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One of Africa’s most influential and talented business leaders, 24-year-old Executive Director Mikaeel Moti is helping to guide multibillion-rand enterprise the Moti Group into a new era as it drives economic development in Africa and cements its name on the global stage, writes Kirsten Drury.

As the home of the world’s youngest population, the critical role of youth for driving economic growth and transformation across Africa cannot be understated. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, as many as seven in every ten of the region’s over one billion people are currently beneath the age of 30 years.

Notably, however, amidst soaring food and fuel prices in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as growing debt distress on the back of global monetary tightening, the continent is facing significant challenges which are only exacerbating poverty and inequality. In South Africa, for example, obstacles such as slowing global growth, high inflation, rising interest rates and persistent loadshedding have only aggravated structural economic weaknesses. As a result, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has forecast that the country will see anaemic growth of just 0.6% this year, compared to average economic growth among G20 countries of 2.6%.

But where many see only obstacles, this next generation of business leaders are identifying opportunities to unlock Africa’s hidden potential and advantage from the demographic dividends of its booming consumer market, as well as its vast untapped natural resources.

One such leader demonstrating the benefits of youthful energy and ingenuity for solving Africa’s greatest problems is Mikaeel Moti, the 24-year-old business prodigy and Executive Director of the Moti Group of Companies, a private family-owned business empire with diversified interests spanning mining and metals beneficiation, property, aviation, logistics and financial products.

Company founder Zunaid Moti recently announced that he would be stepping away from the company after 18 years at the helm to focus on his Zimbabwean mining interests at African Chrome Fields, as well as his philanthropic ventures. So, as the company begins a new era, the dynamic duo of recently appointed CEO Dondo Mogajane, the former Director-General of National Treasury, and Zunaid’s son, Mikaeel, are now steering the ship with ambitious plans on the horizon.

A colourful entrepreneurial journey

Unlike many young people in his position, Moti has gradually earned his way through the top, beginning his entrepreneurial journey at a young age under the mentorship of his father.

“I graduated from high school in 2016, but I had already had my first taste or experience of the corporate world through working at the Moti Group during my school holidays. I really started at the bottom, learning the ropes as an intern making copies and notes for meetings,” he laughs. “But I built up from there, learning more and more every year and growing as a business professional until I reached the position I’m now in as Executive Director.”

Having worked at the Group for the past seven years full time and three years before that on a part time basis, Moti has been extensively involved in the Group’s various mining interests, gaining in-depth knowledge of its operations, and has continued to study part-time, and will graduate with his Bachelor of Accounting degree from UNISA this year.

Perhaps one of his greatest learning curves as a businessman, however, was through the launch of his own entrepreneurial venture – a long-term motor vehicle rental company, Super M Auto Investments, that he founded at the age of just 14 after receiving encouragement from his father. Through this experience, he learned practical skills such as financial calculations, as well as valuable lessons about the importance of customer service for small businesses, and quickly grew its book to some 80 client accounts with a book value of over R18 million.

“There were only three individuals employed within the business, including myself, but I would argue that we managed our accounts better than many banks or other automotive companies because of the way we treated each of our clients.

“We made sure that each car was valeted, clean and had a full tank of petrol before delivering it, and that it had a ribbon or a bow. We would also deliver each car personally ourselves, because we knew that the personal touches were important to our relationships with our customers. Relationships in business are everything.

“All small businesses need to take any opportunity they can to outshine larger competitors, and in my experience, people really appreciate the extra effort and care we spent especially when developing relationships with our clients and caring for them on a human level. So, overall, the automotive business was a great learning experience.”

Not content to rest on his entrepreneurial laurels, at the age of 19, he next became a partner in a company called East Rand Containers which refurbishes used shipping containers, transforming them into new-age houses, offices and retail structures and. Bringing his knowledge of finance and accounting to the table, and marrying this with his partners’ operational experience, he was quickly able to help transform and elevate the business into an industry leader.

“At the time I bought into the business, the idea of renovating containers and converting them into new structures was still novel,” he remarks.

“But as people have come to recognise the importance of looking after the environment, they’ve increasingly taken the solution more seriously, and have seen the opportunity we have to recycle something that’s no longer in use and convert it into a building that’s safe, modular, and easy to expand upon or move where needed.”

