“What would you say if I showed up barefoot and without a belt?” asks Reginald Mengi, one of the richest men in Africa, as we discuss attire for the photo shoot for his interview with FORBES AFRICA in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It could have been a great headline: Millionaire Barefoot and Beltless. Alas, he suffered cold feet and came dressed up to the nines in designer shoes with an Italian navy-blue pinstripe suit and a belt, of course.
Walking without shoes is nothing new for the media tycoon, from Dar es Salaam, who’s worth an estimated $550 million, according to FORBES.
He’s a simple man, bound closely to his roots in the village, who enjoys plain language and has a story for everything.
Mengi grew up in Machame, near Kilimanjaro, in northern Tanzania. His parents, both farmers, owned a little plot of land where the family of eight lived in poverty.
“We lived in a mud hut with two cows, three sheep and a few chickens. Nothing more than that in terms of what my family was worth because we just couldn’t make ends meet… We couldn’t afford food and when we got two meals a day it was a great celebration.”
Mengi wanted more than two meals a day and took drastic action. In Form Five, with one year left of high school, he earned a scholarship to study corporate accounting at a college in Glasgow, Scotland.
“I couldn’t tell my headmaster that I won a scholarship to go to [Britain], halfway through Form Five, so I ran away from school.”
Everyone tried to convince him to stay, but his mind was made up. He flew from Moshi to Glasgow, via Nairobi and London. Mengi always thought the streets of London were paved with gold but when he got there he realized the truth.
“I saw a beggar in the street, a white beggar, and after that I said, ‘You know what? Even London has many things like home.”
In Scotland, it wasn’t the history, the whisky or the glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster that impressed him. It was the warmth of the people.
At college, in Glasgow, Mengi had a change of heart. He no longer wanted to become an articled clerk. He informed his sponsors who told him he had to stay in Scotland for the six months as it had been paid for.
So Mengi stayed, abandoned the course, took night classes and finished high school instead. During the day, he worked many jobs, from a bus conductor to cleaner, to make ends meet.
“I wouldn’t turn it down because it’s too dirty or the money is too little. My question is the alternative: If I work I get $1; if I don’t do it I get nothing… $1 is better than nothing.”
A year and a half later, Mengi, who had finally found his feet, received devastating news from home. His father had died. Mengi was stuck 7,000 miles away with no money to go home.
“The biggest regret I had was he passed away without me being able to show him that I’ve been able to make it in life and do something for him to say, ‘Well that’s my son.’ That I regret. I wish he had just lived on for a while for me to go back and say ‘daddy you know what, I’ve been able to do it and let me now be by your side.’ That eats me up even to today,” says Mengi as he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away tears.
After high school, Cooper Brothers, now Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), offered Mengi a job where he completed his articles. He climbed the ranks, became a member of the institute for chartered accountants for England and Wales but he yearned for home. After nine years away, Mengi transferred to the Nairobi office. It was one of the shortest careers in history; after a few hours, he resigned.
“I wanted to be in Tanzania. I knew I could make more money in [Britain] but I wanted to be back home. I wanted to go back to do something for my people. I was educated by poor Tanzanians and I thought it would be a good thing to give back.”
After a year in Moshi, Mengi moved to PWC back home in Dar es Salaam. He worked hard and, at the age of 30, became one of the youngest partners in the corporation. At the height of his career at PWC, Mengi, who was the chairman and managing partner, resigned.
“Some people leave their jobs when things are bad; but I left mine when things were really good. I couldn’t wait until things got bad and then left. You change when things are really good and you go into the new job with a big kind of energy rather than going there totally depressed because you had been sucked [dry] or you were not doing that well.”
Mengi dreamed of running a big business but understood that he had to start small. Everywhere he looked he saw suffering in the then socialist society and shortages of almost everything. His first bright idea came on the day he went to buy a pen and couldn’t find one. He decided to become a purveyor of pens. With the help of a friend he found a pen manufacturer in Kenya who shipped the parts to start his business.
“When the components arrived I didn’t know where to put them, so the best place was my bedroom and it was in that bedroom that I started the assembly of the pens.”
It was a big change from PWC where Mengi had a large office, staff and a company house. Now he worked 16-hour days, downgraded his car from a Peugeot 504 to a Peugeot 104 and also delivered on foot.
“That little business gave me my first million dollars,” he says.
Mengi sharpened his eye for opportunity. He sold shoe polish, made from ground charcoal and oil, and a natural skin exfoliator, which was simply bottled sea mud. He was on a roll and made anything he could: toilet paper, soap, detergent, beds, shoes and toothpaste.
“At that time, I made sure that no one in Tanzania could spend a day without coming into contact or touching one of my products… the only thing I couldn’t do at that time was the air you breathe.”
