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7 African Dropout CEOs
By Chioma Okwu

Life, they say has a lot of secrets, some bad others good but the biggest secret in life is that there is no actual big secret. Whatever your goal, you can get anywhere if you are willing to work. This is a popular quote from Oprah Winfrey.

We’ve seen different lists about people who have amassed wealth out of ideas, but this short article highlights a few of those who have succeeded without formal education. You may call them dropouts, we call them visionaries, inventors, innovators, and ultimately billionaires. Here is a list, in no respective order, of 7 African CEOs who have displayed immense courage and drive to overcome their seeming lack of formal education to build reputable businesses.

Orji Uzor Kalu, Nigeria

Kalu was once suspended from the University of Maiduguri for participating in a riot against the then Education Minister. He is now an entrepreneur and chairman of SLOK Holding and Daily Sun Publishing, to mention a few. He once served as Governor of Abia State for 8 years. The assiduous politician when later pardoned by the school, refused on grounds of solidarity with his comrades that were not pardoned, sticking to his guns.  With about $35 to his name, which he borrowed from his mother, he began trading palm oil, buying the oil from Nigerian Eastern parts and reselling it in the Northern regions. His business continued to grow rapidly. Kalu established Slok Holdings, a conglomerate that would consist of a number of successful companies, such as the Ojialex furniture co., Slok Nigeria Ltd., Slok United Kingdom, and others.  Kalu also later got a degree from Harvard University and the University of Maiduguri presented him with an Honorary Doctorate.

Anas Sefrioui, Morocco

Anas Sefrioui is considered Morocco’s third-richest person. This real estate magnate’s worth is estimated at $1.3 billion. Anas is also the CEO of Addoha Group. At a young age, he opted out of college to work with his father on a project to create a popular clay for washing a person’s body and hair. Producing this substance would allow Sefrioui to accumulate the knowledge and basic business skills needed to run his business empire in later years. He was able to gather the money needed to form a real estate development group in 1988. Building on that venture, he earned his first billions in 1995 when he was asked to build more than 2000 geared-to-income homes that received subsidization by the government of the late King Hassan II of Morocco.  Today, his affordable housing stint has become a guide to real estate development in the United Arab Emirates.

Ashish J. Thakkar, Uganda

Ashish is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Mara Group. He started his first company at the age of 15. In 1996, Ashish borrowed $6,000 to start his first IT Company where he bought and sold computers. Brimming with confidence, he chose to drop out of school and concentrate on his business which at that point, merely constituted of buying and selling computers and floppy disks; from Dubai to Uganda.  In an interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, Ashish stated concerning those early days, “I didn’t have enough working capital to do cargoes and shipments. I would travel to Dubai every weekend. Fill my suitcase with IT stuff. Pay my taxes on Monday. Sell Tuesday through Friday. Get my cash on Friday…That was my cycle for six months. And then I was thinking, “There are so many people coming to Dubai to do exactly the same thing. Why don’t I set up a base to help them? We then set up an office in Dubai when I was 15 in 1996 to actually supply IT hardware into African countries. And the rest is history.”

His company, Mara Group, a 16-year-old pan-African multi-sector business conglomerate with operations in 26 countries spans four continents. Mara’s current businesses operate in a broad range of sectors including information technology (IT) services, business process outsourcing (BPO), a multi-faceted mobile-enabled online platform, agriculture, real estate, hospitality, packaging, and asset management.

Mara Group has received global recognition for its achievements and contributions not only in Africa but also worldwide. In 2010, he was also appointed as a World Economic Forum Global Young Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Johann Rupert, South Africa 

Billionaire tycoon Johann Rupert is the chairman of Swiss-based luxury-goods company Richemont, as well as of the South Africa-based company Remgro. He grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. He gained admission to study Economics and Company Law at the University of Stellenbosch but dropped out of the university to follow the money. The rest is history. Rupert served his business apprenticeship in New York, where he worked for two years. He then returned to South Africa in 1979 and founded Rand Merchant Bank of which he was CEO. He started the Small Business Development Corporation in same year (over 600, 000) jobs created since inception.

Described as “reclusive” by the Financial Times and Barron’s, Rupert rarely grants interviews and shuns public events. Without getting any glamorous education, he was able to predict a world economic crisis in 2006 earning him the name, “Rupert the Bear” by the Financial Times. In 2004, Stellenbosch University awarded him an honorary doctorate in economics and in 2008 he was awarded another honorary doctorate in commerce from Nelson Mandela University.

Cosmas Maduka, Nigeria

Cosmas is Chairman/CEO of Coscharis Group of Companies and sole distributor for BMW in Nigeria.  At age 4, he lost his father, which took him into poverty. However, it marked his sojourn into business. Young Cosmas reportedly hawked bean cake (akara) to make ends meet. Like Bill Gates, he was not a dullard but had to withdraw from elementary school because he could not afford to pay fees. Cosmas was sent to his uncle, where he served as automobile apprentice. He didn’t bother to go back to school and decided to fully go into enterprise.  His first major business venture went from 300, 000 to millions within a year. In the early ’80s, humble Cosmas incorporated Coscharis Motors and he was fortunate that his company was the seventh company, among 10 motor companies, that were granted import license by the Ministry of Trade in the 80’s because ‘Coscharis’ sounded like a Greek name. The company is now a multimillion dollar venture and has continued to grow.

See full list.

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