Ghanaian-born, Harvard-trained Dr. Michael K. Obeng is one of the most sought-after cosmetic experts in the United States today. Over the course of his two-decade career as director of MiKO Plastic Surgery in Beverly Hills, he has performed makeovers by cosmetic surgery for Hollywood elite, supermodels, musicians and royalty. He was the first Black plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and he is easily one of the most recognizable cosmetic surgeons in the United States today.
But Obeng’s life was not always so glamorous. Born into poverty in Ghana, Dr. Obeng worked various jobs and surmounted extraordinary obstacles to put himself through school in the United States. Now a successful cosmetic surgeon and entrepreneur, Dr. Obeng is giving back. In 2008, he founded R.E.S.T.O.R.E, a non-profit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to patients from emerging countries.
In the past 13 years, R.E.S.T.O.R.E has performed more than 1,500 surgeries in Africa and Central America, worth more than $70 million, free of charge. He is also building a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical plant in Ghana to curb the importation of fake drugs into the country.
Dr. Obeng recently chatted with Billionaires.Africa Editor-in-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe where he recounted his journey.
— You were born into poverty in Ghana and today you’re one of the most revered plastic surgeons in the United States – and the world. Quickly take us through your journey from your childhood to your current station in life. What was growing up in Ghana for you like and what are the series of events that led you into becoming one of the most renowned plastic surgeons in the world?
— Thank you very much for your question. Having been born in Ghana in an environment which at the time was not very typical of modern-day Ghana, the opportunities were not always there. But one thing Ghanaians always strive for is the love and education. I had the privilege to be raised by a good family; my grandmother, mother, aunts, uncles…basically the whole village.
I started my schooling at K.O. Methodist Primary School in Ash-town, Kumasi for my first and second grades. I don’t remember much during that time except for the fact that in first grade I didn’t like school at all. Instead of being in class I would skip class and go to the park to watch people performing magic tricks. I never wanted to go to class. I just didn’t like school at all. I was 6 years old at the time and I would sit and watch them. I was mesmerised by the set-up pick-pocketers. But something sparked in second grade where I found my gift. I was very drawn to mathematics, my second-grade teacher made an impact and I fell in love with math. At that early age, as a second-grader, I could do complex fourth-grade mathematics.
My family then moved from the inner city when I was in third grade to our village, Adiebeba-Ahodwo. When we moved to that village, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in one of the best elementary schools in the area – Nhyieaso International School (NIS). Most of the kids there were very well-off and came from really great families and most of them had a very good command of the English language. I felt slightly “disadvantaged” not being able to speak English that well but nevertheless, I knew that I was probably smarter than everyone else, so I had a chip on my shoulder to prove that I was going to be the best student in that class, i.e. third grade.
I made my mark after a few weeks to become one of the best students in the class. NIS was good to me. I ended up graduating as one of the best students at that school and I also served as the school prefect which is the ultimate leadership role at any school a student can ever hold. One of my most memorable, profound, and inspirational moments at NIS was a pep talk/speech by my fifth-grade teacher, Master Manteaw. He talked about perseverance. He said that “perseverance conquers all difficulties” and that phrase never left me. It became my guiding principle that whatever my background or family status was, if I worked hard and never gave up, I could become anything I set my mind to. I recently found out that Master Manteaw passed away. That’s the only teacher that I remember from my elementary school days because of the impact he made in my life. I will never forget him.
It was mandatory to take the Common Entrance Examination which I did and in 1985 I enrolled at Prempeh College High School. At the time most people in Ghana went to boarding school because of the lack of transportation to go back and forth from school to home and vice-versa, except the wealthy ones, because they had access to transportation. At Prempeh College I excelled academically, and I assumed lots of leadership roles at that early age. Prempeh College also instilled discipline and hard work in me. It also taught me how to be a man especially for a young boy growing up with no father actively in my life. Prempeh College taught me table manners/etiquette, how to tie a tie, and the little things that we take for granted. In 1990 I took the General Certificate Examination (GCE) “O Levels” and I got a distinction, obtaining six 1’s “A” out of eight subjects. With this grade, I could have gone to any other high school of my choice to finish my “A” levels, but I chose to stay back in Kumasi and attended Prempeh College.
