Tim Steel: Copia CEO’s love affair with Africa

Tim Steel, CEO of Copia Global, studied history, played a bit of cricket and then studied accountancy, “which was a bit weird after studying history”.

He then became an auditor, which nearly killed him with boredom but when his brother, who was mentally and physically handicapped, suddenly died he quit his job.

Grief got him writing to a million NGOs and charity organisations in Africa, offering to work anywhere for free. “I wanted to do my part in correcting the injustices of humanity following my brother’s death.”

The Salvation Army replied and at 24, on a bleak and wintry night, he hopped on a jetplane from Heathrow Airport with his bleeding heart to the then frothing part of Africa; Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

But then things quickly went pear-shaped when forces mutinied against Mobutu Sese Seko, forcing him to flee to Kenya.

Here he ran out of money, got extremely broke and, like a responsible adult, started looking for a paying job.

His career started at TNT Worldwide (now FedEx) and over several decades they posted him in Cyprus, Dubai and South Africa and then back to Kenya.

He then joined Copia in 2017, “the best thing I ever did”. Copia — an e-commerce platform built for the African mass market — had 50 staff, 1,000 agents and 5,000 customers.

Now they have 55,000 agents, 600,000 customers, and about 1,700 staff.

“I fear not succeeding at Copia,” says Tim Steel rather ironically.

I’m curious about you, especially the green bracelet. What's the story here?

This is something they call the freedom band. I think the metal used to make these bands were recovered from gun metals in Mozambique.

The profits go towards disarmament and removal of weapons from different war-torn areas. I think that’s the story behind it, I’ve had it for a couple of years now.

What personal freedoms are you chasing currently?

(Chuckles) The biggest freedom that you have actually I think is your time. I mean everyone uses the cliché that time is the most valuable commodity, right?

But in reality, it really is because it’s the only thing that is finite in all of our lives, and it’s probably the thing that we least value. And what I find is I’m really good at using my diary or a calendar to plan my time.

I’m really good at segmenting things. And I think I’ve got the understanding that as soon as I’m in the workplace, my time is no longer my own. It belongs to everybody.

I’m adjusting that to get an hour to myself and to make time over the weekends to do the things that I enjoy. I think that’s always the biggest freedom.

How old are you now?


Has your perception of time of course changed with time?

I suppose so. I’m still in the belief that I’m immortal. (Chuckles) So no plans to retire. I think retirement is a highly overrated concept. I’m not that person that sees an impending end, and, therefore, I value time any more greatly than I’ve ever done.

I think I’m better at using time than I was before but I wouldn’t say I value it any more. I’ve just become better at using it.

You mentioned that what brought you to Africa was a sense of injustice towards your brother, care to elaborate on that?

I saw how society treated him, someone who was disabled mentally and physically. It was just not designed to look after him.

People have certain prejudices or a certain stigma, and it just made me think, you know what, everyone deserves an opportunity to be served by society, and therefore let me, at least for a period, do something to support that.

And in many ways, what we do with Copia is try to resolve some of the problems that underserved communities have had — a lack of access to goods, a lack of access to good prices, a lack of access to quality, inability to travel to bring goods back to them.

So we solved all of that. A lack of access to financial services.

Did your parents think you had lost your mind when you told them you were quitting your job and coming to Africa?

They were incredibly supportive. I don’t know if it’s something in the genes, but both of them, who come from working-class to middle-class backgrounds, come to Africa in the 1950s to find jobs with the government and just go out for an adventure.

So they were very encouraging. I don’t think that they thought at the time that would mean I’d never go back, I think they thought I was doing it for a couple of years. But they got used to it very quickly.

What’s the most common thing your British friends who have never been to Africa, ask you about living here?

They ask questions about safety and security. They ask questions about access to products and services. I guess 30 years ago, the questions around products and services were to some extent legitimate ones because we’ve become such a global society now that everything is available pretty much anywhere, to those that are lucky enough to be able to afford it.

