"What Africa needs is entrepreneurs. A country like Japan is surrounded by water and yet this is one of the top economies in the world. We on the other hand are blessed with vast resources and yet we continue to languish in poverty due to a lack of entrepreneurs in every sector."
Meet Harry Chakhala, a man whose background speaks nothing short of versatility. He holds an electrical engineering degree from the University of Malawi, an MBA from the Wits Business School and is both a Chartered Accountant and a Chartered Marketer.
And as if that is not enough, this CEO of Computek South Africa is currently pursuing a PhD in Strategic Management. He says this latest qualification is partly due to his desire to lecture at University level when he eventually hangs his boots on the corporate game.
While Computek is a well-known information and communication technology (ICT) organisation with countrywide offices and over 100 employees, Chakhala is more eager to talk to us about a new entity he has recently founded – The Umlilo Investments Group.
"Umlilo was formed in 2009 and has since been working in identifying appropriate opportunities on the African continent," Chakhala says, "Our goal is to lead change in expanding Africa's renaissance. We believe that for Africa to become a success, the private sector needs to take a leading role in promoting business activities that add socio-economic value to the continent."
The Umlilo business strategy involves identifying target opportunities on the African continent and then assessing issues relating to regulatory compliance and risk mitigation. Thereafter, consideration is given to the delivery structure by clearly defining the method of bringing the product to the ultimate consumer. The investment and finance structure as well as ownership structures are also defined with an emphasis on attracting significant investment without compromising on the need to bring local participants on board.
"Our aim is to empower Africans!" Chakhala declares, "You will probably get a return of one to two percent on your investment in developed nations like the United States. Africa has the potential of giving returns of 10 to 15 percent. As part of Umlilo's corporate social contribution, we plan on spending up to 20 percent of our return on socio-economic projects for the local communities."
Umlilo has identified three areas of focus – infrastructure and construction development, energy and ICT development.
"Our plans around infrastructure include imminent plans to invest in low income housing in Zimbabwe and Tanzania. We look forward to replicating the success of such shelter in South Africa in urban areas in these countries at a low cost to communities and with preferential payment terms," Chakhala explains.
Further plans in the construction sector include private public partnerships in extending the railway network in Malawi and a water scheme for needy areas in Mpumalanga.
"Before we embark on this project in Malawi, we are seeking to understand the railway network as there is a significant difference between an inland and a coastal system. As for Mpumalanga, we note that water tankers are being used to distribute the commodity to remote areas which is very expensive. South Africa is a dry country and with continuous growth in population, adequate clean water is becoming a serious problem. We aim to build water reservoirs in this South African province."
Population growth is also having an effect on energy in Africa. Lack of electricity is hampering economic development and in recognition of this, Chakhala indicates that Umlilo is looking out for natural solutions to invest in.
"There is geo-thermal potential in all countries through which the Great Rift Valley runs including Malawi, Kenya and Zambia. We have done reconnaissance studies in these countries and collated a lot of data through the Geo-Thermal Development Company headed by Dr. Silas Simiyu. In addition, we have acquired 40% of a Malawian company, Geo-Projects (Pty) Limited which has an exclusive licence for electricity generation through geo-thermal resources in the country."
Umlilo's ICT plans revolve around establishing mobile platforms that provide value added services to consumers using mobile networks. Chakhala reveals that already a mobile valley is underway in Zimbabwe with similar prospects in Malawi and Mozambique.
"We are also looking at implementing the concept of Community Data Centres. The idea is to have storage facilities that are compartible with mobile technology through which communities can store their information and images for generations."
Umlilo means fire in Zulu and Chakhala says that the term captures how energised the brand is to transforming the continent. It is also symbolic as it has various meanings in African culture, mostly positive. But he is under no illusions, that their Pan African initiatives will encounter challenges on the continent.
"Self-interest is a significant problem as a number of politicians want to be bribed throug offshore bank accounts before they can give a project the go-ahead. We are determined to get these initiatives on the way but we will not compromise our integrity to do so. Politicians also have ridiculous demands; you may wish to construct a road and a President insists that it must pass through his village irrespective of its economic viability!"
Chakhala notes that mining has been excluded from Umlilo's immediate plans. This he says is due to its stringent requirements and the possibility of failing to position yourself within the value chain after having invested a lot of money.
He is confident that the group has the right leadership to achieve its goals. A truly pan African board has members drawn from six different countries, all possessing a strong business sense to embark on the journey ahead.
"What Africa needs is entrepreneurs. A country like Japan is surrounded by water and yet this is one of the top economies in the world. We on the other hand are blessed with vast resources and yet we continue to languish in poverty due to a lack of entrepreneurs in every sector," he concludes.
For more information visit www.umliloinvest.co.za
Hobbies: Loves to read; favourite book is the biography of Ernest Mcunu who mentored him early in his career.
Personal details: Age, 47. Son of a Malawian father and South African mother. Married with three children.
Inspired by: Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-British founder of Celtel who is implementing change on the continent by pushing the idea of an index for good governance.
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