Phuti Mahanyele: an inspirational black business woman

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Phuti Mahanyele

Phuti Mahanyele – an inspirational black business woman who believes that the poor representation of women in the boardroom of major businesses in the private sector is “not just a social injustice but an economic and business imperative”.

Phuti was born in Dobsonville, Soweto, South Africa on March 15th, 1971, however she largely grew up in the Claremont township outside Durban. Her mother died at the age of 42 in 1989 when Phuti was 17. Phuti has since acknowledged that this was a major turning point in her life as it made her for the first time realize how short life can be and why it is therefore so important to never take it for granted.

Throughout her life her parents continuously advocated the importance of education, never differentiating between their sons and Phuti and her two sisters.

Her father: a pioneer for the improvement of black education

Her father, Professor Mohale Mahanyele, was a successful business man and pioneer for the improvement of black education. Whilst the Chairman of the National Economic Education trust, he ensured that thousands of young people progressed into tertiary education. Throughout his life he refused to accept the fact that just because a child came from a home with insufficient funds to afford expensive higher education fees, they were not entitled to it. During his life he could have become one of South Africa’s richest men however he was never interested in making easy money, and instead believed in reinvesting both his money and time back into the people and places he loved.

Phuti was educated in Johannesburg until she was 17, at which point she moved to the United States where she attended Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1993 she graduated with a degree in Economics and then went to De Montfort University in the United Kingdom where she obtained an MBA on “The Impact of International Trade on Black Economic Empowerment.” Her education didn’t end here because in 2008 she completed a course called “Global Leadership & Public Policy in the 21st century” at Harvard University.

Early career

Phuti’s first job was at her father’s company, National Sorghum Breweries, however whilst she admits to being very happy at this time of her life, she also confesses to feeling unfulfilled. After two failed applications she finally won an internship at Fieldstone – an investment banking firm in New York. After a difficult start, she flourished and achieved the position of Vice President before leaving 7 years later, at which time she moved back to South Africa.

Her next job, running the Project Finance Unit for the Development Bank of Southern Africa proved to be less successful and she left after only a few months. Looking back, she admits that it was a bad fit for her and not an environment she could continue to work in.

Whilst looking for other work she received a telephone call from Cyril Ramaphosa, the Chairman of a then relatively small company called “New Africa Investments” which became the Shanduka Group.

Shanduka Group

Phuti originally joined as the managing director of Shanduka Energy in 2004 and eventually went on to become the CEO of the Shanduka Group. It was whilst working there that she truly found her passion.

She has since admitted to finding Cyril so inspirational on their first meeting that she agreed to work with him even before she knew what the job and salary was.

Phuti speaks of the amazing culture and work ethic at the Shanduka group, admitting that Cyril’s astonishing humility and ability to inspire was fundamental to this. She has always felt hugely responsible and accountable to her community and working at the Shanduka Group allowed her for the first time to give something back, as the company, unlike so many others, didn’t just focus on the profit for shareholders.


Business pillars and key successes

Phuti adheres to 3 business pillars: understanding herself including her spiritually; understanding any issues affecting her staff, personal and professional; and ensuring she has all the information she needs at all times in order to be able to drive the business forward

When appointed CEO, her key priority was to ensure that the business moved some of its investments into areas that were less market sensitive, as she saw this as a way of ensuring the growth and security of the company’s investments in years to come. During her time at Shanduka she helped increase the company’s net asset value to approximately R8billion. Major deals driven by Phuti with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were key to this success.

After 10 years at the Shanduka Group, Phuti has achieved a lifelong ambition and with the support of her business partner Jeremy Katzen, a highly experience banker from Johannesburg, has launched her own investment company called Sigma Capital.

Major influences on her life

Phuti often cites her family, notably her father as a major influence in her life, however she also frequently talks about the huge impact Cyril Ramaphosa has had on both her business and professional life.

Her parents taught her how to see beyond problems and challenges and to remain positive at all times. Phuti believes that every single person on earth has a purpose and that they are obligated to discover what it is and then achieve it.

Life changing experience

Whilst attending a meeting in London, in 2013 Phuti was experiencing severe headaches, however she assumed it was just due to tiredness and tension. Whilst out shopping after the meeting she fainted, it was at this time she first sought medical attention. She was told to rest and returned to South Africa the following day, however on arrival she ignored the advice and went back to work where she then fainted again. When she woke up in hospital she was surrounded by friends and family, all of whom she didn’t recognize. It was at this time that she was told that she’d actually suffered from a stroke, hence her loss of memory.

Although she has now made a full recovery, the experience has changed her. Whilst she still has her incredibly high work ethic and puts in long hours, she is now also committed to finding a better work/life balance by valuing the importance of friends and family and not just achievements. She is in fact now engaged again (having already been divorced twice), and is learning to cook and play the piano. She admits to being excited and is looking forward to being a better wife and stepmother. “I feel ready to be a wife now”, she said.

When Phuti was asked what she would most want to be remembered for she said, “for having given as much of myself as I possibly could”.

