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How To Turn Pocket Change Into Millions

How Mohamed Jaffer turned $240 into $140 million by swimming against the tide.



On Beira Road it seems everyone knows about the Grain House and its owner.

In the coastal city of Mombasa life runs in the slow lane, so it’s little wonder the constant rev and turn of 34-wheel trucks at Grain Bulk turns heads.

The ‘ordinary’ businessman near the end of the road is no ordinary neighbor in this coast-hugging, business enclave of Mombasa.

This extraordinary, ordinary man at the helm of Grain House is Mohamed Jaffer.

In 1976, when he was just a 26-year-old civilian in search of a quiet business life, Jaffer borrowed $240 to start a timber business. A few years later, he upgraded to exporting pallets to Jeddah, Muscat, Kuwait and Aden.

Little did he know that trading in wood planks and color-mixing boards for artists would end up as a multi-billion dollar port business spanning three continents.

It was in 1983, while running his pallet manufacturing businesses, that Jaffer started taking a keen interest in how grain imports were being handled at the Mombasa Port. He soon noticed something was not right. The process was mainly done manually. It was unhygienic, there was a huge amount of wastage of grain and there was also no accounting for discharged quantities.

“I began researching how developed countries were doing it,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“I observed that their handling system was highly mechanized, hence capital intensive. I was convinced that Kenyans are capable of importing technology and harnessing technical skills to maintain a state-of-the art terminal, which I was determined to install at the port of Mombasa.”

Coming up with the idea of a bulk, but efficient graining facility located next to the port took an eye for spotting out-of-the-box thinking. The implementation of the dream project would emerge in the installation of a mechanized handling system that would be commodity and environmentally-friendly and efficient.

But securing the funds to pull off his dream was like an upriver swim. So was planning for storage silos connected to the massive conveyor belts and the technology to control the systems seamlessly and to establish a safe exit route from the port. Jaffer knew he was biting off more than he could chew.

With revenues from the pallets business being a drop in the ocean of what he needed, he had to use someone else’s money—and lots of it.

Even with the funds and the vision, the project took 17 years to materialize. Some of the factors that contributed to the delays included prohibitive interest rates that made securing local financing suicidal, as well as the fact that Kenya was then blacklisted by virtually all foreign donors because of governance concerns.

“The business climate was hostile to local investors. The problem in Kenya is that government authorities view local investors with suspicion and will always frustrate you. Back then there was also a lot of politics around the project,” says Jaffer, now 64.

The adverse climate for funding from international financial institutions notwithstanding, Jaffer approached the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for loans to implement his dream project. The two corporations recognized the potential of the proposed project and expanded their scope to cater for regional rather than national interests. With Jaffer’s astute negotiations they readily offered a credit line of $35 million.

The funds borrowed from IFC, CDC and Proparco eventually facilitated implementation of the project, which was commissioned on March 15, 2000 by the Kenyan president at the time, Daniel arap Moi.

The facility, now 12 years old, handles 1.8-2 million tons of grains annually, though its capacity is in the region of 3-4 million tons a year. The low volumes are attributed to Kenya being a net importer, bringing in expensive capital goods and other commodities while exporting very little, mainly tea, coffee and horticulture products.

The commissioning of the grain terminal revolutionized the handling of grain at the port of Mombasa.

Grain Bulk Handlers Limited (GBHL) is now a specialist in the discharge and handling of bulk grain imports at the port, which is regarded a main gateway for East and Central Africa. Its silos are built for both transit and long-term storage. Valued at $140 million, GBHL is one of the biggest private investments in East Africa, beating most listed companies at the Nairobi Securities Exchange in market capitalization.

GBHL boasts a turnover of $12 million and is the flagship company of MJ Group. Jaffer’s other business interests include Mbaraki Bulk Terminal in Mombasa, which deals in petroleum products; Africa Gas and Oil Company operating an LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) terminal at the port; Great Lakes Port Ltd as well as a container freight station at Changamwe in Mombasa that’s due for implementation. Other projects awaiting implementation include dry ports for Tororo, Uganda and Miritini in Mombasa.

