Stars in our Firmament

Some years ago the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan started a programme to identify individuals and organisations that were exceptional and deserved recognition – he called them stars in the long night of human experience.

I have always thought that this was a great idea because no matter how dark the night, the stars are always with us and the darker the night the more they glow, especially when viewed without all the haze and other pollution that so often clouds our view. In Zimbabwe today we are in a dark place – the GNU failed to bring real change and the old guard has resumed full control of the State, the economy is again in serious trouble and there just seems no way out.

When that happens, you have to look around you and gaze at the stars in our firmament. The beauty and the contrast is always breathtaking as is the realization that we are a tiny part of it all, and no matter how rough things get, there is more to life than our daily struggles and in the end there is the unknown infinity above us.

I just want to pay tribute today to two organisations – both businesses and both exceptional in many respects. The first is Econet.

Strive Masiyiwa was a young engineer when Zimbabwe became independent – he formed a company and was reasonably successful in the field of electrical engineering. However he spotted the opportunity that was coming in the communications field with the development of the Cell Phone and began a long struggle to secure a license to become the first operator of a cell phone network in Zimbabwe. He sold his company and sunk the whole of the proceeds into the pursuit and development of his own network which he called Econet.

To get a license he had to fight the corrupt and politically biased administration and despite frequent rebuttals, he persisted. Eventually with the support of the former President of Zapu, Joshua Nkomo, Strive was given his license and the rest is history.

Today Strive is the majority shareholder in the largest black owned multinational in Africa and has a personal worth of perhaps $10 billion. Never a supporter of a political Party, his unwillingness to pay homage at the feet of Robert Mugabe and his entourage made him unwelcome in official circles and he was forced to leave the country of his birth and go to South Africa and from there to the UK where he lives today.

At home the network has grown and grown – I bought my first cell phone in support of Econet and have had that account through to today – as far as I am concerned BC means “before cell phones” and I do not know what I would do without it. I can use my phone now almost anywhere in the country. I think I saw somewhere that coverage is now at 95 per cent.

We can now send money through the system and I can tell you that it has transformed the lives of ordinary people, made the State controlled media almost irrelevant and is connecting people across the globe. When I recently travelled to a remote village to express our condolences to a peasant family who had a child burned to death in a politically motivated incident, I found the local community – about 300 persons, at the homestead. The one older man I found there was on the phone to his son in New York – arranging a money transfer to help with the funeral and the emergency needs of the family.

The following day I bought the Daily News ad found myself on the front page – one of the other farmers had photographed me with the family and sent the photo by cell phone to the paper with a short story – I was astounded. These were the poorest of the poor, eking out a living in the remote rural areas and yet they were totally up to date with this new technology and even there, over the worst roads imaginable, they were connected to the world.

The whole system has been created and developed with the best technologies found internationally, the system here is certainly better than in many other countries, even the US. Yet not one cent has come from government and there has been no subsidy, instead, Strive and his local management team run the company professionally and adhere to the highest principles. They are major tax payers and decent employers with offices across the country.

When I had a stroke four years ago and needed surgery and treatment in South Africa, my cell phone rang and on the line was Strive. “Eddie” he said, “go to South Africa and get the treatment and send me the bill”. I did not need his help but I have never forgotten the gesture. I know that he is paying the school fees for thousands of children and doing much more that I do not know anything about. But to me, Econet and Strive are shining stars in my firmament.

The other organisation is lesser known company called Padenga. They produce crocodile skins outside Kariba. They produce about 50 000 skins a year and sell in the toughest markets of the world – the fashion end of the international leather trade. They make a solid profit every year and are now leaders in the technologies that support this new industry. They make a solid contribution to the communities in the area where they operate and are, like Econet, totally Zimbabwean in ownership and management.

I am a shareholder in both organisations, not large, just a token of support and recognition. I invested not for the dividend, but simply to try and back young people who in my mind are doing an exceptional job in tough conditions. There are many such stars in this country as there are throughout the world. Some are like black holes – they suck everything into themselves and give nothing out. These are not like that, they shine in the darkest night and give light and hope to the world around us.

At the very height of the civil war in Zimbabwe, I was CEO of a large industrial organisation. We could see no end to the war, the country was crashing about us, life was characterized by total uncertainty. I called my management team together and said to them, “no matter how tough things get, we are going to present our products to every household in this country every day and show people that life goes on.” We did just that and I think that we were a light in a dark place at that time. It’s up to each of us to do our bit and together we can change the world we live in.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th August 2014