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Understanding the silent giants

by Tsitsi Mutendi

In Africa, we have seen that some of the strongest groups of Family Businesses are grown in the Indian-African communities. These families came through the results of the various histories of the continent. Be it the slave trade or the colonial expansion. The earliest accounts of the Indian presence on the eastern coast of Africa are found in the Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, written in the first century AD by an anonymous author.

Through this and other writings, it is evident that Indian merchants had been plying their trade through the Indian Ocean since the days of ancient Babylon, and had even established trading posts along the coast of East Africa. Although some believe that the people of Indian origin in the East African region are descendants of the laborers who built the Kenya-Uganda railway, this is not actually the case. About 32,000 indentured workers were brought in from India – mainly Sikhs from Punjab – to build the railway, but the majority returned to India after their contracts ended. Only about 7,000 chose to stay.

The railway opened up East Africa for trade, and large numbers of “free” emigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, mainly from Gujarat, followed in the years after the Sikh laborers had left. They set up trading posts deep in the interior and became the traders and merchants of East Africa. A similar trajectory is found in South Africa, where slaves and indentured laborers were the first people of Indian descent to settle in South Africa, working as domestic and agricultural workers in the sugarcane plantations of Natal Colony. Later, they were joined by “free” emigrants, a community of traders who hailed mainly from Gujarat.

South Africa is home to the largest population of people of Indian descent in Africa, at 1.3 million, mainly in Durban. In fact, Durban is sometimes called the “largest Indian city outside India” – although this claim has not been determined conclusively. Large Indian populations are also found in Mauritius, where they number an estimated 715,000, or 60 percent of the population, and Reunion, at 220,000 or a third of the population. East Africa is also home to many diaspora Indians. In Kenya, people of Indian descent number about 100,000, in Tanzania, they come to about 90,000, and in Uganda, 15,000.

Looking at the resilience of Indian families in Africa

We have seen a lot more of this demographic of family business succeed as they have adopted the continent as their home and have provided solutions for the spaces they are in. Their societal and psychological growth is different from the indigenous African families. By the 1950s, people of Indian descent in East Africa numbered 360,000. In East Africa, many had joined black Africans in the fight for labor rights and had set up newspapers agitating for greater representation.

In 1972, military dictator Idi Amin announced the expulsion of all persons of Asian origin in Uganda, then numbering about 60,000, and their property was expropriated. The majority of those expelled went to the UK, Canada and Kenya. Some returned to Uganda after 1981 when Milton Obote returned to be the leader of the country, but most returned after 1986 when Yoweri Museveni became president and welcomed them back. 

For Ashish J. Thakkar, a young Ugandan entrepreneur, his family was among those expelled by Amin in 1972, and they settled in Britain, then moved to set up business in Rwanda in 1992. But two years later, the Rwandan genocide forced them to flee a second time, and the family settled once again in Uganda, where Thakkar began to try his luck in business in 1996. Today, that small trading operation has grown into the Mara Group, a diversified conglomerate with approximately $100 million in revenues. Mara Corporation is a multi-sector business services company. It operates in the technology, financial services, manufacturing, real estate and agriculture industries. The company is now active in 24 countries and employs over 11,000 people.

Groupe Rawji in the Democratic Republic of Congo has more than 7,000 employees and started operating in 1902. Rawji Group is a leading diversified conglomerate based in this country. The group operates as a dominant force in the financial services, distribution, FMCG manufacturing, and real estate sectors. Mustafa Rawji, a fourth-generation member, works with his family on the corporate board. Businesses include Rawbank, Beltexco (DRC’s largest trading company), Prodimpex, Hexagon, Parkland, and Marsavco, plus a significant stake in CIMKO. This cement plant aims to provide the country with a reliable and stable source of cement supply. 

It all began at the turn of the 20th century when an Indian entrepreneur called Merali Rawji set sail for Africa and started doing business in Tanzania before moving to the Belgian Congo in 1908. There, he set up a small trading operation called Rawji Fils in the eastern city of Kindu in 1910 and then expanded into Stanleyville, a riverside trading hub now called Kisangani and the country as a whole thereafter. Over the decades that followed, Merali’s three sons Taki, Fidahussein and Pyarali took over the reins, and when the Congo became independent in 1960, the Rawjis expanded into Kinshasa.

