Posts in "African Business"

Sticking with Las Vegas, a billionaire, Microsoft and a Volksie shop

The week started with a bang.

On Monday, the EyeforTravel WhatsApp group started pinging madly. Mostly I annoy people by ignoring WhatsApp, but this activity seemed unusual. It was, I soon realised. The news of the crazy, incomprehensible, senseless shooting in Las Vegas this week was headlining in the UK.

Pinging aside, I could almost hear a collective groan ripple from Devon, where the boss was, all the way up to the Spitalfields office and across to South West London, casting a shadow over my sunny loft office. You see, EyeforTravel’s next event is taking place in the very Mandalay Bay Hotel from where Steven Paddock fired his shots from the 32nd floor. 

Before long, the team already had an email from one delegate who was in the midst of the carnage, and unsurprisingly wanted to cancel – she doesn’t want to ‘set foot in that city again any time soon’.  However, there was never really any doubt that the show should go on – EyeforTravel represents the travel industry and these incidents hit hotels and airlines, and the livelihoods they support, hard. Luckily this strategy is one many have rallied behind. It was particularly nice to hear from one the event’s key note speakers Paul English, the former founder of the travel company Kayak, which was sold to the US firm Priceline for $1.8bn in 2012, that he agreed with this call.

Interviewing Paul, whose rise in the world of travel has been immortalised by the Pullitzer prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder in a memoir titled A Truck Load of Money, was a highlight of a week that started badly. Though hard to be sure, from our +-45-minute telephonic interview about his latest venture Lola, he seemed decent, determined and very smart.

Paul told me that for the past few years he and one other foundation have been the main funders of 10,000 students in 40 rural schools in Haiti, where they’ve been investing in teacher training and are also building infrastructure. He is also working with the homeless community in Boston, and doing a big project related to building a Martin Luther King Memorial in the city.

In preparing for my interview, I read somewhere that his background is Irish Catholic but I forgot to ask. Need I say more.

At the end of the interview Paul thanks me for asking about his philanthropic work. ‘Nobody ever does,’ he says.

It’s nice he thanked me, but I’m surprised people don’t ask. Surely if you claim to be doing philanthropic work and you’ve made a ‘truckload of money’, you need to held accountable.

Like, Wow, Microsoft!

The week’s next highlight has to have been the email that landed in my inbox on Tuesday from a Stuart Greif, a senior executive at Microsoft who I also interviewed recently.

I paraphrase Stuart here in a few paragraphs, that can only be described as blowing my own trumpet.

‘I’ve interviewed with hundreds journalists over the years from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Marketwatch, CNN, Fox …USAToday, as well as countless from the trade press. Your approach, lens, writing, incisive insights, storytelling and accuracy are all exceptional.

‘Often times, journalists are good at a few of these things.  Factual information frequently is misunderstood, misconstrued, and more often than should be the case, factually wrong. You are truly in the top 1% of the journalists with whom I engaged over the years.’

Like wow, how great am I, I thought, before the self-doubt kicked in. I found myself reflecting that, although Stuart might deny it, this was probably a little too positive a story about Microsoft’s foray into the brave-new-world of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and machine learning – heaven help us all.

In my part-time gig at EyeforTravel I have editorial independence to a degree but we’re the travel industry’s ally, not whistle blowers – although be warned, I will if I have to.

Feeling good about Volksies

An email later in the week from one of my first, and still favourite editors, Business Day’s Tim Cohen, brought me back down to earth. I’ve not been in touch with him for a while, but earlier that morning had sent a pitch along these lines to what I referred to as the Saturday Magazine.

‘I’ve got a feel-good story about two small and growing businesses in Joburg. The first is renovating and fixing VW Beetles and campervans and seems to be flying, the other is run by a Ford Lancia fanatic, (whose mother-in-law’s chestnut brown, leathered-seat classic is parked up on one floor).’

My pitch continues:

‘There are couple of old geezers, one of whom couldn’t hack retirement, a 40-something mechanic, and VW aficionado who happens to be gay. There is also an energetic 20-something young black woman, who has ‘small hands – useful in this business’ – a wide smile and fantastic hair, who trained in electronics but wanted to be a mechanic, and the just turned 21-year-old white male, with a complicated family history.

The old boys are training the young one’s up. I transcribed my interviews last week, which had me laughing out loud – there’s definitely a story here. Got some half decent pics too.’[South Africans might understand better than others why it’s necessary for me to mention age, colour, sexuality and gender, so overtly in this pitch]

The response from Tim: ‘Sure, story sounds good. But I think you may be getting kinda old and forgetful – we never had a Saturday magazine. We had the Weekender, which was a tabloid paper, but it’s long closed.’

Forgetful maybe, but who is calling me old?

Tim’s not interested, however, in a media deal with the African magazine publisher, which also asked me this week if I’d be willing to cover Africa 2017  to be held in Sharm-el-Sheikh in December. Winter sun, here we come – well maybe. It’s a toss up between Egypt and Ivory Coast.

Still I’m chuffed that I’m going to be able to write my vintage car story. Let’s just say it will be another sort-of homage to my Dad who died suddenly and expectedly in Japan, a year next week. My father loved a classic car, and would be tickled that the jolly Volksie-Lancia crew, a growing business doing good, have found a home on the top floor of his ‘Rainbow Building’ in Wynberg.

The market for vintage cars in  Africa is growing,  Mike Mullan the boss of the Volksie shop tells me – and for many the VW is still an affordable statement.

I’m penning that piece today, so the week, it seems, is ending with a story about a few old bangers. That’s kind of cool, I think, air-cooled should we say.



Feeding Africa

Rising food prices and the link to political instability have been a core theme across global media in recent weeks, following the release of United Nations updated food price index in January. That was bad news; for seven consecutive months the index rose, in both real and nominal terms, to highest levels since records began in 1990. And the forecasts do not look good either Abdolreza Abbassian, a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation economist and grains expert, says “high prices are likely to persist in the months to come”. Continue reading

Africa Ready for Business

Africa is organised and ready for business in agriculture. But Africa must call the shots in any deal done with European partners. This was the underlying message from Dr Lindiwe Sibanda , one of three African members who sat on the 10-strong Montpellier Panel, an international group established to define a way forward for partnerships in agricultural development between Europe and Africa. The Montpellier Panel Report, on strengthening partnerships between Europe and Africa, was released on October 26, 2010. Continue reading

Africa’s Great Food Fight

In the October-December issue of BBC Focus on Africa magazine I researched a piece on growing interest in African agriculture. Food security, after all, is increasingly viewed as the new energy security and Africa is the last major reserve of arable land.That land is abundant and the land comes cheap. Of course there are challenges too; land and food in Africa are big political hot potatoes. Continue reading