Asian businessman Maganlal Motichand (MM) Chandaria came to Kenya when he was barely eight years old. He has done business in pre and post independent Kenya under various political regimes and tells CAROLE KIMUTAI about his business journey.
The story of MM Chandaria is a classic rags to riches one. As Kenya celebrated 50 years since independence, two years ago, MM is clocking 82 years since he first set foot in Kenya. I met MM on a cold Monday morning in one of his factories in Baba Dogo, Ruaraka which is also the headquarters of the Chandaria Industries Ltd. His grandson Bhavnish Chandaria, a Director in the company tells me that MM– now in his 90’s–is still very active in the business. “Despite his advanced age, he comes to the office everyday at 9am, leaves for lunch with his wife and returns in the afternoon, leaving at 5pm.” Bhavnish confides that he cannot really keep up with his grandfather’s pace. “He reads a lot and knows the business inside out,” says Bhavnish.
Kenya’s history is littered with the stories of successful Asian businessmen who have made a major contribution to the economy and development of this country. Some of the Asian families had forefathers whom remained in Kenya after building the Kenya-Uganda railway. Others came to Kenya to take advantage of the trade opportunities. An example is Dr. Manu Chandaria’s family. His father came to Kenya in 1916 and six months later he had set up a provision shop in Ngara that catered for Asian customers.
The Muhindi entrepreneur
“The success of the Muhindi entrepreneur in Kenya is not really in question. South Asians run many things: from small shops to sprawling multinationals. They own workshops and contracting firms. They build roads and control hotels. They sell lots of stuff: from bicycles to broadband; from sukuma to satellite dishes,” says Sunny Bindra.
The MM Chandaria family story is old and yet very much alive as stories of many other successful Indian families in East Africa. As the family patriarch, MM defined the destiny of his family when he came to Kenya in 1933. He lived in a poor Indian village called Rewalsar in the Indian state of Gujarat. His mother sent him to stay with an uncle who was running Bhaguuanji & Company Ltd. “She did not see anything coming out of Rewalsar,” says MM. The next time he met his parents, he was 24 years old and had to be reintroduced to his father. “We had not communicated or exchanged any photographs. It was like meeting a new person,” recalls MM.
When he came to Kenya, MM went to primary school where he was a free scholar because he had no money for school fees. After completing school, he joined his uncle’s business where he worked for seven years. MM equates the seven years’ work experience to acquiring a Harvard MBA. “That is where I learnt everything I know about business,” he says. MM knew his coming to Kenya was to give his children and their children a much more comfortable life than he had. “I remember once when we travelled to London on holiday. My grandfather told us we were lucky to have a driver drop us at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and another pick us from Heathrow Airport to take us to a home we own,” interjects Bhavnish.
MM remains quiet for what seems like a minute in deep reflection and continues to narrate his story.
Mombasa as a business hub
Nine years after arriving in Kenya, MM jumped into the murky waters of entrepreneurship. “I did not want my children to suffer like I did so I started with a shop in 1942 in a 10 by 10 feet space in Mombasa.” His ambitions were bigger than the shop. He then went in to the business of Clearing and Forwarding business. He even tried his hand in the transport business.
Mombasa City plays an interesting part in the genesis of many Indian owned businesses. For example, the Comcraft Group’s Mabati Rolling Mills – the first galvanising plant in Kenya was set up in Mombasa in 1961. Mombasa was a trading centre. In the late 1800s, Mombasa was the base of exploration for British expeditions to Kenya’s interior. The British affirmed Mombasa’s importance as East Africa’s most vital port when they completed a railway in 1901 stretching from Mombasa to Uganda. Today, Mombasa remains one of Africa’s major links to the rest of the world.
MM was always looking out for opportunities. “Deep down, my heart was in manufacturing,” he says. One day while attending a party, a drinking straw he was using fell apart and he had his “aha” moment. “I decided to go into the business of making straws – they were a luxury item back in the 1940s.”
He bought a straw making machine for KSh 20,000. He had only KSh 5,000. The rest he borrowed from friends. The machine arrived after six months. “Since I could not afford to bring a technician, my brother and I tested the machine and it did not work. I thought I had been conned!” After many trials, the machine worked and the profit margins set the path for MM to get into manufacturing. His next business was making toilet rolls. The portfolio has since grown to include paper napkins, facial tissues, kitchen towels and other paper brands for institutional and industrial use.
MM like other Indian businessmen placed their bet on the manufacturing sector. With the impending independence of the three East African countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) and the East African Community in the 1960’s, there was a huge market for consumer goods as a lot of things were being imported. With the foreign exchange earned from Agriculture, the new African government were certainly going to set up industries to manufacture locally, provide employment and boost their economies.
MM has vivid memories of when Kenya got its independence. “After independence there was a lot of mix up in this country. Most Indians felt like they were not going to remain in Kenya so they started going out but I stayed on with a few others and expanded my business.”
Having set base in Mombasa, MM had a factory near the Mombasa Airport. When the government decided to expand the facility, he was compensated and reallocated a different piece of land. However, MM made a business decision that paid off handsomely. He decided to relocate his factory, family and workers to Nairobi because it was more central. In 1975, MM bought 10 acres of land in Baba Dogo – then a coffee farm. He was the first to set up a factory in the place. “People wondered what a man from Mombasa was doing in Nairobi. When I came to Baba Dogo, there was no telephone connection, water or sewage. We fought to get amenities from the government,” he adds.
Highs and lows
MM has had various low moments in his business and personal life. There was a time no bank would lend him any credit. Today, MM owns a bank – the Guardian Bank. As a straw manufacturer the people who used to supply his cartons for packing the straws would frustrate him. For example they would ask for payment in advance – which he did not have. “That is when I decided to start a carton making factory despite not having any knowledge at all of what it involved.”
Then, there was only one carton manufacturer. When they found out he was going to be their competitor, they were not amused. After his machine arrived, they called him and tried to intimidate him into changing his mind. “The manager asked why I was competing with a multi-national and offered to buy my machine. I said I would run the machine and if I failed I would dump the machine in the sea! I won’t sell to you.”
By what he calls good luck, the competition ran out of raw materials. The quality of MM’s cartons were obviously inferior but the shortage was a turning point for his business because people queued to buy his cartons. Today the Chandaria group has four paper mills two in Nairobi, Thika and Tanzania.
A high in his personal life was recently getting an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree from the United Graduate College & Seminary International for his work in brining positive change to Kenya. A low moment in his life was in January 2003 when his elder son Dinesh passed away after contracting cerebral malaria. “He greatly contributed towards growing the business. That was the biggest setback for me,” says MM.
MM says the future of Kenya is in manufacturing. “I travel a lot and I am yet to see a country like Kenya. The workers here are very sincere – I respect them. The comfort of life in this country, you cannot get it elsewhere – including India. I want to die here!” he concludes.