Industrialist Manu Chandaria on hard work and leading by example

At 84, Kenyan industrialist Dr Manu Chandaria is still actively involved in the running of his family businesses and has no plans to retire. The chairman of Comcraft Group, a multi-billion dollar industrial conglomerate spread across 50 countries, has always believed in hard work.

Manu Chandaria, chairman of Comcraft Group, and his wife Aruna

Manu Chandaria, chairman of Comcraft Group, and his wife Aruna

“My philosophy is zero multiplied by zero is always zero. You stay home, you don’t do anything, it is always zero the next morning. You work a little bit and it becomes one, but one multiplied by one is also one again. Until you reach two, four, eight… then the multiplication and addition starts.”

Chandaria told How we made it in Africa that passion and a clear vision is critical for success in entrepreneurship.

“Have a fire a in the belly, not the ‘maybe I do it maybe I don’t’. Have a clear-cut vision. You will fall but when you do, get up and run again.”

According to Chandaria, Africa presents numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.

“When iron is hot, you hit it, you shape it. This is the time that Africa has all the possibilities and whoever misses it will miss [out] for good,” he said. “Do you have the commitment? Do you have the capacity? That you will fall, you will stumble and you will get up and run, not walk, but run. If you have the capacity, yes, this is the place.”

He noted that while there will always be “turbulence” of some sort on the continent, the “majority of the countries are becoming sane like Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania [and] Uganda” which have experienced conflict but are now stabilising.

“What we require is leading by example. If Kenya is good, then automatically all the countries nearby, they might have internal problems here and there, but they will want to prosper too.”

While doing business in Africa still presents many challenges, Chandaria reckons that “ordinary citizens” should use available resources and turn problems into opportunities to improve their lives.

“My father is poor, I am poor, my children are poor. How long are we going to be like this? It is a calling for Africa. Come on men, this is the time to get up and do something. The field is just open. There is no end to the opportunities. I am not thinking – it is not a question of thinking – I [believe] that this is the time for Africa.”

Young entrepreneurs

Passionate about youth mentorship, Chandaria is often invited to speak to young entrepreneurs.

He lauded the Kenyan government for creating a KSh.6bn (US$70m) fund for youth and making it possible for young people to gain access to markets through a provision stipulating that 30% of government contracts be awarded to the youth, women and people living with disabilities.

“But they forgot one thing. Where are these people going to work [from]? If they work in Nairobi, the city council will just pick them up and throw them inside [jail]. Young people require money, space and market. If you don’t have the space, where do you work from?” he asked. “We have got thousands of matatus (public transport vehicles). Can all these matatus go to DT Dobie (motor vehicle company) for repair? We can create thousands of workshops where matatus can go for repairs and 100,000 people will work in transport alone.”

According to Chandaria, up to 7m secondary school leavers and university graduates in Kenya are seeking employment, a common phenomenon across Africa.

“No government can create [this number] of jobs. All we can do is create an environment where everybody starts manufacturing, making [and] adding value to something,” said the industrialist.

Social work

Beyond business, Chandaria is also interested in philanthropic work and has given his time and millions of dollars to education and health causes. Humble and modest, Chandaria told a reporter three years ago that he owns only four suits.

“I walk to Mathare slums myself. Just last month I walked for about two hours there. Everybody salutes me and wants to take a photograph with me because of the social work I do. They don’t feel that I am different from them. As long as you are a part and parcel of a society, a country and the growth of a people of a country, then everybody appreciates you.”

In Kenya, the Chandaria Foundation has funded the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University and the Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre at Kenyatta University. The foundation, which was established in 1956, has also financed technical training institutions and the establishment of clinics and special wings in hospitals across the region.

“My next target is to build [a] Chandaria school in every slum,” he said, adding that the Chandaria family has built 15 health centres in Kenya and plans to double this.

“All these give strength of conviction: that I am here and what I have is from here, for this country. We have got many billionaires today here who feel unsafe. They don’t want to put anything anywhere as if they are going to lose. When you die you don’t take anything with you anywhere. How the Asian community came up is because of holding each other’s hand.”