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 everything from cement and real estate to energy and mobile telephony. The man claims to be worth at least $1.3 billion; as the company is not listed, it is difficult to make an independent estimate.
It’s not surprising that many have a hard time imagining the humble beginnings of Dewji. Legend has it that his family, who stem from Gujarat state in western India, were blown in a dhow across the Indian Ocean, landing in Zanzibar with very little. They moved south and his grandmother opened a small trading shop 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 midwife from around the corner.
“That wasn’t very smart. My mother and I almost died because I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” he says.
His father, Gulam Dewji—who had, by the mid-1970s, turned his mother’s shop into a flourishing import-export business— was able to send his six children to good schools. First, in Tanzania’s third-largest city, Arusha, later in the 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 as a hobby. He either aims for success, or doesn’t bother. And so, he plows 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 says.
His favorite sport has always been golf. Dewji spent many afternoons on Dar es Salaam’s golf course, not only because he was good at it, he had a three handicap, but also because he realized, from early on, that many high-profile business deals are concluded on the world’s 18-hole courses.
“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. The University has a long list of alumni: former American 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 says.
Pietra Rivoli, deputy dean of Georgetown University’s school of business, who taught Dewji international finance, remembers him as a student with boundless energy.
“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 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,” says Rivoli.
Dewji never questioned whether he should return to Africa, after graduating 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, after expanding his father’s business swiftly.
“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 exports 50 of its own brands, taking advantage of the fact that Tanzania borders eight countries.
“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 easy in a vast country such as Tanzania, which measures one million square kilometers and where 80% of the population lives in far-flung villages. But with more than 100 trade outlets countrywide, MeTL Group has managed to undercut multi-national giants such as Unilever and drive them from the market.
“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,” says Dewji.
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, with 50,000 hectares of arable land, it is the largest private landowner. The company employs 24,000 people, making it the country’s biggest employer. Dewji’s sisal farms, tea gardens and cashew fields are good money makers. Nearly all the cashew kernels are shipped to the United States.
Always thinking two steps ahead, Dewji has been planning how to profit from his land, as Dar es Salaam, a city of 4.4 million people, grows quickly. He is turning a 17,000 acre plot, which he bought cheaply several years ago, 25 kilometers outside the capital, into a dry-port with an internal container depot. A railway connection will feed into Dar es Salaam’s massive 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, according to Dewji, 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 says.
A workaholic at heart, Dewji rarely thinks small.
“Slowly, slowly, I am planning to take on the whole continent. I am very bullish,” he says.
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 $5 billion 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.
The MeTL Group, with Dewji at the helm, has expanded so drastically that it has outgrown the coffers of Tanzania’s banks. Dewji has found a solution. 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 working with the MeTL Group.
Every venture Dewji pursues, links closely into his country’s national policy. When Tanzania’s government launched a national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction in 2005, that was geared toward entrepreneurship, Dewji 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 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 to 10 years ahead,” he says.
Another ailing sector Dewji tried to resuscitate 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 steps will be 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,” says Dewji.
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,” says Dewji.
His success speaks for itself. This year, he will earn at least $85 million after taxes, he says.
“People often ask me: ‘Who is smarter, you or your father?’ I ask them back: ‘Is the person who goes from zero to 10 smarter, or someone who goes from 10 to a thousand?’ Obviously, it’s much easier to go from 10 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.
“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 with his wife, daughter and two sons in one of Dar es Salaam’s exclusive neighborhoods—starts work at 6AM, spending the first hour responding to emails and reading commodity reports. He 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 slender and the proud owner of a six pack.
After gym, he goes home for lunch and to play with his three children, for 15 minutes before he returns to the office until late at night. The only day he takes off is Sunday, when he spends time with his family.
“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, as well as recently discovered uranium and gas reserves—will become one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s big economic players, alongside South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
Already, Dar es Salaam is the second fastest-growing African city after Lagos. 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 the 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,” says 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 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, where he grew up, after returning from the United States. As he walked the city’s streets, he encountered an old man who was scooping yellowish water out of a dirty puddle. It was drinking water for his family.
“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 says.
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 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 says.
He puts his money where his mouth is. Every year, he donates $500,000 of his own money to help the people of Singida. In the years Dewji has been representing the central Tanzanian district, the number of people with clean water has increased from 23% to 75%, while the number of secondary schools from two to 18.
“I studied theology as a minor because I feel that religion is complementing 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 says.
In the meantime, he is a man who can afford to look good.
“I have a huge wardrobe of suits and over 200 glasses. I like to match the frames with my glasses. I like to match the frames with my suits. At the moment I am not very happy with my brand, because they have stopped distributing color frames, which means I can only wear black suits. 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.”
So speaks the Tsar of Dar.