Interview with Bassim Haidar, Founder & Group CEO, Channel IT

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Bassim Haidar is Founder & Group CEO, Channel IT. The group employs more than 1,400 employees and turnovers $1.6 billion per year.

Bassim was born and grew up in Nigeria, his parents were Lebanese and were working in Nigeria. Bassim Haidar studied in Lebanon and returned to Nigeria in 1991 to start his first business.

When asked why he decided to return to Nigeria to start his business, Mr. Haidar says:
“My dad was working for a textile factory in Nigeria, so I was born there, my roots are there, all my friends are there. I started my first business there immediately after returning.”

Early businesses – problems turned into opportunities

Bassim’s first business was in radio equipment imported from Japan. The Japanese company was looking at expanding in new markets and there was an opportunity in Nigeria. At the time, there were no telephone or fax lines outside of Lagos – Bassim saw the opportunity.

The devices from Japan had two lines, fax and telephone, and turned out to be highly demanded across Nigeria. Bassim sold hundreds of these devices and created capital to open other businesses. He recalls that he had to start small:

“It was about buying products from the Japanese company, so we bought the units and we paid. I had very little money then, but I started with like 2 sets and then grew from there as I developed the capital to 5, 10 and more sets. This was in the 1991 to 1993, and I did that successfully and there was a huge demand. Very successful product.”

In 1993 Bassim went into satellite TV business. At the time, there were no satellites in Nigeria and people could only get the local channels. Bassim’s company developed a way to receive the satellite signal in the region. The product was another hit and sold significant amounts across Nigeria as the company was able to provide 60-70 international TV channels.

Things seem to have picked up from there for Bassim, as he describes:

“In 1995 I started a logistics business which is now the largest in Africa. And then in 2003 I started another telecoms business. Telecoms services – basically building the networks for mobile operators. Then I went into the software business in 2010, mainly providing mobile loans to consumers. From Nigeria I expanded to the neighboring countries, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, then East Africa, South Africa, North Africa then to the Middle East, South East Asia, India and Latin America.”

Operating now

Although Bassim Haidar invests in technology startups, he prefers to invest in products and companies that he has started himself. He prefers to have full control of the company.

He describes another limiting factor to his venture capitalism activities: “I invest in startups, but I never take a lot of risk, because you never really know how motivated and hungry the people behind the business are. Sometime they give up too quickly. So I’m extremely careful when investing in startups.”

SWA: If you invest in a startup – what’s your criteria?

Bassim Haidar: “Usually a business that has revenue already, even small revenue, I invest in that stage. Mainly in the mobile apps business, music, fintech, mobile money, and fraud detection on calls coming into countries and so on.”

SWA: So the trends and opportunities that you see – what’s the criteria for that?

Bassim Haidar: “I focus on the opportunity itself and I focus on the time of the opportunity, because you might have a good idea but it might be the wrong time. It might be too early or too late, you have to get it right on time. I focus on the longevity, of course I like to recover my investment fast but I also understand the game, it might take a year or two for something to kick off eventually.”

SWA: So that’s your model – you find new opportunities in new markets and you go into them.

Bassim Haidar: “That’s exactly right. And I’m not afraid to go into new markets that everyone avoids. When someone talks too much about a market, it’s usually already too late by then, it means everyone already knows this market and the opportunities become less and less. When I went to Ethiopia years ago, no one even knew where Ethiopia was. When I went to Guinea-Bissau, or Zambia, no one wanted to go to this countries, but we went there and we established businesses, and very successful businesses for that matter.”

SWA: Do you think, because you’re very hungry for these sort of markets, does that limit you to operate with your own capital, because it’s a bit harder to attract investors for these markets?

Bassim Haidar: “Yes, so the investors always want a vertical to go into a country and invest. They have a check-list and they like to have the check list and go to the market. They don’t understand emerging markets, they only understand developed markets. In the UK, you want to start up, these are the procedures and you’re up and running. It does not happen the same in emerging markets, the regulation and infrastructure, they’re simply no there, so you have to go there with a very open mind and draw up your own plans accordingly.”

The other parts of the interview with Bassim Haidar

SWA: You sponsor an F1 team, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Bassim Haidar: “Well, I have a big passion for Formula 1 and sports and obviously I want to get one of my companies brands out there and associated with a very high calibre sport, so I sponsor the Force India team. It was an extremely successful season last year, we came fifth in the manufactures list. We associated ourselves with a lot of the events that happen around F1, invited our top customer to these events and it was extremely successful.”

Force India team

SWA: What are the hot trends at the moment in Africa?

Bassim Haidar: “Fintech is the hottest of all right now.”

SWA: What do you think are the big opportunities for people on the ground in West Africa?

Bassim Haidar: “Right now, it’s agriculture and technology. If you look at a country like Cote d’ Ivoire, it is booming right now, it’s the third fastest growing economy in the world and because they have invested a lot in the infrastructure for agriculture, cocoa production is climbing, coffee, all these things. Nigeria is another great place for this opportunity. For investments, there’s a lot of investments going in palm oil plantation right now, there could be big opportunities in food and in rubber for rubber manufacturing and exports. So Agriculture is one. Secondly, on the technology side, there’s a lot of room for technologies in the fintech area, music streaming, e-commerce. In Africa, generally, these sectors are still highly untouched.”

SWA: What do you think are the ways for people to actually get into those markets. So say someone is starting from scratch in Nigeria, in Lagos, how do they go into these opportunities?

Bassim Haidar: “Well, first of all, you need to decide what you’re good at and what you’re willing to invest your time and money in. Two – you need to understand who the players are in these markets. It’s very easy to say that no-one has done it so I will be successful. The reason no one has done it is because others have tried and failed or there simply is no market for it. I meant everything – someone has thought of it, it’s just that if you are doing it better or worse is the question. So you need to go there and understand the landscape, understand the players, understand the difficulties, the challenges and the opportunities at the same time. And then be ready to get into big fights with existing players if you’re going into their space.”

SWA: In regards to attracting investment, the sentiment is still not there for these markets. How do you actually attract the investment from abroad when you’re starting a business in Nigeria?

Bassim Haidar: “Right now, it’s really bad and it’s not a good time to start any business in Nigeria. Not at least till the middle of next year. This is my advice. Even myself, I’m not looking to start anything new, because the environment is extremely bad, there is a lack of foreign exchange, the economy itself is shrinking, so it’s not a good time to start business in Nigeria – simple as that. You just have to wait, I meant whoever didn’t invest over the last 15 years has kind of missed the train for now.”

SWA: The entrepreneurs actually living in Lagos, what shall they do? Sit and do nothing?

Bassim Haidar: “Well, the entrepreneurs should focus on protecting their businesses and if they want to invest then invest in areas that are time based. So agriculture – if you start today, you can definitely start well but you’re not going to reap the benefits for 3 years. It takes time to develop agriculture lands and so on. Same thing with technology aspects. If you start to develop a technology today, you’re not going to have it ready for a year or two, and by then the market will have recovered, hopefully.”

Interview by: Bertrams Lukstins

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