LIVING & GIVING OUT OF AFRICA
Billionaire philanthropist Dan Olofsson talks life, love and championing sustainable entrepreneurship in the heartland of South Africa.
It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” An avid hunter and adventurer, the legendary writer’s love affair with the continent is one of literature’s greatest romances, ensconced in his nonfiction novel ‘The Green Hills of Africa’. Channelling Africa’s transfixing magic and mystique, Hemingway’s descriptions of his experiences filtered through the corners of the globe, including the hometown of Swedish billionaire, Dan Oloffson. However, unlike Hemingway, Dan’s fascination with the so-called cradle of life went beyond just hunting. Currently one of Africa’s biggest international benefactors, Dan and his wife Christin have helped change its social and environmental landscapes for the better. Now offering others the opportunity to experience this life-altering journey, Dan is inviting the public to see Africa through his entrepreneurial projects.
Larger Than A Lifetime
Born in Ekenäs, Finland, Dan Oloffson is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, business visionary and one of the leading names in the field of technology consulting. His journey to success began in the 1980s where, riding on the waves of the IT boom, he founded his first company Sapia, now known as the global consulting group Sigma. Building the company up from scratch, Dan piloted it to success, growing its employee numbers from zero to thousands and eventually exiting with a successful IPO. As Sigma evolved to become a leader in providing solutions and services in the IT sector, Dan cemented his status as a heavyweight in the industry. At the age of 51, he decided to step down from active management, taking on the role of chairman.
But his story does not stop there – far from it, in fact, as he details in his autobiography “Mina Tre Liv”, or My Three Lives. Segmenting his life into three distinct parts, Dan believes his journey began with his early life and marriage to Christin; moved on to his professional success and is currently at the part that has come to matter to him most – a series of expansive and dedicated “private life quality projects” rooted in philanthropy.
Growing up in Malmo, Sweden, Dan admits that he did not always have a penchant for business. “I grew up in a big family with four siblings. They educated themselves to teachers and nurses, and I became an engineer,” he recalls, before his career led him to become involved in management and consulting. “So business, IT and conservation came gradually during the last 30 years.”
His trajectory was not all easy pickings, however, with Dan having taken a significant risk by breaking away from a stable career and starting his own venture. As he explains, “Business always has a risk involved. I did not have capital, so of course I had to take some very calculated and high risks the early years. Now that we employ thousands of rather young, talented people who are building up their families, our appetite for risk is much lower because so many people are dependent on the well-being of the company.” However, the risk was all worth it, as Dan reflects, “After spending 12 years moving from the bottom to a management position, it was inspiring to have started from scratch. To see how long you can fly all by yourself – to build something, create something.”
Accompanying him through this journey was his wife and childhood sweetheart, Christin, who he met at the tender age of 16. Right from their first encounter, Dan was captivated by Christin’s beauty and charming nature, “but at that age, I did not know how to approach her,” he shares candidly. “So one day when we were out walking in the forest with friends, I decided to stop and tie my shoelaces; I told myself that if she stopped as well, it was a sign that she is interested. I stopped, she stopped. And 51 years later, we are still happily married.”
The couple tied the knot in 1973 and today, they are parents of four children and grandparents of nine. And it was together that they first ventured to and then began their ‘third life’ under the African sun.
After restoring their land to its native grandeur, Dana and Christin finally built their palatial-yet-sustainable home, Villa iZulu, which is also available for visitors to rent.
A Labour of Love
“We are always inspired by other people. Ernest Hemingway inspired me to go to Africa,” Dan reveals, initially following in the writer’s footsteps as a big game hunter in the late 1990s. But eventually, the thrill of the sport died down and he turned his attention to game-watching instead. From majestic elephants to regal lions and lithe cheetahs, South Africa’s biodiversity was truly an awe-inspiring revelation, as Dan shares, “You do not find this kind of wildlife anywhere else in the world.”
This combined with Dan’s affinity for the region’s nature and people finally resulted in his making a long-term commitment. “We bought land in South Africa, in Kwa Zulu Natal. It was such an amazing and beautiful expanse of land,” he reminisces. While the couple had initially planned on building a family retreat to escape the harsh Scandinavian winters, what resulted from their efforts was far more meaningful then they could have ever imagined.
