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The All-Or-Nothing World Of Mo

The All-Or-Nothing World Of Mo

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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.

Mohammed 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.

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Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed. 

Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.

 Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.

 Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.

 A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.

 We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.

 As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”

 With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.

 Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.

 In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.

For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.

 Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.

– Unathi Shologu

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

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Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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