You may not know their names, but the world’s Little-Known Billionaires wield a hidden economic clout. Read more of this OZY original series.
I first reach Mohammed “Mo” Dewji — the wealthiest man in Tanzania — through Twitter (a fact that’s hardly surprising when you learn he has about 662,000 Facebook followers). When we connect via Skype, the slender 42-year-old is sharply dressed and wearing designer glasses. He is also Africa’s youngest billionaire. Dewji made his fortune as CEO of his father’s company, MeTL Group, a homegrown trading firm that employs 28,000 people. Dramatically expanding its business portfolio from import/export to include manufacturing, agriculture, finance, real estate and more, he boosted the firm’s value from $26 million in the late ’90s to $1.5 billion in 2016. That same year, Dewji joined the Giving Pledge, started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, promising to give away at least half of his wealth, currently valued at nearly $1.3 billion.
Dewji credits his parents and grandmother with instilling a deep sense of responsibility, particularly as a Muslim, to care for less fortunate members of society. In business, he achieves this through impact investing. “When devising our expansion plans, I continuously stressed the importance of a business strategy that sees the economically disadvantaged not as charity cases but as willing and able consumers for products that match their needs,” he wrote in his Giving Pledge letter. Instead of continuing to import soft commodities and finished products, he decided MeTL should manufacture them too, putting purchasing power — and jobs — in the hands of local Tanzanians.
Dewji traces his philanthropic impulse to an experience he had at 24. Walking in Singida, his hometown, he came across a man scooping water from a puddle into a bucket. Refusing to believe the man would use it as drinking water, Dewji followed him home, where, sure enough, young children were sipping the “yellow” water. It was a moment Dewji says propelled him into politics to effect change. In 2005, he was elected to parliament. During Dewji’s 10 years as a member of parliament, Singida went from having two secondary schools to 22, while access to clean water increased from 23 to 84 percent of municipal residents.
His advice for aspiring billionaires? Patience.
Eventually, though, as Dewji climbed the ranks at MeTL, he could no longer effectively toggle between business and politics. After leaving parliament, he channeled his ideas for a poverty-free Tanzania — with a focus on health care, education and business development — into the Mo Dewji Foundation. Launched in 2014, the foundation provides grants for a host of social empowerment projects and academic scholarships (Dewji says his pet project, a pediatric oncology center, has seen survival rates jump from 12 percent to 60 percent).
But charitable deeds aside, any company that derives its wealth from natural resources — as Dewji’s does in part — is bound to have an environmental impact. For starters, MeTL’s subsidiary Star Oils owns and operates approximately 200 gas stations in Tanzania. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates every gallon of gasoline burned (sans ethanol) emits 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, a powerful heat-trapping gas that contributes to climate change, leaving Tanzania’s farmers and others to suffer the consequences. According to Zakaria Faustin, head of land-based investment programs at Tanzania Natural Resource Forum, pasture in dryland areas has shrunk because of diminished rainfall. “Tanzania has two types of rainfall,” he says: short (November to December) and long (March to June). Now, he adds, both are starting late, delivering less rain than normal-length seasons used to provide.
Dewji agrees that global warming is “very serious,” and MeTL has made several changes to reduce its carbon footprint. The company stopped using wood to produce steam in its factories and replaced it with natural gas, and invested over $1 million to install reverse osmosis systems in its textile plants so the water runoff is safe to drink. Dewji insists they remain vigilant, open to and searching for other ways to be more environmentally responsible.
No one disputes that being born a Dewji gave him a head start in business, but he also inherited discipline and drive from his family. Married with three children, he tells of great-great-grandparents who came to Tanzania from India on a dhow — a two-masted boat — in the late 19th century. His father picked up his grandmother’s work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, and together they built the company that Dewji now runs. He says his mother, a caretaker of six children, was the family backbone.
As the company grew, the family split up to manage the various trading hubs: Dewji and his older sister went with their grandmother to Arusha in northern Tanzania, where he attended a British school. A promising golfer, he left home for Florida after 10th grade to enroll at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy outside Tampa. In 1994, Dewji graduated from Saddle Brook High School in New Jersey and, eschewing a career in golf, studied international business and finance at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
True, his family was well-off, he was afforded numerous advantages and, when he returned home, he started by managing a MeTL commodities trading business and was promoted to chief financial officer within two years. Still, his achievements are quantifiable: Today, the company is the biggest employer in Tanzania, produces foods and goods across 21 categories and outsells global brands.
Dewji maintains that his ambition is fueled by perfection more than anything else. At the office by 6 a.m., he finds time to work out twice a day, pray, meet his mother for lunch (even for just 15 minutes, he says) and run 28 or so miles a week. Vipul Kakad, vice president at MeTL and a friend for 19 years, adds: “Even if he has thousands of emails, he would ensure to reply to each and every [one].”
Dewji’s next target is to generate $5 billion in revenue within five to seven years and employ 100,000 people across Africa. His advice for aspiring billionaires? Patience, he says. “Success, money, wealth — it’s climbing the stairs. There’s no elevator.”
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