Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

Strive Masiyiwa: A vision to connect Africa’s greatest asset — its youth — to the world

Episode Summary

At a time when most Africans had not yet heard the sound of a ringing telephone, Strive Masiyiwa, an impatient young engineer, successfully challenged Zimbabwe’s state-run telecoms monopoly to get the licenses he needed to launch Econet Wireless. The court’s decision reverberated across Africa, clearing the way for private sector operators to enter this new mobile technology industry and connect people across the continent for the first time. Residing in South Africa and the UK since 2000, the successful tech tycoon, recognized as one of the “50 Most Influential People” and one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” now drives his pan-African vision. Today, with the same persistence, he and his companies set their sights to ensure that all 1.3 billion+ Africans get access to digital infrastructure, close the digital skills gap, and invest in the continent’s young entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions for healthcare and food insecurity.

Episode Notes

At a time when most Africans had not yet heard the sound of a ringing telephone, Strive Masiyiwa, an impatient young engineer, successfully challenged Zimbabwe’s state-run telecoms monopoly to get the licenses he needed to launch Econet Wireless. The court’s decision reverberated across Africa, clearing the way for private sector operators to enter this new mobile technology industry and connect people across the continent for the first time. Residing in South Africa and the UK since 2000, the successful tech tycoon, recognized as one of the “50 Most Influential People” and one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” now drives his pan-African vision. Today, with the same persistence, he and his companies set their sights to ensure that all 1.3 billion+ Africans get access to digital infrastructure, close the digital skills gap, and invest in the continent’s young entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions for healthcare and food insecurity.


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Episode Transcription

Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.

Strive Masiyiwa: The world needs Africa, and my glass is half full. I really believe we could be at a major pivoting point for Africa and it's a bright day for us.

Brad Smith: That's Strive Masiyiwa. He's one of Africa's most prominent business leaders, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. He's a native of Zimbabwe and he's founder of the Econet Group, the company that, perhaps more than any other, has brought telecommunications and technology to every part of the African continent. But he's also focused on the future. He's impatient for progress as he works to bring connectivity, opportunity and digital skills to Africa's youth. My conversation with Strive Masiyiwa about the future of Africa, coming up next on Tools and Weapons.

Brad Smith: Strive, thank you so much for joining me today. It's always a pleasure to be with you. I think you have an extraordinary story to tell about where you've come from and most importantly, where you are leading into the future. We'll talk about Africa, but you bring such a broad business perspective from the business, Econet, that you've built in Africa. But today you're on the board of Unilever, you're on the board of Netflix where you and I spend time together on that board. You're on the board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But like so many successful people, your roots are more humble. Can you tell us your early days and what first put you on a journey to connect, I'll say the world of technology, with the great potential in Africa?

Strive Masiyiwa: No, thank you, Brad, and it's a great honor to be with you today. Well, I was born in the southern African country of Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, which was going through tumultuous times, as you know. And my family moved when I was six, moved to another African country today called Zambia. And there I did what you would call elementary school I guess. And then I moved to the United Kingdom and studied in Scotland for my high school and then decided I wanted to try a different British country. So I moved to Wales and did a degree in engineering in Wales and I did electrical and electronic engineering. Of course, it was great because that's the time when Bill and those guys were launching Microsoft, and we were absolutely enthralled, young guys like me.

Strive Masiyiwa: When I returned to my home country, which had now settled its Civil War, I went into telecommunications and in those days, telecommunications were state owned. And after just a couple of years I realized, "You know what? I'm just too impatient for the pace around here." So I had an option of whether I should return, but I really wanted to stay and try and be helpful. So I decided to start my own company at the age of 26, which was kind of unheard of at the time.

Brad Smith: Well, and knowing you as I do, I'm not the least bit surprised that you wanted to move faster than telecommunications was moving in southern Africa at the time. And I think as I recall, when you first set up your company to focus on mobile communications, it was a time when less than 2% of the homes in Zimbabwe were connected with a landline. Is that right?

Strive Masiyiwa: Absolutely. I started first as a general engineering contractor, but in 1993 when I was, of course, following what was going on in my industry of passion, telecommunications, and that was the year we were all talking about the emergence of the digital standard, what we've come to know as GSM. And I looked at it and I said, "This is it. I've got to give this a shot." I saw also that a lot of entrepreneurs around the world were the ones launching this rather than governments. So I went to the government and I said, "I have a brilliant idea. I'd like to set up a mobile communications company." And they said, "Oh, no, no, no, no, that's state domain." And you're a lawyer, Brad. I said, "What do you mean state domain?" They said, "It's a monopoly." I said, "Well, 0.14% of our population have a phone. What's the monopoly over?" And so somebody said to me, a brilliant young lawyer, very reckless it seems now, said, "Why don't you take them to court?"

