An unwavering love affair with enterprise at heart

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The Independent Online

Ever since Sir Richard Branson was introduced to Nelson Mandela by the musician Peter Gabriel in the late 1990s, the Virgin boss has developed what appears to be a heartfelt relationship with Africa.

In doing so, he has exported his brand of doing business to the continent. In 2009 he went on a three-day fast for Darfur. He has chided Marks & Spencer for a "food miles" policy that cuts out African farmers. He owns a chain of gyms in South Africa and a luxury safari lodge, Ulusaba, next to the Kruger Park. He has made airline and mobile phone forays into Nigeria.

More recently, he has stepped into political waters. Two weeks ago on his blog, he chastised the South African government for its failure to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend the 80th birthday party of Desmond Tutu.

His pledge to fund The Elders – a group of mediators chaired by the emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town – is said to have been the result of a conversation with Gabriel and Mandela in the 1990s. The group, which includes former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, came into being in July 2007. Its current campaign focuses on ending under-age marriage.

Last year, he launched Enterprise Zimbabwe – an investment fund that seeks to soothe the fears of risk-takers and philanthropists about putting money into the politically shaky country.

The Elders and Enterprise Zimbabwe are viewed with caution by African politicians suspicious of Western motives. Enterprise Zimbabwe looks to them like an attempt to undermine deals with China and other new investors. The make-up of The Elders, in the words of Zimbabwean ruling party politician Jonathan Moyo, "appears far too rightwing to be a credible negotiator with President Robert Mugabe".

In regular speeches, blogs and newspaper columns, Sir Richard praises what he sees as a can-do spirit in Africa. In 2005, he established his first Centre for Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg which has seen more than 100 young business people graduate.A second centre has just opened in Jamaica.