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FACE Africa develops water sources and sanitation programs in Liberia

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saran kaba jones

Liberian American Saran Kaba Jones believes assuring access to clean water is the essential first step to rebuilding the war-torn West African nation.

At times recovery from the devastation of war seems intractable, even hopeless. But a 33-year-old woman whose family fled the civil war in Liberia when she was a child is proving otherwise.

Saran Kaba Jones, a Liberian American woman, founded FACE Africa in 2009 to help Liberians gain access to clean drinking water in the wake of her native country’s 14-year civil war. By the time the conflict ended in 2003, Liberia was in ruins – roads, schools, factories destroyed and no electricity or running water.

Jones believes providing access to water is an essential first step in addressing other problems such as lack of education and employment and rebuilding the shattered nation.

Water unlocks opportunity

“We view water as a true catalyst for change and it doesn’t just solve the issue of health, but it’s a holistic sort of development issue,” said Jones, who is the nonprofit organization’s executive director.

In its nearly seven years of existence, FACT Africa has worked with local residents to build 50 well projects that serve 25,000 people in 35 communities in Liberia. The organization has also trained 300 local pump mechanics.

A more recent effort is WASH, a project to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene awareness to local schools in response to the West African country’s Ebola outbreak.

According to UNICEF, 55 percent of Liberia’s schools do not have access to water, 43 percent do not have functional latrines and 80 percent do not have hand-washing facilities.

Local community engagement boosts success

A key aspect of FACE Africa’s effort is that local residents are engaged from the outset and communities take ownership of the water projects once they are operational. All of the projects so far continue to be fully functional, according to FACE Africa.

“Our projects utilize local materials, local labor and ingenuity and ownership is transferred to the communities upon completion. More importantly, we focus on optimizing sustainability of our water projects by forming long-lasting, collaborative relationships with communities,” FACE said.

Jones said she realized the importance of access to clean water in 2008 when she returned to her native country for the first time since her family fled the war when she was 8 years old. The family lived in Cote D’Ivoire, Egypt, France and Cypress before she attended college and settled in the United States.

Priority was education

She was initially focused on education, having contributed small scholarship assistance to a family friend in Liberia. But the visit convinced her that access to clean drinking water had to be addressed before significant improvements could follow in other areas.

“My interest at the time was education, but when I got to Liberia, one of the things I started to see was that one of the major impediments to education was the lack of clean drinking water,” she said. “Kids were getting sick and not showing up to school for long periods of time because they were drinking contaminated water.”

Empowering women

Jones also saw a connection between water and the empowerment of women and girls, who may spend as much as 60 percent of their day walking to collect water, robbing them of opportunities to work or go to school.

“One of the biggest impediments to women’s growth and development is the lack of clean water. Women and girls are the ones responsible for walking long distances to fetch water. I came to the realization that the basic necessity of clean water had to be met before any other area of development can be tackled. That’s what led me to focus on water, rather than education.’’

The UN estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion potential work hours per year collecting water. FACE Africa estimates its 50 projects have saved 1 million work hours to date.

Africa hard hit

Lack of access to water is a global problem and Africa is particularly hard hit. According to FACE Africa, 663 million people globally do not have access to safe water supplies and more than half of them are in Africa. Globally, two million people die each year from water-related diseases. According to the World Bank, water-related diseases kill more African children less than five years of age than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.

FACE Africa, based in Cambridge, Mass., raises money through donations, grants from foundations and corporations, and fundraising events, raising about $150,000 annually. The money can accomplish a lot: It costs FACE Africa $7,500 to build a hand-dug well and install a hand pump, for example.

Jones has been recognized for her work, including being named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and one of The Guardian’s Africa’s 25 Top Women Leaders in 2013.

From depression to determination

Jones said the harsh realities she found in Liberia on her first visit left her “depressed and disheartened.” But she was determined to make a difference and she has.

“There’s nothing more pleasant or fulfilling than seeing the smiles on the faces of women and children who no longer have to travel miles every day to fetch contaminated water and can now drink water without worrying about getting sick from it,” she said.

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Who is Ayman Rafic Al-Hariri?

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ayman hariri

Ayman Hariri: a talented entrepreneur or a well-financed, well-connected, unprincipled businessman?

Ayman Hariri was born in 1978 in Saudi Arabia but at the age of two he moved to Lebanon, the birth place of his father. At the time his father Rafic Hariri, having become a successful and hugely wealthy businessman in Saudi Arabia, was increasing his philanthropic activities in Lebanon as well as starting to build a political career for himself. Ayman has joint Lebanese and Saudi Arabian nationality and currently lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with his wife and child.

Ayman Hariri is the son of Rafic Hariri and Nazik Hariri (nee Audi). Nazik was Rafic’s second wife and as a result Ayman has three half-brothers (one deceased) through his father’s marriage to his first wife Nida Bustani. Ayman is the eldest of Rafic and Nazik’s four children. He has a younger brother called Fahd and two younger sisters, the youngest of which is called Hind.

