IN A NUTSHELL
· In 2013 Glad Dibetso graduated with a GIBS MBA and won the international MBA Student of the Year award.
· In 2013 he relocated to Dimension Data in Nigeria as a sales director.
· By late 2013 he had been promoted to MD.
· In 2017 he spearheaded a private equity sale, resulting in the formation of Cloud Exchange West Africa Limited.
· He continues to head up Cloud Exchange as CEO.
After almost six years in Lagos, Dibetso understands Nigeria almost as well as he does South Africa. He talks matter-of-factly about the flash floods in the rainy season that bring the city to a standstill, he speaks with respect of the people who work with him and their dedication to family and education. Critically, Dibetso has found more than just business success in Nigeria, he’s developed an appreciation for time and personal reflection, for mindfulness and trust in himself and his abilities.
It all started in 2012 when Dibetso began liaising with Dimension Data to join the team in Nigeria. He relocated in 2013 and set about stabilising the sales team and “scoring a few big wins”. By the end of 2013 he’d been named MD of Dimension Data Nigeria, taking over from the previous MD who had battled to adapt to life in Nigeria. Dibetso served as MD until 2017 when black gold shook things up.
As a major oil state, the Nigeria of today has much in common with most emerging African states, where commodities rule the economy. “Nigeria is still battling with diversification of the economy and the government, together with business, were reminded by the recent oil price crash to prioritise other industries,” explains Dibetso. Crude oil sees capital flowing into the country, but Nigeria currently relies heavily on imports hence the devastating currency depreciation.
When the oil downturn peaked in 2016-2017, it affected all oil states, including Nigeria. “One of the biggest challenges was foreign exchange,” recalls Dibetso. “These events coincided with the Dimension Data geographical strategy review, which led to the full exit of West Africa. With client centricity at the heart of Dimension Data’s values it was important to them to ensure business continuity to all their clients especially the pan-African clients like RMB and Standard Bank. So fast forward to April 2017 and I’d concluded a management buyout through a private equity firm.”
With Dibetso at the helm, the Mauritius-based private equity (PE) firm Synergy Capital Managers acquired the majority of shares in Dimension Data Nigeria and Ghana. Dibetso stayed on as both CEO and a shareholder.
“It’s one of the biggest achievements in my life so far because I learnt a whole new language and a whole new industry that I knew nothing about before,” recalls Dibetso. “The process reminded me of my GIBS MBA. The biggest thing I got from GIBS is a thinking process, how to learn in a short period of time and how to manage time and stakeholders in the midst of complexity. The sale of Dimension Data West Africa had the same attributes.”
Dimension Data gave Dibetso a short period of time to bring in prospects and, he recalls, “within two months I’d learnt what appealed to buyers and why they would buy. This was certainly one of the biggest challenges in my life, but I’ve learnt that painful experiences come with massive growth. So on 10 April, we completed the management buyout and changed the name to Cloud Exchange West Africa Limited.”
Lessons from Nigeria
There have been lessons aplenty from the formation of Cloud Exchange but, believes Dibetso, untangling all the tendrils from one business and establishing another has been a significant learning curve. “Something I still go through is dealing with the process of buying a subsidiary company that was part of an international group and what this means for legal, tax and compliance [and] what the impact is of changing names when you have services contracts that must be retained. So I learn on the job,” he says. “This sale is a typical business school case study of comprehensive stakeholder management.”
Dibetso admits that without his MBA training he might not have had the courage “to tackle something of this magnitude”. But something else helped too: a mindset shift that came from leaving South Africa.
A better businessman
While Dibetso certainly believes working in West Africa has made him into a better businessman, he also feels it has made him a better human being.
As the youngest of seven children from a bustling family, Dibetso’s life in South Africa revolved around family and community. While he misses the baptisms, weddings and get-togethers, he has learnt to appreciate the gift of space and reflection time. “This year I’m reading 100 books, I’m already closing in on 55 to 60 and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I was in South Africa… My culture absorbed all of me in a pleasant way, but I never had time to think of my own values, purpose and my life philosophy. Suddenly I came to Nigeria and I was able to start thinking about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.”