During my time at Prempeh College, I was also elected by the faculty and the senior students in the foremost leadership positions to be one of the Big 6 leaders on campus. I ultimately ended up serving as the Assistant Dining Hall Prefect. During my sixth form, I wasn’t too focused because I had my eye on going to America – the land of opportunity, to study. So, most of my time was split between trying to get by with my “A” levels and also trying to study for the SAT and applying to American universities.
I didn’t do too well on my “A” levels, which did not come as a surprise because I did not put in much effort. However, my efforts landed me an acceptance to Midwestern State University. The story of me enrolling at Midwestern State University is a story that deserves its own interview for another time.
On Aug. 20, 1993, I left Ghana to go to the United States with one bag, a few clothing items, and less than $200 in my pocket, but I felt ecstatic as though I was going to heaven! When I arrived in America on Saturday, Aug. 21, at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I was greeted by my uncle, cousins, and family friends. I’d never felt so happy and was excited to be in America! That day I had one of the very best meals in my life. I had access to unlimited food; chicken, fish, rice, jollof, banku, etc. without anybody monitoring how much meat or food I had eaten and that was a good feeling to eat buffet-style, something I had never done in my life growing up in Ghana. So, when I arrived in the United States, that was one of the happiest days of my life. I now felt like the sky was the limit.
Even though I came here to go to school, I knew that I could not go to school right away, because I did not have the money for the tuition, with all the adjustments by the school, I was still responsible for about $15,000 a year for tuition and room and board. At the time, nobody in my family had $15,000 a year to pay for this. So I had to be creative. I deferred my admission and I worked. I started work a week after I got to America; I was ready to work.
I worked many menial jobs, sometimes 2-3 times at a time. I worked at a bakery, making pita bread in Alexandria, Virginia. A few weeks later, I added a second job working at an African grocery store where I was responsible for cutting up meat. This was the least favourite of all the jobs I’ve ever had in my life. Growing up in Ghana. I wasn’t a meat person.I did not like even going into the meat market. I didn’t even go for the person I loved the most, my grandmother. In America, I needed employment to be able to save up and go to school and one of my most memorable time working there was when a Ghanaian woman who came up to me one day and said in my language, “young man, you are way too handsome for this job” and that day I cried. When I got home, I wished I could call my grandmother. But of course, back then the telecommunication systems were not as robust as it is today. But that never deterred me from my ultimate goal. The reason why I came to America was to go to school and ultimately study medicine and become a plastic surgeon.
With determination, hard work, and the grace of the almighty God, I never gave up. I was able to save up the money to be able to afford my first semester, but this also did not come easy. I remember picking up a third job.So in those special four months, I worked my tail off. Of course, the third job almost killed me because I would wake up at six in the morning to go to work at the bakery and get off at 2:30 PM. At 3:30 PM, I’d be at the African grocery store. All of these jobs were within a walking distance. I’d work at the African grocery store from 3:30 PM to about 9:30 PM. And then when we were done by 11 PM, I would be at my last job where we were sorting out and loading trucks for the mall, that one, it was a long walk. I had to sometimes take the bus and I’d get back home about 2 AM. And then I’m waking up again at 5:30 AM to be awake at 6 AM, but I only did the third job for two weeks, and I got sick. So I quit the third job.
Okay. Fast forward. College was not easy. It was a different transition for me. And once I figured it out, it became easy. In my first semester, I made a 4.0 GPA. I was very stressed out because I did not know where my next meal was going to come from. I ate a lot of apples, that’s why I am allergic to apples (chuckles). However, life became easier. I came back to Virginia that summer where I stayed with my cousin again. I started a job within the first week after school was out, working at Commercial Carpets of America (CCA) on South Pickett Street in Alexandria, Virginia.
You know, God showed his face again. Like he always does. I wasn’t sure if I would have even made it back to school because I witnessed intense stress. So towards the end of the semester, they were looking for a resident assistant. And the resident assistant position is a leadership position with a lot of perks. You are basically in charge of a wing in the dorm.That job came with room and board. So if I could get that job, I wasn’t going to have to worry about food and a place to stay. By the grace of God, I was able to go through and I was selected among the few that applied for the job out of over 100 applications.
So now I felt more secure going home because now I knew that I can come back and all I have to do in the summer was to work, make enough money, to be able to pay my tuition. I went back to Virginia.
