Astro Technology CEO, Munyaradzi Gwatidzo’s fast rise and faster fall amid revelations he lost two companies in two years, has not deterred him from his passion to provide affordable phones in Africa.
Gwatidzo established Africa- G Tide at the age of 22 after observing that many African people at that time were not able to afford mobile phones by the big mobile phone brands. The executive then found an interest in fixing people’s broken phones as there were not many people who were able to fix the phones.
This resulted in him buying broken phones, repairing them and later selling them. It is during this venture that he discovered a huge market for second hand phones in Zambia which went on to fund his first trip to China to find a partner.
Unfortunately, it was not a successful trip for Gwatidzo as the company he approached in China wanted a bigger investment which he did not have. “I was really just hoping to convince them to partner with me in producing affordable phones in Africa so it didn’t work out but that experience taught me that passion is not enough.
“You have to continuously push for what you want and you have to find other ways to ensure that you actually live your dream,” Gwatidzo told Business Times. A year after that incident, Gwatidzo received a call from the manufacturers in China who then decided to partner with him on his project bringing G-Tide to life, becoming the first African mobile brand.
It became popular in the early 2000 selling up to 5m units in Southern Africa.
The journey wasn’t short of obstacles as Gwatidzo went on to lose his company G-tide to some of his local partners that he had roped in to grow the brand. “I was very young, very excited but there are important factors that I did not put in place during that time. I did not have a shareholders agreement as basic as that, but other people saw a big opportunity as the brand was growing,” Gwatidzo said.
“They went ahead to register the company, patented the brand without me knowing and they even went ahead to offer me an employment contract in the company that I had founded.
“That is when I realised that I cannot work with people that are not honest.”
He decided to let go of G-tide and went on to build another brand G-mobile but made the blunder of borrowing capital from loan sharks out of “anger and frustration”.
G-mobile kicked off with credit financing for formally employed people which however started causing problems for the organisation when inflation skyrocketed in 2008 as the business model was no longer viable. This resulted in the loan company being granted a writ of execution by the courts to retain all of G-mobile’s assets in order to recover the loan. Gwatidzo had lost two companies in a space of two years.
“I was so devastated,” the executive said.
He added: “I was so discouraged. I moved from a double storey in Glen Lorne to my cousins’ flat where my wife, my child and I slept in the dining room. Things were really bad and suddenly all my friends disappeared.
“But I did not give up.”
From G-Tide and G-Mobile, Gwatidzo’s next breakthrough came at a conference in New York. He attended the conference through the assistance from his Pastor from Celebration Church where he met Nigel Chanakira who later invested in his current business Astro- mobile.
“Astro basically means the brightest star and I was determined to create a business that is going to be a light, that is going to shine in the whole of Africa. And I am going to build something so strong that would not be easily shaken.
“Astro Technology has grown in the region with branches in South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Mauritius among others. “The group has also diversified into health awareness with smart watches that enable people to track their health habits as well as the Eshagi platform that provides financing.”
Astro mobile does not have a manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe however as they have failed to operationalise the one they brought five years ago forcing them to set base in Zambia.
Gwatidzo believes there is need for government to provide more support to tech start-ups for the tech industry to thrive in Zimbabwe
“I think we are still very far as a country. I do not think there is enough drive from the government.
“There are definitely interventions that have been done in terms of policy but I think there are not so deliberate in driving tech development there has to be substantive budgets allocated to drive the ecosystem and you are looking at something of not less than US$1bn if the government is serious.
As encouragement to young people Gwatidzo said: “You need to know that your background does not determine where you want to go. Irrespective of where you were born and how you grew up, you can still define your destiny”
Gwatidzo is also into philanthropy work and has assisted a number of disadvantaged students with school fees as he believes a little help can go a very long way.
His entrepreneurial journey started in Mbare suburb, Harare after he lost his mother when he was 10 years old.
“Life changed for my siblings and I after we lost our mother and we had to quickly learn life skills to look after ourselves.” “So, after school we had to put out a small table selling tomatoes to make money while other children were playing so that’s how I would say I understood entrepreneurship because one had to be accurate on the change and counting money.
After completing his high school at Chibuwe High School in Chipinge, Gwatidzo started working at a bank at 17 years as a filing clerk and says he was motivated by people who were coming into the bank with huge amounts of money.
“Being exposed to that motivated me and played a huge role in stretching my faith in to believe that I can achieve anything that I want and working in the bank was not enough for me.
Gwatidzo went on to become the first person to come up with a mobile brand in Africa- G Tide at 22.
“I felt that whatever the big brand was making was not solving the ultimate problem.
“During that time less than 5% of Africans had cell phones because the focus of those big brands was never really about Africa so the cost of those devices did not speak to the average African living in the rural areas.
“So, it prompted me to come up with a brand that is affordable, that everyone in Africa could afford and they could also be part of the digital revolution that was happening at that time and nobody was doing it and someone had to do it.”