The millionaire’s wife who feeds 40,000 children

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By Mfonobong Nsehe

It’s 3pm on a crisp August afternoon in Johannesburg. Tsitsi Masiyiwa is seated on a comfy couch in a makeshift living room at her elegant office in the leafy suburbs of Dainfern, north of the city.

Tsitsi Masiyiwa
Tsitsi Masiyiwa

I meet her when she is in a deep conversation with a South African journalist and one of her office employees. I sit down to join the conversation and Masiyiwa recounts a fascinating story.

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.

Tsitsi regularly held party-like events in her home for orphans in which the children always ate to their fill. Many times, she visited the children in their orphanages, offering them food and personal mentorship. It was an exhilarating experience for her, but she felt it was not enough.

“I spent time with these children and I came to love them. I wanted to keep doing more for them, but I realized that it was not just enough to keep giving them fish. I had to teach them how to fish. I wanted them to grow up and fend for themselves and become successful people. I wanted them educated,” she says.

It was at that point that Capernaum Trust began in earnest, supporting orphaned and vulnerable children by paying their school fees, and providing funds for school uniforms and stationery. Strive and Tsisti Masiyiwa dug into their personal resources to fund these scholarships.

Today, the Capernaum Trust pays the school fees of over 40,000 students, whom Tsitsi calls “History Makers,” across the Primary, High school and Tertiary levels. Of that number, close to 3,000 of them are University students with some of them studying in the United States, South Africa and Australia, where the fees are usually much more expensive that in Africa.

In February, Tsitsi and her husband established the Ambassador Andrew Young Scholarship, a $6.4 million dollar scholarship fund that sends African students to attend the Morehouse College in the United States. The fund is named after Ambassador Andrew Young, a former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, who is renowned for his vanguard role in the international Civil Rights Movement.

Tsitsi is quick to emphasize that beneficiaries of their scholarships are not mere students, but “History makers.” And the connotation has a spiritual dimension to it. “Once an orphan comes on the program, he or she ceases to be an orphan because s/he now has a Father in heaven who empowers him/her to make history,” she says.

The Trust now has ‘History Makers’ in Zimbabwe, Burundi, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, and Tsitsi says they are planning to take on more countries in their programme.

“We are most certainly planning to expand to other African countries. While setting up the Trust was in line with fulfilling my promise to God, it was also majorly driven by a desire to see major development and social upliftment in Africa.

“The Econet Group does business in many African countries and we are making money from these places. We have to give back. It’s only reasonable thinking that businesses give back to the communities in which they do business.”

While the Capernaum Trust traditionally provided only scholarships, uniforms, food packs and stipends, Tsitsi says they now also provide career guidance and medical assistance to its beneficiaries. It is a holistic intervention.

The Masiyiwas spend several millions of dollars every year from their personal resources in addition to financial support from Econet Wireless to support these philanthropic endeavors. Tsitsi politely declined to disclose how much it spends annually on these scholarships.

The Capernaum Trust is also generously endowed and it invests its resources in an assortment of sophisticated financial instruments and property. While the Foundation’s philanthropic work has had several successes, there have been a few disappointments.

“It’s not all roses. We’ve had cases where some of our girls got carried away and became pregnant out of wedlock, and then they had to drop out of school. We’ve had boys who left our programmes to head cattle and some girls have eloped to get married early,” she says.

But Capernaum’s success stories far outnumber its not-so-successful stories- a feat for which Tsitsi is thankful.

While the Capernaum Trust is Tsitsi Masiyiwa’s most popular philanthropic endeavor, it is far from her only one. Along with her husband, she is a co-founder of three other charities- the Christian Community Partnership Trust (CCPF), a charity that provides financial support for church and church organizations working in the least evangelized areas of rural Zimbabwe; the National Healthcare Trust Of Zimbabwe which provides financial support for medical drugs, human resources, transport in the event of a health crisis and the Joshua Nkomo Scholarship Fund – named after the late Zimbabwean nationalist which also awards scholarships to exceptionally intelligent Zimbabwean children. These four foundations are part of the Higher Life Foundation, an umbrella organization for all the charity efforts of the Masiyiwas. Tsitsi Masiyiwa serves as Executive Chair.

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. Forbes.com