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Zimbabwe Media Mogul Trevor Ncube: How I made my millions

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Trevor Ncube is Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) based in Zimbabwe, a company he co-founded 18 years ago. AMH owns four newspaper titles in Zimbabwe namely NewsDay (daily), Southern Eye (regional daily), The Zimbabwe Independent (business weekly) and The Standard (Sunday). Ncube is also controlling shareholder and Executive Deputy Chairman of the Mail & Guardian Media Group (South Africa), publishers of one of the leading weekly newspapers the Mail & Guardian.

Ncube has a BA Honours (First Class) from the University of Zimbabwe. He started in journalism in 1989.He completed the Said Business School, University of Oxford, Advanced Management and Leadership Programme in June/July 2009. In 2012 he completed the Oxford University High Performance Leadership Programme. Trevor was awarded a Print Media S.A. Fellowship in 2006. He was awarded the International Publishers Association Freedom Prize Award in 2007, and has also won the German Africa Award in 2008. In 2010 Trevor was bestowed the Nation Media Group Life Achievement Award for his work in media on the continent.

In 2012 he was awarded the German Peace Dove Award. NewAfrican Magazine named him among the 100 most influential people in Africa in 2012 and 2013. In February 2013 he was named as one of the most influential business people in Zimbabwe since 1980. He is chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Informed Societies. He is a member of the Hivos International Supervisory Board. He is Chairman of the African Media Initiative (AMI) a continent wide organization focusing on strengthening the sectors viability and enhancing its professionalism and is a Fellow of The Aspen Institute and Africa Leadership Initiative.

Here is Trevor’s story from the bottom to the top:

Early days
I am Trevor Ncube, the first child of six and was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. For a good part of my life my parents were domestic workers of limited means. They were hard working decent folks who valued education even though they had very little of it themselves. We were sent to my grandparents in rural Zimbabwe at an early age so that my parents could both work to put us through school.

Life was tough in the rural areas. We had some good times, but the truth is that I mostly remember the bad ones, for these are the ones that left an indelible mark on me. I remember the bullying in particular, because I was a coward. It’s tough to be a coward when you are the elder brother, with siblings looking up to you for protection.

My grandparents were poor. By this I mean they did not have cattle and donkeys. We had a few goats and chickens. And that was all. And there isn’t much you can do with a few goats and chickens in a rural economy. I remember going for days without food. I remember using water with salt or sugar as relish for my nshima (cornmeal porridge). I also remember using mahewu as relish and hating it passionately. I remember going to school barefoot and hurting my toes terribly. These humble beginnings taught me the following:

  • Humility, hard work and a love for people
  • Fighting for justice, fairness and equality
  • Always betting for the underdog

I suspect this is the reason I support Arsenal and Manchester United football clubs.

Trevor takes questions after his Lusaka presentation
Trevor takes questions after his Lusaka presentation

Primary education
When I started school in rural Matabeleland I was not a particularly intelligent pupil.
I was consistent in one thing – being the worst pupil in all classes for the first year of my primary education. And because I was dull my teachers hated me. My grade one teacher beat me frequently because I could not read and write. My grandfather was livid and was stopped from confronting the teachers by my grandmother. She was convinced that life would be even worse for me at school if he intervened. Spelling was a particular nightmare. I just couldn’t  make sense of it. I discovered later on in life that I am dyslexic. My teacher never knew that such a condition existed. Guess who needed some serious education.

Some of their prejudices were even more irrational. My pregnant fourth grade teacher could not stand my face. She would accuse me of being very ugly, an accusation of which I continue to deny up to this day. I am sure my present company will take my side. She would make me sit with my back to the rest of the class because she said she did not want to give birth to a child as ugly as me.

Those first four years of school scarred me in a big way. The abuse from the teachers affected my self-esteem. The quality of the education was poor, and handicapped me considerably. I still battle with reading and comprehension and really still can’t spell. Sometimes I battle with bouts of acute self-doubt and I ascribe this to what happened during these critical formative years.

