.At the age of 38, Mohammed Dewji employs 24,000 people and claims to contribute 3.5% to Tanzania's GDP. Within the next 5 years, he plans to build a $5 billion empire out of Dar es Salaam.
by Kristin Palitza
What most entrepreneurs don’t achieve in a lifetime, he did in just over a decade. Mohammed Dewji single-handedly turned his father’s trading business into Tanzania’s largest import-export group. He grew Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania (MeTL) 30-fold and increased revenues from $30 million to $1.1 billion by diversifying into a multitude of sectors, including manufacturing, distribution, logistics, financial services, real estate, cement, energy and mobile telephony.
It’s not surprising that many people have a hard time imagining the humble beginnings Dewji comes from. His family, which stems from Gujarat state in western India and was blown in the proverbial dhow across the Indian Ocean, started out with very little. His grandmother opened a small trading shop, which she runs out of their home in Singida, a poverty-stricken town in central Tanzania. In this simple house, built from sand and mud, Dewji was born with the help of a traditional midwife.
“That wasn’t very smart. My mother and I almost died because I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” he recalls. But from then on, his fortunes changed.
His father, Gulam Dewji, who had by the mid-70s turned his mother’s shop into a flourishing import-export business, was able to sent his six children to good schools, first in Tanzania’s third-largest city Arusha and later in capital Dar es Salam. In their free time, Dewji and his siblings played tennis and golf.
“My father spent a lot of money educating us. He also believed sport creates discipline. He didn’t want us to just play a sport for fun. He wanted us to push ourselves. We probably have a thousand trophies at home that we won,” he says.
Until this day, there is almost nothing Dewji undertakes purely as a hobby. He either aims for success, or he doesn’t bother with it. And so he ploughs millions of Dollars into Tanzania’s national soccer team, the Taifa Stars instead of being content watching the odd game or kicking around a ball on a Sunday.
“I have no moderation. My wife always complains. She says, ‘Mohammed, why don’t you do things in the middle?’ It’s either very much or nothing at all,” he laughs.
His favorite sport has always been golf. Dewji spent many afternoons on Dar es Salaam’s golf course, not only because he was good it – he had 3 handicap – but also because he realized from early on that many high-profile business deals are concluded on the world’s 18-hole-lawns.
“I already liked to network as a very young guy. I was told that the golf course is a good place to meet important people. So I started playing golf. At one time, I even wanted to become a golf professional,” he says.
When his father saw that his son showed potential, he enrolled him at the legendary Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida, where Dewji also attended Saddlebrook High School. A few years later, when it became clear that Dewji wasn’t going to make the cut as a professional golfer, he decided to study international business and finance with a minor in theology at Georgetown University, an elite tertiary institution in Washington D.C., which has a long list of notable alumni, including former US president Bill Clinton, former Philippines president Gloria Arroyo and Jordan's King Abdullah.
During his time at Georgetown, Dewji learned what he says were key lessons in leadership. “Georgetown really molded me. It took me a step forward. I understood that you need to be dreaming, but not daydreaming. You need to try to dream a reality. Then you have vision,” he explains.
Pietra Rivoli, deputy dean of Georgetown University’s school of business, who taught Dewji in international finance, remembers him as a student whose energy was boundless and whose positive enthusiasm was contagious.
“While other students tried to stay awake through discussions of exchange rates, Mohammed would stay after class to talk about how the readings might pertain to the Tanzanian Schilling, and how Tanzania could address its economic challenges. Even at the age of 20 or so, he was thinking about how to improve life in his country,” she remembers.
Dewji never questioned if he should return to Africa after his graduation in 1998. He joined his father’s business, which had by then become a million Dollar trade and transport group, as chief financial controller. Five years later, at the age of 29, he was promoted to managing director, expanding his father’s business hard and fast. “I went into manufacturing and value-addition. I built a distribution system and created branches,” he says.
Today, MeTL Group is buying and selling more than 200 commodities in east, central and southern Africa, from sugar to rice, salt, fertilizer, second-hand clothing, motorcycles, bubblegum, yeast and ballpoint pens. The group also distributes 50 of its own brands, taking advantage of the fact that Tanzania borders on eight countries and is thereby an ideal import-export gateway.
“The goods that I am mainly dealing in are FMCGs [fast moving consumable goods]. It’s goods that touch people’s lives, that are needed by the common man,” he says.
The distribution of FMCGs is not an easy task in a vast country like Tanzania, which measures a million square kilometers and where 80% of the population lives in remote, rural areas. But with more than a hundred trade outlets countrywide, MeTL Group has managed to undercut multi-national consumer goods giants like Unilever and drive them out of the east African nation.