Since becoming involved in the business, and working closely with partners Phillip Brink and Nathan Dell, East Rand Containers has continued to witness meteoric growth of between 50% and 80% every year as various government and corporate partners recognise the benefits of its innovative, eco-friendly products. At its last valuation, the company was worth more than R40 million with no signs of slowing down.

An African Hero

Taking the container concept yet another step further, Moti has recently begun collaborating with Moti Group CEO Dondo Mogajane on the African Hero project – a socio-economic development initiative which aims to broaden community access to basic infrastructure such as schools and healthcare clinics.

Utilising these specially-designed containers, which are further equipped with cutting-edge technology to ensure that they remain fit for purpose, the project is able to deploy as many as five new clinics and one school every month. It is currently working in collaboration with various institutions to roll-out the solution to southern-African regions.

He notes, however, that this project was inspired by his father, who has always emphasised a people-first approach to life and business.

“His view on business was that it’s important to always lead with the heart. So, when it comes to corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, the Moti Group’s number one priority has always been to look after people first. This is essential to our identity as a company, and has also shaped my own philosophy towards business.”

As an example, the Group donated over two million meals and other basic goods to vulnerable groups and charitable organisations across KwaZulu-Natal in the wake of the 2021 riots through its philanthropic arm, Moti Cares, delivering much-needed relief to families and communities.

Moti further adds that younger generations tend to be more aware of and place greater emphasis on environmental, social and governance issues, which is also why it is vital for businesses to cultivate and create opportunities for youth within the workplace.

“Youth have a very different way of thinking which has been born out of understanding the many challenges we are facing today, such as power and water shortages, lack of access to technology, or the need for basic service delivery such as education and healthcare. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough opportunities for young people to receive mentorship, and get shown how to take their ideas and turn these into viable, sustainable businesses.”

Given the urgency of the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa and Africa, he urges business leaders and companies to get involved and become a part of the solution by empowering youth through granting them opportunities to gain practical experience, mentorship, or even support in starting their own businesses.

“The public and private sector need to work together to give more young people opportunities and the support they need to become successful entrepreneurs and launch their own small businesses. Even if each business employed just ten or twenty people, imagine the impact that a thousand new small businesses could have on youth unemployment and wider job creation.”

Asked what type of leader he wants to be himself, he states that he hopes to be an approachable leader that others can always come to with any questions or concerns. Additionally, even as he continues to receive valuable mentorship from renowned figures such as Mogajane, he likewise hopes to pass the gift on by mentoring others.

“I’ve been fortunate to receive advice and guidance throughout my career, and as a leader, I’ve learnt that it’s important to listen twice as much as you speak. By receiving the benefits of other people’s knowledge and experiences, you can take these lessons and use them to build something truly successful,” he says.

“I am lucky to have grown into my role as executive director under the guidance of respected and influential business personalities like my father and Dondo . And I can personally say that having the right people to guide you at the right time, and knowing who to call for advice, is the key to overcoming any failures and moving on.

“I’ve also come to learn that as a leader, you often learn from others even as you teach them. And by keeping a very open door policy, giving advice and guidance, and lending a helping hand, your employees, stakeholders and partners will not only flourish but your business will benefit as well.

“So, on behalf of myself and the Moti Group, we’re also eager to see that the type of mentorship that I myself have received continues. We believe that lack of mentorship is holding back young people’s entrepreneurial potential and preventing economies such as South Africa’s from growing.

“We want to play our part in driving and leading change, so we’re hoping to soon launch a mentorship programme that takes young graduates and gives them the practical training and experiences they need to thrive.”

Reigniting economic growth

Questioned about the other ingredients needed to reignite South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth, he points to mineral beneficiation as a missed opportunity.

“The entire continent has been losing the value we could have gained from our natural resources by shipping out our raw materials for beneficiation overseas for decades, when we should have been developing our own refineries and plants, and strengthening local supply chains.

“We’re heading in the right direction now, but to attract greater levels of investment, we urgently need to solve issues like our power and water shortages, as well our social issues and even the financial challenges which led to our greylisting.”