Having bought hectares and hectares of what had once been a cattle farm, the couple began restoring the land into a natural habitat for big game animals. This included clearing the land and reforesting it, building dams and wells, and re-introducing thousands of animals with a skilled game manager to watch over them.
Realizing these efforts, the Zulu King, His Majesty Zwelithini Goodwill kaBhekuzulu, inked an agreement in 2005 to lease all of the surrounding ancestral lands, including his private sanctuary, to form the Mduna Royal Reserve – a move that enabled Dan to incorporate all of the vast tracts of land into a single massive private and protected game reserve named ‘Thanda’, the Zulu word for love.
Looking back at his efforts, Dan remarks, “Conservation was key for us as it is so important for future generations. Looking back at the 15 years of work behind Thanda Private Game Reserve gives me great pride.”
Conservation Meets Entrepreneurship
After significant restoration efforts, the Olofssons finally built the main house that, while palatial, was constructed with sustainable methods and materials to respect the land. The residence’s exquisite comforts and breath-taking surroundings proved so alluring that it was eventually opened as Thanda Safari, a lodge that has consistently won awards for being one of the world’s leading and most exclusive African destinations. As Dan explains, “The idea for Thanda Safari developed step by step over time. At first it was meant to be private land. Since our family cannot be there all the time, we built the lodge.”
The incredibly successful Thanda Safari was only the beginning however, and Dan’s thirst for entrepreneurship once again took over with the introduction of Thanda Royal Residences. “This is entrepreneurship. You start with something and the new ideas and opportunities will follow,” he states.
First suggested by CEO of the Thanda Group, Pierre Delvaux, Thanda Royal Residences began as an attempt to create private properties that would mirror the Olofssons’ dream lifestyle in Africa. The resulting project of 44 private villas is unparalleled in the lifestyle it offers, including luxury homes set in pristine African bushveld, close-up 24 hour access to spectacular wildlife and intimate affiliations with an exclusive club consisting of the Zulu King, Dan, and a number of influential personages.
“Thanda Royal Residences came about as a way for our family to share the fantastic experience we have enjoyed with our own villa,” says Dan. “It is a way for others to spend time with family and friends amidst the stunning backdrop of wildlife and nature; make new friends while meeting other members of the club, and participate in royal events and elite functions hosted by the Zulu King.”
While Thanda Royal Residences is shaping up to transform the South African property market, the Thanda estate is still primarily focused on conservation and preservation. By virtue of purchasing a Thanda Royal residence, each owner is also privy to Thanda’s expansive conservation and social efforts, and have the chance to personally contribute to them as well. “We will take responsibility for what we have,” Dan insists.
Dan presenting a statuette of the emblematic Hector Pieterson to Nelson Mandela, who Dan calls “South Africa’s Hero”.
The Third Life
While Dan’s entrepreneurial roots have certainly taken hold, his greatest contribution to Africa has consistently been his commitment to creating lasting and sustainable change in the region, culminating in the ‘Star for Life’ project. Built on the belief that the future of South Africa lies in the health and education of its youth, The Star for Life project was first stirred into existence when the couple witnessed for themselves the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS in the community. As Dan recalls, “We saw the HIV/AIDS catastrophe first hand. Some of our staff died because of it and we saw children whose parents had died of AIDS growing up without any parental guidance. So we started Star for Life as an AIDS prevention programme in 2005.”
The Star for Life Programme works to curb the AIDS epidemic in Africa by means of preventative education a has touched over 250,000 children so far.
While its focus is primarily on preventive education, the programme also supports youths by helping them develop a healthy level of self-esteem and belief in the future. “Over 250,000 students have gone through our programme so far. We have also been able to gain the backing of several corporate participants who are sponsoring their own schools,” reveals Dan.
Moving forward, he hopes to expand the Star for Life programme outside of South Africa, including Sweden. “For Sweden, our focus will not be on AIDS prevention but on strengthening self-esteem and optimism,” Dan explains.
Hoping to inspire more to do the same, he shares, “I have learnt by experience that you get back more from giving than receiving. Your assets should add value to your family and the society, not just your bank account.”
Having been together since the tender age of 16, Dan and Christin Olofsson are now Africa’s biggest power-philanthropy couple.
This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 46 - Nov 2017