East Africa Profile Feature

Mo Dewji: Billionaire with the magic touch

Mo Dewji: Billionaire with the magic touch
  • PublishedMarch 31, 2023

Few embody the spirit of Tanzania’s steady and relentless march towards increased prosperity like Mohammed Dewji, the country’s entrepreneur supreme – and Africa’s youngest billionaire – whose MeTL Group’s 150 product lines are believed to be generating revenues of around $2.5bn.

This is a very sizeable chunk in a country with a GDP of circa $70bn and reflects the scope and depth of his investments. MeTL is involved in virtually all productive sectors of the economy – spanning trading, agriculture, manufacturing, packaging, milling, logistics, mobile telephony, IT, financial services and real estate. Across Tanzania the group employs around 38,000 people and it has interests in the neighbouring East and Central African countries.

Agri-based products range from cordage made from sisal to tea, cotton, cashew, cotton, palm oil and a variety of seeds; manufacturing includes textiles, beverages, oils and soaps, flour, milling, sugar, petroleum products, detergents, as well as bicycles and three-wheelers, distributed to a rapidly expanding market.

The group has probably the country’s largest network of stores and distribution outlets for essentials like rice, wheat, maize and other essentials. It has its own container depots to handle its large volumes of exports and imports and it is working on housing estates and developing hotels and leisure facilities.

The 47-year old Mohammed – or Mo Dewji as he is generally referred to – in many ways epitomises the energy, confidence and ambition of many of Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs. Despite his wealth and the fact that he is of Asian origin, he is regarded by most Tanzanians as a local boy made good.

He was born in the sleepy town of Singida, central Tanzania but his family’s entrepreneurial genes were already evident. His grandmother ran a small duka (shop) from her home, breaking bulk and selling small portions at retail prices that most could afford in addition to a motley collection of whatever was needed, from soap to matches to paraffin.

His father, Gulamabbas Dewji took the business up several gears, importing and exporting an increasing range of commodities like sugar and wheat and soft manufactures like soap and toothpaste, and exporting cashews, maize and other agricultural products.  

The senior Dewji also set up a thriving distribution network. He founded MeTL in the 1970s and as the financial lot of the majority began to improve a decade or so after independence in 1961, his business expanded considerably. By the turn of the century MeTL had grown into one of the country’s biggest trading houses, worth around $30m.

But it remained essentially a family business and Mo recalls that from the age of 11, his father began to tutor him into the intricacies of the business and even took him on extended overseas trips to expose him to the wider world of commerce.

Far horizons

Mo Dewji attended the Tanzania International School where he enjoyed the sporting life and shared a passion for golf with his father. He was sent to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida to hone his talents and perhaps end up as a professional.

After a while, he decided to give up on the idea of professional golf and switched to a regular school in Florida. Later, he chose the very unlikely combination of international business and finance and theology as his main subjects at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He was employed by a Wall Street firm in New York and enjoyed the lifestyle but found it hard, after paying the high rents and taxes, to make ends meet from his pay-packet.

In an interview with Mfonobong Nsehe, editor-in-chief of Billionaires.Africa, he says he asked his father for financial support. The answer was a firm no. “He said I was chasing pennies in New York and helping the Americans build their economy, whereas there was a family business to run, and fortunes to be made in Tanzania.”

He told Craig Mullaney of Brunswick Review: “As much as I wanted to work on Wall Street, I thought that I would make a bigger difference if I came back to Tanzania.”

Return to Africa

Mo Dewji’s decision to return home, albeit encouraged by his father, rather than make a new life for himself in the West as many of his and previous generations had done, is significant. It reflects a steadily growing trend among Africans who have done exceptionally well studying or working in the West, to eschew the stability and personal growth opportunities there and bring their new skills and wider and more ambitious outlooks back to the service of their home countries.

Mo began his career at MeTL in 1999 at the age of 24 and says he went systematically through the grades, from financial director to becoming the President of the company.

Like many of his contemporaries in Africa, he wondered why the industrial revolution that the continent needed so badly and which had been the cornerstone of many government policies was taking so long to materialise. Why was there so little value addition, why were so many consumer items still being imported? How could Africa get ahead unless it embraced industrialisation, both for domestic consumption and exports?

