South African President Cyril Ramaphosa(C) visits the headquarters of Alibaba Group with the company's co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Picture: Reuters
According to the richest man in China, Jack Ma, who is also the 18th richest man in the world, the secret of success is “to be natural and be yourself,” and to “keep your dreams alive.” Is that really all it takes to reach the stars and claim a personal fortune of US$38 billion?

We sat down with Jack Ma at the end of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit to China this week to ask him just that. It is no secret that Ramaphosa is hugely impressed by Ma’s trajectory to success, coming from a poor family, struggling to get an education, gainful employment, and yet becoming the most successful businessman China has ever seen.

Our President made a friend of Ma when he visited South Africa last month and was invited for a meeting at the President’s house. This week it was Ramaphosa who was invited to meet Ma in his hometown of Hangzhou, the picturesque city most famous for its stunning West Lake.

Just two years ago Hangzhou had hosted the G20 leaders who were mesmerized by the extraordinary ballet performance on the lake itself. Dancers floated across the lake on a slightly submerged platform, accompanied by a perfectly choreographed symphony of music, lights and water. The spectacle had stunned millions.

This week West Lake was the scene of perfect tranquillity, ironically home to the headquarters of one of China’s top companies, Alibaba - the brainchild of Jack Ma. Alibaba seems a strange name for a Chinese company, but Ma intentionally came up with a name which was globally recognisable.

Who hasn’t heard of Alibaba and the 40 thieves? The visionary company was born 19 years ago, starting out with 18 employees, and now employing 75000. The company’s expected worth this year is US$1 trillion.

Ma’s vision in 1994/95 had been to change the lives of his country’s rural poor for the better, and within two decades had not only transformed Chinese society in a major way but changed lives around the world, even in Africa. With 800 million living in rural China, 200 million of which were living on less than US$1 a day, Ma had wanted to make a difference.

When Ma started Alipay (a financial services platform), people said it was the stupidest idea, but today well over 800 million people are using it. Alibaba then became an e-commerce platform which enabled rural farmers and local businessmen to sell their products online. At the time they had lacked resources, access to local and international contacts, and had difficulty getting visas to attend trade shows. In essence, they needed to be empowered to bring their goods to the global marketplace.

Alibaba was just the platform to do so, much the way e-Bay had been for North Americans. For the first three years, Ma says his company did not earn US$1 in revenue, but when it took off it exploded. Everyone wanted to buy and sell online, and rural Chinese could access goods that were previously out of reach, and started to get orders from overseas for their products.

Ma had transformed the face of modern Chinese business, with farmers living in the hinterlands suddenly doing business on their mobile phones. This is the legacy of a simple man who grew up in the countryside of Hangzhou and had failed his exams at school, and who didn’t have money to access a good education. Ma claims to have tried to get a job 30 times but failed. Not even Kentucky Fried Chicken would hire him, nor would the local police. Despite all his setbacks, Ma never gave up on his dream, and would regularly go to the West Lake hotel to practise his English with foreign visitors. He repeatedly applied to study at Harvard but was rejected 10 times. Today Harvard would be lucky to have him teach there.

Ramaphosa has asked Ma to consider training young South Africans in e-commerce. Ma has accepted Ramaphosa’s invitation to attend the Investment Conference in October, and the two are planning to discuss in detail how Ma can contribute to training young people and women in South Africa, with the possible establishment of an Alibaba training centre.

It would be invaluable for our small and medium enterprises to sell their goods on the Alibaba platform. Ma’s team visited the Cape Flats last month which is struggling with an unemployment rate of 70%. The vision is to ultimately harness the captive talent of youth in places like the Cape Flats by training them in entrepreneurial skills and e-commerce.

Alibaba has proven just how much is achievable if we follow our dreams.

* Ebrahim is the foreign editor for Independent Media