A family of Prime Ministers

His father became the Prime Minister of Lebanon, serving two terms; 1992 – 1998 and 2000 – 2004. He was later assassinated on the 14th February, 2005 in Beirut. Ayman’s brother Saad followed his father into politics, becoming the Prime Minister of Lebanon on the 9th November, 2009. His term only lasted until the 12th January, 2011 when the cabinet collapsed due to disagreements with Hezbollah as a result of the investigations and resulting allegations surrounding his father’s assassination.

Ayman earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in Computer Science. Just like Ayman, his three half-brothers Bahaa, Saad and Houssam were all college educated in the US. In fact, it was whilst studying at MIT that Houssam died in a car accident; it is alleged that he and his brother Bahaa were drag racing identical Porsche 911’s at the time of the accident.

Ayman Rafic Al-Hariri: a member of the Executive Committee for Saudi Oger

Ayman began his career working as an engineer for a company called Intelsat – the first company to offer a commercial global satellite communications solution. He later started up a company called Epok which is an identity management software company, where he is still the Chairman.

In addition to his responsibilities at Epok, he is also a Director of 3C Telecommunications Ltd and Vice Chairman, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and a member of the Executive Committee for Saudi Oger Ltd, the company founded by his father Rafic in 1978.

Saudi Oger is a construction company based in Riyadh, and in conjunction with all its subsidiaries it offers a complete construction package including building design, project management, engineering, facilities management, telecommunications, waste management and IT services.

Strong leadership skills…

Ayman Rafic Al-Hariri

Ayman Rafic Al-Hariri

Whilst his elder brother Saad is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ayman is very much considered to be the driving force behind Saudi Oger.

His strong leadership skills, in conjunction with his experience and entrepreneurial vision, as well as the fact that he appears to have no political aspirations, make him the apparent heir to the Hariri family business.

…but many controversies

Rumors of corruption have plagued this family for years; whilst Prime Minister this father was often accused of stripping Lebanese finances whilst building his own personal wealth. His supporters however insist that he actually invested much more money into Lebanon than he ever removed.

Saudi Oger along with Saudi Bin Laden have for a long time been the two major businesses to benefit from the massive investments being made in Saudi Arabia, including Princess Noura University for Women and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This dominance is however starting to change so whilst there are planned investments totalling approximately $806 billion in the next 15 years, Saudi Oger can no longer be confident of benefitting as they would have done 10 years ago.

Whilst the financial stability of Saudi Oger is hard to fully ascertain, in 2012 three major Saudi banks stated that Saudi Oger and its subsidiaries were “financially vulnerable institutions.”

Embezzlement and corruption rumors

In 2011 Saudi Oger received a loan of $800m and a further $1bn in 2013, yet at the end of 2013 it was stated that they were $3bn in the red. The year of 2013 also saw further company restructuring with approximately 1,500 layoffs. These were largely Lebanese nationals however some Saudi nationals were included, which caused major controversy and widespread objections.

An audit of the business showed a complete lack of accountability, not to mention a lack of trust between senior employees. There were also embezzlement and corruption rumors and serious concerns raised about the lack of clarity within the political, business and personal financial records.

When asked about these issues in 2013, Saad blamed Ayman, apparently even threatening to sell his brother’s shares in the business to deal with the gap in the company finances.


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Salma Elloumi Rekik, a glimmer of hope for Tunisian tourism revival

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salma elloumi

At a time when many would have shied away from such a hard-hit economic sector, Salma Elloumi Rekik, business woman and politician, boldly stepped into the role of Tunisia’s Minister of Tourism.

Time of action for the Tourism Minister

Little over a month after taking the reins from her predecessor Amel Karboul, on February 6th, 2015, the already fragile economy was knocked by Bardo terrorist attacks and again in the July Sousse beach massacre. Tourism has increasingly become the nation’s linchpin, generating 15 percent of the country’s GDP last year. It has been down to Rekik to provide solutions to get the vital tourism trade back on track.

On June 29th, 2015, Salma Elloumi announced the many government measures that were to be put in place to essentially give those in tourism a financial lift. Among them: loan repayments were postponed for the years 2015 and 2016, VAT reduced from 12 percent to 8 percent and overdue fines cancelled.

“The ministry has focused its actions on the change in the promotional policy, especially after the attacks of Bardo and Sousse,” said the Minister.

In an endeavor to broaden Tunisia’s appeal to holiday makers from African countries, Iran, China and Russia, Rekik worked hard to have security in the country strengthened and to increase air traffic, devoting a budget of 12.5 million of Tunisian dinars (over 6 million US dollars) for this purpose.

The lady behind the titles

Born in Tunis on June 5th, 1956, Rekik was influenced and immersed in business from an early age. Growing up surrounded by her family’s wiring company; she continued her education after leaving Omran High School at the Institute of Management in Tunis (ISG) until the age of 22. As well as possessing a business mind, the young Rekik became multi-lingual, speaking and reading in Arabic, French and English.

On leaving university she began working for the family business which her father, Taoufik Elloumi, created in 1985. Societé Cofat Med -SCM specializes in the design and manufacture of electrical wiring for motor vehicles and utilities and is still going strong.

“SCM started with less than 20 employees; now it is one of the most popular companies in Tunisia,” the 59 year old said of her father’s enterprise.