He drew up plans for an edible oils factory for starters; his father thought the time was not yet ripe to move away from their trading comfort zone but Mo, with his wider perspective was convinced that industrialisation was the way to go.

His opportunity came in early 2000 when the government decided to privatise a sheaf of loss-making state-owned companies that had been set up during the country’s socialist phase. “Essentially, these companies had been run down to bankruptcy because of government inefficiencies and they were eager to sell them at giveaway prices,” he recounted to Billionaires.Africa. “I took a loan and bought a lot of these sick industrial operations, including [in] soap production, grain milling, rice, and sugar blending. I also went into the edible oil business and textiles.”

He invested heavily in state-of-the-art machinery and modern, vertically integrated management systems. The transformation has been described as ‘miraculous’. From 1999 to 2022, his vision, management and energy took MeTL from $30m to its current value of around $2bn.

The transformation of loss-making, inefficient parastatals into some of the most profitable companies in Africa has been spectacular. His 21st Century Textiles, for instance, is now the largest textile producer in sub-Saharan Africa, employing 2,300 people with an output of 100m metres of produced fabric annually; his food and packaging factories mill 1,250 metric tons of wheat per day and 300 metric tons of maize per day, accounting for over 25% of the local market share; and his flagship soft drink, Mo Extra accounts for 70% of the carbonated soft drinks market.

He has been setting up factories  everywhere in the East and Central African region and wants to expand his plants’ bottling capacity from the current 1bn to 3.5bn “over the next 24-36 months”, he told CNN.

He has now set his sights on making his part of the world food- secure by applying technology and capital to what he terms “abundant arable land”. He has pledged $200m to a fund specifically dedicated to this end.

The ordeal and beyond

Life and business rolled along remarkably smoothly for Mo Dewji as he made the cover of African Business and Forbes magazines among others, collecting handfuls of awards for his contribution to business from organisations around the world until, on one fateful day in 2018, everything seemed to change.

He was abducted from a gym he frequented and held in a secret location for 10 days by persons so far unknown. He had been a familiar figure around Dar es Salaam, exchanging jokes and greetings with passers-by as he jogged his regulation five miles every dawn. His kidnapping sent shock waves across the country and was headline news in all major papers until he was finally released.

During his incarceration, millions rallied to the hashtag #bringbackMo and set up collective prayers for his safe release. He says he has never forgotten how “The poorest of the poor stood up for me, they prayed for me. It was unbelievable. It was the best feeling.”

While he was a captive, he says he had ample time to reflect on his life and come to terms with the circumstances he found himself in. “I am very grateful to God for giving me a chance at a new life,” he said and that his priorities had changed. He was no longer driven by the ambition to become more wealthy personally, but to work harder for the common good and give back.

In 2016 he joined the Giving Pledge, a movement of philanthropists who commit to give the majority of their wealth to charitable causes, either during their lifetimes or in their wills. It was created by Warren Buffet, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates. Other African pledgers include Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Mo Ibrahim and Patrice and Precious Motsepe.

While the kidnapping may have jolted Dewji into acknowledging the fragility of life and reassessing his priorities, there is no doubt that a strong streak of community service ran through most of his activities well before the traumatic event.

Dewji is a member of the Shia Ithna Asheri community with its ancestral roots in Kutch and Gujerat in India. The enterprising community has a traditional sense of communal development and responsibility and low-key but generous philanthropy towards all in the country. 

The sense of ujamaa (communal solidarity), the country’s moral watchword during its early days of independence, may have been watered down over the decades but is still part of its DNA. It is therefore not surprising that Dewji would enter politics in 2000 and be elected MP for his home constituency of Singida in 2005.

Residents fondly remember him building schools, digging wells, improving access to water for farmers, providing scholarships, rehabilitating mosques and churches, installing street lights and providing food support during periods of droughts.

He stepped down in 2015 because he said the demands of business and the international travel involved did not leave him sufficient time to carry out his duties as an MP. Nevertheless he set up the Mo Dewji Foundation in 2014 to carry on the charity work.

At 47, Mo Dewji is only just entering his prime and given his management skills, energy and ambition, still has a very long way to go on a journey that will, inevitably, help lead his country to its industrialisation destination.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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