Hanson Sindowe is the last person you would expect to be one of Zambia’s richest; he grew up the son of a policeman in a family of farmers in the village of Kalomo, 120 kilometres north of Livingstone. It’s a place thousands of kilometres from where he made his fortune on power distribution along Zambia’s copper belt, the lifeblood of the country.
Sindowe is the engineer, who wanted to be a pilot, but ended up buying Zambia’s copper belt power distribution company, Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC,) in 2006 for $120 million.
“I just visualized flying around. In those days people were going to the moon. When I came into electrical engineering, I said I can’t just be an employee, a worker. I looked at opportunities to see what I can do to improve the quality of life of myself and my fellow Zambians,” says the 66-year-old man in his office in Lusaka.
Most Zambians couldn’t point out Sindowe in the streets, yet his story is known from Livingstone to Solwezi. This journey began at a rural school when he was given a bursary to study engineering at the University of Zambia. At the time, Sindowe was working as an engineer in the copper belt, where the industry of Zambia had been on a rollercoaster ride thanks to nationalization, cheap Russian copper and poor economic development. On top of this, the copper belt needed the energy to dig up the largest known reserves of copper in Africa, 6% of the world’s supply, according to the World Bank.
“Energy is a huge requirement for any county in the world. They can’t do without it. You can’t build factories and manufacture goods without power,” says Sindowe.
Sindowe knew the Zambian energy business. He’s worked as the General Manager of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) Power Division and for Zambia Railways Limited. In 1997, CEC was formed out of the privatization of ZCCM. At the time, Sindowe signed up as a Director of Business Development.
“In 2004, there was talk that the company [ZCCM] would sell. I thought I’d been with the company for very long. I knew it very well. I wrote a letter to the board asking if I could be considered to buy the company. They said ‘why not, so long as you can pay,’” says Sindowe.
The letter changed his life. It took two years for Sindowe to raise the $120 million. He found several Zambian investors and then headed overseas. In London, sitting in a conference room with 32 banks, Sindowe made a final presentation for funds. Two banks were interested: the Dutch development bank FMO, who brought 20%, and the African Development Bank, which brought another 20%, says Sindowe.
The deal was the foundation that interested entrepreneurs. Remarkably in Sindowe’s case, he spent an hour with FORBES’ 32nd richest man in Africa without even realizing who the entrepreneur was.
It happened when Sindowe installed fibre cables to improve his company’s capacity to monitor its power distribution on the copper belt. It meant there was spare space on the wires to sell off to a telecommunications company.
“I thought these cables can also be used for communication on the copper belt. Believe it or not, at the time, I approached Zamtel [one of Zambia’s largest communications company] to see if they wanted to use them. There was so much capacity. But Zamtel was a little bit too slow in thinking,” says Sindowe.
Someone faster than Zamtel was Nick Rudnick, the CEO of Liquid Telecom, a communications company in Zimbabwe. Rudnick had heard about the spare cables and wanted to rent. Rudnick flew to Zambia, with his chairman, Strive Masiyiwa, the $600-million founder of Econet Wireless, and subsidiary owner to Liquid Telecom.
“With him was his chairman, I forget his name now. But I think he was one of the richest guys in Africa. We had a long chat in a hotel and said ‘hey we’re in the telecoms business, want to go into business?’… We talked for about an hour then shook hands. Since then, I haven’t spoken to him [Masiyiwa], but I talk to Nick every other week. It was another chance for us to expand.”
Sindowe came out with a handshake worth $30 million. These days, CEC Liquid, the amalgamation of Masiyiwa and Sindowe, is the largest fibre network in Zambia. This year, it plans to expand with a further $16-million investment in fibre technology.
According to Sindowe, CEC’s investments ring well over $350 million. Its next move is to go into renewables. Among its footprint across Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa is a $210-million, 40 megawatt (MW) hydropower plant in the Kabompo Gorge, in Zambia’s North-Western province.
For a man who has spent most of his life developing Zambia’s energy, the thinking never ends. Built into the cost of the deal, CEC has to help move the village that will be left underwater by the proposed hydro plant, says Sindowe. He also believes he can add a further 10MW of energy by installing solar panels on the dam created by the hydro plant.
“I am talking about floating solar panels, where there is no need to displace communities anymore,” says Sindowe.
The panels would be more efficient than on land, says Sindowe. There is less dust blocking the panels. The water also helps regulate the panel’s temperature, which loses efficiency when overheated.
“If you compare us to Europe, they have made a lot of investments into wind generation. I’ve seen those wind plants come up in the last 30 years. There is so much wind. So here in Africa, there is so much sunlight, so why not use it?”
Inside Sindowe’s offices in the heart of Lusaka, the air conditioner in his boardroom hums gently. He’ll soon be moving into new headquarters run on solar power. Parking lots, roof buildings and open spaces will be littered with solar panels to power the facility.
In the meantime, Sindowe sits in his boardroom wearing a beige farmer’s shirt. He’s a world away from the farms of his childhood but never far in his mind.