Strive Masiyiwa becomes first black billionaire to make Britain’s ‘Rich List’

Strive Masiyiwa becomes first black billionaire to make Britain’s ‘Rich List’

Strive Masiyiwa fled civil unrest in his homeland at the age of seven and later waged a five-year battle against Robert Mugabe’s regime to launch his business.

Now he has become the first black billionaire to break into The Sunday Times Rich List with his wealth estimated to be £1.087 billion.

But the Zimbabwean telecoms tycoon, who lives in London, may be too busy to notice his elevation into the ranks of Britain’s super-rich. He is currently trying to fix one of the planet’s most pressing problems: finding enough vaccines for Africa’s 1.3 billion-strong population.

Masiyiwa, 60, a father of six who also serves on the boards of Netflix and Unilever, is the African Union’s special envoy on the pandemic and recently signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson for 400 million vaccine doses.

Born in what was then Rhodesia in 1961, Masiyiwa and his parents fled to neighbouring Zambia amid the unrest that followed the country’s declaration of independence from Britain four years later.

As the family rebuilt their lives, they found themselves living next door to a British family who educated their son at Holt School, a private boarding school in Edinburgh. Masiyiwa began studying there at the age of 12 when the success of his mother’s businesses provided the money to pay for his fees and flights.

After Holt, Masiyiwa, who has described his late mother as a “lioness mum”, studied electrical engineering at Cardiff University. He later returned to Zimbabwe to work for the state-owned telephone company PTC, where he grew frustrated with the bureaucracy of the public sector.

In 1993 he tried to launch his mobile phone provider, Econet. The Mugabe regime denied him a licence and so the matter went to court, where Masiyiwa successfully claimed that a state monopoly of phone services amounted to a violation of freedom of speech.

A ruling in 1998 finally granted a licence to Econet but Masiyiwa fled Zimbabwe two years later after deteriorating relations with the Harare government. He has never returned to his homeland.

A committed Christian, he and his wife Tsitsi, 56, set up their Higherlife Foundation in 1996. The organisation has funded education for more than 250,000 children and provided US$70m to combat cholera in Zimbabwe.

Few black entrepreneurs have broken into The Sunday Times Rich List over its 33-year history. Those who have made it into this newspaper’s wealth rankings in recent years include Mo Ibrahim, 75, who also made his fortune in the telecoms world, and Sir Damon Buffini, 58, who co-founded the private equity house Permira.

Two years ago, Zimbabwe-born Valerie Moran, 45, became the first black woman to appear in the Rich List following the success of Prepaid Financial Services, the fintech business she built up with her husband. The couple banked about £150m when they sold the company last year.

Asian people based in Britain are better represented on the Rich List. In one recent edition nearly 9 per cent of the entries were accounted for by Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan individuals and families.

But the low numbers of black entrepreneurs has raised concerns that banks, private equity groups and other investors are less likely to provide finance to black people.

The Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School has estimated that about 250,000 of the UK’s 5.9 million businesses are owned by ethnic minorities, approximately 40,000 of which are owned by black businessmen and women.

These numbers suggest that only 0.67 per cent of UK businesses are owned by black people, even though they account for 3.3 per cent of the British population.

Professor Monder Ram, director of research at the Aston centre, believes banks need to be encouraged to lend to entrepreneurs from ethnic minorities.

“Minorities feel they are less favourably treated. So they get discouraged and exclude themselves by not applying,” he said.

Masiyiwa has a separate concern. He wants more Africans to launch their businesses in their homelands, rather than move to the West to do so, pointing out in previous interviews that you “don’t have to cross the Sahara”.