Space is virgin territory, yet, for Sir Richard Branson.
But even that, he appears set to conquer commercially with his company Virgin Galactic this year.
One of the greatest business minds on earth, Branson is in the space race.
In a CNN interview mid-February, commenting on South African billionaire Elon Musk’s recent SpaceX test-launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, Branson said: “I was a little bit jealous,” and called Musk’s feat “extraordinary”.
The British tycoon, known for his profound love for adventure and sport, admitted in the interview that Virgin Galactic is hoping to put people in space in the coming months.
He also hints about it on his blog: “The team are working tirelessly, and each flight brings us one step closer to commercial service in New Mexico’s Spaceport America.”
“One of our biggest investments has been the space companies, which we have already invested $1 billion to set up,” he says in FORBES’ 100th anniversary issue in 2017.
And should Branson – worth $5 billion according to FORBES – be one of the first space tourists to look down on earth, he would no doubt marvel at the continent he often visits – Africa.
In his new autobiography, Finding My Virginity, launched last year, you find multiple mentions of Africa, and memories and images of the people and places he keeps returning to on the continent.
Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel… are revered in these pages.
Branson tells FORBES AFRICA, in an exclusive interview in November last year when in Johannesburg for Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Business is an Adventure’ event, that “almost since the day Nelson Mandela left prison, I got very involved in Africa”.
Almost three decades on, he continues to be.
On the continent, Virgin’s biggest presence is in South Africa.
Worldwide, Branson owes his fortune to diverse businesses bearing the Virgin name. The son of a barrister and flight attendant, he started almost 50 years ago with a mail-order record business. He was a school drop-out, but never looked back.
He founded the Virgin Group, which now has interests in mobile telephony, financial services, travel, hospitality, holidays and health, among others.
He created his music label Virgin Records in 1972, signing on artistes such as Mike Oldfield, Janet Jackson, The Rolling Stones and the Spice Girls.
A disruptor in the aviation industry, Branson started Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and the airline has been flying between London Heathrow and South Africa for the last 21 years, and Nigeria for over 16 years.
In his new book, he says he is often asked the question: “How do you go about becoming a millionaire?” And his answer has been the same: “Start as a billionaire and launch a new airline.” He recounts the first 15 years of Virgin Atlantic as “a topsy-turvy tale of excitement, innovation and survival”.
Branson famously lives on Necker Island, a British Virgin Islands retreat, which, according to FORBES, he bought for $180,000 in 1978. Tutu has been a visitor: there is an endearing 2006 image of Branson planting a kiss on him with the azure sea in the background.
Far from Necker, at the ‘Business is an Adventure’ event in South Africa in November, Branson, the man who never wears ties, is in a pale blue shirt and khaki chinos. He enters, waving his hands in the air simulating the wings of an aeroplane. And on stage, much to the audience’s delight, rips off fellow panelist and Discovery Group CEO Adrian Gore’s tie, saying: “I believe the workplace should be comfortable, it should be relaxing.”
He recounts his entrepreneurial experiences, and pulls out a little black book to note down everything he learns from the people he meets.
“A notebook you can refer back to, especially if people share pearls of wisdom,” he quips.
And he has found enough wisdom in Africa.
Along with British pop musician Peter Gabriel, Branson was instrumental in starting The Elders, formally launched by Mandela in Johannesburg in 2007. An independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, it also includes stalwarts Tutu, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.
In 2005, the billionaire also started the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa to “address a critical need for entrepreneurs, at a time when there were few organizations offering free, practical business training and mentoring to start-up businesses”.
The physical center in Johannesburg is now closed as they “review their entrepreneur support strategy”, but has over 12 years supported more than 4,300 entrepreneurs.
Tracey Webster, who headed the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg for almost three years from 2011, vividly recalls her interactions with Branson.
“He is shy and unbelievably humble,” she says. “He is smart about getting everyone else to do the talking – he’s so charming and gracious about giving others the platform; he just has a way in which he promotes people on the ground.”
Webster, who is currently CEO of Enterpriseroom in South Africa, says the most important leadership lesson she received from Branson was “to respect absolutely every single human you came in contact with”.
“He taught me to be a listener rather than a talker,” says Webster, of the shy, introverted man millions look up to.
‘Africans Are Natural Entrepreneurs’
In our interview with Sir Richard Branson, we let him do the talking, about his new ventures in Africa, his work for the communities around his businesses, his take on wildlife, and that moment he almost fell off the stage in South Africa.
You have a special affinity for Africa. Why, and what is on the cards for you on the continent?
Almost since the day Nelson Mandela left prison, I got very involved in Africa and one of the first things we did was put up a statue to [South Africa’s anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko in East London [in South Africa’s Eastern Cape]. That was an incredible event with Nelson Mandela presiding over it. I have told quite a few of these stories in my latest book.
I have done quite a few things with Mandela, and Desmond Tutu, and Graça Michael and Kofi Annan, for things like The Elders and so on.
We are building a mobile phone company or financial services company, [then there’s] Virgin Active, Virgin Insurance…
But I suppose the thing I love the most is the bush. I spend a few days in Ulusaba [the reserve Branson owns], which was voted the best game lodge in Africa last year. And we love working on protecting species and wildlife. We also draw circles around any of our properties and try to help the communities within those circles, so quite a lot of our time and energy is spent on [work], for example, near Ulusaba, we set up quite a big clinic to make sure the people got anti-retroviral drugs, malaria tablets and TB tablets and were helped in other ways. We set up orphanages and small schools and so on.
