Mwiya walked into the restaurant with the kind of confidence and self-assuredness I can only assume comes from having your life figured out at 29. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Zambian-based firm Thebe Investments and the brainchild behind Nkwashi, a $1.5 billion 3,100 acre development on the outskirts of Lusaka. Forbes Africa recently acknowledged his success by including him in their 2018 30 Under 30 list, which features Africa’s most promising young change-makers. Mwiya is one of only two Zambians to features in this prestigious list this year.
We met for lunch at Dulce by Jessie, which is a fine dining, multi-cuisine restaurant conveniently located in the Lusaka suburb of Kabulonga and owned by head executive chef Jessie Chipindo. The great food is complimented by a chic atmosphere and great service. Despite the recommendation of Jessie’s signature spare ribs, Mwiya opted to have the succulent T-bone steak with mushroom sauce and fries and I had the blessed tilapia fillet, which was as divine as its name.
Mwiya grew up in Zambia and he left for the UK in his late teens where he completed a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s in international business. When asked what motivated his choices, it’s clear that there had always been a grand plan. “I always knew that I wanted to come back to Zambia and it seemed to me that to have a successful business, one has to have an understanding of how to attract capital to business and manage it as well,” he revealed.
In the UK Mwiya worked for a tech company while attempting to build his own tech startup. He laughed as he told the story of how his startup failed due to lack of funding. He then returned to Zambia where he worked for African Life Financial Service as an investment analyst. “I saw every job I worked as a step towards fulfilling my entrepreneurial ambitions,” he explained between bites of steak. “It was primarily about learning and not so much about employment.” It’s no surprise that two years into his spell as an investment analyst he resigned to invest in Africa’s urban future by co-founding Thebe Investments, which gave birth to the mega project that is Nkwashi.
Mwiya is adamant that real estate will revolutionise Africa. He gives numerous statistics on Zambia’s impending population explosion and the various risks that come without proactive and appropriate responses. In comes Nkwashi, the model city of the future, which not only provides affordable housing and services but also fills a shortfall in the provision of public services. “This not only provides a section of the population with great accommodation but it also allows surpluses to be channelled to the lower income members of society,” he explains.
Throughout our lunch, Mwiya maintained an air of self-assurance and remained jovial. However, when asked about some negative sentiments expressed by those who attribute his success to his family’s influence, he seems slightly peeved. He contends that his is not a rags-to-riches story and he has never pretended it was, with the resigned tone of one who has had to give the same account numerous times. He adds that his background does not take away all the risks and struggles of being an entrepreneur.
To drive home his vision, Mwiya gets poetic. “Imagine meeting a person who could look at the sun or moon and tell you the exact time and date. That person would be amazing. But wouldn’t it be more amazing if instead of telling time, this person built a clock that could tell time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone? There are people who tell time, these people are amazing, have great stories and charisma and they easily capitalise on fads. But the fad evaporates and their story is forgotten. I’m here to build a clock, a legacy that will last for generations and bring about new ideas long after I’m gone,” he states repossessing any self-assurance he had momentarily lost.
With regards to work-life balance, he admits it is difficult to attain but if you love what you do, focusing a little more on work will not be a burden. Although when that rare blue moon appears in the sky and he gets some downtime, he likes to watch TV shows and he has a one-book-a-month reading policy. The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder, which Mwiya read as a teenager, motivated him to become an entrepreneur and study finance. Currently Mwiya is reading three books: The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich by Daniel Ammann, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow and World Order by Henry Kissinger.
As our lunch came to an end it seemed apt that we discuss the ‘Africa rising’ narrative as Mwiya had left the ‘First World’ to seek success in Zambia. He maintains that the continent, Zambia included, is filled with potential but this potential is often stifled due to various location-specific limitations. He stated that one of the major reasons the UK has advanced is their already existing, robust and functional systems – something not fully actualised in Zambia and across Africa. Mwiya, however, sees opportunities to innovate and disrupt the status quo. “Young people need to become involved in all areas of our society and persistently so, be it civil, business, leadership and entrepreneurial if we are going to keep the narrative alive.”
Mwiya said he made mistakes along the way but he wouldn’t change his journey even if he could. When asked, what was next for him he said that his 20s had been about consolidating his Zambian projects and his 30s will see him expand these projects to the rest of Africa. Thus, cementing his perspective on the narrative of Africa’s rise – it’s happening and he wants to be an active participant.
Mwiya’s Business Gems
- No excuses, no regrets – take ownership of your life and the various decisions you make within it.
- Build your passion – a passion is not as simple as something you like, it’s anything you work towards.
- Travel somewhere! Anywhere! It will give you a first-hand perspective on how others view the world, this is invaluable.
- Make random friends, people might surprise you. One of my business partners is someone I met on a plane.
- Invest in a good set of heads around you.