Mulji Prabhudas Madhvani (1894–1958), commonly referred to as Muljibhai Madhvani was an Indian-born Ugandan businessman, entrepreneur, industrialist and philanthropist. Born in India, he migrated to Uganda when he was only 14 years old. In 1912, he started his first business in Jinja. He expanded and added to that initial investment and out of those efforts, the conglomerate known as the Madhvani Group was born.
Muljibhai Madhvani was born to Prabhudasbhai Madhvani and Laduma Madhvani in Ashiyapat in Ranavav Taluka of Porbandar, India on 18 May 1894. He was born in a GujaratiLohana caste. Quote: “Probably the success of the most prominent Lohana families in Uganda, Nanji Kalidas Mehta and Sons, M. P. Madhvani and D. K. Hindocha had much influence on Lohana migration from Porbandar and Jamnagar..” He studied up to Standard VII, before joining the Lohana Boarding House in Porbander, Gujarat, India. He dropped out shortly after Class 1.
In 1908, he migrated to Uganda, following his older brother Nanjibhai Madhvani, who had emigrated to the East African country, two years earlier. In 1911, at age of 17, he started working for his uncles, Vithaldas and Kalidas, in a retail business in Iganga. He was able to learn about trade and industry while working in Iganga. Soon, while still only 17 years old, his uncles entrusted him with opening up an affiliated store in Kaliro in modern-day Kaliro District.
The business acumen he exhibited impressed his uncles who later asked him to open up another shop in Jinja, where he started to build his first business, the Vithaldas Haridas & Company, while he was still an employee of his uncles. In 1918, the company bought 800 acres (3.2 km2) of land in Kakira, between Jinja and Iganga, for the purpose of starting a sugar factory. Muljibhai later became the managing director of Vithaldas Haridas & Company. That sugar complex, which is today known as Kakira Sugar Works, opened in 1930. By adding to the original parcel of land, through purchases, the current company land holdings at Kakira, are in excess of 9,500 hectares (37 sq mi), as of April 2009.
According to the group company profile, the years up to the 1960s were good for Uganda and Madhvani. The commodity market was doing well and the middle class, spawned by Uganda’s industrialisation, was growing steadily. By the 1950s, the sugar estate was well established.
Muljibhai’s two elder sons, Jayant Madhvani and Manubhai Madhvani, had joined him in 1946 to assist with the running of the business. It was during that decade that Muljibhai ventured into textiles and beer. Using what was probably the first International Finance Corporation loan to an African country, he set up Mulco Textiles in Jinja. He also acquired Nile Breweries in 1957. The brewery was divested to South African Breweries in 2002.
As his business prospered, Muljibhai was keen to take care of the well-being and welfare of his employees and the community. His workers and their dependents have enjoyed free education, housing and healthcare, many decades before the term “corporate social responsibility” was even devised.
Muljibhai Madhvani died on 11 July 1958 in Kakira, where he was cremated. However a mausoleum that was constructed in his memory lies at the lakeside along that of his elder son and heir, Jayant Madhvani. After the death of their father, Jayant and his brother Manubhai, oversaw the group’s diversification into oil and soap manufacturing, steel, tea and glass production. Then came the Asian expulsion in 1972 by Idi Amin. By then, the group had grown into a complex of 52 industrial, commercial and agricultural companies, operating in East Africa, Central Africa and Southern Africa.
In 1972, the Madhvanis who had known no home other than Uganda, left the country penniless, along with thousands of other Ugandan-Asians. However, the family returned in 1982 to repossess their properties under the Expropriated Properties Bill extended by the Obote government to lure Asians back into the country. On return, they found the sugar estate in shambles. Less than 5,000 acres (20 km2) was under cane cultivation and sugar production had long ceased. All the associated industries such as oil and soap were mere shells of their former selves.
The company was debt-ridden and Uganda was not very creditworthy at the time. But the World Bank gave the group a £50 million (US$60 million) loan to rehabilitate the estate. More loans from the East African Development Bank and the Uganda Development Bank helped revive the conglomerate and fuel the acquisition of new assets.