Around our Virgin Active health clubs, we are doing similar things. Not for companies to draw circles around themselves, but to help the communities within those circles. Hopefully, one day all the circles will join up and most of the problems will be solved.
Your most abiding memory of Mandela?
I was at his funeral and invited by the family to join them by the graveyard. The coffin had been put in. And then I saw one of his grandsons falling into the hole and I thought ‘why is everybody not reacting, everybody just looks very calm about it’ and I saw another grandson jump down in and I assumed he was going to rescue the first one and then another grandson jumped in and I had to turn to somebody on my left and ask, ‘are they okay’ and he said ‘oh, they are just putting personalized gifts on the coffin to send Madiba on his way’. Anyway, I felt pretty foolish after that.
When we did the original Steve Biko statue in East London, there was just myself and Peter Gabriel there who weren’t local. There must have been a 100,000 people in the crowd and Madiba was standing on a small stage with the other main African leaders. He was president at the time, and he made this incredible and impassionate speech trying to unite the country and all the people on stage. The politician in him was coming out as well as the philanthropist he had become and when he finished, I went up on stage and whispered to him and he then gestured Peter forward who then took the microphone from Mandela and sang the song Biko with all the 100,000 in the audience singing along with him. It was the most wonderful moment. And then the crowd rushed to the stage and the whole stage started collapsing and we only just got Mandela and everybody off just in time before the whole thing collapsed.
After all your visits here, what are your lessons for Africa’s youth?
Because of the Branson School of Entrepreneurship, I got to know lots of wonderful young people over the years, and I think Africans are natural entrepreneurs and need help and need encouragement. This morning [November 10], I was at this wonderful center, the GEN 22 On Sloane [a start-up campus in Johannesburg], where they are going to have a few hundred entrepreneurs working there and in fact, [we] may end up doing something there as well.
We spend a lot of time encouraging entrepreneurship in the UK as well and managed to encourage the government to start something – start-up loans – which is loans to help budding businesspeople. Britain is the only country doing it. And what we are trying to do is to encourage Africa to do the same thing… The other thing the government could do is to get out of business completely themselves, as best they can, and break up any businesses the government is doing into small units and get entrepreneurs to run them. And I think governments have got to encourage competition… and the most important role governments can play is break up monopolies in order to enable thousands and thousands of new jobs to be created by new businesses being started.
The fourth industrial revolution, AI, robotics… where do you see Africa headed? Do you have any investments in these sectors?
One area of AI that we are working with in Africa is with a wonderful foundation and they are trying to get 50,000 women in African villages to have an iPad each; they are not trained as doctors or fully-trained as nurses, but using that iPad, through the fact that thousands and thousands of women have used this iPad and every time they make an answer, it gets better and better and better, they can actually act almost as good as a doctor or a nurse by just asking questions and getting answers and then prescribing malaria tablets, or TB tablets, and even anti-retroviral drugs and so on. Obviously, with serious cases, they’ll refer them to a surgeon or doctor, but again, the tablet will show that. So that actually will create 50,000 jobs and definitely save a lot of lives.
If it works, it will cost about a dollar a person, for a pretty good health service. And that should be happening, they have already trained up to 7,000 and the idea is to go up to 50,000.
You own a wine estate in Cape Town, is that something you see your future in?
Well, we need to be able to party as well and relax after all the hard work. We found Mont Rochelle and fell in love with it three or four years ago and felt we could turn it into one of the best vineyards in Africa. I think the team have done a great job and of course a lot of people who get to the bush want to come down to the Cape as well, so it’s nice they can stay in the Virgin family.
You started your entrepreneurial journey at the age of 16, any advice for innovators that young?
One of my books is called Screw It, Let’s Do It and I would just say follow that philosophy and give it a go. If you fall flat on your face, beat yourself up and do it again until you succeed.
- The Virgin Group operates 140 Virgin Active health clubs across southern Africa. More recently, it opened its first club in Botswana and a second in Namibia, a strong indication of the growth potential that exists in Africa for the group.
- Virgin Active’s presence in South Africa came about following a request by Nelson Mandela to Richard Branson, asking him to help save the country’s Health & Racquet Club chain, which was about to collapse. This resulted in Virgin acquiring the 76 Health & Racquet Clubs in South Africa.
- In South Africa’s Western Cape province, in the wine town of Franschhoek, Branson owns Mont Rochelle, a luxe hotel and vineyard an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
- Mahali Mzuri is Branson’s safari lodge in Kenya, positioned within the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
- The Virgin Limited Edition’s Ulusaba private game reserve in South Africa supports the local communities through a not-for-profit called Pride ’n Purpose, focusing on sustainable development initiatives and improving access to food, water and health services.
- Elsewhere in Africa, projects include an investment in M-Kopa, focused on solar power in East Africa and primarily Kenya, helping families gain access to energy using solar technology at affordable prices.
- In the financial services sector,Virgin Money has just launched a peer-to-peer payment service called Virgin Money Spot. The app allows customers to send money to friends in a simple, safe and social way.
- The Virgin Group has recently invested in South African mobile software firm wiGroup.
- Virgin has initiatives called Living Goods and Last Mile Health, aiming to have just under 50,000 digitally empowered community health workers across sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2021, reaching a total of 34.3 million people. This will be through a mixture of digital devices, including iPads.