But while a lack of local beneficiation has muted growth within the mining sector, it has created pockets of opportunity for frontrunners to lead the charge and seize market share. The Moti Group itself aims to blaze the trail with a new lithium mining project planned in the Mashonaland East province of Zimbabwe – a country ranked as the world’s fifth-largest lithium producer.

Utilised in the production of electric vehicle (EV) batteries, demand for lithium has soared in recent years amidst the rapid transition away from carbon fuels and internal combustion engines. According to Smart Energy International, the value of the electric vehicle market is now forecast to reach $7 trillion by 2030 and $46 trillion by 2050, opening a wealth of opportunity for African businesses throughout value chains to get in near the ground floor and make a name.

The Moti Group is already in the process of finalising its partnership with a major global battery manufacturer based in China, and amidst Zimbabwe’s ban on the export of unprocessed lithium, the Group hopes to draw on its expertise in mining and mineral beneficiation to develop a local lithium processing plant.

“Investing in Zimbabwe is something of a challenge, because the country still lacks the infrastructure needed for basic needs. But it’s approach to minerals and lithium has been very pragmatic in incentivising overseas companies to invest in local beneficiation and lend a helping hand with infrastructure development, so that any raw materials do ultimately benefit its people,” says Moti.

For example, according to the latest Africa Infrastructure Development Index, South Africa ranked fourth on the continent with a score of 80.19 points out of 100, while Zimbabwe received a mere 26.23 points, pointing to the depths of the issue. To address this, the Group further plans to invest in key infrastructure in the surrounding area, including providing schools and healthcare centres for local communities in keeping with its African Hero project.

“Ultimately, we want our business to become known as a forerunner, so we’re looking for these types of opportunities where we can act as pioneers in the market and look not into the next five years as a group but into the next 50 years.”

Sustainable mining focus

Already known for its ingenuity in the mining arena, the lithium project fits perfectly with the Moti Group’s ethos as a company which places enormous emphasis on environmental concerns, as further demonstrated by its Kilken operations.

Through its Kilken Platinum subsidiary, Moti Group is a majority partner in the Kilken Imbani Joint Venture, a platinum tailings retreatment processing plant adjacent to the Amandelbult mine in Thabazimbi in the Limpopo province which it runs in conjunction with Imbani Minerals. Managed by Anglo-American, the Amandelbult mine has been in operation for nearly 70 years, while the Kilken plant is involved in extracting high-quality platinum group metals from the mine’s live tailings, including platinum, rhodium, gold, palladium and others.

Drawing on modern flotation technology, the Kilken plant effectively recycles the mine’s waste to draw out any remaining minerals for maximum value, while simultaneously reducing the toxicity of the waste and the space needed for its storage in a form of “green” mining.

“To use a simple example, in the same way that dish soap is designed to lift dirt particles from dishes by forming soapy bubbles on the dishes’ surface, our technology works to make the platinum group metals hydrophobic, which means that they float to the surface when air pressure is introduced. We can then extract the metals from the surface to form a concentrate which is then sold back to Anglo American for smelting,” he explains.

The plant has proven enormously successful over the past 17 years, and working closely together with the Group’s management team, Moti is currently involved in expanding its operations with the aim of soon increasing its production capacity by 15% to 20%.

Long-term vision as African frontrunners

The Group is busy considering new opportunities within other sectors, including growing its illustrious property development portfolio, which already includes recognisable names such as the Icon@Hyde Park, Nondela Drakensberg Mountain Estate, Sandhurst Place, Cottonwoods, FuturExotics Lifestyle Emporium, and 106–108 4th Street, Parkmore.

But as part of its long-term investment strategy, Moti is especially eager to advance the company’s interests in sustainable investments in renewable energy sphere and in agriculture, while continuing its plan of strategic mergers and high-quality acquisitions.

“The urgent need for more energy suppliers is well understood in South Africa, but power is a consistent problem in many African countries. We would like to be leaders on the continent, so we will be investigating potential investments in areas related to energy including but not limited to renewables and infrastructure development in South Africa as well as in other parts of southern Africa in the future.

