By Mfonobong Nsehe JAN 1, 2018 @ 11:06 AM
FORBES – Apart from Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Mohammed Al-Amoudi, Samuel Tafesse is arguably the most popular businessman of Ethiopian origin. The 60-year-old real estate mogul is the founder of Sunshine Investment Group, a construction and development company that develops residential, leisure, and commercial properties in Ethiopia and the Middle East. Since its founding in 1983, Sunshine Investment Group has built more than 5,000 residential and commercial properties in Ethiopia, including the first Marriott-branded property in Africa – the landmark Marriott Executive Apartments in Addis Ababa. Sunshine is also a major contractor to the government and constructs and maintains thousands of miles of roadway across the country with every year.
With annual revenues of more than $100 million and a workforce of more than 2,000 people, Sunshine Investment Group is one of the largest indigenous companies in Ethiopia.
I recently caught up with Samuel Tafesse in Addis Ababa and had a brief chat where he recounted the early years and opened up on his plans for the future.
What was your childhood like?
I was born into a very poor family. I remember that my parents struggled to pay tuition for my siblings and I. As an older sibling, I decided to take up the responsibility of supporting my family at a rather young age. At the age of 14, while still in High School, I took up a job as a parking attendant at the Addis Ababa Stadium and while working as an attendant, I used the opportunity to peddle everything from chewing gum and soda to cigarettes. After completing high school, I worked for a small construction firm where I was involved in roof and painting maintenance for our clients. I went on to join Addis Ababa University at the age of 19 to study Engineering but I dropped out after 3 years in order to continue to support my family.
What was your first big break in business?
Because I had worked in the construction business, albeit in a small capacity, I had become fascinated by the industry, and I wanted a way in. In order to have a construction license in 1986, one needed a minimum capital requirement of 10,000 Ethiopian Birr which is roughly $365 today, but was worth a lot more in those days. I did not exactly have the money, so I borrowed from a friend and I registered Sunshine Construction Limited. I subsequently started scouting for jobs and I landed a contract for a roof maintenance job at Wabe Shebelle Hotel. It was a decent job and yielded me quite a tidy sum. In retrospect, that was my first big break in business With the success in getting that contract, I was bold enough to go to other hotels, commercial buildings and government organizations to get similar construction and maintenance contracts, and from there we snowballed into a full-fledged construction outfit and grew our capital base as we progressed.
Sunshine Construction Group is now one of Ethiopia’s largest construction companies. How did you get to this point?
Our core business in Sunshine Construction is to focus on Infrastructure such as large-scale Road & Bridge projects and large scale Real estate developments. But as we had a successful construction business, we started to plough in our profits into building residential properties which we were able to sell. We took a series of financing facilities which we used to build more residential properties which we sold, and we expanded to building hotels and other commercial properties. In the last two decades, we have delivered well over 2,800 housing units and we plan to deliver many more in the years to come. In 2015 we opened the first Marriott branded Hotel in Sub- Saharan Africa and the first Marriott Executive Apartments in Africa. We have signed an agreement with Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide to develop three new hotel brands in Ethiopia under our umbrella. I won’t engage in an industry which I don’t have sufficient know how. It’s important to be knowledgeable about the business you invest in.
What opportunities excite you the most right now as a businessman?
As businessman, I actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with global brands. One of the biggest highlights of my career in business is our partnership with Marriott. This excites me because it creates augmented perspectives, knowledge transfer, lower risk higher return and it promotes FDI. We currently have engagements with Marriott and Hilton in Ethiopia. So I am excited by the opportunity to collaborate with leading international hospitality brands and bringing them to Ethiopia.
In your opinion, is Ethiopia conducive for business?
Definitely. Look, the Ethiopian government is very supportive of business. Look at the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) spearheaded by the Government and you’ll see this is a government that is very Pro-business. The government is working hard to provide basic infrastructure in major industrial cluster zones and is also encouraging large-scale foreign investment in various industries. The second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) highly gives emphasis on the private sector. However, low access to credit and bureaucracy are still challenges of many business people.
As a successful entrepreneur in Ethiopia, are you doing anything to develop an ecosystem for young entrepreneurs in Ethiopia as part of a giving back strategy?
I have founded Sunshine Foundation which provides financial support to poor children in different parts of the country so they can go to school. We also build schools for the poor. At the moment, we have financed, built and maintained 3 schools that accommodate more than 1200 children. The schools are for under privileged children whose parents are unable to provide financial support.
Apart from the construction and real estate business which you are famous for, are there any new opportunities you are exploring in Ethiopia?
At the moment, we are exploring opportunities in power generation. I wouldn’t want to give away too much but we have currently teamed up with Globeleq – one of Africa’s leading power companies to establish a 100MW IPP solar park here in Ethiopia.
People say that in order to get things done in Ethiopia, you need to have powerful friends in government. Have you ever felt pressured to have friends on the inside?
Big business needs to collaborate with government because it is important that you have the ability to influence policy that affects your business. So while I keep a cordial, professional relationship with government agencies and regulatory bodies, I have never particularly felt pressured to have friends on the inside to give me an unfair advantage in any way. If we need to bid for any government business, we have the credentials to win tenders on a fair basis. Sunshine Investment Company was one of a pioneer company in Ethiopia’s construction sector and we’ve earned a strong reputation in this country that opens doors for us wherever we go. But it didn’t just happen. It took years of hard work.
Where do you see Sunshine Investment Group in 5 years?
I still see Sunshine Group being a regional leader in the commercial and residential real estate space. Hopefully, we will become a listed company on an international stock exchange and allow investors from all across the world be a part of our success story.
Follow the contributor on Twitter @MfonobongNsehe. Email: mfon.nsehe(at)gmail.com