“I have a big basket of goods. I have warehousing and logistics. I have over a thousand trucks. It’s all complimenting each other. It’s very difficult for people to come from the outside and compete with me,” Dewji explains.
He invests in whatever sector he sees opportunity and growth potential. Or to say it differently: the only two industries Dewji is not involved in are beer and tobacco.
Agriculture is another key sector for MeTL Group, which with a workforce of 24,000 people is also the country’s biggest employer, and with 50,000 hectares of arable land, the largest private landowner. Dewji’s sisal farms, tea gardens and cashew fields are the drivers of his FMCG export business. A good 99% of the cashew kernels he produces, for example, are shipped to the United States.
Always thinking two steps ahead, Dewji has been making plans for how to profit most from his land, while helping to solve the challenges of Dar es Salaam’s rapid urbanization, a city of 4.4 million people. He is busy turning a 17,000 acre plot he bought cheaply several years ago, just 25 kilometers outside of the capital, into a dry-port with an internal container depot and a railway connection that will feed into Dar es Salaam’s massive, natural harbor, which is slowly but surely running out of space. It will, of course, also generate huge profits.
Since MeTL Group already contributes 3.5% of Tanzania’s GDP, it is fast outgrowing national boundaries.
“If you compare, for example, Tata and the MeTL Group, we are like Mickey Mouse. But if you look at their contribution to India, vis-à-vis my contribution to Tanzania, mine is bigger. You end up competing with everybody in your own country, and I don’t think that’s healthy. It’s a risk area. It’s a good time for us to replicate what we are doing in Tanzania in other countries,” he explains his expansion plans.
A workaholic at heart, Dewji never thinks small. “Slowly, slowly, I am planning to take on the whole continent. I am very bullish,” he says about himself. His five-year-plan is to turn MeTL Group into a $5 billion empire.
“We have to constantly revisit our visions, because we are outgrowing them so quickly. Who would have thought we could turn our business from $30 million to $1.1 billion in only 12 years? I believe that by 2018, we will be a $5bn business. Easy. It’s a no-brainer. If you look at the business we are in and the growth potential that there is, it’s amazing. My philosophy as a businessman is not to be satisfied with what I have got, but to always work harder to achieve more,” he says.
It’s been quite some years now that MeTL Group, under Dewji’s helm, has expanded so drastically that it has outgrown the loan potential of Tanzania’s banks. Dewji has found a solution to this problem, too. He goes to one of the continent’s powerhouses, South Africa, to finance new ventures. Most recently, he secured a $100 million syndicated loan through a grouping of banks.
“If I think of a top African businessman, Mohammed comes to mind. He works very long hours, is always on the move, has an eye for opportunity and a very good business sense. He is levelheaded and pays extremely close attention to detail,” says Helmut Engelbrecht, head of Investment banking in Africa at Standard Bank, one of the financial institutions that has been working closely with MeTL Group.
Whatever venture Dewji pursues links closely into his country’s national policy framework. When Tanzania’s government launched a national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction in 2005 that was geared, among other things, towards boosting entrepreneurship to achieve value addition and employment creation, Dewji immediately saw opportunity.
“I bought a lot of sick industries, including soap production, grain milling, rice and sugar blending. I also went into the edible oil business and the textile industry,” he says.
He first expanded MeTL Group’s edible oil refining capacity from 60 to 600 tons. This year, Dewji almost quadrupled the business when he purchased an additional 1,650-ton refinery, increasing his total output to 2,250 tons of edible oil. It comes as little surprise that he has caught the attention of some of Africa’s wealthiest investors.
“I am being approached by many big boys, by multi-national companies that want to partner with me or buy me out. But I am not ready to sell yet. I can see so much more opportunity for growth. I don’t want to be paid based on what I am earning today, because I can see the tremendous potential. I am always looking five, ten years ahead,” he explains.
Another ailing sector Dewji rescued is Tanzania’s textile industry. Knowing that the east African nation is the continent’s third largest cotton producer, he decided to buy and refurbish four run-down mills, three in Tanzania and one in Mozambique. His next step will be to move into Zambia and Malawi, he says, considering Ethiopia as a potential fifth standpoint.
“We were quite lucky. Tanzania’s previous, socialist government had invested hundreds of millions of Dollars in infrastructure to build textile mills. But under socialism everything collapsed. So we were able to acquire these industries very cheaply. Obviously the machinery was all run-down, the technology obsolete. We had to rehabilitate the mills by investing in top European and American machinery,” says Dewji.
He has turned MeTL Group into sub-Sahara Africa’s largest textile player, integrating the entire value-addition chain from ginning to spinning, weaving, processing and printing.
“This year, we are going to produce more than a hundred million meters of cloth. That is more than 2,500 times the circumference of the earth,” Dewji says with pride.