Notably, for example, experts estimate that to achieve the goal of universal power access for all households across Africa by 2030, the public and private sector will need to invest as much as $25 billion each year. And, as the global fight against climate change intensifies and the just energy transition picks up momentum, the renewable energy market is expected to reach a value of $1,977.6 billion by 2030, demonstrating its enormous growth potential.

“Given the continent’s energy challenges and our abundance of sunlight, solar particularly seems like a natural next step. And, given Dondo’s expertise in the financial sector, we are also open to exploring opportunities in the sector as we believe that there aren’t enough black-owned players in the space.

“Likewise, farming represents a very exciting and accessible opportunity in Africa due to the large availability of land and our favourable climate conditions. Many people are underestimating the growing importance of food security against challenges such as climate change and growing populations, and we believe that Africa’s agricultural sector will definitely be a space to watch.”

Demonstrating the point, the World Bank estimates that as many as 140 million people or one in every five Africans are facing acute food insecurity and hunger. Additionally, International Monetary Fund statistics reveal that staple food prices skyrocketed as much as 23.9% across sub-Saharan Africa between 2020 and 2022.

“If global supply chain disruptions and the impact of external factors such as the pandemic and Russia’s war with the Ukraine have taught Africa anything, it’s the importance of intercontinental chain and looking to Africa’s own value chains,” he says.

“We don’t have any definite plans on the immediate horizon, but we are eager to play a role in developing sustainable and profitable agricultural businesses across the entire value chain, from production to processing and marketing. We believe that the future of agriculture is strong, and we want to be leaders in the field.”

As one example of one such untapped opportunity within the space’s enormous growth potential, he points to goat farming.

Widely eaten by Muslim and Hindu consumers, the international goat meat market has been a surprise success for countries such as Australia, which currently holds nearly half of global market share. Demonstrating the industry’s potential in Africa, goat meat exports generated some $60.84 million and $46.11 million in revenue for Ethiopia and Kenya respectively in 2021.

“Goats are easily grown in a wide variety of landscapes, even in arid deserts, and their meat remains a delicacy in Asia and the Middle East, representing a potential treasure trove for innovative businesses able to enter the space.

“However, sustainable development and responsible resource management practices are an absolute priority for us to ensure that the continent’s natural land and mineral resources benefit everyone. The possibilities are endless, and we’re ready to become one of the continent’s leading black-owned businesses, and demonstrate just what African businesses are capable of.”

Future-fit operations

Even as it considers future investment opportunities, the Moti Group itself is currently evolving as it prepares for a new era of growth, transitioning into a more formal corporate structure with tighter governance controls, streamlined decision-making processes.

Moti states that while the company will remain true to its values and roots as a family-owned business, its new structure is designed to support the company on its journey to becoming a major player on the African and international stage.

“Family businesses are viable up to a certain point, but the Group has become significantly more complex over the years as we’ve grown. So, to reach the next level of growth, we have seen a need for a more structured, expansion-driven approach that maximises productivity in our operational processes while still checking that all our administrative and corporate governance boxes are ticked,” he explains.

Regardless of its origins as a family-owned business, it has always taken the view that positions must be earned and that only the right person for the job will win the role, he explains.

“The risk to many family businesses is the generational gap, as there may be a time when there aren’t any family members available to lead who understand the amount of effort and expertise that was needed to build the business, as I do. That’s why it’s important to ensure that these types of businesses are allowed to grow and change, and to ensure that there are qualified industry professionals even from outside the family who are able to assume responsibility and guide the business forward.”

Another priority for the Group has therefore been succession planning, and ensuring that there is a steady pipeline of experienced and knowledgeable individuals ready to take up the mantle wherever needed across all levels of the business.

The Moti Group’s approach to its management team, especially, has emphasised collaboration and information-sharing, ensuring that its leaders are able to step in and take the reins as needed.

“No one is an island,” he says. “Every morning, the entire management team has a meeting at 9am to brief each other, discuss the work that’s ongoing, and allocate tasks. This means that everyone discusses the issues at hand or potential decisions that need to be made, and that we can agree on any decisions at a top level.

