Gujarati Lohana community is a close-knit, progressive community, known for its business acumen, enterprise and philanthropy. Some of the Gujarati Lohanas who left India for East Africa attained iconic status in corporate and philanthropic sector. In Tanzania it was the Chande family whereas in Uganda, the two renowned families were theNanji Kalidas Mehta family and the Madhvani family respectively.
The engrossing memoir ‘Tide of Fortune: A family Tale ‘by Manubhai Madhvani with Giles Foden narrates the astonishing family tale as well as the history of Uganda during 20th and early 21st Century. The patriarch of the Madhvani dynasty, Muljibhai Madhvani, who was born in Aasiyapat, India, in 1994, immigrated to Uganda, (Pearl of Africa), a British Protectorate, in 1908.
Muljibhai opened his first retail shop in Jinja, about 54 miles from the capital Kampala. The business flourished and Muljibhai thought of a sugar plantation and sugar manufacturing on the fertile soil of Kakira near Jinja. Initially Kakira Sugar Works acquired 800 acres but presently owns about 23,000 acres. Kakira now is the headquarters of the Madhvani Group conglomerate.
Muljibhai’s eldest son Jayant was born in 1922 and second of the five sons, Manubhai was born in 1930. At the age of nine, Manubhai was sent to Mumbai for studies. Young Manubhai enjoyed attending Gandhi’s prayer meetings and was very much inspired by listening to Gandhi, who he regards as his spiritual father.
After finishing their studies both brothers returned to Uganda, and began learning business ropes from their father. Jayant married Meena Chauhan in Mumbai in 1950 and two years later Manubhai married Jyoti Pajwani, also in Mumbai. Following the astounding success of the sugar manufacturing business, Madhvanis began to diversify. In 1952, a new oil mill complex with a refinery for oil and soap was added. And Manubhai began managing cotton ginneries. The businesses were booming but the family was devastated with the untimely demise in 1954, of Muljibhai’s wife Parvatiben at the young age of 45.
Muljibhai knew the Chande family-a prominent Lohana business family in Tanzania. The relationship and friendship was further cemented with the marriage of Muljibhai’s daughter Jayalaxmi with Jayantilal Chande in 1955.
Three years later, the family experienced another grievous loss when 63 year old Muljibhai passed away in July 1958. The business tycoon and visionary Muljibhai who was bestowed with an MBE for his entrepreneurship and community and public service, was cremated on the shore of scenic Lake Victoria. A mausoleum was built to honor his memory. Manubhai extols his exemplary father for his devout nature and his respect for all the religions; his compassionate nature and his concern for the welfare and well-being of his employees; his love, high regard and deep respect for education, his big-hearted philanthropy, and for imbuing in him a strong work ethic.
Jayantbhai and Manubhai helmed the business empire now. Jayantbhai had better academic qualifications than Manubhai. He was a much focused planner with foresight. He could be at home with dignitaries, corporate leaders or politicians and comfortable in doing the PR work. He also served on Uganda’s Legislative Council for a few years before Uganda’s independence in October 1962.Manubhai on the other hand, was practical and a financial expert, so the two made a great team. In 1960, Madhvanis set up Mulco Textiles and in 1964, a steel rolling mill.
On the political front, Milton Obote became independent Uganda’s first Prime Minister. In 1967, Uganda became a republic and Obote became the President. After independence, some leading politicians began whipping up anti-Asian sentiment. Following the 'Arusha Declaration' by Tanzania’s President Nyerere, Obote published ‘ The Common Man’s Charter’, for 60% nationalization of all major industries and businesses. On top of it, strict foreign exchange rules came into force.
Worse was yet to follow. Obote was deposed in 1971 by Idi Amin. While all this was going on, Madhvani family were dealt another cruel blow.49 year old Jayantbhai sadly breathed his last in Delhi, in July 71. In his absence, 41 year old Manubhai had to hold the family as well as the Madhvani Group together in Jayantbhai’s absence.
Under Idi Amin’s rule, the economy was in a downturn. In August 1972, Amin issued a decree ordering the expulsion of about 60,000 Asians and expropriation of their businesses and properties. The Asians were given ninety days to leave Uganda. The British Government under Prime Minister Edward Heath decided to admit into Britain those with UK Passports, so majority left for UK. The unprecedented exodus sent shockwaves through the entire Asian community in other parts of Africa. Manubhai had to undergo a shocking ordeal of imprisonment in the infamous Singapore Block of the Makindye prison. He was lucky to come out alive after three weeks owing to international pressure. His spiritual faith sustained him in prison. Soon after his release, the Madhvani family left Uganda.
After Jayantbhai’s demise, cracks in the joint-family combined with unsettling political events affected the fortunes of the Madhvani Group. Fortunately Madhvanis had other assets in Kenya, Tanzania and India, and younger family members were coming on board. It was decided to divide the non-Uganda operations equally among five brothers. In January 1979, Tanzanian army together with Ugandan exiles sent Amin into exile to Libya. Obote was back in power in 1981.
Manubhai’s wife Jyotiben passed away in September 1982. Obote was ousted in July 1985 and the new President Museveni revived the stagnant Ugandan economy. Madhvanis returned to repossess their assets under the Expropriated Properties Act. Manubhai and his brother Mayur were back at Kakira Sugar Works. The sugar estate was in shambles. Oil and soap refineries were mere shells. But with the help of World Bank, African Development Bank and other financial institutions, Madhvani conglomerate rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. Factories began humming once again. But another big blow awaited. In July,2006,the glass container factory in Lebanon with an annual turnover of $26 million was bombed to the ground!
The bitter blow did not weaken the resolve of the Madhvani family. The family differences were almost resolved and Madhvani Group not only rehabilitated itself but also expanded its diversification into floriculture, tourism, insurance, construction, security, etc..
Manubhai ends the final chapter of his memoirs with moving words,“Seventy eight years! All gone, into golden sunlight, above a prison on earth. The past was obliterated and I was happy, at one with God, joining my crumb of energy with the universal mass, as if I were a grain of sugar swirling in the centrifuge.” And continues, “Nowadays I reflect on my past a lot-walking, cane in hand, down to the familiar place by the lakeshore at the end of a benignly hot Ugandan day. In front is Lake Victoria, its blue waves flicked with gold under the setting sun, lapping the shore… So this is the life. This is the time and the tide and the tale. …And if you should ask me,what is the lesson of it, I would reply that the lesson is the experience itself. Let us get on with it,doing with contentment the best we can.”
The mesmerizing memoir, a glowing testament to Madhvani family’s entrepreneurial spirit, loyalty and love for Uganda, resilience, spine, trust and philanthropy is bound to resonate with the Indian diaspora. “Moving from the sylvan shores of Lake Victoria to war-stricken glass factories in Lebanon, it is an astonishing account of fortunes made, lost and found again. Narrated with the acuity and foresight of a veteran businessman, it is a riveting read."
Noted author Giles Foden, the author of the novel “The Last King of Scotland” (later made into an Oscar-winning movie of the same title), helped Manubhai in writing the riveting memoir.
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