Strive Masiyiwa: And when you're that young, I guess I was about 30 or 31, I said, "Yeah, great idea." Hired a lawyer and the whole state system came down on me. They were not amused. So I wrote up a mission statement and I said, "My mission is to provide telecommunications to all the people of Africa." And my lawyer said, "I think that's a little bit ambitious." So I said, "Okay, Zimbabwe." And that was my mission statement for the next 10 years. But we ended up in an incredible legal battle, which was actually settled on the freedom of expression, where we argued that 75% of the African people had never heard a telephone ringing. So what was the point of these monopolies in a modern era? So the court struck it down, and that made the government even more upset, but eventually they allowed us to proceed. But I left the country soon after that.

Brad Smith: But you did not give up on your dream. I mean, to me it is fascinating. It's a little bit coincidental because you started as that young entrepreneur in 1993 was the same year I joined Microsoft. So we can both look back at the past 30 years and think about how different Africa is and how different the world is today. You have in your company Econet today in many ways realized at least a substantial part of your original dream both in terms of mobile communications, but you've laid fiber optic cable from the Mediterranean Sea to Cape Town at the other end of the African continent. You've done the same thing from the east coast to the west coast. You've got data centers. You're bringing cloud computing with many companies, including Microsoft, to the people of Africa. When you look at where you are today and you think about the dream you first created for yourself, how close are you to being able to say mission accomplished?

Strive Masiyiwa: Well, I didn't do it alone. As this decision of the court reverberated across Africa, all the monopolies began to fall. It was an age of incredible entrepreneurship on the continent, and I became a kind of evangelist for telecommunications and investment in telecommunications. So I traveled all over the continent. I set up joint ventures in Nigeria, in Kenya, all sorts of places. And of course, I had relocated to South Africa. So today looking back, 75% of the African people have a telephone, nevermind having heard a ringtone. So on the mobile side, it was an incredible accomplishment for the industry that emerged out of this. But around about 2003, I realized that the game had changed, it was going to be about connectivity and that we couldn't keep doing victory laps around mobile. We had to move on.

Strive Masiyiwa: And that's when I started to say, "We got to put digital infrastructure on the ground. We got to lay fiber." So today in our own company we've laid a hundred thousand miles of fiber across the continent. We've just completed what I consider the most difficult build we've ever done. It goes from Luanda in Angola across the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the world's second largest rainforest, and we crossed to the other side all the way to Mombasa, and it took us just completed in the last week. So we've dredged our way, even during Covid. We cut across and now traffic can go directly from the United States, straight across Africa to Asia. So we are kind of really excited about that. But really it's about making sure now that every African is digitally connected.

Brad Smith: As you and I sometimes discuss, Africa is not just an extraordinary continent with extraordinary nature and resources, but it has what I think has become one of the most extraordinary, I'll say, natural resources in the world in its people. 1.3 billion people, the world's youngest population. A growing population. One of the things I just find fascinating is that at a time when many of the world's countries are starting to see their population level off or even decline, Africa is very much still accelerating. The working age population of the continent over the last period of time from, say 2010 looking forward to 2030, is going to grow from 370 million adults to 600 million. And education is continuing to spread. You have become, I believe, a tremendous ambassador for so many aspects of Africa's future. And you've given me great advice. You did last year when I was going to Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya.

Brad Smith: But what most impressed me recently, I have to say, is when you came to Washington DC for the African Leaders Summit in December. You stood next to the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and you gave the case, if you will, for why the United States and others need to invest in Africa for the future. Can you summarize what you think is at stake and why the world should be so energized by this opportunity?

Strive Masiyiwa: Well, as I said in that speech, Brad, by the turn of the century, 40% of the world's population could be African. And already we are, I think, past the 50% point of young people being African. So from a population point of view, it's extraordinary. But even if you look at our economic side, Africa's GDP is about $3 trillion, which has gone from $350 billion 25 years ago. That's a 7x growth. 

Brad Smith: It's extraordinary. 

Strive Masiyiwa: But it shows you that Africa is a real economy with a real potential and it really, really excites us seeing the commitment that Microsoft is leading in showing that you believe in Africa. We need to invest in those young people. We need to invest in their dreams as young entrepreneurs and lift up. Because in the end, we can do a lot of aid, but if we equip young people with the skills, with skills in maths, digital skills, that's where the future lies. And of course give them an ecosystem to help build that future. It could be a very exciting future for Africa in the next 25 years, but we have to start now and we have to be doing a lot of the stuff that your Africa Transformation Office has been doing with us and other partners on the continent.