I have, however, learned lessons which those classrooms never intended to deliver and these are that:

  • The words we say to others can build or destroy
  • Teachers have a huge impact on whom and what we become in life, but that should not stand in the way of our dreams
  • Africa needs well trained teachers to be successful, particularly in rural areas where the majority still reside

City beginnings

Trevor Ncube moved back to Bulawayo to live with his parents where life was far from easy.

Written by Trevor Ncube Thursday, 09 May 2013
Trevor Ncube's TEDx talk
Trevor Ncube delivers his TEDx talk in March 2013

City beginnings
I moved back to Bulawayo to live with my parents where life was far from easy. Three square meals a day was a luxury, and we could not afford the basic consumer goods that we now hear about. We used butter to oil our bodies and cooking oil for our hair.

Christmas time for my family was generally unhappy because our parents could not afford to buy us new clothes as per African tradition. I particularly remember the humiliation one year when my parents couldn’t manage to buy us anything whilst most of our neighbours were fully kitted out. However, we looked forward to the goodies that my father’s employers delivered on Christmas Eve without fail. The Christmas crackers, Christmas pudding, sweets, soft drinks etc. brought lots of cheer to my family. In fact we were the only ones with these types of goodies thanks to my father’s employers.

I remember going to our neighbours to ask for school bus money. In fact this happened almost every month towards pay day. It was that or having to miss school.

Bulawayo
Outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

My Turnaround
But around this time, some critically important changes began for me. The move to live with my parents meant that I also enrolled for my 5th grade in Bulawayo where my life began to take a turn for the better. The man responsible for this turnaround was my 6th and 7th grade teacher Mr Bafundi Mpofu. He told me for the first time in my life that I had potential. He spotted something in me that all my teachers thus far had failed to notice, something that I had been told so many times did not exist.

I was accustomed to being told that I was ugly, dull and that I would never amount to anything. And I believed this. I strongly suspect I would have had an inconsequential existence if not for this man. I have Mr Mpofu to thank for my success. He kept repeating the message and after two years I started believing that I was good and that I would become someone in life. This part of my life has the following leadership lessons for me:

  • Teacher as leaders can build or destroy lives
  • We all need leaders who believe in us
  • We all need leaders who nurture and affirm us
  • Good teachers are an indispensable part of building strong societies

University
At the University of Zimbabwe I wanted to study law and was devastated when I failed to make the cut by just one point. I had seven points and the cut off was eight points. As with all crises in our lives, at that particular moment this seemed to be the worst day of my life. But I now look back and say thank God I am not a lawyer. I ended up doing economic history which I have hardly used.

I graduated with a 1st class in Economic History. I didn’t seem to have too many options and teaching appeared to be one of the few I had. But I was yanked off a queue to register for a teaching degree by my Economic History professor who thought I was out of my mind. He argued that I was too good to be a teacher which was an insult to many teachers I know.

Leadership lessons:

  • My education gave me options. Educating the African youth is an imperative and will give them options too.
  • We all need mentors to guide us through the choices and challenges that life presents

Journalism

Trevor Ncube’s journalism career has been absolutely unconventional and he has fully embraced it. He has never been to a school of journalism …

Written by Trevor Ncube Friday, 17 May 2013
Trevor Ncube journalist
Trevor Ncube bought the Mail & Guardian weekly South African newspaper in 2002

Journalism
My journalism career has been absolutely unconventional and I have fully embraced it. I am not a trained journalist which means I have never been to a school of journalism.

How unconventional is this: For shooting off my mouth at an Economic conference in Harare I was picked to anchor a national prime time television programme that became a huge success, launching me onto the national stage and journalism. Just like that! I had zero television experience.

Next I was spotted by a newspaper publisher who later appointed me assistant editor of the Financial Gazette which was then Zimbabwe’s only independent newspaper.

With the benefit of hindsight I believe my father introduced me to journalism when I was doing 5th grade. He brought home old newspapers from his employers which I enjoyed reading. I made scrap books from old exercise books and newspaper cuttings, mainly of political events. This was my own version of Twitter and Facebook. I proudly showed them off to friends and visiting relatives in our township home.

At the Financial Gazette I rose to the position of Executive Editor in seven years, winning awards and then I was fired for being too critical of President Mugabe and ZANUPF.

