THE year was 1908 in Gujarat, India, not long after a 14-year-old had lost a mother with whom he shared a special bond. The canines of poverty were so jagged that the right to life made no meaning; toiling to live did.
But, like someone daring to squeeze water out of a rock, Muljibhai Prabhudas Madhvani decided he had had enough of the suffering. As was common practice in the early 19th Century, Madhvani abandoned studies for trade. Destination: East Africa. But unlike many starters, his was more of a deadly dream as he had only two â€˜assetsâ€™, his life and his clothes.
In essence, Madhvani was a living-poverty, giving chase to the private jet up-sky, a jet whose shadow seemed too fast for the teenage boy to catch. However, he had loads of invisible assets; courage, grit, ambition and poise.
â€œHe was determined, with a keen sense of business ethics that was far ahead of his time,â€ said joint managing director, Manubhai, his elder son in the first issue of the group magazine published in 1993.
In 1908, two years after his brother, Nanjibhai, had left for East Africa, Madhvani came to Uganda to join him. At that time, trade in Uganda could only be taken at the risk of oneâ€™s life. A man with determination as unyielding as iron and willpower as strong as steel, Madhvani remained firm even in this situation.
With destiny playing poker in his favour, his gamble paid off. And by the time of his death on July 11, 1958, Madhvani had established many industries, laying a foundation for Ugandaâ€™s development.
Born on May 18, 1894, to Prabhudasbhai and Laduma Madhvani in Aasiyapat, India, Muljibhai Madhvani studied up to Standard VII, before joining the Lohana Boarding House in Porbander, Gujarat. He dropped out shortly after class 1. His mind was on adventures.
In 1911, Madhvani joined his uncles, Vithaldas and Kalidas, for retail business in Iganga. From this humble beginning, he was able to learn more about trade and industry. At 17, his uncles entrusted him with the running of a shop in Kaliro (then in Kamuli district). The business acumen he exhibited impressed his uncles who later asked him to open up another shop in Jinja. This was the birth of an entrepreneur whose rise from naught to magnate has inspired many.
While still an employee of Vithaldas, Madhvani started building the Vithaldas Haridas and Company, where he later became managing director. In 1918, the company bought 800 acres of land in Kakira to start
Kakira Sugar complex, which was unveiled in 1930.
During the opening ceremony, Sir William Frederick Gowers, the then Governor of Uganda, had misgivings as to whether Kakira could sell sugar in Uganda. But if he were around today, 98 years later, he would stare in disbelief. For expansion, the colonial government availed the company 6,000 acres. Most of the land was procured by the company from European and Asian farmers.
Even at this early stage of his career, Madhvaniâ€™s vision was that of continuing growth with wider horizons. In 1928, his company entered the cotton ginning industry, the first of many diversifications.
According to the group company profile, the years up to the 1960s were good for Uganda and Madhvani. The commodity market was doing well and the middle class, spawned by Ugandaâ€™s industrialisation, was growing steadily. By the 1950s, the sugar estate was well-established.
Besides, Madhvaniâ€™s two elder sons, Jayant and Manubhai, had joined him in 1946 to assist with the running of the factory. It was during that decade that Muljibhai ventured into textiles and beer. Using what was probably
the first International
Finance Corporation loan to an African country, he set up Mulco Textiles in Jinja. He also acquired Nile Breweries in 1957 (the brewery was divested to South African Breweries in 2002). But his strides and steps had carried him far enough. What more? He had succeeded in catching the jet that seemed too high in the sky in 1908 when he walked out of the miserable life in Gujarat. So, it was time for his sons to carry on his legacy. Madhvani passed away on July 11, 1958 in Kakira. His mausoleum lies at the lakeside along that of his elder son and heir, Jayant Madhvani.
After his death, Jayant and his brother Manubhai, oversaw the groupâ€™s diversification into oil and soap manufacturing, steel, tea and glass products. Then came the Asian expulsion in 1972 by Idi Amin. By then, the group had grown into a complex of 52 industrial, commercial and agricultural companies, operating in eastern, central and southern Africa.
With the expulsion, the Madhvanis, who had known no home other than Uganda, left the country penniless, along with thousands of other Ugandan-Asians. However, the family returned in 1982 to repossess their properties under the Expropriated Properties Bill extended by the Obote government to lure Asians back into the country. On return, they found the sugar estate in a shambles. Less than 5,000 acres was under cane and sugar production had long ceased. All the associated industries such as oil and soap were mere shells of steel.
The company was debt-ridden and Uganda was not very creditworthy at the time. But the World Bank gave the group a Â£50m (sh166b) loan to rehabilitate the estate.
Madhvaniâ€™s brainchild has now grown to become one of the largest diversified private sector groups in East Africa, employing over 10,000 people.
According to Roni Madhvani, a grandson and joint managing director, the groupâ€™s current turnover in Uganda exceeds $100m (sh167b), while assets are in excess of $200m (sh334b). The flagship of the group is Kakira Sugar Works, which employs over 7,500 people, has been instrumental in the socioeconomic development of areas surrounding it.
The group owns and operates the only sugar complex in Rwanda, Kabuye Sugar Works. In Uganda, the group owns two tea estates (over 500 hactraes) with a tea factory and exports over 1,000,000kg of tea each year.
Others include floriculture with Kajjansi Roses, which has nine hectares under greenhouses. The group also runs a string of tourism businesses in Ugandaâ€™s national parks. It operates the Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Paraa and Chobe safari lodges in Murchison Falls National Park.
The group has also ventured into insurance, software and construction. It is currently examining options of joint ventures in the telecommunications sector, a new sugar factory in northern Uganda and bio-fuelsâ€” ethanol from molasses and bio-diesel from jatropha.
Notwithstanding this wide diversification, the group remains true to the philanthropic ethos of its founder. In 1962, it started a charitable trust, the
Muljibhai Madhvani Foundation to promote scientific and technical education in Uganda. The foundation extends scholarships to university students annually.
As he prospered, Madhvani was keen to share his fortunes with the country that had been so kind to him. He extended numerous donations for the welfare of the country. He so cherished education that he created an education trust fund under the auspices of the first British East Africa Loharm Conference held in Mombasa under his presidency in 1947.
His conviction was that agriculture and commerce are the backbones of society. To implement this vision, he established an agricultural school, Muljibhai Madhvani College, Wairaka, in Jinja. The school was later possessed by the Government.
Muljibhai Madhvani is survived by five sons; Jayant, Manubhai, Surendra, Pratap and Mayur. Jayant, the eldest son, headed the business upon his fatherâ€™s death. However, he died of heart attack while on a business trip in Dehli, India on July 25, 1971. He is survived by two sons, Nitin and Amit, a daughter Nimisha and the widow, Meena. Nimisha is Ugandaâ€™s High Commissioner to India.
From India, penniless Madhvani made a fortune in Uganda