Brad Smith: I'd love to unpack that a little bit because, as I think the individual who more than any other individual has seen the spread of connectivity across Africa, as we look to the future and as one of your companies, Liquid, is working with Microsoft, I think we both look at this and we see the opportunity to advance connectivity, to bring the internet, even the internet at broadband speeds, I'll say ultimately to everyone across Africa. And then to use that connectivity to bring skills. Can you say a little bit about how you're pursuing that connection, if you will, between I'll say the cloud, connectivity, skilling, how that comes together for people in Africa?

Strive Masiyiwa: We've been building data centers with you and we are building data centers right now in Africa's 10 largest economies. We are building them as quickly as we can in anticipation of the growth of cloud. We obviously work very much on Microsoft 365, the Azure stack. We're very excited about that. But we're also experimenting, preparing now for Azure Orbital, which is a very exciting project for us. And we are building teleports in anticipation of being able to really get that going. But I think what also excites me a lot, being a philanthropist as well, is just the other stuff that we've been doing around training, looking for ways to do connectivity with TV white space and other things that we've tried to execute with you.

Strive Masiyiwa: But we are also doing a lot of work around building tech hubs. We have a platform, for instance, where we offer Microsoft skills on a platform that we ourselves built as part of our own philanthropy. We offer these courses for free and from a lot of other providers in artificial intelligence and so forth and machine learning where these young people can log in from these tech hubs. We provide broadband access for the tech hubs, innovation hubs so that they can train themselves. And if they so wish to go on to be certified, they can proceed without us. But we basically say they're their courses, go do them because we are passionate about the fact that the key to unlock this potential is really to focus on skills. We are so glad that these are areas that we are trying to do together. We're working with UNICEF and yourselves to connect in a program we hope will eventually connect up to 10,000 schools, and all the content for that and the infrastructure is part of what you've been able to help us with.

Brad Smith: Yeah, by coincidence, I was talking last week with Meg Whitman, the former American tech entrepreneur who you know is well known as now the US Ambassador to Kenya. And one of the things she was describing was her view that in a country like Kenya, this combination of connectivity, of skills, of education had really created the foundation for a growth in manufacturing. She was making the case that as American and other companies think about putting manufacturing facilities in more places as perhaps many companies are looking to alternatives to China, they should of course continue to focus on say, Vietnam and Mexico and India, but they should be considering Kenya. They should be looking at Africa. How do you see that opportunity at this point?

Strive Masiyiwa: So she's right. Obviously we are going to be more of a slow burn. We're not going to take off at the pace of a China or India because these are unitary states, whereas we are really 54 sovereign countries. We try extremely hard to coordinate and work together as much as possible. You have to just take that with you. Look, we want to manufacture without a doubt, but we have to be also realistic to try and understand the nature of manufacturing into the future. But I cannot disagree with her that countries like Kenya are really beginning to pick up pace and it could be a very exciting place for all of us.

Brad Smith: One of the great things, Strive, I think about your experience, your career is you started as an entrepreneur, you've built this extraordinary company, you've connected a continent in so many ways, but you've looked a lot more broadly as well. So the other thing I'd really like to talk a little bit about are what I regard is these two great causes that you have pursued, public health and now more recently, food security. Let me start with public health. You were, I think, persuaded initially. You helped address the AIDS crisis. You were enlisted to address the Ebola crisis. More recently you took on this extraordinary mission during Covid on behalf of all of the African nations to coordinate the delivery of vaccines. What did you learn about the public health needs and ways to address them in Africa from those experiences?

Strive Masiyiwa: When we did HIV AIDS, really I was just a young entrepreneur whose employees were dying and leaving young children. And in our country there was no pension systems. So I said, "Okay, I will educate their kids." Of course, this exploded over the years as we grew and became bigger. And we look back now 25 years and 250,000 children got some kind of scholarship from us. But Ebola was a little bit different, and that was the first time I was asked to lead an initiative of the private sector, to finance African healthcare workers who wanted to travel to the affected countries. And we eventually got a thousand healthcare workers into those countries. It was incredible collaboration with all the major companies operating in Africa. We reached out to you all and people were incredibly responsive. In two weeks, we raised the money we needed. But most of those people said, "Strive, how do we know the money is going to be used correctly?