My world crashed around me. I felt humiliated, alone and exposed. I was angry at this treatment. My ego took a knock. My job was me, my identity and my livelihood. Three long months after this life changing experience I was forced to go into business.

Leadership lessons:

  • There is no formula to life
  • Sometimes in life we need to be taken out of our comfort zones to grow. I don’t think I would have gone into business if I had not been taken out of my comfort zone
  • Don’t expected the phone to ring when you’re down and out
  • Moments such as these are precious. You get to know who your friends are
Trevor Ncube advocates press freedom, human rights and democracy
Trevor Ncube advocates press freedom, human rights and democracy

Trials and Tribulations
I have been arrested, had my passport seized and gone to court to get it back. I have had my citizenship withdrawn and have gone to the High Court to fight for my birth rights. All these incidents have shaken me but they have also made me a stronger person and a better leader.

However the periods of inconveniences I have suffered pale into insignificance when I compare them to what some of my colleagues have suffered. Many have been detained for extended periods while some have been tortured for doing their legitimate jobs

Because I have endured all this, conventional wisdom says I must be courageous. The truth is I am not. What choices does one have when life gets unconventional? Hide? Run away? Those are not options we have if we are to make a difference in life.

Lessons:

  • Those that persecute cowards like me make heroes and martyrs out of common people
  • Our national institutions, constitution and the rule of law are extremely important
  • Never take freedom for granted and make the freedom of others your concern

The Future

“We should all work towards ensuring that the future of this continent is a better one for our children and their offspring” Trevor Ncube

Written by Trevor Ncube Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Children in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean children

Strategies for Success
Until four years ago I had never been to business school. I learnt business by doing business, and making lots of mistake. I only went to business school when I was well into my forties to help me deal with the challenges of running a growing business. Alpha Media Holdings is now the largest privately owned media house in Zimbabwe, with three newspapers in South Africa and one of Africa’s most prominent websites.

I have succeeded in life through unconventional means. I am helped by the fact that I am acutely aware of my short comings and compensate by surrounding myself with people who are far much smarter and more talented than me. I give them space to follow their dreams and passions and they in turn have made me shine.

Leadership lessons:

  • Be honest to yourself about your strengths and weaknesses
  • Surround yourself with talented people who make you look and sound good
  • Empower the talented people around you and let them live their dreams

Press Freedom
The role that the independent press in Zimbabwe has played to defend press freedom of expression has strengthened my belief in the ‘fourth estate’ [the press]. Under very difficult circumstances the private press in Zimbabwe has ensured some degree of transparency and accountability and kept pushing the envelope.

My treatment by my publisher and being fired for publishing what turned out to be a correct story is what has cemented my belief in editorial independence. I passionately believe in appointing editors and letting them get on with their jobs with little or no interference from myself or the board. My opinions, and my business and personal relationships, should not be a factor in editorial decisions.

Trevor Ncube speaks on press freedom
Trevor Ncube at the Press Freedom Round Table in Hyderabad 2009

Leadership lessons:

  • Press freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights that we must fight for
  • Press freedom is a vital ingredient for transparency, accountability and a vibrate democracy
  • Publishers must give editorial independence to their professional journalists and not use newspapers to settle politics scores or advance their own personal agendas
  • Societies where the media is free and where there is a robust market place of ideas tend to be successful societies

A Future for our Children
I have a seven year old daughter who is my princess and whom I love so dearly. Her name is Maya. As most parents I find myself preoccupied with what Maya’s future is going to be like. Africa currently has the youngest population in the world with 40% of the population under 15 years of age. I often find myself wondering what role I am playing to bequeath Maya and her generation with an Africa rich in opportunities and a stage for their dreams.

One of the driving forces in my life was a determination that I never wanted to lead a life similar to my parents’ existence. In a way the fear of poverty helped get me where I am now. And I want to suggest that we should all work towards ensuring that the future of this continent is a better one for our children and their offspring.

The key to this is listening to the voices of the young people and helping them live their dreams and passions in their places of birth. The young must be active participants in building Africa and not spectators on the side-line.

