Monday, March 14, 2011


This week the Forbes list – a ranking of the richest people in the world, was released. Bill Gates did not regain his title as the richest man in the world, partly because he gave away a lot of his wealth to charity and also because Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim’s net worth jumped 38%.

But don’t cry for Gates, his fortune still comes in at $56b or more than the size of the economy of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda put together.

Africa’s highest ranked is Nigerian Aliko Dangote who has interest in sugar, flour and cement. He is in the top 100 at 51 thanks to a near seven fold increase in his net worth.

No East and central African made the list whose African interest was dominated by South Africans, Egyptians and Nigerians.

The Forbes List which started in 1982 is a celebration of capitalism and as lists go probably means more to the readers of the lists than the entrants.

It has its place in determining which economies are generating wealth or in the case of Africa, which countries in addition are experiencing a rapid expansion in wealth disparities.

A friend of mine keeps saying that the reason we have so many problems – political, economic and social as a country is because we do not have enough rich men.

Given that with our GDP of $16b we would not be even in the top 50 on the Forbes list maybe we need to ask ourselves why that is.

To begin with we are unlikely to get a member of the Forbes List in the foreseeable future because our rich men run local operations.

But maybe more importantly our businessmen are not harnessing the power of collective investment. They are going it alone. Financing their businesses with personal savings and for the more sophisticated ones bank financing.

Last week Tony Wainaina, whose experience includes stints with Kenya’s most successful investment companies Centum and Transcentury, was in town to talk about creating wealth during investment groups.

During a talk organized by financial advisors, Akamai Global and sponsored by the Competitiveness and Investment Climate strategy Secreteriat of the finance ministry, Wainaina listed commitment, vision, governance and trust as critical success factors.

Wainaina said that in Kenya investment groups control up to a billion dollars in assets – and we haven’t even counted the Savings & Credit organizations.

Just as with an investment group, a lack of vision will keep your business small even if it had a chance to grow bigger.

I think the key for our businessmen is to look at business as satisfying the needs of others beyond the individual founder or founding family. There is only so much one can eat, one house one can sleep in at a time and only so much of life’s pleasures one can savour in a life time.

But if the business’ vision extends to creating jobs and services for thousands and even millions then we will see bigger concerns come. Without this they will continue to be big fish in small ponds.

As a nation it is also important that we have big local businessmen and concerns not only because they create employment and provide services but also because as a result national stability has a chance to gain root.

Big business will need cash and the more businesses there are the more likely they will tap the local population for capital. In so doing – beyond the jobs, more people will have an interest in continued stability of the nation.

Poverty levels should not be viewed as just a statistic but also as a real threat to national security. A poor population has nothing to lose and when people are desperate the rule of law is suspended so that people can make a living any which way they can.

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew in his book “The Singapore story: From third world to first” describes how demonstrations in the city state became less violent in the city state as the rate of home ownership increased.

So we should be concerned that we do not have an entry on the Forbes list or have some of the biggest companies on the continent or in the region.

And as a consequence our business men should know they can not do it alone, especially using our small economy as a launch pad. Aggregating our resources through collective investments is the way to go.

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