Strive Masiyiwa: So I realized you can't just give money and walk away. So we created a trust. I chaired the trust, co-chaired it with the chairman of the African Union, and we would sign the checks together and she loved it. And she said, "Okay, if this is what you guys want, I'll do this every day." So we managed our own money and we actually did it and we ended up with $3 million of change. And little did I know that $3 million within a few years, we actually left it in the trust account. And then Covid came, and the president of South Africa called me and said, "Listen, Strive, this thing could kill 20 million people. So I'm appointing you Covid czar for the whole continent and you report to me and a group of presidents who will meet every two weeks." And he said, "By the way, you'll have to find the money yourself."

Brad Smith: It's called Mission Impossible. 

Strive Masiyiwa: Yeah, it was terrifying, as you can remember. We had no idea where it would go, how it would work out, but it was incredible to see these heads of state come on the screen every two weeks and we would talk about what needs to be done. By then, I had whole load of people with me, of course, my colleagues who joined me from the private sector. And we just said to them, "We think you need to lock down Lagos," for instance. And the president of Nigerian said, "Sure, sure. I will lock down Lagos." And somebody called me, they said, "There's no car on the street of Lagos. What have you guys done?" It was incredibly disciplined. And then when the vaccines came along, we had to raise the money and obviously mobilize. And as I said in that speech, without a doubt, the biggest partner we had was the United States government. I mean, they came to the table big time and they said, "We'll do 50%, you guys do 50%." We said, "We're good for that." We raised $3 billion and we bought the vaccines. 

Brad Smith: Well, and I want to talk a little bit more about vaccines and then ask a little bit about the food issue. On vaccines, I was so struck. You were standing next to the American Secretary of State and the Benjamin Franklin Diplomatic Reception Room, the top floor of the State Department, and you were diplomatic. You were even gracious as you are now. But you had to fight to get access to vaccines for Africa. Whether it was the United States or many other countries, the initial response was, "We're going to prioritize vaccines for our own people." Africa was not high on the list of many countries. How did you change that?

Strive Masiyiwa: To put in mildly, it was terrible. We thought it was just going to be about money. When we raised the money and we went around the world to talk to the manufacturers and they told us we'd been banned from exporting. We have to attend to our own population. So it wasn't just the US. It was right across the world, and I mean right across the world. So I was reporting back to the president of South Africa and I said to him, "We are not going to get vaccines for 12 months, now that they're available." And he said, "But I thought Johnson & Johnson are manufacturing vaccines at a plant in South Africa." I said, "I didn't know that." He said, "Well, let's call them." So he called them and they said, "Yes, but they're not for Africa." They were bringing in drug substance and were shipping off to Europe.

Strive Masiyiwa: And the president went absolutely berserk. He said, "No, they're not going anywhere. We will buy them off you." And Johnson & Johnson said, "Sure, we'll sell them to you, but you have to tell the Europeans." So the president called his counterpart in Europe and said, "Listen, these ones aren't for you. They're actually meant for us." So it was just extraordinary. We call it God's grace, to be honest with you, because we ended up with 300 million doses, single shot vaccines made available to us by Johnson & Johnson, which we bought. It wasn't enough, of course, because we were targeting 70% of our population, which is upwards of 750 million people. So we really had to turn. Fortunately, by the time the Biden administration came in, literally two weeks after the inauguration, they called me and they said, "You're the czar. Yeah, okay, let's have a meeting. We'll meet every two weeks. We are going to buy vaccines to support you. We've changed our policy." What had been a chilly reception earlier became an extraordinary partnership. And in the end, they really brought large amounts of vaccines that carried us through.

Brad Smith: And that, I think, is a remarkable part of the story in and of itself because it took a journey that actually was a climb up a steep hill. I think for you to ensure that vaccines created in Africa, manufactured in Africa could be used for people in Africa. And you had to open people's eyes to the need and the opportunity.

Brad Smith:I think there's a connection perhaps between that aspect of public health and what you're dealing with now on food insecurity. I remember last September at the UN General Assembly meeting, you and I were on stage together for a fireside chat about opportunities for investment in Africa. And yet beforehand, we were having this animated conversation backstage. I think by any fair measure, Africa should be an exporter of food, but it's an importer today, African yields are only 25% of the global average. If it were to reach 50%, Africa could export rather than import its food. How do you take that issue? How do you change the way people think about it? How do you change what's done so that African agriculture can realize its potential?

