Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|December 10, 2020|27 Minutes|In Billionaire, Billionaire Today

Billionaire Today

The Youngest Billionaire In Africa On Kidnap, Confidence And How To Make Millions

He is the youngest billionaire in Africa, as humble as he is successful, worth an estimated $1.9 billion – the 17th richest person in Africa. Forty-five-year-old Mohammed Dewji – the youngest billionaire in Africa – has forged a multi-billion-dollar manufacturing giant in Tanzania; a fortune founded on the desire for Africa to make more and import less.  He has a hopeful and harrowing story to tell:  from the promise of investment in Africa; to the misery of a terrifying kidnap.

In 2021, billionaire Mohammed Dewji can look out across the blue Indian Ocean from his office high above the harbour in Dar es Salaam as a master and manufacturer of all he surveys. His finished goods pile up at the dockside ready for export across the blue waters in a family business that earns $1.6 billion and employs 35,000 people. The only entity that employs more in Tanzania is the government and is bullish about his country even in the grim days of COVID-19.

4“We take long term views on a country like Tanzania. With all this lockdown Tanzania never went into lockdown. There is no corona in Tanzania. My kids went there and we were all wearing masks and they used to laugh at me. I own a football club and we held a day where there were like 60 000 people. I shook hands with so many people and I was running around. When it was time to come back, I got tested. We don’t hear of cases in Tanzania. It has been quite quiet,” he tells Billionaire Tomorrow.

This confidence and dominance in lucrative manufacturing contrasts with the lean times of his childhood in the dusty, far-flung, corner of Tanzania far from the bright lights of the capital.

Dewji has lived a remarkable, lucky, life, but was very fortunate to be born at all. On May 8 1975, it took nearly a score of hours of labour and worry for the infant Dewji to be delivered on a kitchen table, in a house built of sand and mud, in Ipembe – home to a few thousand souls – in Singida, a district in central Tanzania.

“I was the second child out of six born at home with a midwife. They never had the ultrasound system and it was complicated because the umbilical cord was around my neck and it took about 18 hours for me to make it through. The hospital was 60 miles away, but the road was terrible. I thank the Lord and my mom who struggled, but that is my history,” Dewji tells Billionaire Tomorrow of the night that almost cost his life.

“For sure my mom was really losing hope. It was my dad’s decision and he had a doctor friend and the first child was born in the hospital. It is very normal in Singida during those times to give birth at home. They started freaking out and it was 18 hours of labour for my mom. I love her very much. Many people feel that I am like my dad, but my mom and I are very similar.”

It has been a struggle for the Dewji family since the day his forebears boarded a rickety boat on the west coast of Gujarat in India – a region known for its entrepreneurs -near the end of the 19th century in the hope of escaping poverty in a new life in Africa. Family legend says a divine wind swept the boats safely across the Indian Ocean to the shores of Africa.

“Some in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Kenya. Then we went inland to Singida in the centre of Tanzania, where my great grandfather, grandfather and I were born,” he recalls.

It took a generation for the Dewji family to start turning money in Singida and the best part of a century for the millions to come. The foundations of all of this were hard work backed by faith.

“My grandmother and grandfather were the actual entrepreneurs. My grandmother was the actual entrepreneur, she was running a very small retail outlet. They lived behind it and in the front, they used to sell retail stuff. We talk about retailing one kilo of sugar and selling it in grounds, but what she did, she was an entrepreneur and wasn’t educated. She managed to one time, as Muslims we have to go to Hajj, if our health allows it. My grandfather said that we don’t have the money. But she was saving the money, she was sewing as well as doing small food deliveries. She sent my grandfather the money to go to Mecca for Hajj. The entrepreneurship started with my grandmother,” says Dewji.

Business is always a risk. Basically, when you are getting into a particular thing you know it can either go North or South At the beginning of my career, I bought a ship full of rice. By the time the rice got onto the ship, I couldn't insure the ship, because it was a phantom ship. I spent a couple hundred thousand dollars. They asked me why didn't I sue the bank, because I needed the bank and that is why I did not sue them. When I talk to the CEO (of the bank), we have a great relationship, you will always have doubts but you have to keep making sure that you react properly. There will always be risks.

- Mohammed Dewji

“My grandmother was a great person. She was so disciplined that from the time she woke up she had the whole day planned while looking after her grandchildren. When she died at the age of 86, one week before she was still going to work. She would go and manage all the warehouses. She taught us discipline, to always do business ethically, hard work pays off at the end and to save money, value money and don’t just spend it unnecessarily.”
The next generation was to widen the way to the family fortune. Dewji’s father – Gulamabbas Dewji – took the chance to complete higher education and when he returned to the family business in Singida.

