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Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov on business, life and transforming education worldwide

A man of many labels, Rybakov is the original renaissance man. And he’s as interesting as they come.



Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov.

Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov is the original renaissance man. A man of many labels, he is a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, film actor, musician, speaker, blogger, vlogger and social media influencer. And he’s as interesting as they come.

In 1992, at the age of 20, Rybakov co-founded TechnoNICOL with his classmate Sergei Kolesnikov. Over two decades, they built the company into a leading, $2-billion-revenue global producer of roofing, waterproofing and thermal insulation materials, with nearly 60 factories across seven countries in Europe and Asia – as well as operations in Africa.

Rybakov is also an author. In 2017, he published his autobiography, “Thirst,” which won PwC’s Business Book of the Year in Russia in 2018. He is also something of a musician. In 2019, Rybakov released his debut album, “Summer Has Been Going Away,” to critical acclaim. He has produced and starred in feature films, has a popular YouTube channel with more than 1.2 million subscribers, where he provides business advice, and close to a million followers on Instagram where he gives glimpses of his life.

More importantly, perhaps, Rybakov is one of Russia’s most well-known philanthropists. In 2015, he founded the Rybakov Foundation alongside his wife, Ekaterina. The foundation is focused on developing education and entrepreneurship across the world. In 2019, the foundation announced the Rybakov Prize ­– a $1.2-million international award for philanthropists and benefactors, who have invested their personal capital in the reinvention of preschool and school education and have made substantial progress in this field. The prize has been described by Forbes as the “Nobel Prize for Philanthropists in Education.”

Rybakov recently chatted with Billionaires.Africa Editor-in-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe, where he recounted his early beginnings in business, offered advice on how to succeed in business and spoke about his plans to transform education across the world.

– As a high school student, you worked with a student construction brigade. Was it this experience that prompted you to establish a roofing-supply company?

– Perhaps. I realized for sure that I could be a leader when I was in the ninth grade. I found myself in a construction brigade with other students who couldn’t do anything: they didn’t know how to parget or work with a hammer. But I could, because in my childhood I’d spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my uncle taught me everything. The fence around our dacha (country house) that we repaired is still standing. In the construction brigade, I became the foreman and was in charge of the other students. I taught them everything. I even showed them how to add up to 10 percent to the estimate so that the control service could not find fault. How do you think we managed to create a system that no one could cheat at TechnoNICOL later? If I hadn’t learned how to make records in the construction brigade, I would not have been able to protect my company from similar smart guys.

In 1992, the market in Russia was in short supply of everything, including roofing materials. TechnoNICOL was no exception. We were students and we were very successful roofers. Some of the best in Russia at the time.

We repaired one of our first roofs so well that you can still use it as a teaching aid to teach roofers. Once, fifteen years later, we came back to look at this roof and it was as good as new. When we completed work on the roof and handed it over, the inspectors were in shock. They looked at the roof, at us, and simply said: “Who are you? We have never seen roofers do anything like this, not even close.” But we’d just met all the technical requirements. We read the teaching aid, the instructions, and the job complied with all the technological requirements. We just didn’t know how to do it wrong, so we did it right.

However, at some point I realized that I had to move on. Just repairing roofs was not enough: you will not achieve real success. I looked at the market – there was a shortage of roofing materials. There were long queues at the suppliers. It was impossible to buy or deliver products on time without queuing. In Russia, factories did not respond to market demand — they produced the old type of roofing material.

I decided that it was more profitable to trade in materials than to engage in roofing work. However, to do this, the materials had to be manufactured. At the time in Russia, it was the equivalent of deciding to fly to Mars. But that didn’t stop me. I started looking for a suitable plant. I found it in Bashkiria, in the South Urals. The plant was ready to produce next-generation roofing materials, but was standing idle. The management had outdated views.

We managed to convince the director to try, together with TechnoNICOL, to produce a batch of a new type of roofing materials. I took out a loan of $200,000 at 10-percent interest per month. I bought the raw materials, brought them to the plant and — was faced with a refusal to cooperate!

I’d spent all my resources and, instead of the first batch of materials, I was left with just the raw materials. What a disaster!

Later, I came to an agreement with the plant management and the materials were produced and released. But I’ll never forget the shock I experienced when I found myself with a loan, with prepayment from customers received and spent… but without any materials.

