Here at Memeburn we have massive respect for Naspers CEO Koos Bekker. Aside from the fact that he heads up a multi-billion dollar media company with investments around the globe, he clearly understands the value of tech.
Under Bekker, Naspers has made seriously clever investments in the likes of Russia’s Mail.ru, China’s Tencent and Argentinian online classifieds platform OLX. While other companies would’ve stuck with what they know — in Naspers’ case publishing and television — Bekker’s made sure his company is always looking toward the next big thing.
It’s paid off too. The company’s combined internet properties made R34.6-billion (US$3.4-billion) over the past year. In fact its internet profits are only a little below what it made from TV as a whole.
That kind of success has seen Naspers’ share price take a serious upward swing over the past few months, along with Bekker’s wealth. Not through raises, or bonuses or anything like that. In fact, Bekker doesn’t receive a salary. Instead he’s paid in Naspers shares. It might seem surprising, but remember this is a guy who can lose US$80-million without blinking.
Today Bekker would stand to gain around R13-billion (US$1.3-billion) if he were to sell all his shares today (this year’s share issue alone is worth R3.5-billion). But what if he sold them all tomorrow?
Last year we showed you some of the awesome things he could buy with his fortune, but none of those would really have a lasting impact. This year therefore, we decided to take a look at some potentially cool investments he could make with his outrageous fortune.
In parts of the US, solar power is starting to be seen as a threat to mainstream power companies, but in Bekker’s home country South Africa, it hasn’t had nearly the same kind of disruptive power.
With its abundance of sunshine, South Africa could use its own SolarCity — ironically founded by a pair of South African brothers — and Bekker could provide the cashflow to get it off the ground. He might not have the innovative flair of SolarCity chairman Elon Musk (who does?), but surely he could provide the financial backing and good business sense to get disruptive solar power business up and running. At the very least, he could outplay Google’s solar investment.
We’re not sure how much Bekker knows about cars, but remember Elon Musk was in the online payments space before launching Tesla. Given Bekker’s proclivity for building products that have mass appeal, maybe he could develop an electric car for emerging market countries. Bekker’s home country South Africa already has a fair amount of knowledge when it comes to car manufacturing — Toyota, Volkswagen, and BMW all have manufacturing plants and people could be poached from those plants to build the car. With its sun-friendly climate, South Africa could also be an ideal testing bed for a network of recharging stations similar to those Tesla is building in the US.
Bekker could also lean on connections in Brazil, India and China for expertise and parts supplies, if he wanted to give the car the best possible chance of going global.
If Bekker put his own money on the line, there would be a lot more incentive for an emerging markets electric car not to fail. He’d also potentially be able to put a lot more money into it than the R300-million the Joule project cost during its lifetime
There have been plenty of people who’ve gone on from high-profile positions in big tech and media companies and become angel investors. Perhaps the most notable however is former PayPal executive and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure. And his approach in particular could be a beneficial one to follow, were Bekker to get into the startup investment game.
After all, even if Bekker left Naspers it’s unlikely he’d be able to offer startups the same kind of capital as the company’s investment arm MIH. Not if they’re at the stage where MIH is ready to invest in them at any rate.
That suggests launching a seed accelerator, capable of building companies up until they’re attractive to major investors, would make a lot of sense.
Naspers already owns a lot of print properties around the world, including some that are nearly as old as the Washington Post, recently bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. But there’s only so much worthwhile transformation and innovation a massive corporate can bring about. Imagine what knowledge Bekker could bring to a paper if he decided to buy one for himself.
Of course, it’s unlikely that Bekker would be able to make this particular investment in any country where Naspers has a presence. And there aren’t all that many of those worth bothering about.
As is the case in a number of emerging markets, South Africa has a dire shortage of university graduates. The state has tried to rectify this with the building of two new universities. Cumulatively they’re set to cost around R17-billion (US$1.7-billion). That suggests that building a smallish, well-run private university wouldn’t be too much of a stress with Bekker’s fortune. And with his contacts in India, Brazil, China and Russia, it could be an institution truly representative of emerging market countries.
And if it focused on media, online and technological innovation and business development, it could provide a pool of graduates ideally suited to working at Naspers and the wider tech community as a whole. Think about it, where would Silicon Valley be without Stanford?
South Africa’s average internet speed is, to put it bluntly, dire. Recent research puts the country 93rd in the world in terms of average internet speed, behind countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Tunisia and even Azerbaijan. That’s a problem which seriously needs to be fixed and we reckon Bekker could help out in a big way.
Sure Microsoft and Google are trialing the use of TV whitespace to get broadband into rural areas, but at the moment those are just pilot projects. We think Bekker could do better. Heck, he could lay his own cable if he wanted to. After all, the whole Seacom cable project is only meant to cost US$600-million, about half of Bekker’s fortune.
But if he wanted to start out a little smaller, maybe he could provide free Wi-Fi to the whole of Cape Town. If Mxit, a company that Naspers once had a controlling stake in can manage it in Stellenbosch, it should be a walk in the park for someone like Bekker to do on a larger scale.
Of course, there may come a time when Bekker no longer feels the urge to actively make piles of money for Naspers and himself. At that point he may decide to do a Bill Gates and dedicate a large portion of his wealth to tackling disease.
Granted, Bekker isn’t in anywhere the same league as Gates. The Microsoft founder’s fortune means that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation the had an endowment of US$36.2 billion as of 30 September 2012.
Still, if Bekker followed the example of Gates and Warren Buffett and promised to donate to charity at least half of his wealth over the course of time, he could make a serious dent in the research needed to tackle at least one of the world’s deadliest diseases. And he’d still be pretty damn comfortable at the end of it.
Certain parts of South Africa have had a seriously torrid time with textbook delivery in the recent past. The same most likely rings true for a number of other emerging market countries. But what if a generous donation from Bekker meant that kids in those areas never had to worry about textbooks being physically delivered again.
Let’s take Limpopo, one of the areas worst hit by the textbook crisis, as an example. It has around 1.7-million learners. Bekker could provide each of them with a NetSurfer Touch — a tablet designed and sold in South Africa — for around R3.4-billion (assuming the company sold the tablets to him at retail cost). A big outlay to be sure, but it’s pretty much what the shares issued to Bekker just this year are worth.
Okay, this is serious blue sky thinking, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop plans set us thinking. Musk reckons that it would cost US$6-billion for a passenger-only model of the futuristic transport system to be built between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a distance of around 615km. So if Bekker were to put all of his R13-billion (US$1.3-billion) fortune into building one, he could get it from Naspers’ HQ in Cape Town to, um, somewhere around the small whale-watching village of Hermanus, or the tiny farming town of Worcester.
Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t our best idea…
Headline Image: World Economic Forum (via Flickr).