Strive Masiyiwa
Strive Masiyiwa at a conference in 2016. (Photo by Frank Augstein - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
  • Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa has been appointed to the board of Netflix.
  • He made his money doing work for the government of Zimbabwe, then took it to court for the right to run a cellphone network.
  • His empire has been built with a fair amount of acrimony, and legal battles, across various parts of Africa.
  • Here's what you need to know about him.
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He has been called a maverick, "charismatic and controversial", and "Africa's Warren Buffett". He is building a reputation as a philanthropist, with moves such as an offer to pay Zimbabwean doctors out of his own pocket. He fought Robert Mugabe, and a number of other governments and huge corporations, to build a continent-spanning telecommunications business.

But from this week onwards, Strive Masiyiwa's future biographies are likely to give pride of place to his role as a director of Netflix, and not only because it is such a household name. Masiyiwa is the first African to find a place at the Netflix table, and one of very few Africans in charge of the American mega-corporations dominating online entertainment and communication across so much of the world.

He will also, after the departure of current board member Susan Rice, be the only black person on the Netflix board.

Masiyiwa has a long history as a dealmaker – and a troublemaker – in some of Africa's biggest markets. His appointment seems to signal that Netflix is ready to take the continent seriously, as it searches for its next billion customers.

Here is what you need to know about Strive Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean billionaire who was just appointed a director of Netflix. 

He was educated in the United Kingdom, where he became an engineer when the timing didn't work out to become a freedom fighter

His family moved to Zambia when he was just a small boy after the minority white government in then Rhodesia declared independence from Britain. He ended up in a Scottish boarding school because his family had Scottish neighbours in Zambia, and he joined their son in Edinburgh.

He moved back to Zimbabwe after he finished school, hoping to join the military fight against minority rule, but was persuaded that the war was basically already won. He returned to the UK and studied engineering at the University of Wales.

He made his first fortune doing work for the Zimbabwean government, then used the money to fight it

Masiyiwa's first foray into business was an engineering firm, Retrofit, which he founded in 1986 (with a bank loan from Barclays that came with the condition that he get rid of his flashy car). By the time he sold it, 80% of its business was with the Zimbabwean state, by Masiyiwa's account.

That provided the financial basis for him to launch an epic half-decade legal battle against the government of Zimbabwe, which became a literal case study, for the right to launch a private mobile phone company in that country.

He was Zimbabwe's first billionaire, and is one of the richest black people in the world

In 2019 – before massive swings in equity values and currencies brought by the pandemic – Masiyiwa was ranked the 9th richest black person in the world.

With a net worth then estimated at $1.7 billion, he was declared Zimbabwe's first-ever dollar billionaire by Forbes in 2018.

Relations with the government of Robert Mugabe did not improve when he funded private newspapers...

Masiyiwa first loaned The Daily News enough money to keep operating through the highly-contentious 2000 elections in Zimbabwe, then became a major shareholder of the Associate Newspapers of Zimbabwe group. That brought him into direct conflict with the government of Robert Mugabe as it waged war against the independent media

.. and things aren't always great with Emmerson Mnangagwa's administration either

This year the Zimbabwean government accused Masiyiwa's Econet of running a pyramid scheme and tried to make it turn over subscriber and transaction information.

The EcoCash platform, the government contended, was facilitating black-market currency dealing 

He fought a nasty war with Vodacom in Nigeria...

While MTN threw its hat into the ring in the early 2000s, rival Vodacom ignored Nigeria at first – only to watch MTN grow by leaps and bounds.

Apparently regretting its earlier timidity, Vodacom hatched a plan to take control of first-mover Econet Wireless Nigeria, which claimed some 40% of the market at the time, and so go head-to-head with MTN with a $200 million war chest. In April 2004 Vodacom announced a management deal, which would see the Nigerian company take on its name, and be run by its executives. That was suddenly cancelled just two months later.

Things got muddy, with allegations of corruption, executive departures, and unlikely claims of amicable settlements. But central to it all was Masiyiwa, who resolutely claimed his Econet Wireless International had pre-emptive rights over shares Vodacom tried to buy. 

Masiyiwa sued Vodacom, took the fight to the United Nations, and fiercely fought every point, big or small, in every venue he could get access to – putting future enemies on notice as to what they could expect.

(Years later Masiyiwa claimed the entire Vodacom war started because he had refused to pay bribes demanded by Nigerian politicians.)

... and had a nasty fallout with Altron in operations including Botswana and beyond...

In early 2004, Masiyiwa and South African technology group Altech announced a R1 billion partnership across markets including Botswana, with Altech bringing the cash, and Econet injecting various telecoms assets.

Less than 20 months later, the companies were announcing the ending of all disputes thanks to Econet buying Altech out of the joint venture.

In between, things got muddy, with fights about who the joint venture could partner with (including Vodacom), allegations of racism, and legal fights in both South Africa and Botswana.

He fought the government of Kenya to a standstill.

In Kenya Econet's licence to operate a mobile network was cancelled in 2004, triggering another round of legal battles for Masiyiwa and his interests. In 2007 the Kenyan government – which at one point insisted Econet was a fraud with no place in the country – agreed to a halt in hostilities; it would stop trying to shut Masiyiwa down if he dropped his various legal actions against it.

Two years later, Econet counted 200,000 subscribers in Kenya.

His Liquid Telecom is rapidly building out infrastructure in various parts of the continent

Liquid Telecom, a South African headquartered subsidiary of Econet Global, has been raising money and spending it fast, on everything from laying fibre in Botswana to building the biggest data centre in Nigeria.

It is quickly positioning itself to be an ideal provider for large tech firms moving into the continent, analysts say, including the likes of Netflix. 

On the Netflix board he replaces a former Obama advisor, who is taking up a key post in the Biden administration

Masiyiwa's seat at the Netflix board table was previously held by Susan Rice, who served as the US ambassador to the United Nations under Barack Obama, and served as his head of National Security Council staff.

She resigned as director of Netflix to to become the director of incoming US President Joe Biden's Domestic Policy Council.

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