This lesson largely defined how I went on to develop the strategy of TechnoNICOL. If you want to enter the building materials market, you need to have control over the whole chain. You have to have your own factory and produce your own product. Production should be at the core of the strategy.

– What were the highs and lows of building up TechnoNICOL into the dominant player it is today. Also, how did you grow TechnoNICOL into a global company with operations spanning from Asia to Africa?

– The main thing that I have learned in business is the ability to overcome my success. By this I mean overcoming the patterns of thought that kept you successful at the previous level. Let’s look at the early 2000s. We only produced roofing materials. Profitability was declining. The company had carefully set up modern factories all over the country. But the profitability of the production and sale of roofing materials was in decline. 

I compiled a chart, and I monitored the situation. I realized that every month we had less and less money coming in.

I continued analysing the chart. I pinpointed the moment when the company would start to operate at a loss. I could see exactly when we were going “to die.”

I tried everything under the sun but nothing helped. We made no optimization and efficiency gains. I started talking to the clients. They told me: your roof share is only 0.3 percent of our budget…We are not interested. 

I decided: I will fight to the last! And if we die, we’ll be the last to die. The competitors are dumping, but we will defeat them! 

I experienced terrible fear. Even though I’d decided for myself to fight to the death, I still didn’t want todie.” We’d managed ten years in business! The most advanced lines by world standards had been purchased, installed, adjusted and were working to the fullest. We were ready to take over the world! TechnoNICOL were the leaders, TechnoNICOL were the very best. The company was renowned as the best manufacturer of rolled roofing materials. Everyone knows us, respects and even fears us. And then suddenly everything went wrong. Things didn’t go exactly according to my plans. Not at all… 

We were slowly moving towards our own demise. To some extent, we were even accelerating towards it thanks to our efficiency and perseverance. Owing to our desire to undercut our competitors… 

And then cames the tipping point. The upcoming annual corporate conference. The top managers, the directors of the plants, the key specialists — they were all here. It was a full house. It was our CFO’s turn to deliver a presentation. Our CFO comes out, she has been working for the company since the very beginning, and she says, “I’m going to tell you when we’re going to die.” And there was a chart on the screen titled “When We’re Going to Die.” 

There was deafening silence. You could hear a pin drop. Our CFO announced that in twelve months we would start working at a loss. In another twelve months we would exhaust our reserves; the company’s core power would be completely depleted and TechnoNICOL would die. 

At this point, I appear on stage and deliver my killer message: We are not prepared to die! Well, I used some stronger words, which I won’t repeat here.

However, I still had no plan for how to survive. I just had the desire to try every which way. A burning desire to look for a way to survive! And it turned out that the willingness to go beyond the framework of the accepted norms, to start looking — that was exactly what was needed.

It turned out that previously I had always sought out and listened to people with similar views. Or I only heard from my interlocutors arguments that fitted into my worldview, that suited my ideas. Competitors, suppliers, clients, consultants: everyone I talked to, I fit everyone into my template. Into my own plan. 

How could we save a company that produced a single product? It couldn’t be saved. It was necessary to stop being a single-product company. I had to become a supplier of building solutions. As soon as I internally came to terms with the fact that it was necessary to move away from our single product, everything immediately fell into place. I went back to our clients, and started offering them not a single product, but a “roof pie” and complex solutions. And they immediately replied: “Oh! That’s really interesting!” It became clear what to do — to go into the production of insulation. For example, to start offering stone wool. That’s the story. So the main thing is to have the ability to overcome your success. Don’t be rigid. If you are rigid, you are in danger.

Also, I would like to add that I have a stake in the logistics company “Lorry” in Africa. Moreover, TechnoNICOL also continues to develop rapidly, expanding its geography. Now we are considering the possibility of building a plant or buying assets in Egypt or another country in North Africa, while Egypt is our priority.

– In your experience as a successful entrepreneur, what major hurdles must be overcome to encourage the creation of companies?

– All boilerplate strategies are second-hand templates. They’re not for you, they’re NOT by you, and they’re not for here. Be careful with them! 

I hate the word strategy — it has caused serious harm to a lot of people. I like the word business plan. Strategy is something that claims to be of extreme importance and high precision. In fact, it is just an illusion, a pattern of thinking that someone once declared meaningful. 

A business plan is a tool. It can be used for specific purposes. If you want to support an existing aim, act on the business plan. You can even call it a strategy.

But when you want to go from good to great — act beyond illusions. All the great things that happened to me happened when I acted beyond illusions. 