And he is not done yet. He says: “I will keep on investing despite the unfriendly business environment in Kenya. I am actually a coolie. I go for port projects. You can call me a coolie promoting investment in specialized handling facilities at port. I will therefore always work in port-related businesses.”

He’s spreading his wings too and it’s no mean feat that Jaffer has reversed the trend of investment flow. Normally, foreign direct investments move from developed economies like Europe, China and the States into Africa, but Jaffer is clearly swimming against the tide and with the big sharks, far away from the Indian Ocean.

The MJ Group, of which he’s also chairman, owns a grain terminal at the port of Lake Charles in Louisiana, in the States. The company is currently working to establish similar projects in Vietnam and India. This international expansion was boosted by IFG Fund LP, which in 2006 acquired an equity stake in GBHL and committed to grow the brand worldwide. IFG, through its affiliate Infrastructure Funding Group, brought in its financing expertise and global reach that made GBHL a stronger enterprise and positioned it for international expansion.

Jaffer is ready for the global expansion being a multi-linguist who speaks and writes in six languages: English, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Cutchi and Swahili.

But Kenya is where GBHL has transformed the port of Mombasa—and Kenya. The port is a hub for relief agency operations, which facilitate quick, regional relief needed due to civil strife or famine.

Jaffer says others, who are part of the supply chain, have also benefited.

“In the case of millers and commodity traders, GBHL facilitates growth in their trade through provision of efficient services. Millers can now plan importation and receive consignments on a just-in-time basis. They no longer need to stock large quantities of grain as before.”

He adds that commodity traders can improve their outreach by stocking grain at GBHL silos. This allows them to promote ex-silo sales and eliminates lead times associated with sale of grain that is still aboard vessels en-route to the port. Adoption of ex-silo sales by commodity traders ensures quick supply of grain from the GBHL silos to buyers across the region.

Jaffer holds a diploma from John Hopkins University and qualifications from the College of Business Administration in Baltimore.

He ran the show for close to 30 years, growing the scrappy timber business in the yard of his father’s inland depot into an empire that will last for generations to come. Three years ago, he relinquished the role of chief executive to his son, Mujtaba Jaffer, and took the less hectic chairmanship position.

Sitting in his fifth floor office at Grain House on a humid spring morning, he remains modest about his lucrative grain imports handling business.

“Three things are God-given in life: wealth, health and children.”

He says his road to success has been paved with hurdles, but he chose to do things the right way and legally. “There’s a wrong perception that if you do things right you won’t make money. You are going to make money; in fact, you make more money because you don’t have to watch your back. Business done legally and right is much better. I have never defrauded customs, income tax or any taxes knowingly.”

He says success comes from hard work, honesty and dedication.

“You must be focused on what you want to do and accomplish it against all odds,” he says.

For him, working hard means finishing work on time.

“You are useless after seven hours of working and if you work more than this you are wasting your time and the time of people around you,” says Jaffer.

Jaffer also runs a foundation that provides water, medical care, education and rehabilitation of drug users in the coastal region.

“God has given us time for a night’s sleep of eight hours, eight working hours and eight hours of recreation.”

That’s the principle he applies across his businesses. He says a business is as good as its employees and to perform optimally they have to be motivated through better remuneration and making them part of the organization.

“You pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” he says.

Through the business, Jaffer has learned one key lesson: never trust a friend in business. He recalls how he was bitten this way. Being a religious man, he traveled to Mecca for the annual Hajj in 1974, and took a tour of pilgrimage sites in Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. Before he left Kenya, he gave his friend and partner in business power of attorney.

“When I came back, my partner had taken over everything. I lost all my investments. It was devastating,” he recalls.

He had to sell off four of his five cars to start all over again—and that has made Jaffer an extremely cautious man when it comes to choosing business partners.

But he adds: “I don’t believe in crying; I believe in positivity—negativity does not pay.”

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Green-Sky Thinking



In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.

Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

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After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

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“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020



FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.

JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.


Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya



He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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