By Mfonobong Nsehe*
Robert Gumede is one of Africa’s most accomplished business leaders and investors. The 55 year-old South African entrepreneur is the founder of the Guma Group, a leading black-owned investment company with businesses spanning Information Technology, mining, tourism, infrastructure development, hospitality and energy in several African countries.
Gumede is most popular for founding Gijima Group, an ICT company that provides application services, infrastructure configuration and end-to-end managed outsource services to clients across Southern Africa, but his business interests toay are far more extensive.
Gumede is also one of South Africa’s most recognizable philanthropists. His charity, theKeni Foundation, has given away millions of dollars in scholarships to poor South African students.
I recently caught up with Gumede, who is popularly referred to as the ‘Black Knight’ in South Africa’s social circles. He recounted his humble beginnings, mused on Sino-Africa relations, and talked about his philanthropic activities among other issues.
You are one of the most successful and recognizable business leaders in Africa today. But what’s the background story of Robert Gumede?
I was born one of seven children amidst the socioeconomic and political climate of apartheid; the same year Nelson Mandela was sentenced to prison for life.
I was raised in Nelspruit, perhaps the most beautiful part of South Africa, parented by my single mother and grandmother. I started off my professional business career at the age of 7. As a 7-year-old young man, I would caddie at the Nelspurit Golf Club for prominent farmers and businesspersons that I came to admire. These people were extremely successful and I was captivated by their passion for their various businesses and their incredible drive to succeed. I always kept it at the back of my mind that I wanted to become successful like these people.
As time went on, I proceeded to study Law at the University of Zululand and eventually became a Lawyer. But while serving as a prosecutor at the Kabokweni Magistrate’s Court early in my professional life, I grew tired of witnessing the sentencing of men and women who committed petty crimes like stealing milk to feed their families. Deep down, I knew I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the entrepreneurs I grew up admiring and build my own successful enterprise.
So in 1988, I started Gijima Electronic And Security Systems (Pty) Ltd, which is the flagship company of Guma Group. In 1992, I moved to Johannesburg – the City of Gold’ to build the business from there. I opened a small office – Guma Group’s first office, in a basement located within an industrial park. As we were a relatively new business, I had to learn effective networking and marketing to win clients. Before long, our business prospered. In 1999 I listed the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and the sale of some of my stake in the company gave me the liquidity to make other smart and timely investments in tourism, hospitality, property development and mineral exploration. And we are still expanding and investing into new businesses in Africa and beyond.
During apartheid, black people were not allowed to play economic contributory roles of value. After the demise of apartheid, the Mandela government introduced a scheme to bring black people in to the mainstream economy through what we called ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ (BEE). Against the mantra of BEE, I took on the white-owned I.T. enterprise AST and through entrepreneurial flare in doing so, I saved over 2,000 white jobs; instead of BEE, I executed a “White Economic Empowerment ” (WEE) initiative, one achieved by its ‘Black Knight’, ergo the moniker.
With the Guma Group of Companies today operating in over 32 countries, with over 12,000 staff members and international clients and partners including British Airways and American Express, we are unlike any offering on the continent; in fact, years ago, you would never think the Duty-Free trolleys rolling through BA airline aisles worldwide would be owned by an African boy ‘from the village’.
Yet they are; I choose to believe in this unique differentiation achieved by hard work matched by ingenuity, entrepreneurial traits inherent to Africa.
What new business territories are you venturing into in the near future?
We seek to expand our operations into new sectors such as renewable energy, information technology for taxation and population registration with a citizen card, and water purification among other things. I think it’s unfortunate that Africa is home to most of the world’s fresh water reserves and yet so many people across Africa struggle to get clean water to drink. This is tragic, and the Guma Group is exploring ways to address this problem for Africa’s poorest people. Currently, we have interests across the continent and with international partners beyond our borders, such as China. We are consistently exploring new regions to expand our investments, innovate where we can and deploy our present portfolio.