In the early 1990’s, Rekik expanded her professional outlook after the former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali launched a campaign to modernize agriculture. Taking this as a cue, she branched out into a new sector, industrial agriculture.

She began with Stifen, the food processing company her father founded in 1994. In time she was made CEO and the prosperous company became part of the expanding Elloumi group. Her appetite for responsibility led her to become the CEO of SCM and she went on to drive both companies to great success. Stifen now exports globally and lists Kellogg’s, Danone and Nestle amongst its clients.

Political life

The mother of three, not content with just one profession, she embarked on her political career after the 2011 Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. Spurred into action by the changes her country was experiencing, she co-founded the secularist political party Nidaa Tounes and became a member in the party’s executive bureau.

“Engaging in politics is a duty as a citizen,” she said, and she paid her duty well, following her party to victory against the Islamist Ennahda party in the October 26th, 2014 elections, only the second truly legitimate election to be held in Tunisia since 2011.

Their time in power was not smooth, including a coalition government with their Islamist rivals in February 2015. Further difficulties beset the party when Rekik, along with 30 other Nidaa Tounes deputies, resigned Sunday, November 8th, 2015. The mass resignation came in response to members becoming increasingly fractious about the conduct and intentions of some of the party’s fellows.

For the love of one’s country

For now, Rekik has a big enough task ahead in her work as Tourist Minister. Without doubt she has proven herself many times over in her varied chosen fields of work, and has shown and continues to display strong and prudent leadership skills, which have been sought after globally.

Versatile, intelligent and brave, Rekik’s work has been publically recognized and gained her two commendations by the Tunisian Republic for her service to the nation. She still found time to participate throughout her career in leadership, management, and crisis management training programs in the United States and Europe.

Her work as Minister of Tourism seeks to bring hope to the Tunisian people and highlight the rich array of positives her nation has to offer the rest of the world. Speaking on December 2nd, 2015, she announced the upcoming release of a film about the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, an encouraging sign and a pivotal moment for Salma Elloumi Rekik’s beloved country.

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Flying With Fatima Beyina-Moussa

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Fatima Beyina Moussa - ECAir13

A profile of Fatima Beyina-Moussa, CEO of ECAir.

The African aviation market is becoming one of the most significant in the world thanks to its growing middle class, which now makes up over 35% of the population. African air traffic is growing by 5.2% per year. Fatima Beyina-Moussa is 41 and a mother of 2 children. Ask her if she dreamed of being the CEO of an airline and changing the African airline industry and you will elicit a hearty laugh from Ms. Beyina-Moussa. The quick and honest answer is an emphatic “No”. She mentions several other things she dreamed of and the academic track that she trained in, but none of them involve air transportation and helping lead a revolution in travel by air in Africa.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, where her father, Pierre Moussa, studied and taught at the University of Dakar in the area of planning and development alongside Prof. Samir Amin, Fatima’s thoughts on her path in life mirrored her father’s career more than anything. Pierre Moussa was born in Owando, located in northern Congo-Brazzaville, in 1941. He is considered a man gentle in nature, married, and a father of 4 children including Fatima.

Before the Daughter, the Father

Fatima Beyina-MoussaPierre Moussa, Ms. Beyina-Moussa’s father, is an economist by training and a politician in the Congolese government. He started his government career in 1978 as Secretary-General of Planning. President Denis Sassou Nguesso promoted Moussa to Minister of Planning in 1979, the same year he joined the Central Committee of the Congolese Labour Party (PCT). The PCT selected Moussa as Secretary for Planning and the Economy in 1984. He climbed to the role of Minister of Planning and Finance in August of 1987. Moussa is considered “the regime’s economist”, and joined the PCT Political Bureau in 1989, taking on the responsibility for planning and the economy; he was promoted to Minister of State for Planning and the Economy in the Congolese government in 1989. Pierre Moussa is now President of CEMAC, the Commission of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa. His 5-year term appointment was announced at the 11th Summit of CEMAC Heads of State in 2012 at Brazzaville.

Fatima has inherited much from her father, including the role of an economist and interest in development and planning. Her post-secondary school education has focused on economics and finance, primarily in Canada, where she received her Bachelor’s degree from the prestigious HEC Montreal. She then received her MBA from the University of Ottowa, pursuing specialized studies in the USA and France as well. Not only is she keenly aware of issues in Africa, but she is also aware of how Africa interfaces with the rest of the world. As a black African woman, Beyina-Moussa is a pioneer in her field, and her actions and opinions are followed with much interest. As she takes the pulse of modern Africa as one of its business leaders, she is also someone that drives that pulse with her ideas and decisions.

