By Timothy Bukumunhe
in Kalangala, Sesse Islands
When Mark Shuttleworth ambled out of a make-shift Bedouin tent on the shores of Lake Victoria, in Kalangala, Sesse Islands, he did not look anything like the billionaire that he is.
He wore shorts and ordinary sandals that the average lay person would have on their shoe rack at home. Despite that, there were two things that made him stand out. His blue shirt was no ordinary shirt. It was a two-fold-double-cuffed shirt probably bought from Thomas Pink, the master shirt maker on Jermeyn Street in London. And hanging off his wrist was an expensive watch â€“ and though not a Rolex, it nevertheless looked expensive.
Until 32-year-old Suttleworth blasted off into space last April becoming only the second space tourist in the world, little was known of him outside South Africa, the country he hails from.
As he speaks to me, he commands presence. He is focused and though there is a lot happening outside the tent, he does not look beyond me to see what is going on.
Mark is the eldest of two brothers. His father is a doctor and his mother a teacher.
â€œWhile I was born into a middle â€“ upper class family, I did not have it all my way,â€ he says. â€œGrowing up in the apartheid era, I was struck by the blandness of the divide. I went to an independent school which was not sanctioned by the apartheid government and when Nelson Mandela was released, I was caught up between fear and excitement as to what the new South Africa might hold.
I was scared and excited by what the new South Africa had to offer.â€ Pausing for a while, he looks me straight in the eye and says that peace does bring dividends and stability and allows one to plan for years and to make investments.
â€œToday people are thinking forward but in the 80â€™s people had short-term thinking because of the fear for the future,â€ he adds.
It is easy to talk to Shuttleworth. There are no aides running around him, nor is there an incessant ringing cell phone in sight.
In South Africa his name as a business force came to prominence by his fascination with the internet in the mid 90â€™s. He studied finance and information technology at the University of Cape Town and went on to found Thawte, a company specialising in digital certificates and internet privacy. Thawte, he says began in his parentsâ€™ garage.
â€œI was looking for a place where my rent would be cheap and negotiated space with my parents to use their garage. But after going to university, the last thing my parents wanted to see me doing was working out of a garage. At one point my mother walked in with a cup of tea and as she looked around, she asked me: â€œso what is plan b?â€ Obviously she thought whatever it is that I was doing was not going to work out.â€
But it did work out for Shuttleworth. Four years later he went on to sell Thawte to a US company VeriSign in 1999, for a cool half a billion American dollars (sh911,563,340,000) and he was only 29 years old. With that kind of pay cheque, Shuttleworth had the world at his feet.
â€œDid you go out and buy the top of the range Porsche or Lamborghini sports car?â€ I ask him. Stretching out his legs he smiles and says no. â€œI know you will find this hard to believe but I do not own a car. My only luxury is my private jet (which he used to fly from London to Uganda and was parked at Entebbe Airport as I conducted the interview).â€
With that kind of money and an estimated daily income of $1,000,000 from various investments, stocks and shares, Shuttleworth had landed. He went on to found HBD Venture Capital and The Shuttleworth Foundation.
But he wanted more and what he wanted would financially set him back 20 million dollars. That dream was to go to space as a cosmonaut member of the crew of Soyuz mission TM34 to the International Space Station for 10 days. â€œI had to go to space before I died,â€ he says. â€œAnd before you go to space, you have to spend three weeks with Russian doctors and another year of training.â€
The moment I opened up my mouth to ask him how far it is to space, it sounded like a stupid question but nevertheless he did answer it. While I thought it takes hours or even days, Shuttleworth dismisses my thoughts. â€œIt only takes eight- and-a-half minutes and as the rocket blasted off, I was full of sublime peacefulness.â€ One thing he did not like about space was going from dusk to dawn every few minutes,â€ he says with a grin.
Getting back to his wealth, I ask him if he does his own banking. â€œI could easily ask an assistant to come to my apartment with a case full of money but I donâ€™t. I walk down to the ATM and draw my cash,â€ he says. Persisting I ask him if he ever looks at his balance and thinks to himself that he only has X amount of millions of dollars to survive on until the end of the month. He pauses and stretches out his legs and casually says â€œno.â€ Before I can ask the next question, he asks me if that is what I do. My heart starts to pound and I break out into a mini sweat. Shuttleworth has read my mind and he knows I donâ€™t have that much money on my account. How much is he going to give me? I look at his pockets for any sing of a bulging wallet. Nothing. Maybe his is going to give me a cheque for $100,000 or so. I tell him that is what I do and everything ends there. He simply says â€œohâ€.
Like the person next door, Shuttleworth has his fears which, is age and achievement. â€œI want to be the best 32 year oldâ€ he says.
Money obviously brings hangers on and scores of beautiful women and for that Shuttleworth has taken the precaution of building a shield around himself. Grinning, he says â€œI am singleâ€ but the way he says it, it implies he has dated scores of women but not found the ideal partner yet. As for those who just want to get cash out of him for doing nothing like I did earlier on in the interview, he just refers them to The Shuttleworth Foundation â€œwho get rid of the trash and send me the worthwhile proposals,â€ he says
Shuttleworth was in Uganda for the Africa Source II seminar on free and open source software. His next venture is the Ubuntu project in Asia.
Space billionaire visits Kalangala