He began meditating and practising mindfulness, aided by a wonderful book called The Mindfulness Playbook by Dr Barbara Mariposa. He does yoga, breathing exercises and makes a point of not compartmentalising his life – which means he doesn’t have set working hours and working days. “I realised, in hindsight, that to be a good businessman you need to be a good person. And it has made me a better person, a better husband and a better colleague. So I promote authentic leadership in my company and I promote fun in my meetings; so there is a lot of living that we do while at work. This place has changed me for the better.”
Building for the future
Building on the NGO work he was previously involved with while at GIBS, when he served on the board of BizSchool, Dibetso has continued this theme in Nigeria through the Pyramid Educational Advancement programme, which serves to prepare high school students for the world of higher education. This is supported by the work of the Cloud Exchange Technical School, a Saturday school which helps to certify unemployed youth with IT qualifications.
“Mentorship across the continent is a personal initiative and these are acts of love that give me fulfilment,” says Dibetso, who is quick to single out his latest (and favourite) protégé, Leroy Mwasaru, who was recently ranked second on the Forbes 30 under 30 list of young entrepreneurs. “He lives in Nairobi and is studying at the Africa Leadership Academy,” says Dibetso. “He’s one of my most fantastic mentees because he’s so different. I have people I mentor in Nigeria and South Africa but this young man is the youngest and we’ve never met outside of video conferences. Leroy gives me so much hope about what this continent can potentially achieve.”
Looking to 2021
This profoundly pro-Africa outlook is the reason why, following on from the Cloud Exchange PE exercise, Dibetso has become an angel investor. “You would not believe what an investment of $10 000 means to small emerging companies. We are not using this enough across the continent and it is now one of my biggest passions. What we did here [at Cloud Exchange] was enabled by PE firms that decided to focus on the continent. I feel my next life chapter will be in venture capital because I just feel we aren’t focusing sufficiently on SMEs and creating business,” he says. “By 2021, I will be in this space. And that means working to identify companies in which to invest for the purposes of creating sustainable businesses that will employ the continent’s youth.”
One area he keeps a keen eye on is the birthplace of Nigerian online shopping mall, Konga, and software engineering firm Andela: Yaba. This vibrant Lagos suburb boasts “a plethora of youngsters all in tech, building anything you can imagine from apps to software; some are working online for companies overseas. It’s a buzzing place that just needs support – coaching, mentorship and seed capital.”
Driving a vision
While Dibetso’s plan for the future is evident, he remains focused on Cloud Exchange and the evolution of the business into a fully cloud-based company. Currently, Cloud Exchange is building the first Tier IV data centres in Nigeria and Ghana, as well as local cloud points of presence in both countries. “That’s a major milestone and another big achievement under my belt,” he says. “We are changing the tech space to enable entrepreneurs and businesses to focus on innovation and not on infrastructure.”
He adds: “Until the data centre is off the ground I feel this is a baby that needs me to be permanently available.” When his operational role is no longer necessary, Dibetso is crystal clear about not overstaying his welcome. “Like Nelson Mandela, quit at the height of your game with the crowd asking for more.”
Lessons from Lagos
“Your energy determines everything. I’ve learnt that from being in Nigeria,” says Dibetso. “In Nigeria you don’t ask government for help, you see the opportunities and you seize them. It’s about an internal locus of control.”
He adds: “There aren’t many protests and strikes in Nigeria, but there is a lot of surviving and a ‘fix it yourself’ mentality. It’s a delicate balance. Yes, you do want government to play its part and you do want active citizenry, but neither party should be paralysed waiting for the other. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learnt, to actively solve problems. If you solve problems then you are creating value for the country and the people around you.”
Nigerians also value education highly, notes Dibetso. Poor families take it in turns to support the education of one child through university, before the next child steps up and takes his or her turn. “A concept not different from Ubuntu,” he says, noting that African unity is a sure-fire way of changing the continent for the better.
“The biggest thing I got from GIBS is a thinking process...”
“...to be a good businessman you need to be a good person.”
“You would not believe what an investment of $10 000 means to small emerging companies.”