Due to his entrepreneurial vigor, Tanzania is able to compete with the world’s largest and cheapest textile producer, China – at least within its own borders where government policies, including import tariffs on textiles and a standard value added tax (VAT) of 18% help protect the industry.
“Today, overall textile production is cheaper in Tanzania than in China. Labor is competitive in terms of pricing. Tanzania’s big advantage is that we have cotton, while China has to import cotton. So they cannot compete with me in my market,” Dewji explains.
His success speaks for itself. This year alone, he will earn at least $85 million after taxes, he says. But he is far too humble to take credit for the entirety of his achievement.
“People often ask me: ‘Who is smarter, you or your father?’ I ask them back: ‘Is the person who goes from zero to ten smarter, or someone who goes from ten to a thousand?’ Obviously, it’s much easier to go from ten to a thousand than to start from zero. So I believe that my father is much smarter than me,” he says.
Nothing could be further from his mind than taking it easy, or even early retirement.
“People in Tanzania look at my wealth and think I must be sunbathing and playing golf all day. But I work really hard. I put in a hundred hours a week. It’s a never stopping game. You can never say, ‘I’ve worked hard enough now’,” says Dewji, who has 60 divisional board meetings every month, or two per day.
Every morning, Dewji, who lives in with his wife, daughter and two sons in one of Dar es Salaam’s best neighborhoods, starts work at 6AM, spending the first hour responding to emails and reading commodity reports. He then runs meetings until lunch, by which time he has already put in almost seven hours of work.
“When I feel my energy levels starting to drop, I drive to the gym near my house. Every day, I run three kilometers and lift weights. I like to keep fit,” says Dewji, who is of slender built and the proud owner of a ‘six-pack’.
After gym, he goes home for lunch and to play 15 minutes with his three children before he returns to the office until late at night. The only days he takes off are Sundays, he says, when he spends time with his family and totally shuts off from work.
“Until about four years ago, I also used to work on Sundays, until my wife almost divorced me,” he jokes.
Dewji is not only growing his own empire. He is putting Tanzania on the map, making sure the east African nation – which boasts the continent’s third largest gold reserves, recently discovered uranium and gas reserves as well as a flourishing tourism industry combined with long-term political stability – will become one of sub-Sahara Africa’s big economic players, together with South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
Already, Dar es Salaam is the second fastest growing African city after Lagos. And Tanzania, which boasts an average of 7% national economic growth over the past decade, has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. According to World Bank, Tanzania’s per capita GDP more than doubled from $730 in 2000 to $1,500 in 2012.
“There’s no doubt that the country’s purchasing power is increasing,” notes Dewji, who believes the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, which currently has an overall growth rate of 4.8%, could achieve double-digit growth figures if countries are well-governed, politically stable and create conducive environments to attract investment.
As if Dewji didn’t already have enough on his plate, he is also in politics. The decision was made when he visited Singida, the town and district he grew up in, after returning from the US. As he walked the city’s streets, he encountered an old man who was scooping yellowish water out of a dirty puddle. It was his family’s only access to drinking water.
“A lot of people die from water-born diseases in rural Tanzania. But every life has the same value. So I decided to run in the next elections to change the dire situation these people live in. I was 24 years old. My parents thought I was crazy,” he remembers.
Whatever Dewji sets his mind to, he turns into a success. In 2005, he was elected as a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly of Tanzania. Five years later, he was re-elected in a landslide victory with 80% of votes. Not being a fan of ‘politicking’, Dewji, who is fluent in both English and Kiswahili, says he decided to put his own spin on the role of an MP.
“I don’t really have time for politics. I don’t go to parliament, and I don’t get involved in national politics, because I don’t want it to conflict with my business interests. All I do is serve my constituency because I believe people see hope in me,” he explains.
He puts his money where his mouth is. Every year, he donates half a million Dollars of his own money to help the people of Singida, with focus on three areas: education, health care and water. And with tangible success. In years Dewji has been representing the central Tanzanian district, access to clean water has jumped from 23% to 75%, while the number of secondary schools increased from two to 18.
“I studied theology as a minor because I feel that religion is complimenting me. It makes you strive to become a better person. I am very conscious of everything I do. If you get too engrossed in making money, you lose focus on life. Life is very short. I don’t want to die with all this money,” he explains.
Even though he makes millions, he has little interest in living a life of utter luxury, employing only a driver, a butler and private security.
“You have to live well, but you don’t have to live lavishly to the extreme. You need to be humble. I could buy a plane, a Rolls Royce or a Bentley. But I don’t. If drilling a borehole costs $20,000, you tell me to buy a watch for $20,000? To make a decision that has an impact on people’s lives is a one-second decision for me. If you get too egocentric, you lose your vision. It deceives you.”