Alpesh Patel has a sharp eye for business and a silver tongue. It’s easy to believe the mobile entrepreneur is king of the corporate jungle. What’s hard to believe is that he was born in a real jungle when his parents were on a Safari in Uganda.
“So I’m a real bush baby,” jokes Patel in the CNBC studios, a few blocks away from his home in Sandton, South Africa.
Patel is the founder of Mi-Group. He’s sold over 1.5 million of Africa’s first branded smartphones, the Mi-Fone. He also launched a credit card for Africans with Visa, MasterCard and Western Union.
The man, whose company generates revenue of $20 million, has been on a journey longer than the Great Migration of the Masai Mara. Patel grew up in Uganda among a family of cinema owners. His grandfather bought the Odium Franchise. As part of the deal the likes of Steve McQueen and John Wayne came on safari holidays and shared lunches with them.
It was a cruel fate that ripped this lavish lifestyle from his family in 1972. Idi Amin, the then president of Uganda, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Indian and Pakistani minority. Within 90 days, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, a $100 and a couple of pillows, Patel’s family were marooned. They flew to Britain, bound for a detention centre along with 27,000 other Indians.
“I went from a lifestyle of being in the cinema to my mother working three jobs and my father as a state worker. The United Kingdom was not a very friendly place for us,” he says.
It did bring fame, says Patel. The BBC filmed him holding his blanket as he left the plane; the scene became an iconic shot throughout the world.
Patel claims entrepreneurship is in his blood. At school he would sell leather handbags, brought back from Morocco on holidays, to Nigerian vendors in London. After graduation, Africa drew him back; this time selling first generation mobile phones. Patel describes them as the giant bricks of the 1990s. His big break came with an order for 183 cell phones from a businessman in China. The only provision for the deal was that he had to be there to hand over the box. He saw a gap in the market and flew to Asia to sell more. By the age of 23, Patel made his first million, being one of the first people to sell mobile devices in that continent.
His worst day was on the horizon. A combination of a lavish lifestyle in Hong Kong and competition as big mobile brands woke up meant Patel’s days were numbered. Mobile giant Nokia came to China in 1993. The stiff competition sucked Patel’s market dry, he says.
“I was young. My biggest mistake was not investing in the business. I thought I could keep going the way I was. I was a millionaire at 23, but I lost it all. It kind of wakes you up. If you are not mature enough to handle that oncoming challenge you immediately self-destruct and that’s what happened to me. You wonder how you are going to take on the big guys. You lose faith. Everything starts going bad. Deals wouldn’t work out. Suppliers would come in with something cheaper. My income was getting less; meanwhile my lifestyle was still being maintained. Savings started dwindling.”
Although I was offered a lot of opportunities at the time, I didn’t see them. I was offered one of the first chain stores in Hong Kong for internet cafes, and I was like ‘what is that?’ It’s opportunities that you get presented that you don’t have the vision to take. If you are the first to sell phones in China you should be the first to do many other things. But I didn’t,” he says.
Patel then went to South Africa with nothing. He worked his way around the telecommunications arena as a manager for Motorola and the Harris Radio Corporation.
“Every day is my worst day. The easiest day was yesterday. Problems come all the time but I looked at them as opportunities to fix,” he says.
Patel’s biggest lesson he learned was that he needed to sell like a corporate.
“I went back to the basics. I was selling products with nothing but a suitcase and a bunch of brochures… In three years I sold five million units in Africa with Motorola. It was tough… I think it’s what I needed. I never had that corporate experience. To be where we are today, you need to have some experience. Unless you are a fantastically talented singer, you need to get some training somewhere to know how the system works,” he says.
Armed with the knowledge of the African market, Patel launched his own company in 2008, the Mi-Fone brand of mobile devices; a new name in a fast-growing emerging market. They sold 200,000 units in the first year. In 2013, they have sold over a million.
“I put my life savings into it. I’m my own angel investor. We don’t have any private equity. We are living proof that you can build a business today in Africa, a pan-African business, with zero,” he says.
With his cell phone brand growing, Patel is not done. In 2013, he launched a Mi-Card credit card. Patel says his plan is simple: if you want to give people power, give them a cell phone in the one hand and a credit card in the other.
“Despite the millions that are made in this market, [Africa] it is still seen as a dumping ground for older technology. One of the biggest challenges we face is being an unknown brand in Africa. There is a perception that it’s a cheap Chinese phone, but Apple is also made in China. Apple is so successful because they have created a brand experience. My mission is to create a brand that caters for mass-market African consumers as opposed to rich guys in the West,” he says.
Beaten and bloodied, Patel is as tenacious and as rugged as the Ugandan bush he was born in.