My job at CCA was cutting carpets and helping install them. That was one of my favourite jobs. I got to drive a forklift at the warehouse, and it was fun. That summer, tragedy hit: the most amazing person in my life and the love of my life at the time, my grandmother passed away. It was sad, but I was also relieved because when I left Ghana, she had just had a stroke. And she used to beg me to give her something to kill her because she couldn’t bear the pain and misery. And I can promise you this, if I knew how to give her something, to make her achieve her goal, I would have.I was really sad, but I was happy. I was happy that the Lord had called her home.
That summer I worked, I was able to make enough money. Of course, I made some bad decisions and some good decisions. The worst was buying a car with some of the money I had made. I bought a burgundy Chrysler New Yorker and I was mesmerised by the sound it made when you left doors not properly closed. However, within the two weeks the transmission went out and I ended up leaving the car in D.C. and went back to school carless, lesson learned. SMH!
At this time, I felt more secure because I knew that I was going to have food. Life started to become easier. So all I had to do was just to study. In my second semester tragedy hit again, my mother passed away. I was very shocked. I was expecting my grandmother to die, but when my mother passed away, it came as a shock. Of course, you know, it was a very tough time for me. But it never deterred me from my ultimate goal. The saddest part of it was the fact that I did not have the money to come back to Ghana to bury my mother.
That was one of the toughest moments, toughest times in my life. I cried all night. I missed class the next day. The following day I went back to class, took a make-up exam that I had missed the previous day and life went on. It was a very trying time for me. By the grace of God, I was able to finish university in a timely fashion. It took me three years. I never took a class for granted. I did not have the luxury of taking a class that I didn’t need. If I remember correctly, I think we needed about 124 credits to graduate. And I got exactly 124 credits. And I graduated with an honours degree in chemistry, biology, and mathematics.
I was accepted to medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch and my goal of becoming a plastic surgeon was very well intact. With the help of Dr. Linda Phillips who took me under her wings, Dr. David Herndon, the former chief of staff the Shriners Burns Hospital, I was on the right path to becoming a plastic surgeon. I got my first publication within a few months that I was introduced to Dr. Herndon. He connected me up with the late Dr. Robert. L. McCauley, who made my first publication a reality. I will be forever indebted to all these great mentors. I also got my first National Institute of Health (NIH) grant. The NIH grant afforded me the opportunity to get into the competitive world of plastic surgery.
Fast forward. After five years of residency, I was accepted at Harvard for my fellowship in plastic surgery. It was at Harvard where R.E.S.T.O.R.E came to my mind. Of course, this was a seed that dates back to when I witnessed the good deeds of Operation Smile in Ghana, at the tender age of about 12 or 13. As well as words of encouragement from one of my mentors, Dr. John H. Miller. The best advice I ever got was when I was leaving Harvard from my mentor and Chief for Plastic Surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. James. W. May Jr. gave me the best advice, and I will never forget that. Every young surgeon needs an opportunity; needs to be around great mentors.
— How and when did you start MiKO Plastic surgery in Beverly Hills, and how did you grow it into one of the most prestigious plastic surgery practices in the United States — and the preferred choice of many well-known celebrities? Can you share some of the highs and lows you experienced while building MiKO Plastic surgery into the incredible success that it is today?
— Thank you for the question again. Moving to Beverly Hills was an easy decision for me, but it was very difficult at the same time. At the time, leaving a salary-paying job close to half a million dollars a year, to come into an environment that I did not know how I was going to get my first patient, was very frightening. But I’ve always believed in myself because I know God is with me.My financial planner told me I wasn’t going to make it past six months. This was in 2012, post the financial crash of 2008 in the United States. No banks were lending money.
