largely lying fallow.

Anyway, the next morning, I was at the preservation fund offices and there was an old finca (farmhouse) in the north that was up for a pitch — they asked me if I had an agricultural project to present, as the Balaeric government were there that weekend for grants. This is on Thursday. I said yes — though I didn’t have an agricultural project. 

I went home and cobbled together a business plan for a distillery, as the island is covered in juniper and at that point there wasn’t an ibiza gin, plus I had worked with wine and am really fascinated by plants and alcohol. So, I end up presenting, through a Catalan translator, in an olive field to the Baleric government — sheer madness.

They liked my project, though, so I flew home to South Africa and sold everything I owned and moved back to start this distillery. Within six weeks of me being back on the island it all went bottoms up, the license fell through, I couldn’t use the finca as the distillery had to be in an industrial area.

Fast forward six months and I am back in South Africa and working for an ad agency, my now business partner, Niel, had just moved back from London, and we are old friends from university days. 

We met for dinner and started talking about my gin idea, which had very much stayed on my mind, but I didn’t have enough cash to do it alone. Niel immediately said he’d go in on it. 

Around 3AM that morning after several bottles of wine, we bought a potstill on the Internet and both quit our jobs the next day. 

We literally walked up and down this coastline distilling everything from seaweed to citrus. We were at that point in. Niel’s bathroom, with this utterly dreadful temperamental potstill that is plugged into the water mains over his bathtub. If anyone flushed the loo or turned on a tap in the house, the temperature would leap and the batch would be ruined- so we had to sit with it for 12-hour shifts at a time. We  knew we wanted to do something different to what was on the market, and the only variable to change with was the water and it has a profound effect on whiskey; so stands to reason it does in gin. We spent three months playing with recipes and coastal plants and trying it on our friends (who each time were like are you sure we aren’t going to go blind?).

So there we are on the day of our first big distillation and we only have enough money for one run. We arrive with jerrycans of seawater having had the genius idea in the middle of the night — why not actually distill with ocean water? No one had done it. Including us, Roger looked at this when we arrived and he was like guys are you sure? We only have one shot at this. We looked at each other and were just like hell yes. So we did, and it was beautiful, and A Mari Atlantic was born. 

— A Mari is the only ocean water distilled gin in the world. What exactly does that mean?

We are the only gin made from the sea — we literally put ocean water into the potstill with the botanicals and spirit. It desalinates as it distills, which means the gin is not salty but the process gives the gin a unique and beautiful smoothness. You can drink it on the rocks its that good!

— Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?

Haha, no — as above this was a combination of balls, timing and sheer determination to succeed. And a lot of learning curves on the way. 

— How did you initially raise the finance to start your own gin company?

We have bootstrapped from the beginning and put all our own savings into it. We’re actually looking at raising at the moment to expand. 

— Tell me about the thought process that went into developing A Mari Ocean Gin. What makes it different from your regular gin brand, and what has been the recipe for A Mari’s success?

I think two things, the quality of the gin — making a superior product has always been at the heart of what we do, and we have never compromised quality for volume. We still make small batches and I grow all the Fynbos myself. The second thing is the USP, which is the ocean water story, we are the only gin in the world made this way. We are also supporters of marine conservation, working with SeaShepherd to give back into the ocean. 

— Can you tell us more about your production process?

We start with the botanical harvesting and measuring out the recipe (endless peeling of oranges, lemons and limes), then these botanicals, with the ocean water and the neutral spirit goes into a potstill. Its a one shot distillation, which means everything goes into one run so there is no room for error! When it comes off the still we cut it to strength at 43 percent and bottle and label and it goes off to our distributors around the world. 

— How would you describe your gins in three words? 

Extremely, unusually delicious.

— What is the one thing you’ve learned from being an entrepreneur that you can share with us?

Resilience. You get knocked down, thats the nature of the game. You just get back up stronger and more determined.

— What’s next for A Mari Ocean Gin?

Our goal is to get a bottle of A Mari into every sea facing bar in the world, so thats what we work towards. We are bringing out a limited edition too which is going to be super special. 

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