“Our approach isn’t narrow-minded—while we all have our specialities, we ensure that we understand each other’s work so that anyone can fill in as needed at any time, much like a professional football team for example. We also have internal meetings with the senior management from across our other operations every day, which is important to keep a pulse on the various businesses and build strong relationships across the entire Group.

“This approach has served us really well, as it means that our teams operate in complete cohesion, and that we communicate on important matters constantly. We’re all responsible for making progress together.”

Overcoming reputational challenges

But while the Moti Group is known as one of South Africa’s most successful businesses, it hasn’t always been smooth-sailing, particularly as Mikaeel’s father, Zunaid Moti, found himself at the centre of several controversies and unfounded allegations over the years.

Perhaps the most well-known was his arrest in 2018 for the supposed theft of a pink diamond in Germany, following which he was cleared of all charges and subsequently released. However, despite being found innocent, the reputational damage to Zunaid and the Group was severe, placing the company’s banking relationships and business partnerships into jeopardy.

“Pushing past the reputational damage was difficult, but we have never been involved in anything illegal, so we were fortunately able to eventually ease the concerns of everyone that reached out to us,” comments Moti.

“Even to this day, I think that many people underestimate the importance of reputations, and it can be quite a difficult topic to discuss —especially in the local media space, where the tendency is sometimes to hurry to be the first to write and publish stories without taking the time to check the facts.

He adds that Mogajane joined the Group after performing an extensive due diligence on the business and its various operations. But, since joining the company in June last year, his knowledge of the financial sector and expertise in compliance, corporate governance and risk management has already made an invaluable contribution to the Group as it completes its transition into a new generation of leadership and begins its next chapter.

“Dondo is a highly skilled and experienced executive, and his vision for the Moti Group is really inspiring. His ability to execute on that vision will be critical to our future success, and I’m really enjoying working with him in taking the business to the next level.

“His knowledge and abilities as a leader are quite simply excellent, and I feel really fortunate to have the guidance of such a respected and influential business personality as we look to the future.”

Becoming the next African leader

Speaking to his vision for the Group’s future and what he wants it to be known for, Moti notes that he doesn’t only want the company to be known as industry frontrunners and innovators, but that he wants the Moti Group to represent the best of black-owned businesses and homegrown expertise.

“Our hope is that in the next ten years, the Moti Group will be named among the top 20 mining companies in Africa and, even more importantly, that we’re recognised as a leading African business that is even able to compete with large international players,” he says.

“The lithium project is a key first step on this journey, but it’s just a first step and we’re hoping to truly disrupt other industries across the continent over the coming years.”

Towards this end, he also hopes to cultivate new partnerships with various other stakeholders across the public and private sectors to help Africa unlock its true growth potential, and to unleash sustainable socio-economic development that benefits all local communities.

“I want our business to be known for operating in good faith with partners and stakeholders, and to be known as a driving force for positive change. Relationships are the most important thing in business, and to cultivate and maintain these relationships, we want to continue building mutual respect with new partners as we fulfil our long-term aims.

“I also want the Moti Group to be known for our positive impact on communities, whether this be through charitable works, mentorship programmes, creating job opportunities, or as company that is known for promoting transformation and diversity throughout our operations as a proudly black-owned business.”

His advice to other young and ambitious entrepreneurs?

“First and foremost, develop your skills with people. For people to invest in you, they need to get to know you better and like you. Plus, without being able to communicate and discuss your ideas, or without being open to negotiations and compromise, you may never close the deal you were hoping to close,” he says.

“Next is the importance of determination. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down or fail, as long as you keep getting back up again. You can make a mistake thirty times – all you need is for one idea to succeed. Keep your head down, persevere, and believe in yourself.

“And finally, keep your expectations realistic. You can’t start a new business and hope to become the biggest name in your market within the space of a year. Rather set achievable goals within realistic timeframes, such as becoming profitable, or growing your income or turnover by a certain percentage. That way, when you don’t meet a goal, it’s nothing that you can’t recover from, learn and move forward.”

Ultimately, Mikaeel Moti has quickly established himself as an esteemed entrepreneur in his own right and there can be little doubt that under the sage leadership team of himself and Dondo Mogajane, the future for the Moti Group is bright. 

PR Worx is the author of this article. Photographs were taken by Munro Nel.

By Editor