A Rising Career

Beyina-Moussa started her career as a consultant at Ernst & Young in the Congo. She advanced to the role of a consultant at the official Bank of Central African States (BEAC), then moved to New York City, working for the United Nations Environment United for Development (UNDP). Her rise, professionally, was quick but not entirely unexpected. In the Congo, she took on the job as an advisor to the economy and to reform the Congolese Ministry of Finance, Budget and Public Portfolio. Beginning in 2007, she worked on establishing a national air carrier to advance the Congo’s transportation industry and its economy. Success has been quick and in 2011, Fatima Beyine-Moussa was appointed Director/CEO of the national airline of the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Congo Airlines (ECAir). Shortly after her hiring as CEO of ECAir, Fatima was selected as a member of the Executive Committee of African Airlines Association (AFRAA) in 2012. In November 2014, Beyine-Moussa was appointed Chairwoman AFRAA and recently completed her 1-year term at the 47th General Assembly of AFRAA from November 8th-10th, 2015 in Brazzaville.

Fatima Beyina-Moussa is embracing her role as a favorite and influential daughter of Africa. She has plans and a clear view of how she wants Africa to evolve now and in the future. One that she is fervently working on now is travel between cities and countries within Africa. Currently, it can be easier to fly out of the continent, take a connection in Dubai or Paris, and fly back into Africa. Beyina-Moussa is working on a plan to avoid this and make travel within Africa easier and more beneficial for airlines and passengers. Connections between African countries are insufficient, and there are not enough round trips, making travel difficult. With Beyina-Moussa working on this, it is without doubt a job that will get done. In her words, “We have only just begun.”

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Gilbert Diendéré: Coming Out from the Shadows

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Chief of staff to Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s ex-president, Gilbert Diendéré is far more than a jack of all trades; intelligence, information, organisation and control, he is a master of all.

Burkinabé military officer and head of the powerful Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) for almost three decades, Gilbert Diendéré, who was known to lead from the shadows, took an unprecedented step into the lime light on September 17th, 2015.

In a move the General is now calling “the biggest mistake,” he took power of his West African home country, in a coup d’état that lasted a mere six days. After which, he and his army succumbed to mounting pressure to step down.

The coup, which pushed out the interim president, appears to have been an attempt to reinstate his comrade, Compaoré, the man for whom he was the quiet power behind through the former president’s entire time in office.

A Military Force

As the officer who announced the October 1987 coup, this was not Diendéré’s first experience of overthrowing a government. Taking power from the popular and revolutionary Thomas Sankara, with whom Diendéré had trained alongside as a young cadet in the army, he then placed it in the hands of Compaoré.

This was a pivotal time for the General, who was subsequently made head of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP). With Compaoré’s blessing, he developed and expanded the RSP into a reportedly stronger and better trained army, which offered its soldiers better conditions and higher pay. It also answered directly and exclusively to the president himself.

Together the pair ruled Burkina Faso for an almost unfeasibly long time. Not until October of last year, when Compaoré’s push to be re-elected resulted in him being ousted by mass public demand, did their reign come to an end. Throughout his time in power, Diendéré has been accused of crimes against humanity. The charges against him include murder and firing at unarmed protestors, allegations for which the General will now stand trial.

Multifaceted Man

Standing at an impressive 6.5 ft, Diendéré may be physically imposing and considered to be one of the most powerful men in Burkina Faso, but until recent events the 56 years old had chosen to exert his power indirectly.

His international connections boosted Compaoré’s network and political status, whilst also cementing his own reputation internationally, particularly in America and France. In 2008 Diendéré was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, one of France’s most prestigious military medals.

The former head of RSP is highly regarded for being well informed, knowledgeable in many fields; particularly that of the West African political affairs, and a skilled negotiator and strategist. Known as a “master of intelligence,” the Burkinabé General has been involved in delicate negotiations with al-Qaeda linked group AQMI and in the release of several European hostages in 2009 and 2011.

A fearless thrill seeker, he enjoys regular parachute jumps and is popular and respected amongst his colleagues. However, it is recognised that the man described as shy and calm, with the formidable “iron fist” handshake, is a man one would prefer as a friend and not a foe.

In the Face of Justice

Just days after the coup began Diendéré conceded, “I am willing to turn myself over to face justice,” and called for his army to lay down their weapons. “I would like the people of Burkina Faso to find a solution to this crisis through dialogue.” He said, after turning himself in on October 1st.

The self-appointed Chairman of the National Council for Democracy sought shelter in the Vatican embassy as crowds on the Burkina Faso streets became violent. Negotiations took place to ensure his safety before he was handed back to the interim government. The Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) was later ordered to be disbanded and the assets of Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, frozen.

What is next for the shadowy figure is uncertain. He remains adamant that Compaoré had no dealings with the latest coup and has openly denounced his own actions. For now the country awaits the delayed elections which will take place on November 29th, perhaps a clever by-product of the General’s failed coup. The complicated history of Burkina Faso informs us that the future is most likely to follow suit, as for the rest, only time will tell.

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African Solutions to African Problems: Ushahidi is Taking the Internet to the Next Five Billion

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Ushahidi's BRCK

Representing a new frontier of innovation in Africa, non-profit technology collective Ushahidi is developing African solutions to African problems

“If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,” is the motto of Ushahidi, a Kenyan non-profit technology collective which designs and builds open source software and digital tools to help people in the developing world.