So I think there are people who have visited and have been completely surprised and blown away by just the openness and richness of society in other places that I’ve lived.

And I’ve had some people who’ve visited virtually everywhere that I've lived, and I guess they’ve taken away something from each of those places.


You’re married?

I was, not anymore.


Two. 18 and 23. They’re both in the UK.

What’s the experience raising kids, you’re a bit of a free spirit I suppose?

A little bit, yeah. It’s been great to give them access to that diversity of experience. My daughter was born in Cyprus, and my son was born in Dubai, both of them effectively grew up in South Africa, then lived in Kenya for a chunk of time and are now back in the UK.

So they’ve had a very broad experience and seen things that otherwise they wouldn’t have done. They’ve grown up in a multicultural, educational environment, and just see people for who they are at face value, which I think has been great for them.

I think they’ve had the best of both worlds, because in the time that they've been growing up, we've had that globalisation, so they’ve had shared experiences with kids all over the world of their generation because of everything that they get on media.

What is happiness, according to you?

Happiness? I guess it comes back to fundamentals. Happiness is feeling safe and secure in your living and probably work because we all work so much in our living and work environment.

Happiness is always having something to look forward to. My mother is 91 now and is as bright as a button. But one thing I really value about her is she’s always creating something to look forward to, whether it’s the next mini holiday, or whether it’s a visit that she’s having from somebody in the family or a lunch that she has with one of the groups that she belongs to.

She’s always got that forward-thinking thing and I think I’ve always applied that, I think, especially in the last six years of building Copia.

What are you looking forward to in your 60s?

Oh yes. I will certainly be working and, I would say, still driving businesses. I love leading teams, and we’ve built an amazingly diverse team at Copia.

And I love creating and problem-solving. I’d like to be a board member of interesting and future-looking organisations, where I can help them to solve what they are describing and facing.

And also I’d like to, and this is where I haven’t done enough I would say, like to give more back to charitable organisations.

Because again, time is the most valuable asset that we have and I think I’d like to find more time, when I can, to focus on charitable endeavours as well. And, of course, I look forward to continuing to keep fit in my 60s.

Is fitness a very big part of your life?

Oh very big. I’m an active member of the 5 am club. I wake up, read for 20 or 30 minutes, head out for a run, hit the gym for 35 or 40 minutes, and then I’m up and ready to go.

So it’s very important to me. I generally manage five days a week. Something like that. I don’t do it on the weekends.

What are your fears now?

I think I fear not succeeding with Copia. Not turning it into that billion-dollar company. Having invested so much time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears into it.

I also fear for my kids. I think that the problems that are faced by kids these days in the world I think are different to the ones that I faced.

I fear climate change, and the impact that that’s it’s gonna have on all of them. And I find it hard to do anything about it. At a personal level, there are small things you can do, but I think it’s so out of most of our control.

And I really don’t think that we’ve got traction yet in solving it as a planet, and I think that’s the problem. Otherwise, I don’t have any personal fears.

I’m optimistic, pragmatic, and generally I think I’ll find a way to overcome whatever happens to me.

Are you religious or spiritual?

For somebody who worked for the Salvation Army, no. I’m not religious at all. Spiritual to some extent. So I believe that people and somehow the universe connects in a certain way that we don’t understand.

Is there anything else I'm forgetting that you thought I’d ask?

No. I don't think so really. I mean (chuckles) I thought you might ask me more about things like which football team I support. Not much of a football fan, I’m afraid.

Well, my team is Ipswich Town. However, I played for Railway Wanderers, which is probably one of the oldest football clubs in Kenya.

Back in the day when I joined, it was very much an expatriate kind of club, now it is completely Kenyan-run and operated, yet the same old philosophy of football, friendship and fellowship still exists.

Last November, was the 100th anniversary of the club so a bunch of us, the veterans, played against some veterans from AFC Leopards, guys who we had played against back in the 90s.

And it was great fun. We got completely whooped but it was great fun.


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