When I approached my bank in Ohio to lend me a million dollars to start my practice, they told me “Dr. Obeng, we love you, but we can’t give you $1 million to set up a practice in Los Angeles because no one knows you there and besides there’s just too much competition. If you want it to stay in this community in Ohio we will help you.” The hospital said they would help me open my own private practice in the community. I can be a little stubborn and I believe in myself. I said no but thank you and moved on. We dropped the business plan that my financial planner had put together, we dropped the asking loan from $1 million to $750,000 to $500,000 to $250,000, even to $100,000, and nobody was willing to give me a loan to start a business. In a typical Michael fashion, I said, we’re going to defy the odds again. I told my financial planner, Patrick. I said, Patrick, you know what? I don’t care. I said, liquidate my retirement — all my investments and my retirement account and give me the money. And I’m going to go to Beverly Hills. If I fail it’s on me. And if I do well, it is on God. Patrick pulled aside my wife at a time and said, this guy’s crazy. You know, he said, “I’m telling you, if you don’t talk to him, you guys are not going to last more than six months”. It’s almost a decade and I’m not doing too shabby. The Lord has been good to me.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning moving to a new city and not knowing that many people. I had to work at another plastic surgery office whilst building my office and practice. I worked there in the morning from 6 AM to about 5 PM. And then I would leave and come to my office and work from about 5 PM till about 8:30 PM. You know, these are things that young people don’t want to do anymore because everybody wants instant gratification, but I knew I had to survive. And I knew I had to be able to make enough money to feed my family.
— In 2008, you founded R.E.S.T.O.R.E, a non-profit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to third world patients. What was the motivation to establish the programme and what are some of the more significant work it has done around the world until date. So far, you have performed procedures worth over $50 million for free. How do you raise funds? Do you have partners, or are they self-funded?
— R.E.S.T.O.R.E was actually founded in 2007 when I moved from Boston to Ohio. But the first official trip I took under R.E.S.T.O.R.E was in 2008 to go to Ghana and explore plastic surgery and how I can help and give back to the community that raised me. As I mentioned earlier R.E.S.T.O.R.E and plastic surgery was something that was introduced to me by the organisation, Operation Smile. When they came to Ghana when I was about 12 or 13 and did surgery to correct a deformity on a woman who lived in my neighbourhood, whose partner poured acid on her face. And when I saw the lady’s new look and the new confidence she had, I asked my friend who was the little brother of the lady for details of what had happened. He told me that a group of doctors from the United States did plastic surgery on her. And I was in awe; that was the first time I’d heard about plastic surgery.
That was how plastic surgery was introduced to me. When I was in medical school, Dr. John H. Miller planted the seed in my head one day while I was assisting him to do surgery. He looked at me, said, “Michael, you’re from Ghana, right?” I said,“Yes sir!” He said, “Why don’t we go to Ghana and do free surgery?” During that time as a student and a resident in training, you work over 90 hours a week, you didn’t have time for anything. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston as a fellow at Harvard and the name R.E.S.T.O.R.E came to me in the middle of the night. I got up immediately and wrote it in my book and then I started to make sense of it. R.E.S.T.O.R.E is an acronym that stands for “Restoring Emotional Stability Through Outstanding Reconstructive Efforts.”
For the first official R.E.S.T.O.R.E trip, I took a group of volunteers with me, that was in 2010. I took about seven people who graciously left the comfort of their homes and came with me to go and help my people in Ghana and that year was about breast reconstruction. That was the theme that the local plastic surgeons, Dr. P. Agbernoku, and his team chose that year. We also did the biggest breast reduction that I’ve ever heard of or seen. We did a breast reduction and the amount of tissue that we took off the breast was approximately 37 pounds in total.
Also some of the highlights: In 2009 we did the first breast reconstruction using a woman’s local tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct her breast. We had Dr. Nsiah-Asre, who at the time was the CEO of Konfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, and also happened to be a surgeon to help us. The patient was his nurse who had refused to have a mastectomy because she did not want to live without a breast, like most Ghanaian women at the time. And I remember vividly how the media showed up to document the procedure. The patient was very grateful. Unfortunately, she ended up passing away a year later after I came because of metastasis. In the last 13 years, we have done over 1,500 surgeries.
We have been to about seven different countries, including Ghana, Gabon, Nigeria, Guatemala Mexico, and Laos. We are now planning on going to Senegal in November-December this year. If you were to put a monetary figure on it in U.S. terms, we are talking about over $70 million worth of surgery, all free of charge.
