The year was 1996 and Masiyiwa and her husband, Strive Masiyiwa, were almost penniless. The couple was going through a rough patch, and they were struggling to feed themselves and their children.
“We were so broke. We couldn’t even afford to give our visitors tea,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa says in retrospect. “We were practically living from hand to mouth.”
But things hadn’t always been this way. Just a couple of years before, Strive Masiyiwa owned a thriving business. He had founded Retrofit Engineering, an electrical contracting firm that handled lucrative construction contracts for the government and had built a considerable fortune. But his fortunes reversed in 1993 when he decided to establish Zimbabwe’s first independent mobile telecoms network to rival the government-owned telecommunications company.
At the time, the Zimbabwean Post & Telecommunications Corporation (PTC) was the sole provider of telecommunication services in Zimbabwe. When Masiyiwa expressed his interest in acquiring a mobile operating license and launching a substitute mobile telecoms network, the government threatened to prosecute him if he dared to pursue his plans. The Zimbabwean authorities denied him a license. Refusing to bow to intimidation, he took the government to court, challenging the government’s monopoly on telecommunications and seeking the rights to operate a mobile phone company in Zimbabwe. It was a landmark case that lingered for close to five years, eventually finding its way to the Supreme Court.
“Our problems began when we sued the government,” Masiyiwa recollects. “You cannot sue the government and think things will always be right.”
During that period, the government, which was Retrofit’s biggest client, immediately called off its existing contracts with the firm. It had disastrous consequences for Strive Masiyiwa. Within months, he could hardly afford to pay salaries and he finally had to sell off the company’s assets to finance Econet’s legal battles against the government. Before long, the Masiyiwas’ funds had dried up, and they were on their wits end.
“So we were broke. In trying to understand what was going on around me, I began to do an intensive soul searching. Then I prayed to God and made a deal with him. I told God that if he granted us the license to operate the mobile phone company in Zimbabwe- and he made us successful, then I will help support as many poor people as possible for as long as I lived,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa recalls.
Tsitsi Masiyiwa, a deeply religious woman, took a step of faith along with her husband. “We went ahead and registered Capernaum Trust, a charity that we decided would give scholarships to needy children. It was an unpractical thing to do at the time, especially considering the fact that we had nothing. But as a Christian, you do unreasonable things,” she enthuses.
God probably answered her prayer because in December 1997 the Zimbabwean Supreme Court awarded Econet Wireless a license to set up a mobile telecoms company in Zimbabwe. The Supreme Court ruled that the government’s monopoly on telecommunications was in violation of a provision in country’s constitution that allowed for freedom of communication.
Econet launched its services in Zimbabwe in 1998. Growth was rapid. Within a few months of setting up in Zimbabwe, Econet became the leading mobile telecoms company in the country. It has maintained that trajectory in the last 15 years and has grown to amass about 10 million subscribers spread across Zimbabwe, Botswana, Burundi and Lesotho. Strive Masiyiwa is now Zimbabwe’s richest man.
As Econet began spitting out handsome dividends for her family holding company (which owns the chunk of Econet shares), Tsitsi kept her promise to God.
“I gathered as many orphans as I could find from all over Zimbabwe and I threw a party for them,” Tsitsi says.
Why is Tsitsi Masiyiwa and her husband doing all this?
“We’ve been successful, and I feel that people who are successful have a responsibility to support initiatives that will fuel Africa’s growth and development,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Look around Africa, you’ll see that new millionaires are springing up everyday. It is good to create wealth, but along with wealth-creation must come a deep sense of responsibility. Africa’s rich need to collectively deploy their resources for the good of the people around them.”
Tsitsi Masiyiwa is now at the vanguard in urging rich Africans everywhere to give back.
In April this year she joined forces with some of Africa’s most prominent philanthropists such as Nigerian investor Tony Elumelu, Kenyan banker James Mwangi and Nigerian philanthropist Toyin Saraki to form the African Philanthropy Forum (APF), a regional affiliate of the San Francisco-based Global Philanthropy Forum. The group aims to build a community of African donors and social investors devoted to fueling Africa’s growth and development.
“Collectively, we will find the best, effective and most strategic way to pursue philanthropy in Africa,” she says.
(via The Millionaire’s Wife Who Feeds 40,000 Children - Forbes)