By outlining strategies, experts can, in retrospect, explain all my successes, but they are not able to give an accurate forecast for the future based on these explanations. So, these are erroneous explanations.

They are usually called daring dreams. But the reality of an illusion is a belief in smart strategies. Look! Elon Musk recently became the richest man in the world. Here’s a man acting beyond the framework of illusions!

Musk has been accused of all the mortal sins. But at the end of the day, he’s the richest man in the world, and his critics are strategists? Who is under illusions in the end? Strategy is just a structural disproportion; an illusion that one has pursued in vain.

But how can you act beyond illusions? I’m supposed to have the secret, right? Right?

Of course, there is a secret. Strategies do exist, but they are not what we commonly use this word to describe. There are behavioural strategies. Everything else is a figment of the imagination. 

There is only that — behavioural strategies. The rest is either garbage or a business plan. 

So, what behavioural strategies have determined my success? 

1. Accept that the fulcrum is inside you. As Archimedes used to say, “give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” This fulcrum is not somewhere outside, this strong support is always inside you! And if this fulcrum is outside, you will never have a leg to stand on.

“THE FULCRUM is inside you!”

2. Do find co-conspirators to your cause. These are the people with whom you will be a winner and set incredible goals.

“Flow and co-creation generate x10 energy”

3. At least 30 percent of the time, you should be devoted to philanthropic, socially transformative projects and increase public awareness of your personality. That’s how you expand your personal arsenal of self-expression and behavioural strategies.

“Expand the arsenal of behavioural strategies and self-expression”

4. Become part of a community where there are already many successful figures. Let them care about you. They won’t let you be any less bright than is possible. 

“Become part of a collective community of support and development…”

5. Have more than 10 disciples and pass on the beliefs and practices that have made you successful. 

If you want to go from good to great, act beyond illusions.

If you want to act beyond illusions, control your behavioural strategies

– A few years ago you stepped back from TechnoNICOL to focus on philanthropy. Your Rybakov Foundation launched a $100 million education fund as well as the Rybakov Prize, and the foundation also supports and protects the interest of families all over the world on their journey to quality education, success, prosperity and well-being. What are some of the biggest accomplishments the Rybakov Foundation has made to date in Russia, the world, and in Africa? What are your future plans?

– I would like to clarify right away: on Feb. 2, 2020, my wife Ekaterina and I signed the Education Pledge, thus promising to give $100,000,000 of our wealth to education development over the next ten years. The Rybakov Foundation and all our educational initiatives exist precisely due to these funds. And we have big plans.

Ekaterina and I created the Rybakov Foundation in 2015: we were engaged in the development of education, the nonprofit sector, and entrepreneurship. One of our key activities was supporting entrepreneurship. Our initiatives in this area have already become successful independent projects: the “Equium” international business club, and the “Preaktum” program for the development of entrepreneurship among young people.

We are especially proud of our international PRO Women community, which already has 22,000 members: women working according to a special methodology in groups of 6-12 people, developing trusting relationships, with everyone helping each other set goals and achieve them, going beyond the usual framework. And it works! Many participants demonstrate their ability in business and create workplaces. Incidentally, there are no PRO Women groups on the African continent yet, but the potential here is really incredible! We really hope that such groups will be created soon.

Returning to the Rybakov Foundation, our goal was broader — to awaken in everyone an entrepreneurial attitude they can apply to their lives. This means being independent, being able to set one’s own goals that are not imposed by someone else, finding resources to achieve them, and being responsible.

Suddenly we realized that there was no need to awaken anything — we just needed to avoid extinguishing what was already there! After all, all children up to a certain age are entrepreneurs intrinsically. They research, try, and are not afraid to make mistakes until the adults in kindergartens and schools begin to tell them that it’s supposedly wrong to do this, and it’s right to do things a certain way and not otherwise. This kills the entrepreneurial instinct in many. It is then very hard to revive it, people lose control over their lives, it is hard for them to figure out what they want, where their strengths lie.

That is why we decided to focus on education. Having an influence on education is the most effective way to change the future! We ensured that in kindergartens and schools there is an environment that allows children to discover their entrepreneurial potential, believe in themselves, try different roles and gain invaluable experience with which they will enter the adult world, and become successful and happy.

