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3 key entrepreneurial lessons from Nigel Chanakira

Nigel Chanakira

It's a Thursday night, and despite the dipping temperatures of this July night, the room is packed and one can almost sense the optimism and excitement in the atmosphere. The event is “Pitch Night Thursdays,” and is organised by a local company that invests in good business ideas.

Entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas; then the floor is opened up for questions, suggestions and any other contributions to help accelerate the business ideas.  NeedIess to say, some of the ideas being discussed here are epic!

The immediate feeling one gets from these pitches is how eager Zimbabwe’s young people are to make things happen.  Yes the current economic climate makes Zimbabwe a less than ideal environment for entrepreneurs, with most if not all economic indicators pointing to a severely wakened economy. To say that things have been tough would be a massive understatement of.  And it is Zimbabwe's millennial generation- the country`s so called 'lost generation' that has been dealt a bad hand. 

Yet what's encouraging is these young people`s resolve to try different things out and their entrepreneurial mind-set.  Walking around the country's eateries, it is not uncommon to find a group of young people with their notebooks, brainstorming and perfecting their business plans. For some, it is the only way out, so they try their hand at everything; from rearing chickens to setting up consultancy businesses.  This is what races through my mind as the entrepreneurs pitch their ideas during the night.

As the night draws to an end, perhaps the embodiment of entrepreneurship in the country for the past decade or so draws everybody's attention.  This he does not by doing or saying anything, but just by the mere fact that his name is Nigel Chanakira. Whilst people surround him to have photos taken with him, and to pick his brains, it isn't long until he gets started on giving entrepreneurial lessons from his own experiences. Obviously, the latter stages of his banking career (read as his public falling out with John Moxon and the subsequent collapse of Kingdom Bank) were rather tumultuous, and many might question his legitimacy in giving out entrepreneurial advice. Still, the guy made his first million dollars at 26, and started a bank from scratch; so naturally, I want to hear what he says.

The usual bits of his life story available in the public domain- his passion for economics,  how he was an understudy of a bank MD for years before breaking out on his own, how he sold his house and together with his wife and kids moved back into his parents' Highfield home, feature prominently as he speaks. As he speaks, I pick up on a couple of things that may be useful to young entrepreneurs.

Lesson 1 – Don`t reinvent the wheel
One can see his reluctant acceptance of the failure of the mobile money business he pioneered at Kingdom Bank years back.  He shrugs his shoulders as he tells how after 10 years of introducing the product and with 300, 000 customers, he eventually had to exit the business as it failed to gain traction.  Suddenly, a tinge of joy shows on his face as he marvels at how many years later,   Zimbabwe's largest telecommunications company by subscriber base, Econet has literally dominated the mobile money space in the country. His advice to would be entrepreneurs was the need to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.  Rather, young entrepreneurs could just mimic after the pioneers of a product or service.  In his case, he mentions how he as an early pioneer of mobile money in Zimbabwe did not make a lot of money with the product, yet today, Ecocash (a mimicked version of his mobile money idea) contributes significantly to Econet's revenues.  The takeaway here, is to look for a pioneer of the product you want to introduce, learn from how they did it and adapt it for your local market is his message.

Lesson 2 – Money follows a sound vision
"If money were that important, then we'd all come out of our mother's wombs clutching fistfuls of dollar bills," he says. Nigel Chanakira is a firm believer in how money always follows a good idea and vision.  He mentions how when he started out, the regulatory capital requirements for his business was ZWD $500,000, an amount so steep that at the time, he could not afford it.  Never mind that he had managed to gather over ZWD $100,000 in personal savings, still he had to re-evaluate his circumstances and readjust his vision.  As opposed to a banking license that required substantial financial investments to obtain, opening a stock broking firm only required that he acquire the services of a licensed stockbroker. Nigel then went on to recruit a person with the stock broking license. With his eye still on establishing a bank one day, he accepted his present circumstances and went for a stock broking company first whilst keeping his vision for a bank intact.  It may be necessary to reassess your situation, adjust your vision sometimes.  Never settle and keep your eye on the endgame was his call. Eventually, money followed his vision and with time he did establish the bank.

Lesson 3 – Build the right team
He readily tells of how he studied Economics, Money and Banking to the core, and how he obviously lacked in other fields like Accounting, and Business. Then Nigel narrates his stroke of genius in selecting his partners. “I went for a guy good in accounting to do the books,  someone who had studied business,  as I didn't know how to effectively run a business," he says. The group of young people break into laughter as he speaks of how he went on the search for  someone without the conventional academic 'qualifications' but over 15 years’ experience in the banking industry to form part of his team.  This strategic selection of partners to run his business with would prove invaluable as he built his banking empire to be a recognized force in the country.  Likewise, he then urges the budding entrepreneurs to carefully build a team that will be able to stay the course and work hard to grow the business.

You see the drive in his eyes to impact on the young entrepreneurs as he encourages them to not despise their humble beginnings.  He argues that God gave us a brain and that is more than sufficient for us to make it.  Despite the unfavourable macroeconomic conditions in the country, he urges the young people to go for it, and rubbishes the notion that money is a major hindrance to starting a business. “If I had to do it over again, I would hustle my way, network my way and work my way to starting a bank even in a country like ours,” he concludes. "See you at the top!” Nigel says as he poses for more photos with the visibly excited group of young people


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