It was news that brought him his greatest success. In 1994, he launched his first newspaper, The Guardian, and a year later came Tanzania’s first television network, ITV. He did it all with no journalism experience. His media ventures were formed under the IPP Group, where Mengi holds sole ownership.
“We launched five years before government TV. There was a law in Tanzania not allowing television, it was government censorship… When I came with my network it was operating, on one hand, to report as if it was national television, but on the other hand it was private television.”
Mengi now owns eight newspapers, three radio stations and three television networks and has more than 1,000 people working for him. The only time he gets worried is when the politicians are not.
“If you start being praised by politicians… then you must be careful, there must be something wrong that you are doing. To be criticized is healthy; it means you are doing your job well in the media.”
Besides his interests in media, Mengi is also involved in mining and bottling for the Coca Cola Company. In business, that set him against his friend, Mohammed Dewji – also among the richest in Africa – who is trying to take on the world’s biggest name: Coca Cola. It was a move that proved a business disaster for Richard Branson when he launched Virgin Cola.
“One thing I really think is fantastic is competition. I think it’s good for you as a business person. It’s also good for the customers. If he came to me for advice, I would advise him to move even faster because without competition you are not going to grow.”
When it comes to media in Africa, Mengi says although free speech is ideal, it comes with limits. Surprisingly, he doesn’t blame international media for the often gloomy picture the world paints of Africa.
“The images you see in the western media, many of them come from the African journalists. But African journalists should bear one thing in mind; there are two sides to a story… If you are an African journalist and you do not see the beautiful side of Africa, you only see the bad and write negative things, then you are not being responsible.”
Among the negative stories written about Africa is corruption, both in politics and business. Mengi says the reasons people don’t speak out is they are corrupt or they are perceived to be corrupt, therefore they are scared to open their mouths and talk about corruption for the fear that they may lose contracts and contacts. Mengi is known for his tough stance on corruption. In 2005, he launched two newspapers, ThisDay and Kulikoni, aimed at shedding light on corruption – often the reason why people are poor.
“For a long time we’ve been saying Africa is poor but that’s wrong. Africa as a continent is not poor; it’s the people who are poor. Instead of saying Africa is poor we should open our eyes that Africa as a continent is very rich, but of course, people are poor.”
Mengi speaks of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo that have an estimated $24 trillion worth of untapped minerals. To him, it doesn’t make sense that a country so rich should be seeking help.
“Africans are selling themselves too cheaply. When we encounter foreign investors you talk of a gold mine. We think this deal is $1 million, they believe its $100 million. Do you think they are going to say ‘why not make it $50 million or even $100 million?’… They capitalize on our ignorance.”
He says Africans need to find ways to exploit the resources of the land to make money. In Tanzania, Mengi says the booming sectors are mining, agriculture, telecoms and oil and gas.
“Right now I’m fighting to create opportunities for Tanzanians to be able to invest in oil and gas. To have a sustainable private sector you need adequate participation from local people,” he says.
When it comes to entrepreneurs in Africa, Mengi says none can hold a candle to his mother.
“My mother could take a bunch of bananas and come with a kilo of rice. My mother could take just one chicken and come back with a kilo of potatoes. My mother would carry a bunch of bananas and come back with a pair of shorts for school. That is the greatest entrepreneur I admire.”
When asked about his wealth, Mengi shies away saying it is un-Tanzanian to boast.
“A rich African cannot look at life the way a rich American or European looks at life. In the case of Africans we are surrounded by many poor people, we grew up with them. We have to know where we’ve come from. Look at the rich Africans; tell me one who didn’t come from poverty. We all came from poverty, but we have to look back to where we’ve come from. We should not forget.”
He is an advocate of philanthropy and has given money towards education, the disabled and health. Along the way he earned the strange nickname ‘The Condom King’.
“If you see someone on the roof of a house and you think ‘he’s not alright, he wants to jump down’. And by jumping down he’s going to crash and die but there is a ladder nearby. Would you take the ladder and put it there for him to come down smoothly? Or would you say ‘just jump, just jump’?” he says about the wisdom of using condoms.
“I had been advocating the use of condoms in Tanzania. I had a very big fight with the bishops in the Catholic Church. They said, ‘Mengi has a huge plant for making condoms… Mengi is in collaboration with white people, he wants to use condoms to exterminate the black race…”
On the contrary, Mengi wants to give his money to his fellow Africans before he dies. He doesn’t want to be remembered for what he had, more for what he did.
Many see Mengi as a hard worker.
“Am I working harder than the poor woman cleaning the streets in the sun? Am I working harder than someone breaking stones at a construction site?”
Mengi’s story of triumph in the face of poverty is one many can relate to. From barefoot and sharing a hut with cattle to dining in Paris, Mengi proves that anything is possible.
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