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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.

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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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Ethiopian tycoon Negusse Hailu recounts his experiences with EABSC

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

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Ethiopian businessman Negusse Hailu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— What does success mean to you? 

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

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Meet Osinachi Ukomadu, an African tech entrepreneur revolutionizing logistics

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

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Osinachi Ukomadu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Businesswoman Jess Henrich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Can you tell us more about your production process?

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

— How would you describe your gins in three words? 

Extremely, unusually delicious.

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

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

— What’s next for A Mari Ocean Gin?

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

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