We have held the Rybakov Preschool Award for 5 years. It is a contest for preschool educators. This year it became international for the first time. More than 20,000 people took part in it — teachers, managers, and entrepreneurs. Among the winners of the Educational Community Leader nomination there have been many participants from the African continent: community leaders from Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania. We aim not only to award prizes, we want to form a community of winners. In addition, at our initiative, the preschool educational program PRO Kids was created. It nurtures children’s skills —independence, self-regulation, and interaction — and all this happens in the process of playing. Hundreds of kindergartens and thousands of teachers work under this program. And it is really incredibly effective, you just need to hear the feedback from teachers and parents to understand this! This program is at the core of the Rybakov Playschool kindergartens chain, which I am launching right now.

As for the development of education in schools, we are implementing a model that involves creating school communities. This is an extremely simple and democratic idea. Any school can create a community that will fill it with an atmosphere of trust, support, and will motivate students to learn and develop an entrepreneurial attitude to life. In addition, the community gives power to schools. Imagine that the families of students, alumni, and local and regional organizations — from museums to bakeries — are partners and allies of the school! This is a force that can cope with any task and open up educational opportunities for children, even in a small village.

We are especially proud of the innovative international game-based competition, the Rybakov School Award. In a game format, participants — children and adults — work together on tasks from a chatbot to create a community and attract resources for the school. Thousands of people from 29 countries took part in two seasons of the game. We will launch the new season this fall. In July we invited the participants themselves to design the new season with us. Well, who else but us could do that?

The Rybakov Prize is also a point of pride for us. It is an international award for philanthropists who invest their resources in education. The $ 1 million Grand Prix was won by Abdul Abdulkerimov, the founder of the Luminary educational center in a Russian mountain village. By the way, the creator of the American non-profit organization Educate! — Boris Bulayev — received $ 100,000! His team is implementing an entrepreneurial and leadership development program in thousands of schools in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Graduates of the program find jobs in modern industries or, what’s even cooler, establish startups and create jobs that the local community needs.

It seems to me that our foundation itself operates in a similar way to a startup, and this is also an achievement and a great rarity for the non-profit sector. We are mobile, react quickly to situations, change, consider the impact, release new programs as iterations, and collect feedback.

This is how we recently came across a big idea in the foundation — #familyfocused. We realized that during the pandemic, the family physically became the major platform for the education and parenting of children. It was faced with an enormous burden. But this experience also made it possible to realize that the family has long been the main actor in education: we just did not notice. Just look: school, kindergarten, and universities are losing their monopoly on education, they are just blocks in a large construction set. It is the family that decides how to assemble it based on their ideas. We want to help the family make a decision and choose exactly the bricks they need. We invoke the entire educational ecosystem to focus on the interests of the family. As for ourselves, we determined that the mission of the family is to raise and release into the world an autonomous, capable person, an individual who knows how to love, create, and make choices. The school, kindergartens and all members of the educational ecosystem should be partners of the family in this mission, to create a unified educational environment. We are now incorporating this idea into all our programs.

A great goal, don’t you think? I will do everything I can to make sure that 1 billion families improve their quality of life. To give families around the world a more secure and prosperous future.

Today, no one knows what the future holds for our children, what skills they will need to become successful and happy. I don’t know either. Yet, children continue to be taught, as if adults know everything in line with the programs drawn up in previous eras. 

No one knows what to teach. But I know for a fact that a person’s personality is formed in the first ten years of their life. This period should not be neglected. That’s why I launched the Rybakov Playschool project, a network of kindergartens and schools where children are taught the main thing — to be independent, free and responsible. This is the key to inspiring action in all circumstances. It’s a skill for the future! The education received at the Rybakov Playschool will help bring up the two most important competencies in children. The first one is the generating of protection against abuse of power and control. And the second one is the generating of the ability to conceive — and to achieve what is conceived using the resources that you already have. This knowledge will become the main assistant for the family in increasing the sense of security and quality of life. They will help educate people who build life according to their own rules.

The Rybakov Playschool will change the standards in education for children 3-12 years old all over the world. We will offer educational solutions for the safety, success and well-being of each family. My goal is that there will be 1,000 Rybakov Playschools by 2025, and 10,000 Rybakov Playschools by 2035. 

– You’re one of the major promoters of Famtech. What is Famtech and why do you think it will become a major trend in the coming years?

