Two sharp jabs of failure – one on a golf course and another during a telephone call in New York – helped make Mohammed Dewji the rampant African entrepreneur that he is.
The first came on a golf course in the United States (US) when he realized he was not going to be the next Tiger Woods. Dewji had a handicap of three when he was still at school; his father spotted this and enrolled him in the prestigious Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida.
“I won the regional competitions, but when we got to the national competitions I saw younger players hitting the ball further and straighter than me and I decided I wasn’t going to make it,” says Dewji.
Instead he went to study theology in Georgetown University – an alma mater of former US president Bill Clinton.
“While other students tried to stay awake through discussions of exchange rates, Dewji would stay after class to talk about how the readings might pertain to the Tanzanian shilling, 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,” recalls Pietra Rivoli, Deputy Dean of the university’s school of business, who taught Dewji international finance.
The second stab of failure, that proved a prod towards the road home to Africa, came during a telephone call from New York to his father back in Dar es Salaam. By this time, Dewji had a job on Wall Street.
“I asked my father for money to buy a suit. He said if I couldn’t afford a suit it was time for me to come home and work for him!” chuckles Dewji.
The return came in 1999 to the family trading house that his grandmother founded, in the mud and sand family home, in the poor town of Singida, in central Tanzania. This is the humble home where Dewji was born and was very lucky to survive the delivery.
“My mother and I almost died because I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” Dewji told FORBES AFRICA in a cover story in 2013.
Dewji’s father, Gulam Dewji, had built the family business into a prosperous import and export operation called MeTL. Fresh from the US, Dewji learned the ropes studiously and his father handed him the reins and a $1-million loan, with a promotion to CEO, at the age of 29. He set to work transforming MeTL into a pan-African conglomerate with operations in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique that clocked up $1.4 billion in revenue. He bought up loss-making government textile and edible oil plants, leftovers from the country’s great socialist industrial plans, and turned them around. He now owns the biggest edible oil refinery in Africa and runs a diversified group that distributes and manufactures everything from soap to fruit juice.
A snapshot of the shrewd deals of Dewji is the purchase of his sisal processing plant. At the time, it was running at break even with prices of around $300 a ton for sisal that is used to make everything from ropes to coffee bags. Dewji reckoned his production costs were going to go up from $300 to around $700, but also had an idea that prices too were also going to rise. So they did, to $2,100, so now MeTL is exporting 8,000 ton a year at a handsome profit.
It is this kind of instinct that has led MeTL into the competitive fuel market in Tanzania. In a mere three and a half years of operation, the company has become one of the country’s top three suppliers.
It is all part of the Dewji plan to set up in Kenya, Rwanda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Burundi, Ghana and Nigeria by 2022. A move that he believes will increase his workforce from 24,000 – about 5% of Tanzania’s formal employment – to 100,000. This will translate into revenue of $5 billion for a group that Dewji owns 75% of. It could propel him towards his goal of becoming Africa’s richest man.
With such a sharp, shrewd eye for business, many could ask why Dewji is willing to risk a spectacular defeat by going toe-to-toe with one of the world’s best known names – Coca Cola. Taking on the giant of the fizzy drink business has proved the graveyard of many a hard-nosed billionaire entrepreneur: including British tycoon Richard Branson whose Virgin Cola was counted out in the first round.
Dewji has been in the soft drink and juice business for a while and has the machinery for mass production.
When, a couple of years ago, he launched his cheekily named Mo Cola in Tanzania – his friends call him Mo – Coca Cola pricked up its ears in a market where it holds 96%. Dewji claims Coca Cola offered to buy him out and he refused.
“My dream is to have a drink brand that is bought across the whole of Africa,” says Dewji.
The fizzy drink war in Tanzania is slow going. Dewji turns out 12 million bottles a month at his three bottling lines in Dar es Salaam and yet has managed to capture a mere 3.5% of the market. Not that it worries this all-or-nothing entrepreneur.
“Once I can get to 15%, I will start making money,” he says.
Away from business, Dewji gives $500,000 every year to help the poor in his hometown of Singida.
“He’s very popular and a huge inspiration to many young people,” says Salim Kikeke, the BBC correspondent in Dar es Salaam.
In the future, he hopes to channel $100 million of his fortune to help others.
“Life is very short. I don’t want to die with all this money,” he says.
When FORBES AFRICA put Tanzania’s richest man on our cover in July 2013, many people asked who he was. In the next decade, fewer and fewer people are likely to ask the same question about the humble entrepreneur who could very well become Africa’s richest man.