But of course, this has been a team effort, without the team of selfless volunteers, including the leadership, constant devotion of doctors like Dr. Hoyt-Williams, who is now the chief of Plastic Surgery at Komfo Anoyke Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana, Dr. Mehmet Atila, who is the owner and director of Medical Inn in Dusseldorf Germany, Dr. Dembele from Mali, the late Dr. Edward Yamoah, may his soul rest in peace. Dawn Sutherland, director of international relations, Dr. Barry Freeman, my anesthetist, Oscar Garcia, my chief surgical tech and, of course, Ashley Erickson, one of our nurses… And I can go on and so many other names but without the help of all these people, none of this would have happened, without friends and family and people reading this right now who have graciously donated a dollar or two, none of this would have happened. However, I have personally put in over half a million dollars over the last 13 years.
This does not include the opportunity cost, which is the amount of money I have let go, because of all the time that I’ve spent not working and this exceeds $2.5 million. But it feels great to be able to put a smile on a person’s face, to be able to change the narrative in a community, and to be able to bring hope into a community that has been devastated because somebody does not look like “all of us.”
And I’m very thankful to God. Once again, I’m very thankful to all the volunteers over the years, the ones who donated the money, and ones who donated their time, and the ones who pray for us. Without none of these people, all the good work we have done wouldn’t have been possible. In 2019, we performed a gender reassignment surgery, the first of its kind in Central Africa.
There is a growing demand for cosmetic surgery in many African countries today. Do you think many Africans are embracing Western standards of beauty more and more? What are some of the major shifts driving this changing attitude towards plastic surgery in Africa, particularly amongst middle and upper middle class African women?
Great question. (Chuckles) Yes, plastic surgery has definitely been on the rise among Africans, not just the women, but this is a trend that has been picked up by watching western shows like, “The Kardashians,” like all these plastic surgery shows on TV and of course, reality shows. Now Africans have dispensable income, the middle class of Africa is expanding and with dispensable income people look to do things to make them look and feel better, be it shopping or having plastic surgery. But definitely, yes, it’s on the rise which is a good thing. But I don’t think they are embracing western standards and western beauty. So I think they are just looking to look a better version of themselves. Most African people who come in to do their noses. They just want to have a Black nose, a little bit more refined. They want to have big butts, which is not Western. Africans have always had bigger butts, it’s just that there are some bulges here and there they don’t like. African women, African men, Africans, in general, are embracing plastic surgery, just like the rest of the world because of pop culture, TV and social media.
— As many more Africans embrace plastic surgery, there is a proliferation of quacks in many African countries – especially in Nigeria. As a leading authority in complex reconstructive surgery, what are some of the most important questions one needs to ask before choosing a plastic surgeon?
— Mfonobong, you’re absolutely correct. There are a lot of unqualified people doing plastic surgery, not just in Africa, but all over the world. I don’t know the terrain when it comes to plastic surgery in Nigeria, but overall, anybody considering plastic surgery should make sure that their surgeon is properly trained in plastic surgery. Make sure that they have proper training and not just a weekend course or a month course.
I cannot speak for the training in Africa. Every country is different. And I can’t speak for the training in Nigeria. I can speak to the United States. In the United States, to be a plastic surgeon one has to obviously finish medical school, graduate among the top in their class because it’s a very competitive field, and then do a residency training of a minimum of five years, and then if they want to do complex surgeries, then they can do a fellowship.
But not anybody who has been properly trained and done the six years of training is eligible to sit for the American Board of Plastic Surgery, where you take a two-part exam and once you pass the written exam, you might get invited to take the oral part. Not everybody automatically gets to take the oral exam. You are invited after one year of practice, where you collect cases (as keeping track of surgeries you have done). You then send them all the surgeries that you have done. The board then selects five cases for you to put together, a book about the story behind the surgery, how the patient came to you, what they have, your thought process and before and after photos, and if there are any complications and how you resolved the complication.
So you prepare these five cases and you go to a place that the Board chooses every year. I took the exam in Phoenix, Arizona. The exam was three-days long. The first day, they give you a lecture about the exam, how 20 percent will fail. And then they collect all your books. So, usually on a Thursday, then on Friday, you start your exam. You have to defend those five cases that they pick. And I think in every case you have seven minutes to be able to go over the case and tell them why you did certain things. These so-called “peers” are not your peers, these are experienced plastic surgeons, just to make sure that you are safe. They make sure that safety is of utmost importance. Not only for those five cases that you have done yourself, but the board at the time also would question you, they call them “unknowns.” They give you 12 cases. So overall you have to answer 17 questions in front of a minimum of six plastic surgeons in three separate rooms. And those six people have to determine that are you’re safe, you’re knowledgeable, and make good decisions to go out in the world and practice plastic surgery. And that’s how you become board-certified in the United States.