‘Where’ region-specifically is a particularly intriguing question; we seek to enhance development throughout the Southern African Development Community (or SADC); North Africa, such as Egypt; the Economic Community of West African States (or ECOWAS) such as Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria. Regarding Nigeria, I must recognize fellow African entrepreneurial minds such as Aliko Dangote, who has embarked on a terrific professional journey which had roots in the cement manufacturing industry. Proud of his achievements, where he crafts cement, I use it to build roads, dams and major throughways where we presently operate and indeed where we seek to grow.
Lastly, when people refer to ‘Black Africa’ today, they do not mean pigment of our African skins; they mean the way our continent looks from Space versus the West and the deserts of the Middle East – We must create lasting change for the next generation and work together to light up the continent and compete effectively in a globalizing marketplace.
We have concurrently witnessed tremendous integration from China in Pan-African emerging markets; what can be drawn from the dichotomy between Sino-African enterprises and the West’s trepidation?
There is no question the West is lagging behind China as it pertains to integration and doing business effectively in Africa. This isn’t new. As I’ve stated many times, it remains undeniable that China has been contributing to Africa’s economy in a way that the former Western colonial powers failed to do for over 400 years.
Opportunities for mutual benefit in Africa are being squandered in the West and bearing fruit in the East, with China’s President Xi Jinping this year pledging to invest $60 billion in African States. In fact, Scott Eisner, vice-president of African affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, has said himself that the US “…has a small window in the next couple of years before China, India and Brazil compete or partner on the continent and trade relations are theirs to own almost exclusively’”.
However, at present, we find the West setting up private equity that compete against local African businessmen instead of channeling funding through partnership and directly with like-minded entrepreneurs and providing a debt instrument that is competitive.
We seek to raise awareness to the opportunities available for the Chinese private sector to continue to compete, continue to integrate and to do so with efficiency by partnering with local businessmen as opposed to State Owned Enterprise to State Owned Enterprise; our approach is a mutually beneficial and socially responsible endeavor.
How best can South Africa reinvigorate dynamism from within and promote the opportunity it offers to international investors?
Where many may see challenge, I see opportunity. This downturn has perhaps for the first time in our democracy got government and the private sector to work closer together. However, it is no doubt extremely crucial that we restore foreign integration and domestic market confidence to increase GDP and enthusiastically promote the wide array of opportunities available for investment in the country.
As Africans, we must demand more from our leadership at all levels. They must respect the rule-of-law and promote best practices in governance. We must also demand more from our fellow successful entrepreneurs and ensure that they give back to their local communities and economically empower others. Also, we must do more in letting the world know that we are open for responsible, efficient business and that South Africa is a vital throughway for the continent.
To S&P, to the greater international community, I will say this and it’s an adage I use often – “It is best to climb on the back of an elephant when it is on its knees. For when the elephant rises, it must rise with you on top of its back”; that is what entrepreneurship in Africa is all about.
You’ve given millions of dollars in charitable donations in South Africa through your Keni Foundation. Why do you feel it is important for the business community to be more philanthropic?
Africa simply cannot wait for foreign businessmen like Bill Gates to bring in billions of dollars to assist the continent. It is also high time Africa stopped being seen as a basket case and rather the breadbasket for which it should be. Those of us who have made it through the opportunities created by our forefathers have a moral responsibility to empower those who have not been as fortunate. I love giving scholarships and supporting educational causes because I believe that education is the bedrock of world-class aspirations.
However, it is social responsibility, with particular regard to the private sector that instills investor confidence and assuages integration concerns.
We must look to ensure the future of the next generation of African leadership in public and private life is one of equal and ample opportunity. The Robert Gumede Family Keni Foundation (RGFKF) was formed in 2010 and is a wholly broad based, black empowerment family trust, with a key role being to contribute to vulnerable communities, give back and thereby create a climate conducive for sustainable development, with societal value throughout.
Any last words?
For Africans to continue to thrive, we need certainty, rule of law, stability, overarching opportunity and determined leadership. Leaders like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (once a war-torn country, this strong woman is the first democratically-elected female President on the continent) and private sector thought leaders marking their own path will steward Africa’s renaissance.
We need to industrialize Africa, as this is Africa’s century.