Richard Branson Talks Investing in Africa

Chris Pizzello / AP

Billionaire Richard Branson, an extreme-sports fanatic, is taking another big risk—this time with his latest venture, Enterprise Zimbabwe. The nonprofit seeks to encourage the return of investment to Zimbabwe, which is reeling from the disastrous political strife and record hyperinflation of 2008. He recently sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jerry Guo in New York to discuss Africa's potential. Excerpts:

Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe recently called you a vulture disguised as an angel. Why are you tackling Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are naturally entrepreneurs, and small amounts of money can help get Zimbabwe kick-started again…It's not perfect, but life is much, much better than before. The world is waiting to see what happens.

How have conditions changed since the cholera, starvation, political intimidation, and hyperinflation that we saw two years ago?

Since the coalition government formed, schools have opened, kids have schoolbooks, hospitals have begun to open, nurses are beginning to get paid.

But unemployment is still a whopping 90 percent. Can Zimbabwe really be helped without regime change?

People have allowed 99 percent of the population to suffer for the last decade. I don't think you can continue to allow it for another decade whilst the international community waits for changes to the politics of Zimbabwe. Hopefully, there will be an election in a year or two's time. Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa with well-educated people and a lot of infrastructure still in place from the past. Enterprise Zimbabwe can help get it back on the road.

On a broader scale, is Africa a good corporate investment?

I think there's a new breed of businessmen who think business should be a force for good. Having said that, Africa grew by 3 percent last year; both Europe and America would be happy with that. And we believe that there is money to be made in Africa, even if one doesn't make the same returns as in the West. Look at what has happened in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Their [per capita] net worth was less than Africa's 30 years ago. Now they're helping the engine of the world. It's in our interest to have Africa be another engine. Get people out of poverty, for instance, and they don't produce as many children. The world needs less children.

Which countries have the most opportunities?

We have airlines flying to Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria. We have financial-service companies, mobile-phone businesses, game reserves, health clubs, and we will invest more. The animal life of Africa, there's nothing like it on earth. Now is a tremendous time to get in on the ground floor of Zimbabwe. Things do not cost a lot to invest there now.

You're saying money can be made in Zimbabwe?

Money can definitely be made out of Zimbabwe, and I suspect good money. The Chinese are investing; they're not doing it for philanthropic reasons. They believe they can make money out of it.

On a global scale, what sectors hold the most promise to you as the world is coming out of the economic crisis?

We've invested in quite a few different companies to try to get breakthroughs with alternative fuels. We think isobutanol and algae-based fuels have tremendous potential in the future of aviation and general fuel use. The moment any of the companies get the final permission from the commercial aviation industry—like GE or Rolls-Royce—you're talking about a switch from dirty fuels to clean fuels, and the revolution in clean energy will be completely upon us. I don't think it's more than two or three years away for clean jet fuel. Some of these fuels we're involved in producing have already been tested by the military.

Will they be competitive with conventional fuel?

Hopefully, it won't be more expensive. For it to really be a revolution, clean fuel needs to be the same price as dirty fuel.

Speaking of new markets, virgin galactic is now selling tickets at $200,000 per seat for space flights, and Boeing just announced they will be developing their own space capsule. is this a new space race?

It's getting very exciting. The spaceport is months away from being completed in New Mexico. The mother ship is finished, the spaceship is finished, and test flights have started. Test flights will continue for 18 months before we take people up. It's right on track, hopefully, for a whole new revolution with commercial companies led by Virgin Galactic. Initial flights will be suborbital, or 80 miles into space, and then we will look at orbital flights, hotels in space, intercontinental high-speed travel. I'm determined to see all this happen in our lifetime.