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Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa with his wife, Tsitsi. Action Press/Shutterstock

Telecoms tycoon Strive Masiyiwa, 60, this week became the first black billionaire on The Sunday Times Rich List. Masiyiwa, who is Zimbabwean but lives in London, is Africa’s most successful businessman and was recently named as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune.

Never heard of him.
He flies under the radar, but in the business world – especially in Africa – he’s a legend. One of the continent’s most generous humanitarians, he has provided scholarships to more than 250,000 young Africans through his family foundation. What’s more, he supports more than 40,000 orphans through educational initiatives and sponsors students at universities in America, Britain and China.

How much is he worth?
A cool £1.087bn. He’s the founder and executive chairman of the tech group Econet Global and owns more than half of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, his homeland’s biggest mobile network. His Econet Wireless group operates in Africa, Europe, South America and the East Asia Pacific Rim. The multinationals love him too – he’s on the board of Unilever, Netflix and Bank of America, and is a trustee of the Prince of Wales Trust.

He must love Zoom. What’s his background?
He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where his father was a miner-turned-businessman and his mother a retail entrepreneur. The family fled the country in 1968, after Ian Smith’s white minority government had declared independence from Britain. They settled in Kitwe, in neighbouring Zambia, a city known for its copper mines, and ended up living next door to a Scottish family who educated their son at Holt School, near Edinburgh. By the time Masiyiwa was 12, his increasingly prosperous parents could afford a private education, so they sent him to the same Scottish boarding school.

How did he get on?
After finishing his A-levels in 1978, Masiyiwa went back to Rhodesia, intent on joining anti-government guerrillas, but ended up in Britain again, doing an engineering degree in Cardiff. He returned to his newly independent homeland in 1984 and, following a brief spell as a telecoms engineer, set up his own electrical engineering business with the equivalent of $75.

How did he turn $75 into £1.087bn?
Tenacity, and the foresight to see that mobile phones were the future. Within five years he was a leading industrialist, but Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, refused to grant him a licence for his telecoms company, Econet. For five years Masiyiwa fought Mugabe in the courts and, although brought to the brink of bankruptcy, he finally defeated him when a court ruled that the state could no longer monopolise the country’s phone network. In 1998 Econet’s first subscriber was connected to the new network. Masiyiwa later told Forbes the launch took place at a time when 70% of Zimbabwe’s inhabitants “had never heard a ringtone”. He was on his way to becoming Africa’s mobile phone Mr Big.

What does he do with his money?
Beyond his philanthropy, it’s hard to say, but his one indulgence seems to be property. After fleeing Zimbabwe in 2000 and spending 10 years in South Africa, he finally settled in Britain with his wife, Tsitsi, and their six children. They own a £2.5m house on a private estate in Surrey and there are reports of another nine-bedroom British house worth £24m. In 2016 he paid $24.5m for two adjacent penthouses atop the 29-storey Eldorado Tower in New York.

What’s he up to at the moment?
Trying to find enough vaccines for Africa’s 1.37 billion people. Masiyiwa is the African Union’s special envoy for the pandemic and recently clinched a deal with Johnson & Johnson for 400 million vaccine doses. But it’s far from enough. Apart from Morocco, African countries have pitifully low vaccination rates (often less than 1% of the population) and new variants are on the rise. He can’t save Africa on his own…

No. Any other billionaires who might help?