Strive Masiyiwa was born in 1961 in Zimbabwe, which was then called Rhodesia. When he was seven, his family fled the country as Ian Smith’s embattled government began to crumble. The family settled in Kitwe, a city in north central Zambia known for its copper mines.
Masiyiwa’s mother was an entrepreneur with interests in retail sales, small-scale farming, and transportation. His father worked at first in one of the nearby mines but later joined the family business. By the time Masiyiwa was 12 years old; his parents could afford to provide him with a coveted European education. They sent him to private school in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended primary school in Zambia before completing his secondary education in Scotland.
When he graduated in 1978, he traveled back to Zimbabwe, intending to join the anti-government guerilla forces there. “One of the senior officers told him ‘Look, we’re about to win anyway, and what we really need is people like you to help rebuild the country’.
Masiyiwa took the man’s advice and returned to school in Britain, earning a degree in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Wales in 1983. He worked briefly in the computer industry in Cambridge, England, but soon returned to Zimbabwe in 1984, hoping to aid the country’s recovery after the war of independence it had won in 1980.
Masiyiwa joined the Zimbabwe Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (ZPTC), the state-owned telephone company, as a senior engineer. ZPTC quickly promoted him to the position of principal engineer. Masiyiwa became frustrated with the government bureaucracy, however, and left ZPTC in 1988 to start an electrical contracting firm named Retrofit Engineering. He was chosen as Zimbabwe’s youngest-ever Businessman of the Year in 1990.
Masiyiwa recognized the great potential for wireless telephones in sub-Saharan Africa because the region had only two fixed-line telephones for every hundred people in the 1990s. He saw that wireless networks would be quicker and less expensive to build than land-based networks that required stringing miles of telephone lines across rough terrain. Wireless telephone service would also be less vulnerable than traditional landlines to the theft of copper wire for resale. Masiyiwa first approached ZPTC about forming a mobile telephone network in Zimbabwe. The company wasn’t interested, however, saying that cell phones had no future in the country.
Masiyiwa then decided to create a cell phone network on his own. He sold Retrofit Engineering in 1994 and started to finance Econet Wireless through his family company, TS Masiyiwa Holdings (TSMH). He met with fierce opposition, first from ZPTC, which told him it held a monopoly in telecommunications, and second from the Zimbabwean government, which swamped him with red tape and demands for bribes. As a devout Christian, Masiyiwa was opposed to paying bribes and kickbacks to government officials. He decided to pursue his case through the courts. After a landmark four-year legal battle that went all the way to the nation’s Supreme Court, Econet finally won a license to provide cell phone service in Zimbabwe. The court declared that the government monopoly on telecommunications had violated the constitution’s guarantee of free speech. Econet’s first cell phone subscriber was connected to the new network in 1998.
While Masiyiwa waited to gain the government’s approval for operations in Zimbabwe, he was able to start a cell phone network in neighboring Botswana. Econet Wireless Holdings then established a presence in over 15 countries, including other African nations, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The company also diversified into satellite communications, fixed-line telephone services, and Internet service.
Masiyiwa decided to relocate his family and the Econet headquarters to the Republic of South Africa in 2000. Some observers suggested that he was going into exile from his homeland once again. Masiyiwa himself said simply that South Africa was the best place from which to launch a multinational corporation because it had the continent’s most vibrant economy.
His main interest remained in telecoms. Some of the key businesses that he established with partners included Econet Wireless International, Econet Wireless Global, Mascom Wireless Botswana, Econet Wireless Nigeria (now Airtel Nigeria), Econet Satellite Services, Lesotho Telecom, Econet Wireless Burundi, Rwanda Telecom, Econet Wireless South Africa, Solarway, and Transaction Processing Systems (TPS). He also has interests in mobile operations in New Zealand, Bolivia, and Dominican Republic. The company he created is known to have operations and investments, in more than 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, US, Latin America, and New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, and China
After more than ten years in South Africa, Masiyiwa moved to London; however, he still retains significant business interests in South Africa.
Econet Wireless (Econet) is a privately held global telecommunications company with business operations and investments in more than 20 countries in Africa, Latin America, The United Kingdom, Europe, China, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and New Zealand. The only listed entity is its Zimbabwean subsidiary. The Zimbabwean business is often mistaken as the holding company, because it is listed.
Masiyiwa also has interests in the United States of America (USA). He has partnered with one of America’s leading telecoms entrepreneurs, John Stanton, in a venture called Trilogy International Partners, which built New Zealand’s third mobile network operator known as “2 Degrees”. Masiyiwa’s investment in Seattle based Trilogy International, have also helped him secure interests as an investor in Viva’s Bolivia and Dominican Republic businesses. Masiyiwa also has a controlling interest in a company based in Vermont USA, that manufacturers nano fibre carbon products, called Seldon Technologies.
One of Masiyiwa’s most successful ventures is the London-based privately held Liquid Telecom Group, Africa’s largest satellite and fibre optic business spanning over 14 countries.
Other activities of Econet include enterprise networks, financial services, renewable energy, television and media (Kwesé TV).
There are no reliable estimates of Masiyiwa’s wealth, because the vast majority of his business investments are held in private businesses. The only publicly known information is that of his listed business in Zimbabwe, the country he left 15 years ago. Based on this, Forbes Magazine estimates put Masiyiwa’s personal wealth at US$600 million. Ventures Africa recently estimated Masiyiwa to be worth over US$1.4 billion.
Masiyiwa is generally recognised as one of the most prolific philanthropists to ever come out of Africa. He has used his own family fortune to build one of the largest support programs for educating orphans in Africa. At any given time his family foundations support and educate more than 40,000 children. Masiyiwa is also a member of the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett initiative known as the Giving Pledge.
Masiyiwa is also involved in supporting a diverse range of health issues including campaigns against HIV/AIDS, Cervical Cancer, malnutrition, and more recently EBOLA. He is an avid environmentalist and together with Sir Richard Branson founded the environmental group, the Carbon War Room.
He recently took over, from former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, the chairmanship of AGRA, an organisation that supports Africa’s smallholder farmers. In 2013, he was appointed co-chair of Grow Africa, the investment forum for Africa’s agriculture, which has helped mobilise over US$15 billion in investments for African agriculture.