So that’s what I always tell patients; make sure, you know, the doctor who’s doing your plastic surgery is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. Don’t get me wrong, we have a saying that you can teach a monkey how to operate. So some surgeons are good. You don’t have to go to chef school to be a great chef. And some people are gifted. Most of the people doing plastic surgery are not trained plastic surgeons. Maybe they can do plastic surgery, but the question that arises when there is a complication are these people suited to be able to handle the complication?
There will be complications, not everybody’s going to come out with perfect results. Some people can even die. Some people have died on the table. Of course not my table, but these things happen.
So when it comes to surgery, people should not take it lightly. Of course, nobody’s going to tell you the risk of doing surgery is death, but that’s an inherent risk that can happen. Always make sure they are board-certified by their respective plastic surgery board in their country.
Make sure that your surgeon has hospital privileges because a lot of hospitals if you are not properly trained in that field they will not give you privileges to do surgery at the hospital because of liability. So makes sure that your surgeon has hospital privileges to do the type of surgery they are planning to do at their office. Because if something happens, they should be able to take you to the hospital.So just be careful, make sure you choose your surgeon wisely. Make sure they are properly educated, well trained, and make sure that they have experience. And don’t go by what you read online all the time, make sure you do the research!
— You are establishing a pharmaceutical company in Ghana. Tell me more about it. How far have you gone with the project? What are your plans and what is the opportunity?
— Thank you for your question. The idea of the pharmaceutical plant came about as part of the vision I have for Africa. Over the years, because of my work with R.E.S.T.O.R.E, I have seen and witnessed a lot that has positioned me as a global health strategist, traveling across Africa and other developing nations.
I’ve always seen the need for capacity building in healthcare and healthcare infrastructure.
I’ve always known that it wasn’t because we didn’t have the money or the finances, we just lack the education of improving our own backyards, so to speak.
We, as Africans are some of the smartest people that God has created. Our leaders have failed us because of their own personal greed and tunnel vision. This pharmaceutical plant came about because of my cousin Yaw Antwi Obeng, who works in the pharmaceutical industry and witnessed some of the things that we all have witnessed: importation of fake drugs coming out pretty much everywhere – including some parts of China, Pakistan, and India. He came to me one day and told me of some of the health complications that people were having, even though they were taking their high blood pressure medication. So I never take credit for that. Yaw gets all the credit. I then decided to help out and I embraced it because it was part of my vision to be able to make Africans stand on their own two feet. Hopefully one day we can have pharmaceutical emancipation and not depend so much on the Western world to solve all our problems.
The project officially started in 2018 when we broke ground in Kumasi, Ghana. As a visionary, in the process of building, when my vision started getting bigger, we decided that if we are going to do this project, we should do it according to the World Health Organization, Good Manufacturing Practices standards. We completed the initial plan for which was a two-story building. We had almost completed the first floor. We went back to the Ghana FDA for inspection. They came back with their recommendations, we were in the process of rectifying it and then COVID-19 hit, this took us back to the drawing board and the vision became even bigger.
Now, we’re not just building a pharmaceutical plant, but also we are incorporating a vaccine centre, a world-class research laboratory to entice, and to bring scientists from all over the world to come and live in Ghana and work. We are now looking at Akwamu area, which is in the Eastern region of Ghana to build this first-class pharmaceutical plant. The chief has graciously agreed to give us 100 acres of land and, hopefully, we can get the support of the country, as well as of the president of the republic. Ghana’s Exim Bank has shown interest and just like everything I’ve done, we don’t give up until it comes to fruition, even though it started off very small amidst the doubts. This dream will also come to fruition by his grace, Amen.
I have now engaged an Indian company called Sushen Medicamentos. We are in the phase of raising money to make this dream a reality. The dream for pharmaceutical emancipation is closer than I ever dreamt of. “Drugs by Africans for Africans” is now within reach and this is all by his grace.
— You have successfully performed near impossible plastic surgeries and are currently the only African plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. Given the recurring issues of racial discrimination in America, have you ever had patients who second-guessed your capabilities because you were a Black African? Also, how can health systems help build a culture of anti-racism in America?