“Once he returned, he started trading, there were a lot of Agri-commodities at that time. He would sell that to people who actually exported it. He got better and better and later started buying trucks and doing his own logistics. In the mid-1980s he opened his own office and we moved to a big city close to Kilimanjaro- Arusha. We went to school there. My grandmother started running the branch in Arusha and I stayed with two of my siblings.”

Dewji senior steadily built the family business and also took time to nurture his son.

“My father took me to China when I was eleven years old. It was an import/export business. He would import second-hand clothing. When I went to China, it was really cold and the flights were getting cancelled. He would make me sit through meetings, while he was trading, buying, selling, arguing. In the evening he would ask me what I have learnt and if I had any questions. And every Christmas he would make me work, while my friends were playing soccer. I asked him why my friends don’t and he asked what their parents do.

I said: dentist; teacher etc and he said, unfortunately, your father is an entrepreneur! I was getting frustrated. He would make me sit opposite him and there were like seven phones and I would listen to call after call. In the evening we would recap, so I was introduced really early.”

Yet, it was sport that caught the imagination of the young Dewji and he wanted to make it his living.

“We were a big sports family. We played a lot of golf and tennis. It all started with tennis my younger brother was really good and when he started beating me. I realised that I didn’t enjoy it as much. So, then I started playing golf. My father was happy because I always played sports like football and my father wasn’t happy, I used to break my legs. He said go out and play a non-contact sport. I started the initiative myself and I got better and better,” says Dewji.

The young man took to the golf course with a will and by the time he left primary school he was playing off a handicap of three and beating people twice his age. His father saw this nascent talent and sent his son the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida.

“You lived there, went to school for six hours and the rest of the time learning and playing golf and gaining mental toughness. My school was small and I went to school with Jennifer Capriati. I was class president. We won the states and we went into the nationals. I played a girl in the nationals and realised she played better than me, and I didn’t play badly and I realised this wasn’t going to happen. I might as well study finance and I started at Georgetown.”

Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA

The time at Georgetown University, in Washington DC – the alma mater of Bill Clinton and Jackie Kennedy – saw perspiration that yielded a bachelor’s degree in business, with a minor in theology. While many of his fellow students struggled to stay awake during lessons, Dewji’s lecturers remember him as a serious young man prepared to stay on to talk about the economy of the country and the value of the Tanzanian shilling.

A short stint as a Wall Street trader, in New York, followed until the phone call that was to change his life. Dewji needed money for a new suit and phoned his father back in Dar es Salaam.

“He said that he believes that I could make many dollars in Tanzania and why don’t I come and join him and that we could take the business to the next level. And he didn’t send money for the suit. I didn’t enjoy it and I went back and joined him. He was a rich man; he was the largest trader. When I came, I realised that the trading game margins would get very, very tightened. You cannot have a trading country; you need an industrial base. I already felt that and there was no tax policy to protect manufacturers. And the industry failed because the tax was so low. I started talking to people and had told them, look, guys, we need to create jobs and manufacture and use raw material locally. That is where I started importing oil, flowers, rice, soap, clothing and tax styles.”

Dewji became one of the youngest CEOs in Africa at the family business MeTL where his aim was to transform from a trading company into a manufacturing behemoth. He threw himself into the task with a will and a claim to being a workaholic; a start before dawn, 100 hours-a-week and 60 meetings a month. Ironically, it was this healthy dawn trip to the gym that put Dewji’s life at risk with the infamous kidnap.

Along the way business wasn’t always easy and there was a costly problem with a ship that didn’t exist.

Kidnapped! Africa’s Youngest Billionaire’s Harrowing Ordeal In His Own Words

It was a dawn like thousands of others for Mohammed Dewji. As the morning light gripped the streets at about on October 11 2018, fitness fanatic, Dewji was on his daily trip to the gym in downtown Dar es Salaam when he was jumped by a desperate gang of kidnappers. This is his story of this harrowing ordeal in his own words, as told to Billionaire Tomorrow.

“It was terrible. I have a crazy regime. I start my day at 5 am and I like to start with a workout. And then I go to work and that is the only time I really drive alone. So that morning some people were following me so I stopped. It was about 5:25 am. There is no one allowed to park inside. And the guys always keep my space for me so I thought someone was coming into the gym. So, I turned around and there were guys shooting into the air. I thought they wanted my car. So, I lay down in the car. Within seconds they stripped me basically naked and thought I had a chip in me and they had guns. I think they were under the influence of alcohol and I think they were people who could have done anything. I was trying to think of all the sins I have done since I was a little boy and trust me you can think of a lot of sins at that time because you have nothing else to do. They threw away my fit bit. My hands and leg were tied. I was blindfolded for nine days with two people and there were times that I thought I was going blind or crazy. I said if they want to shoot me, they should shoot me! After five days, I felt disoriented. They asked for money.

