East Africa’s Asian kings of cash

Across Africa, Asian entrepreneurs stand out for their success and longevity.

Aly-Khan Satchu, a Kenyan-Asian financial analyst and CEO of investment advisory firm Rich Management, notes that Asian-owned companies have been embedded in the African ecosystem for more than a century.

“For example, my family came to east Africa in the 1880s. This longevity has given Asian businesses an advantage in what remains an asymmetric African landscape,” he says.

Africa is witnessing a second wave of Asian investments such as Indian telecoms giant Bharti Airtel that in 2010 took over the sub-Saharan African assets of Kuwait-based mobile company Zain.

According to Satchu, one of the reasons behind the success of Asian businesses is their ability to leverage family human capital effectively. “I also think Asian businesses have a ‘live meagre, dream big’ philosophy as Kenyan industrialist Manu Chandaria once put it,” says Satchu.

Here are five outstanding east African businesses with Asian roots.

The Shah family – Kenya

Atul Shah

The Shah’s behind the Nakumatt supermarket chain have built one of Africa’s most successful companies.

Last year, Nakumatt Holdings landed a spot in Campden FB’s list of the top 50 fastest growing family businesses across the world. Its managing director Atul Shah was named by the Financial Times as one of the top 50 emerging market business leaders alongside Nigerian industrialist Aliko Dangote and Kenya’s Equity Bank group CEO James Mwangi.

Mangalal Shah migrated to Kenya from India in 1947. He faced lots of challenges in his business career, including bankruptcy and significant debt when his clothing company went sour.

Following the collapse of the clothing venture, Mangalal Shah went to work for his brother Hasmukh, who was then running a shop called Nakuru Mattresses. Mangalal’s two sons Vimal and Atul also opened a small store called Furmatts where they sold bed sheets. Father and sons later teamed up to pay off their debts and bought Nakuru Mattresses from Hasmukh, who moved to UK.

Today, Nakumatt Holdings has 35 supermarkets across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and is planning to enter Burundi, South Sudan, the DRC, Nigeria, Botswana and Malawi.

The Madhvani family – Uganda

The story is told of how Muljibhai Prabhudas Madhvani in 1912, at the age of 18, moved from India and settled in Uganda. He began producing unrefined sugar, laying the foundation for what is today known as Kakira Sugar Works Limited, Uganda’s largest sugar producer. By the time he passed away in 1958, Madhvani was a force to be reckoned with in business.

In the 1970s the family was expelled from Uganda by the Idi Amin government and the business came close to total collapse. In 1985 the family returned to Uganda and revived their operations with financing from the African Development Bank and the World Bank.

Last year Kakira Sugar Works had over 8,500 registered farmers as outgrowers and produced 158,000 tons of sugar.

Bedsides sugar the Madhvani Group also has significant interests in industries such as tea, floriculture, glass, matches, construction, insurance and tourism, to name a few.

According to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, the Madhvani family pays taxes amounting to US$60 million annually.

Ruparelia Group of Companies – Uganda

Sudhir Ruparelia

Sudhir Ruparelia, the founder and chairman of the Ruparelia Group of Companies, reportedly owns a quarter of the buildings strategically located in the Ugandan capital Kampala’s central business district.

In 1897 Ruparelia’s family arrived in Mombasa from India. He was born in 1956 in Uganda, but at the age of 16 moved to the UK with his family. However, in 1985 he decided to return to Uganda, where he started out selling salt, and later beer. After the beer business came to a standstill, Ruparelia got involved in foreign exchange. In 1995 he opened Crane Bank. “We made profits from banking and spread out to real estate, hotels, and other investments,” said Ruparelia in a recent interview.

Today the Ruparelia Group of Companies has diverse interests in banking, insurance, hospitality, conventions and leisure centres, media, education, real estate development, property management and floriculture.

The Mehta Group – Uganda

Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta, travelled from India to Africa in the year 1900 at age 13, with the sheer determination to succeed. He began as a small trader, grew sugar cane, tea and coffee and ran 29 ginneries. When he died in 1969, Mehta had built a strong business empire spanning Kenya, Uganda and India. Today the Mehta Group extends to the US, Canada and the UK with about 20 companies.

According to its website, the Mehta Group controls assets in excess of $400 million and has over 15,000 employees worldwide.

The Mehta Group is a true east African export. The group has its headquarters in India. It owns the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd. (SCOUL)  and has interests in cement and building materials, packaging, horticulture, engineering, electrical cables, agro chemicals, and financial services.

Naushad Merali

Sameer Group of Companies – Kenya

Naushad Merali is the genius behind the Sameer Group of Companies. He is no ordinary businessman.

When Merali owned 40 % of telecommunications firm Kencell (now Airtel) he reportedly bought the remaining 60% stake from Vivendi and sold the same shares to Celtel two hours later, making $20 million in profits. It is no wonder he is often compared with US billionaire Donald Trump.

The Sameer Group has about 15 companies, operating in agriculture, construction, energy and power, an export processing zone, information technology, telecommunications, finance and transport. Merali attended school in Nairobi.