Africans are beginning to come back home from the diaspora. Let us act to make sure there is an avalanche of talent from the diaspora and that more of our people choose to stay rather than leave in droves to pursue their dreams in foreign lands as has happened over the past 60 years.

For this to happen Africa needs a new breed of leaders across the private and public sectors and civil society. This must be an enlightened leadership that is visionary and open to ideas.

  • A leadership that is selfless and pursues inclusive growth strategies
  • I am talking about servant leadership that empowers its people and leads for the benefit of all
  • A leadership that is focused on building enduring institutions rather than short term self-serving agendas.

Africa Rising

The final article on Africa’s Potential to grow by leading media business owner Trevor Nclube

Written by Trevor Ncube Tuesday, 11 June 2013

africa-rising-banner

The need for a united front
Our continent should not be run like a classroom in rural Matebeleland, by petty tyrants who scorn their own people. All of us who have experienced the pain of being treated as subjects – ugly, stupid, faces turned to the wall – must learn to harness that education to deliver a different kind of leadership.

We live in a complex and uncertain word and we need all hands on the deck if we are to be competitive and seize Africa’s promise. Indeed as Warren Bennis says; “The days when a single individual, however gifted, can solve our problems, are long gone.” This is true for government, corporates and civil society.  Any approach that excludes a group of citizens or certain people in any organisation on the grounds of age, sex ethnicity, politics religion etc is unwise and hence doomed to fail.

The leadership’s role
Africa political leadership must harness the talent of all citizens through inclusive education policies that provide an incentive for teachers, learners and for the private sector to play its role in the provision of education. African governments must lead in providing health infrastructure and health workers and create an enabling environment for the private sector to be a partner in the provision of health facilities.

The role of leadership is to widen the possibility of opportunities. Africa is not short of passionate and talented people. We have a leadership deficit that is frustrating the creativity and talents of its citizens.

In this context it is instructive to bear in mind that Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook have not been accidents. They are the products of an environment that values and nature’s dreamers and innovation. Such an environment encourages competition and offers incentive for the best ideas in all spheres of life. Its time Africa had a leader that brings out the best in all us. Technology also has a certain equalising effect and we must take full advantages of it to move ahead.

Lastly we need to fix our politics. Almost 60 years after the end of colonialism our politics is so primitive and sometimes downright childish. Our continent cries out for visionary, principle and selfless statesmen who are intent on building powerful nations.

Our politics have become synonymous with corruption, nepotism and poor management. All these weigh down our capacity to be productive and stunts the appointment of key people for policy formulation and management of our nation institutions. Corruption is also a tax on business and robs our children of resources and opportunities.

Trveor Nclube giving a speech at a TEDx event
Trveor Nclube giving a speech at a TEDx event

The right kind of leadership

  • A leadership that empowers each citizens and allow each person to contribute to nation building.
  • A leadership that is tolerant to the multiplicity of ideas that are the hallmark of vibrate societies
  • A leadership that cherishes and defends the fundamental rights of every individual including minorities

The African dream
Africa is rising. We must seize the huge promise that Africa offers. Africa has caught the world’s attention and its imagination. Let this be not a false start. For this promise to be realised, us as citizens have to play our part in building democratic constitutions, we owe this ourselves. I want  Maya’s generation to experience the Africa Dream and not the American Dream. I don’t want Maya’s generation to experience an up bringing similar to mine.

Final Remarks
Mine has been an unconventional life. I have stumbled into opportunity by God’s grace. There are many with similar stories and many more that have been less fortunate.

I am passionate about Africa because it’s the only home I have. I hope we turn Africa’s promise into a reality in our time to be fully enjoyed by the next generation. My story is an illustration of how bad leadership can stunt potential, and the grace of great leadership can help it blossom and how small interventions can cascade into big ones.

Thank you.

Trevor Ncube

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Georgina
Guest

Wow Trevor has come a long way, these stories should be taught in schools to inspire children. Zimbabwe is not lost, we have a lot of talented people

Musuka Edmond Gomani
Guest

What a background…This is typical of what some of us have gone through in our childhood. Trevor,you are a good example of an ordinary son of Africa beset with a myriad of challenges.

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