For four generations, the Rawji family has been investing in Congo.  As a pioneer but also visionary, the members of the Rawji family remained in the country during the various crises that flooded history, while so many others left it. They constantly reinforce their presence, aware that Congo, with impressive human and economic potential, would be called upon to play a leading role sooner or later at the heart of the global economy. Merali Rawji, is  the grandfather of the current chairman.

Madhvani Group is from Uganda with revenue in excess of $1 billion. It employs more than 10,000 and was started in 1914.  In 1914, Muljibhai Madhvani acquired a piece of land in Kakira, a small commercial town in Eastern Uganda, with which he established a sugar factory. That sugar factory, Kakira Sugarworks, is today the largest producer of sugar in the East African region, producing an estimated 165,000 metric tonnes of sugar annually and employing over 8,000 people. It is also the flagship company of the Madhvani Group, a large conglomerate that owns numerous hotels, tea estates, construction, insurance, and distribution companies. It also owns and operates the Kakira Airport. Muljibhai Madhvani’s youngest son, Mayur Madhvani, currently holds the reins as CEO of the group, a position he assumed after his elder brothers passed away.

Mayur has played a crucial role in revitalizing the group and is responsible for diversifying Madhvani’s interests from manufacturing to service-related industries. His younger daughter is being groomed to take over. The group has investments in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, the Middle East, India, and North America. Family figures in the business include Muljibhai Madhvani, Jayant Madhvani, Manubhai Madhvani, Pratap Madhvani, Surendra Madhvani, and Mayur Madhvani.

Export Trading Group in Kenya is owned by The Mahesh Patel family whose revenue was more than $2.9 billion (in 2016). The business has over 7,000 employees. Export Trading Group (ETG) is a diversified agricultural conglomerate specializing in farming, trading, and processing agricultural commodities. Mahesh Patel founded the company in 1967. While he was growing up, Mahesh helped out after school at his father’s small grain shop in Nairobi, Kenya. Sometimes, he ran the store by himself, attending to customers buying soaps, grains, and oils. After college in India, Mahesh returned to Nairobi and eventually joined the British-owned Export Finance Company as an auditor.

In 1981, with the help of friends and family, he purchased 100 percent of the shares of the debt-ridden company, whose employers had decided to wind up. Mahesh had seen the immense value in its supply chains. Instead of selling British imports across Africa, the chains could be reversed to flow exports out of Africa. Nearly 40 years later, that company, now known as Export Trading Group, has grown into one of Africa’s most powerful agricultural conglomerates.  ETG  owns and manages a vertically integrated supply chain across five continents (48 countries).

ETG has emerged as one of Africa’s largest agricultural conglomerates. Patel serves as its chairman and chief executive. Mahesh and his wife Rekha Patel have three children, Disha, Nina, and Jai, all of whom are involved in ETG in different capacities. Again showing the power of intergenerational wealth, Mahesh learned from his father and is now passing it on to his own children.

Bidco Africa is a Kenya-based multinational conglomerate founded in 1970 by Bhimji Depar Shah and his family to manufacture garments. Over the years, the group has grown to become East Africa’s leading FMCG company. With more than 40 brands, it is the largest producer and marketer of consumer goods in the region. Its revenue is in excess of $500 million and it employs over 25,000. Its headquarters is in Thika, Kenya, with subsidiaries and distributors across 17 countries in East Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa. Its products include edible oils, fats, margarine, laundry bars, and detergents, personal care products, animal feeds, and food and beverages. 

Bhimji is the son of a dhow trader, and he ventured into business while still a teenager. The entrepreneur moved to Nyeri where he started and operated a petrol station. Bidco Industries Limited was founded in 1970 for the purpose of manufacturing garments. In 1985, the company began manufacturing soaps. Six years later, they ventured into the manufacture of edible oils and opened a plant in Thika. Bhimji’s son, Vimal Shah, serves as CEO and his other son Tarun Shah also works in the business as the group’s executive director.

As we can see from the stories above, resilience and innovation, and focus on solving current problems have been key to the success of these entrepreneurial families. They have been unafraid to enter industries they had no experience in and are willing to roll up their sleeves to learn and create the industries. Some tools we can adopt from them are: 

  1. Multigenerational can be a powerful transition tool
  2. Each generation brings their current world view and can steer the family business into the future.
  3. Even in the most extreme environments, family businesses can still grow and navigate through the rough waters of life.

Tsitsi Mutendi is a co-founder of African Family Firms, an organization that aims to facilitate the continuity of African family businesses across generations. She is also the lead consultant at Nhaka Legacy Planning and the host of the Enterprising Families Podcast.

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