Dr. Manu Chandaria is designated one of the ten outstanding Indians who have been honoured by the Prime Minister of India 9th January 2003 by Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award at New Delhi. The Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards have been instituted to recognize and reward the meritorious contributions made by NRIs and PIOs in the furtherance of India’s interests and causes.
Born Manilal Premchand Chandaria in Nairobi to farming parents who had migrated from India in 1916, he concedes that while he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, there were at least spoons in the house.
He was brought up in Nairobi’s Ngara area in a cramped, yet not uncomfortable, home that they shared with three other families. His father went into business only six months after coming to the country, setting up a provision store in Ngara that catered principally for Asian customers. It later expanded into Mombasa to serve a European and African clientele.
His father, who could only read and write Gujarati, was determined that the young Manu should receive the best education available. He sent him to India for further studies and later to the United States, where he earned a post-graduate degree in engineering. Around this time, his family was buying into Kaluworks and Kenya Tanning, and his brother was setting up Trufoods, with an eye to moving out of wholesale and retail business into industry.
By the time Manu, his brother and two cousins returned from overseas colleges in 1950, the heady growth of the family business of the early 1940s had been halted by ill-advised speculative investments in commodity futures trading in India. He and his siblings, two cousins and two uncles, took over the Kaluworks flagship with its 45 members of staff and by 1958 employed over 800 personnel in the manufacture of a diverse range of steel and aluminium products.
The impending independence of the three East African countries and the East African Community-inspired efforts to distribute industry among its members spurred the family into pre-emptive regional expansion that saw the setting up of their aluminium works in Tanzania.
However, the bulk of their operations remained in Mombasa, where they produced a vast array of domestic implements, kitchen utensils and enamel products. Manu was himself sent to Uganda and later to Congo to oversee the marketing of their Kenyan and Tanzanian products.
By the late 1960s, the family businesses had a strong presence in Zambia, Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria and India, among other countries. By the 1970s, the move beyond Africa had begun in earnest and, by the end of the decade, they had interests in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Australia and South America.
The family group is presently active in 40 countries on all the continents of the world. More significantly, by the late 1960s, with the third generation joining the family businesses, the focus of activities was shifting to steel, specialised hardware, plastics and later, computer hardware and software components.
Significantly, this period marked the reorientation of the family interests from duka-style trading and wholesaling for small niche markets to industrial concerns engaged in aluminium foundries and manufacture of domestic implements and building components such as roofing, plumbing and piping materials.
Their experiences in the more advanced European markets pointed the future direction for the fast-growing group. Clearly, their horizons were in the information technology and service industry sectors. The current IT revolution in India showed the foresight in this thinking.
The family group’s edge over their business rivals was their ability to draw upon advancements in one market and use them to gain competitive advantage in another. The seriousness with which they take this is evident from the weeklong meetings that the 68-member international family management team hold at least once a year to discuss changing trends and the directions that the businesses should move in.
Inspired by the 16-hour days that his own father put into his fledgling businesses as a child, Dr. Chandaria believes unsurprisingly in the virtue of hard work and perseverance. He wakes up at 5.30 am every day if only to spend time reading about new trends and policy initiatives by developing country leaders in our region and in the Indian subcontinent. He believes in the benefits of education and has been instrumental in the sponsoring of graduate studies at the University of Nairobi.
Dr. Chandaria’s own doctorate in science was awarded in recognition of his achievements in industrial manufacturing. He believes in the discipline of professional management. None of his businesses are actually run by members of his family but by professional managers appointed strictly on the basis of merit.
The businesses themselves are the product of a process that involves identifying an idea by an individual entrepreneur or group which they can support, either by investing or by enabling access to capital, or indeed by taking it over altogether.
He maintains that this approach is not quite the same as venture capital, as there is a greater degree of involvement. The next part of the process is a close monitoring of the quality of management and the product or outputs.
Drawing on their cross-border experiences, the group are also able to decide whether or not to buy into the company or project altogether or simply nurture it for future involvement in different countries.
Dr. Chandaria is a firm believer in the IT prospects of well educated populations such as Kenya’s and strongly advocates the zero-rating of duties on computer hardware and software and additional support for all forms of computer training.
Dr. Chandaria’s approach is underpinned by a fundamental belief in the value of empowerment and capacity building. He does not see the merit in the focus on attracting foreign investments, if the institutions that are best placed to utilise such funds are not yet existent let alone accessible. This is the prime motivation for the large number of social and charitable initiatives that he has either started or participated in.
The Asian Foundation, of which he is chairman, set up the vegetable hawker’s project at City Park off Limuru Road in Parklands, with the aim of giving farmers and traders easy access to the market. He has been involved in many other charities, either through the Chandaria family foundation or directly through the Rotary Club.
Dr. Chandaria believes that the Kenyan economy is in a pathetic state because of a general preoccupation with politics rather than the development of the economy. Infrastructure maintenance has been seriously neglected, the agricultural marketing boards have been compromised, and development concerns have been denied priority.
As a former chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and an active participant in many consultative committees, decision-makers in government take his opinions on ways to improve the economy seriously.
However, as he himself noted in a speech at the launch of the consultative process for the preparation of the full Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper recently, he has attended “a good number of seminars where the quality of views expressed are remarkable.”