Indeed, while in the West technological possibilities are being stretched to their bounds, across Africa something as seemingly straightforward as an Internet connection is unreliable. Figures from the East African Community (EAC) suggest 90% of schools and 30% of hospitals are still off-grid. Only 24% of the developing world is connected to the internet. And, as Ushahidi comments, “power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences in Nairobi and across Sub-Saharan Africa, no matter your income level”. But in a region lacking adequate roads and clean water, developing reliable Internet connectivity is simply not a priority for governments.

There are a number of Western companies working to solve the problem – and at the same time bringing their products to the world’s next five billion Internet users. For example Google has ProjectLink Uganda and LoonBalloon, and Microsoft is experimenting with the TV White Spaces spectrum. But Ushahidi has developed an African solution that really might solve the African problem.

The Internet back-up generator BRCK

Designed to be an “internet back-up generator”, Ushahidi has developed BRCK, a piece of hardware that offers rugged and reliable connectivity. Working like a phone, it can be used in any area that gets mobile signal, as it works by intelligently and seamlessly switching as per the need between the strongest network types in the vicinity (broadband, Ethernet cable, Wifi, CDMA, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks). It supports up to 20 wireless connections at a time. And it also has up to 16 gigabytes of storage space and a BRCK Cloud connection so it can serve as a back-up server and sync with connected devices and cloud applications.

Designed to face Africa-specific environments, the portable hardware handles the heat and dust of even the most demanding environments. And while it connects to the mains, is also comes with about 8 hours of power back up, can be charged via a car battery, or plugged to a solar charger, combating the region’s lack of reliable energy sources.

“As the next 4.5 billion people (65% of the world) start coming online, the need for rugged, reliable, and simple connectivity becomes critical in places with poor infrastructure and limited resources. While existing technologies work well in modern cities, the demands of emerging markets necessitates a rethinking of how technology is engineered, packaged, delivered, and supported. BRCK was conceived in exactly this type of environment. In particular, our struggles in Africa with reliable connectivity inspired us to rethink the entire concept of rugged internet access device – designing the world’s first go-anywhere, connect-to-anything, always available internet device,” says Ushahidi.

Ushahidi driving innovation in Africa

Indeed, Ushahidi, which is part of the thriving Kenyan tech start-up scene – nicknamed the Silicon Savannah -, developed BRCK as a solution to its own problems. “As a company full of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply couldn’t get connected as reliably as our peers in the developed world”.

Ushahidi designed and developed BRCK with $172,000 raised on Kickstarter. And in doing so, pushed another frontier of innovation in Africa. Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, but Ushahidi’s Kickstarter success has kick-started crowd-funded entrepreneurship and innovation.

UshahidiExpanding technology’s reach

Co-founder Ory Okolloh, previously Google’s policy manager for Africa and named by Forbes as “one of the most influential women in global technology”, is committed to bringing the benefits of technological innovation to Africa. The company’s first project, for example, was a location-based crowdsourcing crisis-tracker map developed in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Empowering individuals to document and report incidents in real time, the software allows users to text, email, tweet, or photograph information which is then plotted on to a map. The idea is that media, governments, and relief organizations can see a live picture of what’s happening on the ground and can target responses in real-time. The map has since been used in India during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and in Japan during the tsunami in 2011. It has also been used to log medicine shortages across Africa and reports of violence in the Middle East.  The company takes its name from this piece of software; “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili.

And the company is currently expanding its reach with the launch of a digital classroom – the Kio Kit. Ushahidi explains: “You open a box and there are 40 tablets inside, there is a BRCK inside and on the BRCK there is a Linux [open-source] server — so we can locally cache educational content, and serve it up to the tablets.” Ever prepared for the African environment, the modem is in a watertight, hardened-plastic wheeled suitcase and acts as a wireless charging station.

African solutions to African problems has become a bit of a catchphrase, but the impact of socially motivated entrepreneurs could have huge implications for the technological development of the region.

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Magatte Wade, the New African Global Voice

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

magatte wade

39-year-old Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, who made her name in Silicon Valley, has brought the love for her continent and her business flair together to bring the world a taste of African soul and the world to Africa.

If you are not prepared to face a pride of lions or find yourself pitted against the former CEO of Nestlé in a debate on the importance of organics, then step down, you are not prepared to be Magatte Wade.

Walking away from a $32 million business to create her second company in 2009, Magatte Wade is no stranger to making hard decisions, shunning the easy route and following her instincts. Five successful years went into Adina World Beverages before her departure, a company whose concept blossomed from a much loved yet rapidly disappearing traditional Senegalese drink, bissap, made from hibiscus flowers. The brave entrepreneur left behind Adina World Beverages not because it hit difficulties or became financially unviable, but rather due to a realization that her beliefs were no longer in sync with those of the other key stakeholders.

Now the founder and CEO of Tiossan, which produces luxury, organic skincare products, she brings traditional Senegalese recipes to the global beauty and health market, selling online, in high-end boutiques across the US and in their Hudson, New York, based store. Tiossan gives 10% of all profits towards creating innovative schools in Senegal.

“Use the power of brands to change perceptions”

As an entrepreneur Wade saw the disappearing bissaps’ marketing value but more than this, her experience had taught her that branding is the opportunity to tell a story and she had one she wanted to share.

