Saloni Wahi puts down her cup of coffee and shakes her head. The café we are in is buzzing with young TV journalists and executives respectful of her presence. Saloni smiles and exchanges a word with each of them, inquiring about their work, asking about their families, radiating the warmth she is synonymous with.
It is hard to ignore her; and harder to describe her. A few minutes with her and you are convinced no one description would suffice: she is wife, mother, businesswoman, artist, gourmet chef, philanthropist, and above all, a perfectionist.
“Credibility is everything to me,” she says, thumbing through a sheaf of papers. She is organizing a fundraising event for the ABN Education Trust on September 8, and there is much to do, details that need to be ironed out. Yet, you can tell it’s not the event she’s worried about. It’s the beneficiaries that are her real remit: children in need, women in despair, single mothers who are abandoned.
There’s pathos in her voice as she talks about acts of kindness that can change the lives of the less fortunate.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are in India or Africa, children are the same everywhere. To me, giving back is integral to my being,” she says.
Originally from Delhi in India but based in Dubai since 1989, Saloni moved to Johannesburg in 2007 after her husband, Rakesh Wahi, along with Zafar Siddiqi, set up the ABN Group, which includes CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA.
In 2011, they began talking about setting up a foundation, the ABN Education Trust, for their charitable activities, and decided on two causes. The first to develop skills in financial journalism by providing bursaries for a few children, drawn from disadvantaged families, each year at the University of the Witwatersrand and University of Johannesburg. During the graduation, they are offered internships and subsequently have the option of fulltime work with the Group.
“I received a bursary from the ABN Trust and the icing on the cake was the life-changing opportunity to work for an internationally-affiliated media company. Today, I get to live my dream every day,” says Leigh-Ann Carey, one of the beneficiaries who is now a trainee producer with CNBC Africa.
The second segment the Trust prioritized was orphans.
“We started working with an orphanage in Alexandra. Most children were abandoned by HIV-infected parents. It is creditable how the founders and caretakers of the orphanage have worked tirelessly to help children that would otherwise have died or ended up on the street,” says Saloni.
Over the years, through the Trust, Saloni has committed her resources towards caring for the children, participating in Christmas parties, gifting them provisions, and buying them a bus to safely commute in.
“None of our efforts would have seen fruition without the efforts of the entire team at the ABN Group, particularly Roberta Naicker, Nola Mashaba and more recently, Sian Schlebusch. We are currently working with the orphanage founders and management to find a permanent shelter for the children. This is a critical requirement,” she says.
Saloni has made a significant financial commitment towards this cause. In addition, the ABN Group has also been blessed with support from partners such as the IDC that has contributed directly to the orphanage.
“Our intention is to help facilitate resources for these causes and take these initiatives to other parts of the continent where we are setting up meaningful businesses. We would be expanding these activities to Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. Along with Roberta and the team, I will be now looking at how to put a formal structure to the foundation in these countries,” says Saloni.
Philanthropy is not new for the Wahis. Hailing from an illustrious business family in India, Saloni says she has seen acts of kindness from a young age. Marrying into an equally-philanthropic family has allowed her to continue to do social good all through her life which is integral to her existence.
And like most people, Saloni’s journey has not been without significant responsibilities.
“When my husband started out in business after leaving the Indian Army [in 1988], I had a challenging life. Ricki [Rakesh] was traveling to Russia and other parts of the world as he was trying to make a success in a very different world from the Army. Not only did I have the responsibility of bringing up Sidharth and Shweta, but I had to double up to support all the executive functions of the small trading business we had established.”
She continued through thick and thin as the solid anchor for the family making sure the children never missed anything and Rakesh had all the support he needed at work.
“I could never have achieved anything without her indulgence, positivity and perseverance,” says Rakesh, “she has truly been my compass and Rock of Gibraltar.”
With a continued focus on education, the Group has recently set up a university in Ghana with Lancaster University in the UK; it’s their second initiative after the Murdoch University in Dubai; and they offer scholarships to students on both campuses.
Excerpts from the interview with Saloni:
Your philanthropic take on wealth creation?
My great grandfathers had established charitable trusts in India and I have seen the family’s involvement in schools and hospitals in North India that benefitted children from disadvantaged families. Their work has outlived their time on earth. This is true wealth creation. Both my husband’s parents have been involved with setting up institutions to benefit the poor. For me, as a woman, if the work my husband and I are doing is carried forward and built on by our children, I would consider myself blessed. Both children have been involved with the Trust through their own contributions. Sidharth, our son, is a Trustee, while our daughter, Shweta, a young fashion designer, has raised significant funds through her own initiatives and has recently offered fashion school bursaries in Mauritius.
How important is it for African businesses to give back?
Africa occupies a unique position – on the one hand, it is the cradle of mankind and has abundant natural resources. On the other hand, it’s a young continent with respect to its economic development. For all-round inclusive economic growth, it is imperative private business plays an important role along with the state. While a lot is being done by both corporates and individuals, given the magnitude of the continent, and the nascent stage of its development, a lot more needs to be done.
Is enough being done to educate women, especially in areas such as reproductive health?
There are several programs undertaken by developed countries on issues of malnutrition, infant mortality and reproductive and maternal health. I do not believe enough is being done. Providing care in the early years of an infant is crucial for mother and child.
I would also like to highlight the prevalence of ‘single mothers’ across the continent. To my mind, this is what makes the African woman most vulnerable. There is a need to educate both boys and girls about the importance of family values and taking ‘basic responsibility’ for nurturing the infants they bring into this world. Education on the ‘development of a responsible family unit’ will be significant in solving issues like crime, HIV, unemployment, and will provide protection for the girl child. The approach has to be preventative rather than only curative or crisis-based.
Any advice for juggling work and family?
You need to balance your life and set clear priorities. These must not be compromised either at work or on the family side. The second most important aspect is sharing responsibilities with your partner. This is critical for the right balance. Yet another aspect is developing hobbies. We tend to neglect what we are passionate about. Besides the Trust and my involvement with the family investments, I am passionate about cooking, golf and pottery.
A charity auction and fundraising morning with the theme ‘Heavenly White High Tea’ will be held in aid of the ABN Education Trust on September 8 at 54 on Bath, Rosebank, Johannesburg. To book a table, call +27113840314.