— That’s a very thought-provoking question. As you know racism exists, and it’s sad. And to be second-guessed is real and it’s not just white people – it’s all people. People of your own color will second guess you because you are Black. And I think it’s what we Black people do to ourselves that we don’t trust one another and respect each other’s talents and God given gifts.
And it’s really sad, but I think when the time comes, when people get to know your body of work, what you can and cannot do, it kind of changes a little bit, but there are still people out there that might not come to you because you are Black. And you know, that type of patient is not for me. I’ve always said that for me to do surgery on someone, you have to meet three criteria: They have to like me, I have to like them and they have to be able to afford me. Last but not the least, they have to have realistic expectations.
I wouldn’t say racism affected me. I think it probably has made me better because I know how much better I am than most of my white counterparts.It has been a blessing not to strive for more to distinguish myself, but yes, racism is real.So health system changing anti-racism in America is very tough, very tough. And I don’t think that will ever happen. No, not maybe in our generation. Now if you look at some of the great doctors in America, in the Western world, most of them are Africans. Lots of African ancestry, most of them are Black and there are a lot of distinguished Black surgeons in the world. We all have heard about Dr. Ben Carson of John Hopkins, who has turned into a politician. He faced racism as a very prominent neurosurgeon. But I think once you get to that point where you have distinguished yourself and you are the best in what you do, your colleagues, Black or white and patients of all colour will come to you. The nickname ‘The Surgeon’s Surgeon’ was a name that was given to me by a former colleague of mine, Dr. Vishal Kapoor. He said wow, you can do everything you are like the surgeon’s surgeon. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
So this is a long shot because prejudice is out there, I’ve been called a “n***a” before by a white patient when I was in training and I will never forget this patient. He came in after a car accident. This is when I was at the University of Texas Medical Branch, John Sealy Hospital. He was a “redneck” from Podunk, Texas. I attended to him took care of him and he said I don’t want this nigga to touch me.And I said, sir, I’m sorry. All you have is this nigga tonight. Do you want me to help you, or do you want to die? He shut his mouth. So it’s tough. You know, there are certain people who have been conditioned and it’s been ingrained in their head. They will always hate you because of the colour of your skin and no design of the healthcare system can change that.
— Health systems in Africa and most emerging economies are badly plagued by weak and bureaucratic public sectors. The already inadequate health systems in these regions, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, suffer the migration of health professionals. Where do you think these emerging economies, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, should begin to tackle this problem?
— We have most of the incredible amount of talents in Sub-Saharan Africa. Because of policies by our leaders and because of our misplaced priorities, healthcare has never been on the front burner.
Healthcare is not sexy. We put more emphasis on football and other insignificant things. Everybody values their profession. But personally, I do think that teachers and doctors, when you take up men of God, are the next in line but yet they are never valued.
I’ve always said that teachers should be some of the highest-paid professionals in the world and doctors should be well remunerated as well. We all have bills to pay. People expect doctors to work for free. In most economies it’s paid doctors who work for free because for anybody to selflessly do what we do, they should have a comfortable home and peace of mind knowing that they are not going to lack for money to feed their families. Because of a lack of proper remuneration and incentive, many physicians and healthcare professionals in Sub-Saharan Africa, seek jobs outside the continent and I don’t blame them. They have families to take care of and the same political leaders who have made little efforts at retaining some of the greatest minds on the continent are the same people who go overseas to see the same doctors or the same people from the continent who are charging them 10 times the amount they would have been charged if they were in the continent. Until our leaders start to think and make policies and put emphasis on healthcare, this brain drain will never stop because everybody’s looking for opportunities and seeking places where they can flourish and thrive economically and professionally.
— What does beauty look like, according to a plastic surgeon?
— Chuckles) Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. We are all made beautifully in the image of God. Less is always more.
— In the end, what will you want your legacy to be?
— When I leave this world to join my Heavenly Father, I want the world to know that this is a man who came to this world, gave his best. Never took a no for an answer, persevered and made a difference in people’s lives by improving healthcare, whether it be through the pharmaceutical plant, whether that being through R.E.S.T.O.R.E, the Foundation for Reconstructive Surgery, and ultimately whether building hospitals to bolster the healthcare sector in developing countries, then I have done my job on this earth, in this lifetime.
Thank you very much.
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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