Masiyiwa’s loyalty is to business

PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa is “sincere in what he’s doing”, economic recovery will be tough and Western sanctions must be lifted, says Econet Wireless founder Strive Masiyiwa.

Strive Masiyiwa

Masiyiwa was part of a panel of leading businessmen to attend and speak at an investment conference hosted by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last Friday.

In an interview with CNBC Africa on the side lines of the conference, Masiyiwa said of Mnangagwa: “Concerning the change that has taken place, I believe it is real. I believe President Mnangagwa is sincere in the things he wants to do.”

But he cautioned that recovery will not be easy. “It is going to be extremely challenging. Anyone who understands economics knows it’s going to be tough going.”

Zimbabwe, he said, “has to stop the politicking and focus on rebuilding this country.”

The country has to be given a chance and sanctions have to be lifted, says Masiyiwa.

“I’ve always been on record to say that sanctions are not justified. And now we’re almost 20 years into the sanctions. You can’t have one country operating with its hands tied behind its back.”

One of ours

The predictable reaction from both ends of Zimbabwe’s polarised politics – cheers from one end and rage from another – reflects a long battle by the competing political interests to own Masiyiwa and win his endorsement.

Masiyiwa’s remarks will be cheered by Mnangagwa, currently desperate to win over a business sector that has fast grown disillusioned with his administration over its unsteady handling of the economy since his re-election.

On the other side, opposition backers have reacted with fury against Masiyiwa. After taking it for granted for years that he was theirs, even this guarded view of Mnangagwa and the economy has been taken with the bitterness of a lover betrayed.

However, less than a reflection of his political preference, Masiyiwa is merely showing the deft pragmatism of a man who has built a business that now permeates many aspects of Zimbabweans’ lives.

For years, various political groups have sought his endorsement, which they imagined would bring them both financial and political clout. At no point has he kowtowed to politicians, even when some believed he needed to for the sake of his business. He’s unlikely to start now, and seeing his remarks on Mnangagwa as such is to ignore how he works.

Building a business under a government hostile to him, he has learnt to bite when he needed to, and, when required, to be pragmatic, but still never fawning or bending the knee. It’s always been about his stubborn streak, and the bottom line.

Monopoly capital

Masiyiwa’s Econet is the largest company on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, with a market capitalisation of $5,4 billion as at Tuesday’s market close. It turned in annual revenues of $831 million in the last financial year.

It’s easy to see why many crave Masiyiwa’s endorsement. Econet is everywhere.

His EcoCash has a virtual monopoly over mobile money transfers, with a 97% market share. Econet also owns 100% of Steward Bank and runs pay-TV service Kwesé. The company has recently launched Vaya, a ride-hailing and delivery service modelled along Uber. His companies install house alarms and provides funeral, vehicle and farm insurance. Econet even sells tech that measures your blood pressure.

At the end of its first year of operation in 1998, Econet had 32 000 users. This has grown to over 11 million, a commanding share of the mobile market.

He is often accused of building a monopoly. It’s not like it was not handed to him; he invested while competitors were caught in the same political webs he has avoided. Much of that growth was funded by multi-creditor loans, with US$460 million secured between 2012 and 2014.

Owing foreign US dollars but earning local money, Econet had to turn to shareholders last year to relieve debt via a record-size rights issue, underwritten by Masiyiwa’s privately held external firm.

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