by Ralph Staniforth, Monique Jacobs


South African business mogul and founder of Gunguluza Enterprises and Media Group (new GEM Group) Lebo Gunguluza is making his mark in the financial world. A firm believer in the potential of financial technology, his latest venture was the launch of Azar Digital Bank, the country’s first 100% black-owned digital bank.


Lebo Gunguluza has achieved a great deal during his business career but his journey to success was fraught with many challenges and experiences, which served as the pillars of his entrepreneurial empire.

Born in a shack behind a funeral parlour in a Port Elizabeth township, he was raised by a helper while his father and mother were studying in Natal.

Tragedy struck when his father passed away and his mother, who was a nurse, faced the responsibility of raising her children as a single mother.

“Those circumstances never deterred me from pursuing a meaningful life. I told myself that I will not allow my past to dictate my future, as long I have a new day tomorrow to change my future to what I want it to be, I will pursue that future, hence, I set long-term goals: when I finished my matric at 20, that at the age of 25 I must be a millionaire, at 35 I must be a multi-millionaire and at 45, I must be a billionaire,” Gunguluza explains.

He was motivated to continuously work harder, smarter and to think bigger in order to reach these goals, as poverty was something he did not wish to experience again.

“I remember when I made my first million at the age of 27—it was quite an achievement at the time as I was one of the youngest self-made millionaires at that time—through a certain youth project I had initiated. Because of my financial illiteracy and lack of business management skills, I blew all that money in the space of a year and went broke.

“My car was repossessed and I was chased out of my apartment—that taught me to respect a number of things, which, firstly, was cash. I learnt the hard way that ‘Cash is King’, and that it is difficult to build any business without cash in the bank,” he says.

The experience, he adds, taught him to better understand the customer in order to create a sustainable business, hence the ‘Customer is King’.

Over the years, he has grown to understand the importance of compliance in business, adding that “you cannot get paid by big organisations or the government if you are not compliant, no matter how connected you are”, hence the importance of business administration. He believes this is critical to the success of any entrepreneur.

“That is why I believe ‘Compliance is the third King’ and these three kings have been the pillar of my success,” he says.

Young entrepreneurs

For Gunguluza, it is heartening and encouraging to witness the high levels of innovation and a growing culture of entrepreneurship among young South Africans.

The challenge, however, is the lack of exposure to entrepreneurship in education.

“We need to educate, mentor and expose our youth to the various disciplines of entrepreneurship at a very young age, so that they understand various elements of business such as managing finances, human resources, building up a business case or pitching your business idea and so forth,” he says, adding that these aspects impact directly on the success of businesses and ideas for investment or raising capital.

A first for South Africa

Believing that the next logical step would be to move into the financial technology (FinTech) space,Gunguluza launched Azar Digital Bank last year as part of the FinTech division of the New Gem Group.

Since 2012, his company had been restructuring the Gem Group of companies in order to be a pioneer in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This journey started when he was exposed to a company in San Francisco that was running virtually online and turning over millions.

“I then decided to restructure the entire group to run mostly online and on mobile, as the future was heading there, hence the tagline of the New Gem Group is the ‘Future is Here’.

“We then started recruiting various young entrepreneurs to be part of our future through our 12-12-12 mentorship programme, and one young group of entrepreneurs had an idea of a digital bank that targets the youth (the new generation or the Millennials).

“I pursued the idea aggressively with the young team as it was in line with our new vision, and brought in a more experienced team to work with them to make this project a reality, until it was launched in December 2017,” he says proudly.

In the short term, the goal is to empower young people with financial education through this digital platform, by exposing them to areas of budgeting, financial planning, credit profile management etc., at a very young age.

Gunguluza says this will ensure that, in the long term as a country, we have a financially educated citizenry that knows and understands how to use financial instruments to their advantage and raise capital to build their businesses.

“We want the youth of South Africa, Africa in fact, to be global business players by participating effectively in the Fourth Industrial Revolution through the use of borderless banking and payment systems,” he explains.

Gunguluza believes there is sufficient space for growth and that in the near future, many more digital banks will go live. However, these banks will have different target markets as is already happening in Europe. “As Azar, we are targeting the youth of Africa, which is primarily black, and we understand them very well, all their likes, ambitions and challenges, and we would like to play a meaningful role in their financial and business success.

“Other banks will target high-net-worth individuals, others will target foreigners who struggle to open bank accounts in Africa, and others will target specialised groups, such as churches. There will be new players who target markets that they understand very well,” he says.

The bank’s website is currently live and serves to inform its target market about the products they intend to provide.

Gunguluza adds that they are currently working on the app user interface, which is a user experience (UX) design aimed at providing an unparalleled banking user experience—this will be launched in March 2018.

“Our team has a target of finishing the first phase of our backend (which is building and integrating core banking technologies) by the beginning of June so that we can be ready to showcase the first 100% black-owned youth digital bank in Africa. In the background, our other team is working very aggressively on the issue of compliance with the FSB, PASA and so forth,” he enthuses.