Strive Masiyiwa: Well, fortunately, although I was called for this crisis at this time, I have more history there because back in 2003, I met with Bill – Bill Gates, and with Kofi Annan, and he was stepping down as UN Secretary General. And we said, "We need to tackle food. We need to tackle African agriculture." And Bill said, "I'm game." The Rockefeller Foundation came in. So it was a massive collaboration between Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was my first time to meet Bill. We met to discuss this very issue as we would almost a decade later meet to discuss pandemics. So we started to look really why was this the situation. Africa, 63% of the world's unutilized arable land. If you look at irrigation, for instance, only 5% of our agriculture output comes through irrigation. India's at 53%. You talk of climate change. We are getting socked in the face because even what we produce, 40% never leaves the farm gate, as it were, because it's wasted through spoilage, because we lack the infrastructure, the cold chain systems, the distribution systems. We can't get stuff to market.

Strive Masiyiwa: So we've worked on things like adaptation of seeds, soil health and what have you. So we worked for many years together with the two major foundations and now the US government and many others. But what we've now asked the US to do is to say, "Let's partner to take this to a completely new level. What we need to do is to see real investment coming in." How do we make Africa more attractive for big private sector players to partner with Africa, to really open up this sector as well as open up global markets to African food? Because even when we produce, our people get discouraged because we can't get food across. You've been able to traverse the United States continent since Abraham Lincoln. We don't have a train that runs across any major borders, except perhaps in east Africa and southern Africa. We need to build rail that can traverse Africa. We need to build ports, we need to build storage infrastructure, hard, hard infrastructure, if we are to produce food. 

Strive Masiyiwa: These famines can happen in one part of Ethiopia and yet on another part of Ethiopia, there is food and you can't move it. You can have a drought in Zimbabwe, for instance. Malawi has food and we are neighbors and we have no rail link or major road link between the two. This is what needs to be addressed. That was the agreed communique, which came out of the US Africa Leadership Summit that this is an area that we are going to work on. And President Biden really put his stamp on it and he says, "I really want to make this happen." So we are very excited about that.

Brad Smith: I know we're out of time, but I would like to say this, Strive. When I go to Africa, I'm reminded that it gave birth to humanity. When I go to Egypt, I appreciate that it witnessed literally the dawn of civilization, and yet, it is so important to the planet's future, from a climate perspective, but even more importantly, from a people perspective. With 1.3 billion people, so many of whom are young and talented, it has what the world needs. You've been at it now for three decades, bringing connectivity and technology and opportunity to virtually every corner of Africa. What would you most like to see happen in the 10 years ahead?

Strive Masiyiwa: Number one, education. And here, I'm not just talking about going to school to read and write. You know that, Brad. We've got to get science and technology really into our education system quickly and as fast as we can because we won't be part of what's going to happen. The opportunities that AI and other industries are going to throw. The wealth that will be created by AI, your own reports say it'll be at least $30 trillion in the next decade. How do we participate if we are not digitally educated? So this is number one for me as an entrepreneur.

Strive Masiyiwa: Secondly, we've got to create the ecosystem for African entrepreneurs to solve problems entrepreneurially. We have young people that the place is bustling with young people that are entrepreneurial, but no one is investing in them. Africa isn't getting investment outside of the commodity sector. Our total FDI is less than the FDI of Singapore. How do we develop without investment? And here we're talking of real equity investment. We got to build venture capital infrastructure that's also homegrown. And much of this has to happen in Africa itself. We have to deregulate. We have to realize that what we've done is not enough. But when we do something, we need our partners to meet us halfway and see us as an opportunity rather than a burden. The world needs Africa, and my glass is half full. I really believe we could be at a major pivoting point for Africa, and it's a bright day for us.

Brad Smith: I think that's well put. And I think as you summarized so well, it's about education. It's about investment. As you've said, it's not about a handout. It's a hand up. It's not about foreign aid alone anymore. There is real opportunity for companies in tech and in every industry to grow their business by investing in Africa. And there will be changes needed by governments in Africa, but it will take the world to come together to help realize this potential as well. Because as you say, the glass is half full. Some might argue it's half empty. I know there's a lot of water in that glass, but the thing I know more than anything else, it's a really tall glass. There's room for a lot more water in it. I hope that there are those listening today who will think about what Africa can mean for their company's future, for their future.

Brad Smith: Because I think when we invest in Africa, we invest in an extraordinary place and people, but we invest in the world. So thank you for everything you've done. But even more importantly, Strive, I not only look forward to spending more time with you, I look forward even more to seeing what you have yet to do. I think we'll all benefit from it.

Strive Masiyiwa: Thank you, Brad, and thank you for the opportunity and thank you for our listeners.

Brad Smith: You've been listening to Tools and Weapons with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Browne and Aaron Thiese. This episode of Tools and Weapons was produced by Corina Hernandez and Jordan Rothlein. This podcast is edited in mixed by Jennie Cataldo, with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at RUN Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft made in partnership with Listen.