Unipalm Investment Holdings marks two decades of growth and economic upliftment.

How do you facilitate black participation in the economy? This question is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, says Ragavaan ‘Ragi’ Moonsamy, Group CEO of Unipalm Investment Holdings, when he brought his trailblazing investment consortium into the market.

Ragi says early on in his career, as he doggedly worked himself out of poverty, he realised that his socio-economic upliftment – and those in his communities – would not be facilitated by the government. ‘I had a firsthand experience that if you want change, you have got to affect the change because I had done it with my own life,’ he recalls.

Harnessing his understanding of the financial landscape, Ragi was one of the pioneers to facilitate equity empowerment participation at MultiChoice. It remains one of the best performing empowerment structures across the South African economic landscape, disbursing regular dividends to thousands of shareholders.

Breaking the mould of economic empowerment

Later on, he formed Unipalm in 2000, creating a board and, most importantly, he says, an investor prospectus. ‘I planned to visit the poorest communities in South Africa and request them to co-invest in the mandate. I knew that this came with lots of responsibility, so we ensured we were governed by strong regulation, as we still are today.’

Travelling the country and presenting his vision of economic empowerment to community members, Ragi spent a year selling his dream. Presenting the opportunity to invest as little as R2,400, or a bundle worth R20,000, Ragi said the objective was to lower the barrier to entry. The first roadshow mobilised 30,000 investors and raised R20 million, he says. ‘

We were committed to preserving the integrity of the capital because investing township money came with great responsibility. I subsidised the running costs for seven years, and there were no free shares or sweat equity given,’ explains Ragi.

An eye on infrastructure

The most significant initial transaction was with Growthpoint in 2005, followed by investments in mining and many others. Looking to the future, Unipalm targeted diverse investment opportunities with a strategy of growth, futureproofing, and upliftment. Each investment opportunity was selected with the impact it would have on the industry and the economy in the long term.

The greatest threat and opportunity for all sectors is artificial intelligence (AI), says Ragi. For example, investing in human resources with GEOTECH HR Solutions was an opportunity to bring about change by investing in human capital, upskilling, and reskilling workers.

Unipalm has diverse holdings in both telecoms and infrastructure, including listed players such as (MTN, Vodacom, TELKOM). Unlisted investments include those in software development (QMuzik), Internet of Things (IoT) (Vula Telematix), and modular buildings called E-Houses with applications in the energy, power, and mining sectors.

Ragi says that telecoms and technology-related activities are paramount to the growth of Southern Africa and Africa. ‘The opportunity for Africa is that we have the youngest population on the planet. Our average age is 19. We’ve been left out of the world stage for a long time, but we have the youthful population and resources to change our story.’

Rewriting the BEE story in South Africa

With over 15 portfolio companies, Unipalm is actively engaged in the management and the financial affairs of all investments. The Unipalm model is a workable way to rewrite the ‘BEE story’ in South Africa, with human upliftment prioritising profit. ‘I don’t like the term “black economic empowerment”. I call what we are aiming to achieve “black economic excellence”,’ he says.

Reflecting on Unipalm’s 20 years of success, Ragi is proud that the consortium’s maverick strategy has enabled them to penetrate ‘mainstream business’ to drive economic growth. The objective now is for others to follow. ‘What we need is 10,000 more stories like Unipalm. We want to invite others to go on the same journey as us, taking with them as many South Africans as possible. We’ve done it; we want them to do it even better,’ he says.