To look at him today, no one would guess the demons that Kenya’s youngest venture capitalist Heshan de Silva has battled with. He is the picture of health as he sits on the patio of his home in Lavington, a green, high-income residential suburb of Nairobi, relaxed and self-assured in a pair of drainpipe jeans and a red and white patterned shirt. His smile is quick and easy. And his right eyebrow (which seems to have a life of its own) vacillates between a sharp peak and a smooth curve as we talk.
Nothing alludes to the dark days he has seen. And despite the personal wealth he has accumulated, Heshan prefers the simple life of an average middle-class Kenyan. He wakes up early; eats one main meal a day; exercises at the Bikram Yoga studio and spends his weekends in church or watching British TV series Downton Abbey with his girlfriend.
But Heshan is unlike any other 25-year-old. He is Kenya’s youngest dollar multimillionaire and founder of DSGVenCap, a venture capital firm that he started four years ago and which today has a net worth of almost $1bn. His partners are New York-based hedge funds, MAS Partners LLC and Moore Capital, whose representatives he met in 2012 during a fireside chat at a lodge in the Maasai Mara game park.
In the two years since, Heshan has cultivated a work ethic that draws on the advice of his mentor, visionary Kenyan capitalist Chris Kirubi, and an email chain with some of Africa’s top business minds such as Ashish Thakkar, Aliko Dangote and Strive Masiyiwa. His intimate exposure to some of Africa’s billion-dollar deals is complemented by interactions with his New York partners, who are close to Berkshire Hathaway.
“When you get to learn from people who negotiate $20bn plus deals, you learn money has no emotion. And when you can learn from people who have negotiated that, a $10,000 deal is easy to master,” he said. “It’s a rounding error for these guys.”
Heshan’s interactions with some of the bigger names in global financial circles have taught him more than business acumen, however. He has also perfected the art of profiling from his New York partners, who trained in the art of body language, and finds the skill uniquely instructive during a business meeting.
Eighty per cent of what you say isn’t coming out of your mouth, and you can’t control it. And when you can read that, sitting in a meeting is easy because you know how it’s going to go,” he said.
But while Heshan’s confidence belies his age, it traces back to some harrowing personal trials at a Miami university when he was experimenting with alcohol and heroin – which nearly took his life – and is a story he is refreshingly open about.
“The thing with alcohol and drug abuse is you’re always recovering. It is a struggle. You come across pressures at work, pressures in life and for most normal people it’s ‘Let’s go out and get a beer’. But for me one beer could lead to a whole week of stuff,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I get addicted to things quite easily. In university it was the need to fit in. Superficial things. Then it became drugs and alcohol. And now it’s working.”
Poverty and profits
Today Heshan’s company, which has a 400-strong workforce, all of whom are under 23 years of age, has developed a reputation for being one of the region’s most enterprising entities, with holdings in commodities, technology, renewable energy, insurance and agribusiness including companies such as Moran Apparel, AFRClothing, Limelight Media and SASACabs.
One of the businesses DSGVenCap has invested in – Uniq Technology – has developed a GPS-enabled gadget that controls the music and advertising that commuters listen to. The innovation has been globally patented and will be rolled out among the ubiquitous yellow cabs of New York City. A second local success is Gourmet Nomads, which makes and delivers lunches in Nairobi for KSh150-KSh200 ($1.70-$2.30) per meal.
DSGVenCap also has greenhouses across the country designed to leverage on Kenya’s vast tracts of agricultural land, and ease food insecurity. “If you put up a 10×8 greenhouse and start growing tomatoes, then switch over to peppers and cucumbers, these make a lot of money. It’s KSh130,000 ($1,500) to set up a greenhouse and you can net KSh1m ($11,000) every season. The numbers make sense,” said Heshan.
The company also has two clothes lines – one in Miami and another in Kenya, with the former championed by US rapper 2 Chainz; interests in robotics and tech hardware; and three television shows under production including a cookery competition on K24, The Billion Bob Question on NTV, and one on Citizen TV that will either be titled Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.
DSGVenCap’s business identity has been intimately influenced by Heshan’s own experiences in the business world. “We go after the field of ideas purely because when I was starting out I had no capital whatsoever. I had to go after the one sector that I could afford, which was ideas. Couple that with always taking a minority stake in the business irrespective of how much funding you are putting in, and you’ve created the most valuable commodity: trust,” he said.
When he was working at his father’s small tea export company in Mombasa, Heshan had his first experience of the cut-throat nature of business competition.
“We were selling a few containers to Egypt, and these guys would plant seeds of doubt into buyers’ minds for no other gain other than to see you squashed. We were taking a tiny piece of the market out of 40 exporters – we were number 38 – and that was my first experience of this really ugly side of business where people will do anything to squash or beat you down.
Shortly after the political unrest in Egypt, his family opted to slow down their tea export business.
Another defining moment was the number of rejections he received in his early career after being turned down from 15 restaurants for a menial KSh12,000 ($137) a month job as a kitchen assistant.
The scorn that his youth and naïveté received in the early days stayed with him, and when he and his New York business partners talked of how to address the vast income disparity in Kenya, they agreed they should work with the poorest in the country.
“These are people who are ignored. They have ideas, small business dreams but no one cares because they have no assets, no security,” said Heshan.
And so DSGVenCap adopts a strategy that is all about the numbers, and plans to reduce poverty in Kenya from 60% to 40% in the next decade.
“We believe that if we have a lot of deals, not just five or six a year, but hundreds of small businesses with a 70% success rate, we’ll be doing well,” he said. “Many VC funds think two out of 10 is great but we average seven to eight out of 10 [in a year]. If you’re only going to do three or four deals in our world – four greenhouses or three kiosks – your net impact will not be large.”
And four years down the line, the verdict is good for DSGVenCap. Heshan leans back in his chair; his arms hang loosely by his side and his right eyebrow is unfurrowed.
It turned out okay,” he said. “Life is all right. I can’t really complain.”-