During her first TEDex talk in 2011, the young Senegalese spoke of brands creating a culture. At the time over 50% of the Top 100 World Brands were American and not a single one African. She observed that American culture is in all our everyday lives and she concluded, “America has succeeded beautifully in exporting its own culture,” it being one of the most sought after worldwide.

To Wade this means building a powerful consumer brand of Africa’s own, to put it on a platform to engage on a global level and subsequently having a say on world issues. There are solutions and Africa can be part of it. “I want my continent to be an economic and cultural power.” Rather than sitting waiting for the next trend to come from America, she said “we can change whole world’s problems by addressing those in the US” first. Selling America healthier drink alternatives like bissap, to reduce obesity levels, was a clever example.

Big ideas and big ambitions

magatte wadeAs a girl, she ran free until the age of eight in her Senegal family compound. Always the instigator of fun hunting and fishing trips, she led a pack of boys with her on her escapades, leadership skills she now draws upon greatly.

From her grandmother, who was her main caretakeruntil she went to join her parents in Germany, she was given a “tremendous feeling of confidence and boundless opportunity”. These attributes, she says, taught her more than anything she learnedat school.

Arriving in Germany, school came as a cold slap of new reality. The rigidness she felt from those initial days would follow her to France, where she studied from the age of 10 until 20 and attended PSB-Paris Business School, which lefther seeking to inject more warmth, humanity and soul into the business world. She made connections while on an exchange program to Indiana and moved there in 1997, before finding her way to Silicon Valley nearSan Francisco.

That special something

It appears her grandmother was onto something when she told her she had “something” special and “something”special to give the world. Ranked first in Forbes 2014 ”20 Young Builders of Africa of Tomorrow” as well as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum at Davos, the list of impressive accolades goes on.

A woman of Africa and a visionary for her continent’s future, she remains humble and good humored. About that run-in with the Nestlé heavyweight, it was his un-gentlemanliness that allowed her to gracefully side-step a technical question she didn’t have the means to answer. It was “scarier than the day I ran into a pride of lions on the Okavango. And just as beautiful.”

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Souq.com CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar: Empowering the Middle East through E-commerce

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East


Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, Ronaldo Mouchawar is the co-founder and CEO of the Arab world’s largest online shopping site and a pioneer of e-commerce in the region. He is also an eloquent symbol of a rising trend that’s seeing entrepreneurs reject the, if not saturated then busy, Western market, so long seen as the choice, in favor of using their expertise and innovative spirit to revolutionize and empower the market at home.

Originally trained in the West, Mouchawar was educated at Northeastern University, Boston, where he obtained a Bachelors in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a Masters in Digital Communications. He also spent the early years of his career in the US working in technology and business management, including a role as technical and systems consultant at Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

But in 2000, he returned to the Middle East with a belief he could improve the Arab world by exploiting the empowering possibilities of technology. He first launched a consulting company managing web and e-commerce projects for the local Arab market, before in 2005 joining forces with Maktoob’s Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury to launch online retail site and marketplace for third party sellers, Souq.com, just as the Arab world began to embrace technology and mobile.

A decade on, Dubai headquartered Souq.com, known as the Amazon of the Middle East, now operates in the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and ships to Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain, selling more than 400,000 products from consumer electronics, to fashion, household items, and babywear. And it is growing fast: in the last two years, Souq has expanded ten times over; and in 2014 it saw an annual growth of over 100%. The site sees 30 million unique visitors per month, of which more than 10 million are on mobile. And an app, launched in 2014, has now been downloaded around two million times. There are rumors that Souq is fundraising at a valuation of $1 billion.

It’s some success story. But Mouchawar still considers his company a startup. While in financial terms this cannot be considered true, he says: “If continuing to think of Souq as a startup helps us innovate, then great.”

Innovating the e-commerce model for Arab markets

Certainly, Mouchawar’s ability to innovate has been key to Souq’s success. Originally launched as an auction site modeled on eBay, he quickly redirected the company into a fixed price model, recognizing its potential in the Middle East. And while Souq.com may now superficially seem like a copycat-Amazon, Mouchawar has transformed that business model for the market: he has localized and arabized e-commerce.

For example, Souq.com has gone some ways to rebalance the disparity between the availability of Arabic content online (currently just 3% of all content) and the number of Arabic speakers around the world (around half a billion). Arabic content has become a Souq forte, as are localized promotions, partnerships, and exclusive products. Mouchawar has also adapted operations for Middle Eastern challenges. For instance, in Egypt, only about 10% of the population have credit cards, and in countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, 60% of online purchases are still paid for via cash on delivery. Mouchawar has developed prepaid cards which can be purchased in real life (IRL) and used online. He has also overcome an underdeveloped logistics infrastructure by developing a Souq-owned local delivery system offering “last mile” deliveries to places with no mail service or postal address, along with investing in local logistics companies and building relationships with local couriers. Souq teams are also in place in the majority of Souq’s operating countries, to continually innovate local solutions for area-specific problems.

Job creation in the Middle East

But Mouchawar believes his e-commerce solutions can have even further reaching impacts: he believes that e-commerce can empower.

