Serial entrepreneur, founder of the Sekunjalo Group, and arguably Africa’s most successful and largest investor in technology and innovation—Dr Iqbal Survé shows us how diversification in one’s business investments can reap rewards
When most investors in Africa were focusing on hard-core resources, Survé—who had exited the oil business in September 2013 after about 12 years—started focusing on technology and media technology.
“We have partnered with multinationals across the continent, and hence are present in about 50 of the 54 African countries between these partners. As such, together we have been able to change the way we engage and do business on the continent.”
In the world of investing, three words come to mind: Overwhelming. Intimidating. Scary. For us ‘average Joes’, the questions and challenges seem never-ending, but there are a few select people in the world who seem to have that Midas power—turning whatever they touch into gold.
Sir Richard Branson and Warren Buffet spring to mind, and right here in our own backyard, Dr Iqbal Survé most certainly fits the same bill. A few readers may only know him from some of the controversial mud-slinging matches he has had with other media powerhouses since taking over South Africa’s largest print media group, Independent Media. (This is not surprising, really, considering that media houses generally use their own mediums in print and digital formats to spin their versions of stories/agendas and hope they stick. It is and always will be the nature of that beast.) Wherever those media wars may end up is neither here nor there, as there’s no doubt this Doctor has ticked some incredible boxes with very clever investing in all the right places, especially in technology and innovation—and is busy creating Africa’s own Silicon Valley in Cape Town.
As this is Fast Company SA’s special edition for the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa taking place in May in Durban, and the fact Survé was honoured by the WEF on many occasions—including being the first chair of its “New Champions”, the Global Growth Companies Board (according to WEF chairman Professor Klaus Schwab, the GGC are leaders in innovation and technology), as well as being vice-chairman of the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Multinationals—we thought it would be an apt time to look into some of his incredibly diverse and successful business interests. (At the time of press, Survé was also appointed to the highly prestigious position of chairman of the BRICS Business Council.)
Our interview takes place in Survé’s plush executive ‘man cave’ of an office in Claremont, which is clearly the mothership for all his varied interests and investments. He says he has always had his private investment office/family office separate from his investments/corporate office. Three personal assistants scurry around him taking notes, making calls and frantically trying to keep up with his brain and requests that seem to be moving at freight-train speed. They look driven to succeed in an environment where the Doctor apparently is always on the go from the early hours of the morning to late into the night. I battle to imagine how any of his worker bees have much of a social life, but they don’t seem too concerned about it.
Where it all began
Dr Survé is a physician, entrepreneur and an ardent philanthropist, born and educated in Cape Town. He was known as the “Struggle Doctor”, because of his provision of medical care to victims of apartheid brutality, including some of those imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island. He had a personal and/or professional relationship with many former prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Govan Mbeki upon their release from the Island.
In 1997, President Mandela made an impassioned plea for black professionals to enter the mainstream economy of South Africa in order to bring about meaningful transformation of the socio-economic landscape, with the aim of redressing the legacy of apartheid. This resulted in Survé leaving his first love, medicine, and founding the Sekunjalo Group—which is today wholly owned by the Survé family. He serves as executive chairman of the group, with its headquarters in Cape Town. Sekunjalo has more than 200 investments across Africa, with an intrinsic market value exceeding $4 billion (R53.9 billion)—an amazing feat considering Surve, who came from humble beginnings, founded the group a mere 19 years ago with an investment of only $20 000. The group is the shareholding/equity partner to a number of multinationals on the continent, including Siemens, Nokia, Saab, BT, Solidago and Coriant, among others; Survé serves as chairman or deputy chair of many of these companies’ boards.
The group is recognised by the WEF as one of the world’s fastest growing companies and a New Champion/Forum Advisory member; Survé is a regular contributor and participant in the Davos and Summer Davos meetings. Its investment portfolio includes Oil & Gas, Food, Fishing, Aquaculture, Power, Resources, Transport & Mobility, Telecoms, Civil Security & Defence, Media, Technology, Biotechnology, Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals, and Asset Management. The group also pioneers many social impact investment initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa.
Survé Philanthropies, the philanthropic foundation of the Survé family, has seven separate foundations supporting children’s, women’s and human rights; education; music, arts and culture; entrepreneurship; social impact investing; climate change; and healthcare. The Sekunjalo Group distributes 90% of its annual dividends received from its investments to these foundations, with the aim of impacting positively on the future of the people of Africa. Sekunjalo also recently launched a R500-million social impact fund.
Africa’s time is now
The story of Africa’s rising (Afro-positivism and Afro-capitalism) is an important narrative to which the Survé family and Sekunjalo have committed themselves by investing in businesses across the continent. “The group is really a large entity with more than 115 000 people employed directly and through its affiliated companies,” says Survé proudly. “So when we talk about affiliated companies: Say we have a shareholding in Siemens or Saab or Nokia or Pioneer Foods—these are all some of the companies in which the group has invested. The group is the biggest and most successful technology investor on the African continent.”
This is indeed quite a statement, so I delve a little further and ask the Doctor to give us some more information on his business interests in technology. The question is, how did a South African entrepreneur and technology investor based at the southernmost tip of African achieve dollar-billionaire status? And what is it that he has invested in, and what are the sectors—and why?
When most investors in Africa were focusing on hard-core resources, Survé—who had exited the oil business in September 2013 (good timing and good luck at the peak of the oil price) after about 12 years—started focusing on technology and media technology. “Our approach, in fact, was a dual strategy. Firstly, we wanted to partner with multinationals and become shareholders with them on the African continent, including our first multinational partner 19 years ago, the Siemens business unit in sub-Saharan Africa. This led to the second strategy, which was to use the dividends from these multinational investments to fund entrepreneurs and businesses in new technologies,” he explains.
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