The second most difficult thing was that they tied my hands behind my back. If you want to itch here – how do you do that?

It was torture and I thought I was going crazy – I lost seven kilos. They thought I was strong and that I could get away. I said that they were crazy and you guys are risking your lives. I asked why he was doing this and if the police came here, we would all die. You cannot sleep when your hands are tied, so you sleep on the right side. It was terrible. I prayed that such a thing would not happen to anybody. The whole nine days it was just prayers, prayers, prayers and trying to communicate with those crazy people.

In the morning I would beg them to untie my hands. In the end, they said that they were taking me back to my family. They dropped me next to the Danish Embassy. But when we were leaving, they were tying me up and, in the end, they tied me with the cotton cloth. They tied a small strip around my eyes. They dropped me and I heard the car drive away. I thought I was far away. It was right in the city where I grew up. I knew there was a Southern Sun close by. I had a towel around me and I was shirtless. I stopped at the security. I was still so scared, that I wanted to go there myself. It was a five- star hotel. They wanted me to take a shower.

What came out of this my wife kept newspaper covers, she kept the mainstream newspapers for nine days. I was on the front page. It was crazy. There were poor people that were praying for me. It is very unique. I promise to continue my work. And the prayers and the embassy helped. Everybody helped. I am thankful for the almighty God.

The bottom line is they asked for money and I didn’t give them any money – I swear to God.

It took me three days to get back to work. My family wanted me to stay longer and go get checked. Nevertheless, I got myself checked and my wife thought I had trauma. But actually, my family members had more trauma than I did. I can block things out and I am not worried or scared because I have a lot of faith in God. Things changed; money wasn’t the most important thing- the family was. I became very passive for one year. But you know God says time heals you, but you never forget what happened. I spend more time with my family and less at work. Talking about that, my son got a hole in one and he is ten years old. I was very proud because I’ve been playing for over 35 years and I’ve never gotten a hole in one.”

I was the second child out of six born at home with a midwife. They never had the ultrasound system and it was complicated because the umbilical cord was around my neck and it took about 18 hours for me to make it through. The hospital was 60 miles away, but the road was terrible. I thank the Lord and my mom who struggled, but that is my history.

- Mohammed Dewji

“Business is always a risk. Basically, when you are getting into a particular thing you know it can either go North or South… At the beginning of my career, I bought a ship full of rice. By the time the rice got onto the ship, I couldn’t insure the ship, because it was a phantom ship. I spent a couple hundred thousand dollars. They asked me why didn’t I sue the bank, because I needed the bank and that is why I did not sue them. When I talk to the CEO (of the bank), we have a great relationship, you will always have doubts but you have to keep making sure that you react properly. There will always be risks.”

But Dewji was good at spotting gaps in the market. He undercut the world’s lowest-cost textile producer- China – bringing production to Tanzania. In Sisal – used for everything from rope to coffee bags – Dewji spotted a gap when he bought a factory producing it at break-even for around $300 a ton. He had to increase his costs from $300 to $700 with modernising of the plant. He was banking on the price rising sharply. Luck smiled and the price rose to $2,100 tons – MeTL now exports more than 8,000 tons a year at a handsome profit.

Dewji’s shrewd eye for business also saw his company’s expansion across Africa that he is far from finished with come COVID-19 or recession.

“If you’re looking for agriculture you’re looking to export. Tanzania, for me, is very important. I just did a $115 million sugar investment. We are currently working with the government and we are looking for land. One country that is very interesting, is Tanzania. We are ready to commit 50 million into Rwanda. The whole ideology is, is to stick to the fast-moving, basic consumable goods where you have the know-how, machinery and the labour is cheap…We are also looking at Mozambique.”

And where will the billionaires of tomorrow going to come from?

“They have to look at the gaps. Imagine how much logistics happen between these companies around and imagine you create an app for buyers and sellers. If a buyer wants to buy Copper and they know that there is a truck coming from Tanzania. Technology will create a billionaire in time as well. The banking side We need to look at digital banking. I think that is a place to make money. On the telecoms side – I believe there is a lot of growth and money there as well,” says Dewji.

“There are no escalators or elevators, there are only stairs. You need to be disciplined. You should not think that they would make money very fast. It is a process. They must take it step-by-step… I think this year has been a tough year but going forward there are big opportunities in Africa. We can kind of work together and the opportunities are endless. We don’t know what is going to happen in the US. Things will simmer down and we will bounce back stronger.”

Whatever happens, you can be sure the youngest billionaire in Africa is looking hard for the gap.