“We believed the Internet and e-commerce specifically could be an empowering tool to support SMEs, and help create a knowledge base economy where we employ as many people and create jobs, as our region needed it,” he says. “It could create badly needed jobs for young people and boost the businesses that are the backbone of Arab economies.” “Imagine the access a merchant can have from a street in Cairo to a customer base in Saudi Arabia, to the UAE. If we can connect all these dots, you will have an incredible customer base.”

The Souq.com website proudly reveals that it employs 1,000 people directly and has provided jobs for another 6,000 people indirectly through its networks of partners, suppliers, and couriers, “not to mention the 75,000+ sellers, many of whom have built their livelihood via the website”.

Unsurprisingly, Mouchawar has become one of the Middle East’s most prominent entrepreneurs, visible and accessible on the startup circuit, speaking at conferences, and looking to inspire where he can.

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Freeman Osonuga: To Space and Beyond

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Freeman Osonuga wired

31-year old Nigerian Doctor, Freeman Osonuga, has 927 followers on Twitter. That number is minuscule compared to 44,700 who follow fellow countryman, and former NBA star, Hakeem Olajuwon. That could change quickly. A man of many hats, Osonuga may have a larger global impact than the basketball player when all is said and done. In 2014, TIME Magazine pegged him as a “Person of the Year” with other Ebola fighters, joining the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope Francis in an elite club of world changers. What will he do for an encore? Freeman Osonuga may become Spaceman Osonuga, exchanging his Ebola suit for a spacesuit as part of his mission to save the world.

Born the youngest of six children, Freeman grew up in Ogun State, an impoverished area of Nigeria that was once a part of the short-lived Republic of Biafra. He lost his father in his youth, and his mother struggled to send him and his siblings to public schools. At the Olabisi Onabanjo University, he studied medicine and surgery. Osonuga started an NGO as an undergraduate student called Heal the World Foundation Nigeria. The foundation’s objectives are to care for children with disabilities, orphans, and the less-privileged. So far, they’ve helped over 550 children with disabilities and orphans in Nigeria: a good start for a man who strives to save the world.

One of Ten Outstanding Young People in Nigeria

Freeman OsonugaIn his writings, Osonuga has stated that the Heal the World Foundation Nigeria aspires to be the leading organization working with global organizations to guarantee that poverty in Africa is eradicated and becomes an informative display in a museum where it belongs. His work with the group has garnered attention locally and internationally. In 2013, he was named by Junior Chambers International (JCI) Nigeria as one of ten outstanding young persons in Nigeria and was selected by MTN Group Ltd (South Africa) to be one of their 23 delegates to 2013 One Young World Summit in Johannesburg. One Young World is the preeminent global forum for young leaders aged 18-30. It brings together the most promising young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections and develop solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The Kruger Cowne Rising Star programme selected Osonuga as a One Young World Ambassador for the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin. Outstanding members of the public and Ambassadors, aged 18-35, were invited to nominate themselves to go on a once in a lifetime trip. Young people from 90 nations cast their vote in Kroger Crowne and One Young World’s global search for an icon of the future to catapult onto the international stage and into space – upon the XCOR Lynx® Spacecraft. Freeman Osonuga put himself in a position to be that icon.

The Meritorious Service Award from President Bai Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone for Osoguna

Soon after the Summit, Osonuga embarked on the most dangerous journey of his short life; he volunteered to battle the Ebola virus at its peak in West Africa for six months with 835 African Union Ebola responders. Over 28,000 people have contracted the virus, and over 11,000 have died during the epidemic, including 230 medical care workers battling it. Freeman worked with a medical team in Magbenteh Ebola Treatment Unit, a 100-bed facility, in northern Sierra Leone. Fortunately, he did not contract the Ebola virus while treating the disease. In his walk through this valley of the shadow of death, he gave hope and comfort to fellow Africans fighting the disease, both those afflicted and the medical team. The Magbenteh Unit had a 65% survival rate with patients and a zero percent infection rate among the medical staff. For his efforts, Osoguna received the Meritorious Service Award from President Bai Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone as well as the recognition by TIME magazine.

Life has not slowed down for the Nigerian doctor. He is a WIRED 2015 Innovation Fellow and recently spoke at their 2015 event with 11 other featured speakers. He has also been named an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society. On October 2, 2015, he was shortlisted as one of three finalists for the space trip sponsored by Kruger Cowne, One Young World, and Xcor Space Expeditions. Freeman will deliver a keynote speech to thousands of delegates and a panel of global business trailblazers at the One Young World Summit in Bangkok in November. After the three finalists give their speeches on topics of their choice, a winner will be announced. If selected, Freeman Osonuga may make history as the first black African to venture into space.

The trip will last about one hour and will blast off in 2016. G-Force training is scheduled for the trip, in the Netherlands, to prepare passengers for their travel outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Osonuga told Quartz Africa that the overall objective of the project is not just going to space; it is to raise global conversations on issues that affect all inhabitants of Earth such as climate change, global peace, and poverty. Godspeed, Freeman Osonuga!

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