Mohammed Dewji is a man of superlatives, who is also known for many firsts – earlier this year Forbes named him Africa’s youngest billionaire.
With an annual turnover of $1.4 billion and estimated net worth of $1.25bn, he pays the salaries of 5 percent of Tanzania’s formal employees – a labour force greater than 24 000 – and contributes more than 3 percent to Tanzania’s GDP. He is also the country’s largest private landowner as his entrepreneurial interests are spread across 40 000 hectares.
At the age of 29, Dewji was one of the youngest Tanzanians to become a member of parliament; today, at the age of 40, he is the 31st richest African and he’s certainly not slowing down.
With Dewji at the helm as president and chief executive, Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania Limited (MeTL) has become a diversified conglomerate of 31 industries with a presence in Dubai and eight African countries: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.
MeTL, Tanzania’s largest home-grown company, was established as a trading shop by his paternal grandmother and transformed into an import-export business by his father, Gulamabbas, in the 1970s.
Dewji has made diversification MeTL’s creed – it specialises in agriculture, manufacturing, fast-moving consumer goods, financial services, mobile telephony, infrastructure, real estate, petroleum and logistics.
“We deal in soft commodities: sugar, rice, fertiliser and salt; everything from bubble gum to yeast, cooking fats, everything from second-hand clothing to tractors and motorcycles, so anything and everything you can import.”
MeTL has positioned itself as “the people’s brand” and says its mission is to produce quality products at the lowest price.
“A Tanzanian wakes up in the morning and wants to brush their teeth, we’ve got our brand of toothpaste; when they go to shower they use the soap that MeTL produces; then they wear a kanga or kitenge that MeTL produces.
“At breakfast they have tea, which is probably from our gardens, with the sugar that MeTL produces and the flour in the bread or the chapati they eat is also made by MeTL, then perhaps they would cycle to work on a bicycle that MeTL produces.”
During my two-week stay in the east African country I began to understand Dewji’s prolific influence on the country’s economy and the saturation of his products.
I met his former assistant at a resort in South Beach, as well as four of his employees – who have been recruited from India to work at various production plants across the country – at my hotel in North Beach a few days later, which stocks his brand of soap as part of its guest amenities.
I later realised that the water bottle I bought ahead of my Selous Game Reserve safari bore MeTL’s navy and gold logo.
Back in Dewji’s office – on the 20th floor of the Golden Jubilee Towers in Dar es Salaam’s central business district, which looks towards the Indian Ocean on one side and the port and ferry terminal on the other – he explains his strategy to secure a large market share and to reach the mass market of consumers with limited disposable income.
It’s with this mindset that he’s taken on Coca-Cola and Red Bull by producing competitively-priced alternatives – a range of cold drinks, including Mo Cola and Mo Bomba energy drink, which retails at 25 percent of the cost of Red Bull.
As the eldest son, Dewji was groomed by his father from a young age to head the company. Later, he majored in finance and international business at Georgetown University in Washington.
“I am what I am because of him; he trained me from a very young age. He took me to China when I was 12 years old. Every Christmas and summer, when my friends were going out and doing other things, I was at the office working with him.”
Each of the Dewji siblings, except for eldest sister Sabira, has a specialisation that plays on their strengths. Ali heads up mobile telephony, Hassan runs the human resources department, while Hussein and Fatima are in charge of sales and marketing.
Dewji has been criticised for sourcing managers of Indian and Pakistani descent. When I ask him about his biggest business challenges, he mentions the lack of the skilled labour needed in his numerous manufacturing plants around the continent, as well as the red tape involved in establishing a business.
But this lack of skilled labour is precisely why as a member of parliament of Singida – the constituency where he was born – Dewji oversaw the building of 18 schools during his decade-long tenure, until he stepped down in October.
He hopes to contribute $100 million to the recently-established Mo Dewji Foundation, which focuses on education, health care and water accessibility, but he emphasises that going forward the ruling CCM party “have to industrialise this country, they have to fix the power supply, they have to fix infrastructure in terms of the port and railway”.
He has ambitious plans for MeTL: “We want to put up manufacturing bases everywhere, project revenues of $5bn, and employ 100 000 people by 2022.”
Dewji wants to take the company public in the medium-term future, but for now “our company is very undervalued, now is not the right time, hopefully in the future, so far we don’t need much money, we raise debt, so we are happy.”
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is that becoming successful is a mindset as many of the world’s wealthy didn’t finish school or university.
His days are long, they usually begin at 5am and end in the early evening. “Your alarm goes off and there are three things you can do: snooze it, shut it off or get up and you train yourself to be disciplined. It’s not easy but you just have to drag yourself up to remain in the game.”