Just this week, the 2023 edition of the All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) awarded its prestigious “Industrialist of the Year” title to Rwandan manufacturing magnate Mohammed Dewji, granting recognition to the storied rise and success of the young billionaire. Considered “Africa’s youngest billionaire” in 2018 after accruing a $1.5 billion net worth in 2018, the now 48-year-old businessman and former politician has made a name for himself owning and operating Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania Limited (MeTL), a sub-Saharan conglomerate involved in the manufacturing of a variety of goods including textiles, beverages, flour, and cooking oils. With Dewji now the 13th richest man in Africa, it’s worth diving into the Tanzanian’s rise to fame and fortune.
On the one hand, Dewji comes from rather modest beginnings. Forbes Africa claims that, “Legend has it that his family,” who was originally from western India, “were blown in a dhow across the Indian Ocean, landing in Zanzibar with very little.” Nonetheless, the Dewji family was able to find success in their newfound African surroundings thanks to Mohammed’s father, who had founded a fledgling but successful import-export business that was able to finance a good education and upbringing for his children. Mohammed ended up attending Georgetown University, and upon graduating in 1998 soon took the role of CFO at his father’s MeTL.
Immediately, Dewji attempted to broaden the firm’s presence from being a mere trading house to one that manufactures products itself. Dewji recollects to Forbes, “Trading makes a decent amount of money, but I’ve always felt it is too passive. We were importing soap, which to me was ridiculous. Why import soap? Why couldn’t we manufacture the soap ourselves?”. By 2003, Dewji got that chance as the Tanzanian government began to sell off state-owned manufacturing assets at discounted prices. Taking a $1 million loan from his father, he purchased a soap manufacturing plant, edible oil refinery, and several textile mills, turning them profitable in less than two years thanks to “lean management” tactics that Forbes contributor Mfonobong Nsehe describes as, “investing in technology and experienced personnel and cutting costs as much as possible.”
Overall, Dewji, then aged just 29, gambled on the idea that domesticating supply chains and maintaining manufacturing within Tanzanian borders would be a profitable venture, yet it was one that highly paid off thanks to his renewed investment in the newly privatized industry. The three textile mills purchased by him have grown to produce 100 million meters of cloth annually, while the edible oil refinery has now grown to hold a 70 percent market share in Tanzania. In the process, Dewji has not been afraid to expand MeTL into other avenues as well, including real estate, petroleum, and agriculture. This ambitious diversification in all areas of Tanzanian manufacturing has surely paid off not only for MeTL but for the sub-Saharan nation in which the company operates out of.
On the one hand, MeTL’s 150 product lines are said to generate around $2.5 billion in annual revenue, over 3 percent of Tanzania’s GDP, and is also the country’s largest employer with around 24,000 working for the firm. Meanwhile, Dewji’s idea to promote Tanzania’s manufacturing industry has obviously brought with it more jobs and greater wealth for the developing economy, as Tanzania hosts larger portions of supply chains and captures more value in the process, promoting domestic industry without the tradeoff of higher prices that come through protectionist policies such as tariffs and import taxes.
Thus, in the larger picture, the rise and rise of Mohammed Dewji not only reflects the success of a young billionaire, but the success of an entire country that has enjoyed the end products of a risk-taking entrepreneurial venture. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the African Industrialist of the Year’s triumph, it perhaps might be that the free market is a positive-sum game. The triumph of one, as in Mohammed Dewji’s case, may translate to the triumph of an entire nation.