– Famtech is a technology designed to help families on their path to prosperity and well-being. While the term is not widespread, the famtech industry already exists and it is burgeoning among start-ups and non-profit initiatives. They help families keep their finances in check, monitor their health, plan and manage pregnancy, and hire nannies, teachers, nurses, etc. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, famtech is attracting more businesses and philanthropists. 

Why is this the case? In 2020, families were placed under pressure from a shrinking labor market, rising costs, and the emergence of new functions. Today the family needs support more than ever, and a lot of people understand this.

Another reason is as follows: millennials start their own families with a reliance on technology. While ten years ago babytech and femtech were niche markets, they are now growing rapidly. According to Frost & Sullivan’s report, the revenue of the femtech market will reach $1.1 billion by 2024 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.9 percent. For example, the AMMA Pregnancy Tracker, an international service for pregnant women and their families, in which I invested $200,000 in December 2020. This startup’s value grew four times to reach $24.5 million within a year. I see AMMA’s future as a leading player in the FamTech segment that will support the family with the information, educational and financial services collected on the AMMA Family platform. My challenge is for AMMA to have an impact on the lives of 1 billion families by 2030. By then, AMMA will be worth $15-20 billion. AMMA, together with the Rybakov Foundation, PRO Women community, and the Rybakov PlaySchool will bring the concept of “make the family great today” to life. 

The family matters. Families and communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. People with more social connections have been better equipped to deal with the challenges of lockdown. It is our mission to create supportive social relations that bolster the safety and prosperity of everyone worldwide.

– As a philanthropist yourself, what tips would you give to wealthy Africans on how to donate smarter? How should people go about choosing a cause to support? Even within a certain cause, there are dozens of organizations to support. How do you narrow it down?

– Join the EdHeroes Social Movement

Behind this movement is our idea that everyone can and should be an EdHero. You are an EdHero if you are ready to invest your time, ideas, and other resources with the aim of changing education for the better. You are an EdHero, if you believe that it is possible to influence education and thus change the world for the better, openly promote this idea in any form and have had a positive impact on the lives of more than ten people. 

Every human is endowed from birth with a superpower that can organize your whole life. But if you do not know what exact superpower it is, you cannot take advantage of it. So how can you find out which superpower you have? 

The only way is to meet an EdHero, a person around whom your superpower manifests itself. There is also a way to protect yourself from the disappearance of your superpower — to become an EdHero too, which means that at least ten people around you find out what their superpower is. I realized that all my achievements in life, in family, in business, in any sphere are connected with the fact that I am an EdHero, too. So I urge you to join the EdHeroes Social Movement as soon as possible. 

It will connect individuals and organizations, whose mutual objective is in line with the United Nations SDG4 and family-focused education in an efficient network and accumulate their resources to address the most pressing challenges education faces in different regions. 

We believe that this movement will direct people’s energy — they may not even be professionally in the sphere of education — towards achieving SDG 4. They may be entrepreneurs, school graduates, or people from a range of professions. That’s a massive and untapped resource! 

In March, we held the first global EdHeroes Forum, “Education 2021: Family in Focus,” which was attended by more than 33,000 people from 167 countries. It was held by the Rybakov Foundation and the University of Childhood with the World Bank Education, UNESCO IITE, and the World Organization for Early Childhood Education. The key educators from all over the world signed a manifesto encouraging the educational ecosystem to focus on family needs. 

Joining the EdHeroes Social Movement, you can increase your social impact, meet like-minded thinkers in order to achieve a synergy effect, become a speaker at the EdHeroes Forum in order to spread your values globally, establish a local EdHeroes Forum to inspire people to change the world through education.

I believe in the incredible economic, social and cultural potential of Africa. I believe that the EdHeroes Social Movement and our other initiatives will help unlock this potential, and increase the connectedness between people and families. It will help them cooperate more, learn from each other, and not depend on hierarchical structures. It will help form defences against the abuse of control and power. This is because all our initiatives are based on cooperation, collaboration, and a community of shared values. Africa is the region with the fastest-growing population. I am amazed by the fact that by 2050, the number of children on the continent will increase sevenfold, reach almost 1 billion and account for almost 40 percent of the total number of children in the world. Education in this context is a real challenge. I think it is the right time to act.

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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.



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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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.



Malagasy MP and African Judo Union President Siteny Thierry Randrianasolo-Niaiko.

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.

Malagasy MP and African Judo Union President Siteny Thierry Randrianasolo-Niaiko.

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.

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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.



Businessman Hamis Kiggundu.

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.

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