A question of safety

Over the years, banks have not always been synonymous with 100% safety, often due to the user’s own error. However, Gunguluza is quick to assure the security of digital banking.

“Digital banks are by far the safest banks to date, that is why current bricks and mortar banks trust payments that are made via mobile phones or apps rather than physical or online payments. There is too much room in those types of payments, as security features are not advanced. Mobile technology has brought in more advanced security features such as the biometrics technologies, face recognition technologies, international identity verification technologies etc., and all these technologies are integrated to provide a more secure banking experience,” he says, adding that they have complemented these technologies with a powerful team of security and fraud management experts to manage and track any fraudulent activity or hacking of the platform, and to deal with it effectively in order to elevate them to the status of the most secure banking platform.

The benefits of financial technology

FinTech is rapidly changing the financial space we live in and for the first time in the history of financial services, Gunguluza says Africans can now meaningfully participate in the global financial space using their experiences and creativity.

“There are now greater opportunities for venture funding than ever before for FinTech solutions. It is no longer about how deep your pockets are to participate in the financial services sector; it is more about your skill and creativity,” he says.

In the future, he describes banking as being run not by bankers, but by creatives and developers who create amazing, integrated banking experiences.

“Banking is no longer about providing financial services, it is now about understanding the banking customer and their needs, and to provide a platform that helps them to manage their finances and the world around them,” Gunguluza explains.

Essentially a borderless bank, he believes it will change and improve how cross-border transactions are conducted.

“It will be easier and faster to transfer funds in the near future for everyone. A number of FinTech solutions are available that are making transacting across borders more affordable, quick and seamless, and most digital banking platforms will integrate these technologies to create a better user experience on their platforms,” he says.

“With the advent of digital currencies, cryptocurrencies are here to rule the future of borderless transactions, and as a digital banking platform that plays in the digital economy, we are ready to create opportunities for greater borderless banking and payments options,” he adds.

Africa as a global player in the world arena

By participating effectively in the Fourth Industrial Revolution as global players, the future is no longer regional, it is global, says Gunguluza.

“We have missed opportunities from the other industrial revolutions, and the chances of catching up are minimal, based purely on the capital requirements to do so. What we have are the markets—Africa with its 1-billion consumers, we can create technologies and solutions that reach out to own those markets so that when the current owners of goods and services want to reach out to those markets, they will have to go via the local system or technologies,” he says.

Gunguluza explains that in this way we have a hold on the buying power, which is effectively what creates an economy.

“We can then dictate the selling price and the cost in order for most profits to remain with the local players, and in that way we are turning the wheels of fortune.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about owning the markets and big data, hence organisations such as Uber and Airbnb don’t own any of the products they supply but can still supply the products globally and make more money than the owners of the products or the manufactures,” he elaborates.


Cryptocurrency has been making news headlines in the past year, resulting in a wave of interest and research, as people attempt to better understand it.

According to Gunguluza, there is no stopping the global impact of cryptocurrency—blockchain technology is the future financial management system and will improve year-on-year and gain greater trust, as technology is fast moving.

Access to mobile peer-to-peer transaction platforms will gain strength, building a strong digital economy, which sooner than later will surpass the traditional money markets.

“In the next five years, most people will generally have access to smartphones and Wi-Fi, which then will be 5G, and they will live their lives on the smartphone. Digital transactions will be a normal part of their lives and they will have options on which currencies to use and will be able to convert currencies digitally to draw in any country, without visiting a currency exchange,” he explains.

This future will start eliminating traditional currencies and more people will start trading mainly in digital currencies, as these will be more flexible and cheaper to transact.

Last year, the first business deal was concluded where the majority shareholder bought out the other shareholder with the popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Gunguluza believes we will see many more transactions of this nature in the future and feels this will be a positive development for businesses and for people.

“That transaction is only the beginning, those who see the future are already preparing for it. The future is here, and if organisations are not ready, they must be worried. The financial world is changing very fast and currency is no longer what it was because it is now part of a growing digital economy. A few still have their reservations about cryptocurrency and a word of advice is that they must make it their business to understand how it will impact their businesses.

“Certain banks internationally have already created banking options in Bitcoin and other major cryptocurrencies. Other companies are already accepting payments in cryptocurrencies, and if an organisation has not yet prepared for this future, they stand a chance of losing huge revenues in the near future. Cryptocurrency has become a reality and is no longer just an excitement. Those who adapt quicker will benefit the most,” he concludes.

Late March 2018 will see Gunguluza launch Azar Digital Bank, and along with that will come Africa’s own cryptocurrency, named Afri, listed along with other African currencies.

“Launching a currency into a live environment feels like re-wiring a house with the electricity on! Every interaction with politics, civil societies and businesses in the development uncovers new ways to benefit Africa and free us from trading with the dollar and control by the West.

Azar is proud to be the founding partner bank with the Afri Project. If you’ve heard the rumours and want to help or gain more information on what’s coming visit” 

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