When Mohammed Dewji (BSBA ’98) was a child, he lived in a house without a television in a remote part of Tanzania. Today, he looks out his office window in a Dar es Salaam high-rise and sees the Indian Ocean.
Dewji’s story — a child of successful traders becoming the co-owner of the largest company in Tanzania — also is the story of his country. The eastern African nation that began the 1970s as a socialist enclave now stands as a free-market nation with a 7 percent annual growth rate.
“I really believe that by 2030, Tanzania could have one of the top five biggest GDP economies in Africa,” says Dewji, 39, group CEO of Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania (MeTL). “If we have a proper vision of what we can be, and the business know-how, we can get there.”
As a continent, Africa has all the ingredients to be an economic hothouse. It boasts some of the world’s richest reserves of oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, platinum, and other resources, and is home to four of the world’s fastest-growing economies, as listed by the Economist Intelligence Group. Half of Africans are 19 years old or younger, making it the youngest population in the world.
However, reaching that economic potential will take home-grown industrialists like Dewji, as well as foreign investment and entrepreneurial support.
Many from Georgetown McDonough have a hand in economic development in Africa, from student projects to custom executive education programs to enterprising alumni.
Sola Obadimu sees a bright future for his native Nigeria. After all, Nigeria has the continent’s second-largest economy, behind only South Africa. His home country has abundant crude oil, a bustling stock market, an active space program, international investment, and a stable, tropical climate devoid of natural disasters.
The trick, says Obadimu, is to transition away from years of government corruption and into an economy the world can trust. Obadimu does his part as director of capacity building at the Nigerian Institute of Management, which offers diploma programs in management and sets standards for professional managers.
“The bottom line is that loans and investment come from confidence in business and in leaders,” says Obadimu, who has an MBA from the University of Lagos. “Bad governance is a liability. It easily discourages investment. This is why we came to Georgetown.”
Obadimu is one of many Nigerians selected by the institute to participate in a custom program through Georgetown McDonough’s Office of Executive Education. Every other year for the past five years, 20 Nigerian business and government leaders have come to the school, taken customized classes, and role-played real-world leadership challenges. Obadimu was among the 2012 group, just as he was beginning his work with the institute.
“It was a fantastic experience,” says Obadimu, 50. “We got to experience the reality of what it means to practice positive leadership and good governance. It has helped to enhance my objectivity and to erase biases in judgment generally, making it easier to focus on goals and organizational development.”
Instilling a sense of trust in world economic powers is a challenge. After years of military dictatorships and internal power struggles between the ruling parties and regional groups, Nigeria is trying to transform its reputation away from being known as a haven for email confidence schemes and government corruption.
Obadimu has been on the front lines of this fight for years. He helped address ethical weaknesses within the country’s corporate governance law as a member of the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission’s Committee on Corporate Governance of Public Companies. Later, he was the founding executive secretary at the Nigerian-South African Chamber of Commerce, a trade and economic development group. There, he participated in the Nigeria/South Africa Bi-National Commission, designed to bring more economic development to Africa.
Obadimu’s experience at Georgetown McDonough spurred him on.
“Nigeria’s 170 million people need to be serviced to enable them to function as dignified human beings,” he says. “Nigeria has so much potential. That is why we have decided to expose leaders in both the public and the private sectors of the Nigerian economy to top leadership training at Georgetown. The goal is to institute a system where the cream can rise to the top.”
At a small clinic in Tanzania in 2007, Brendan Callahan (MBA ’13) held babies dying of AIDS; he saw people who were disfigured or struggled with mental illnesses. He prayed for the courage to enter a room at the clinic where two men were screaming and flailing so badly that they were tied to their wheelchairs.
Slowly, he placed a hand on each man’s shoulder, rubbing circles to comfort them. Within minutes, the shaking had subsided to rocking, which led to small smiles on the men’s faces. It was a moment Callahan will never forget.
“We were connecting,” he says. “It was one of those moments where I realized I could make an impact, that I could do something to change things.”
When Callahan returned from the trip, he skipped late nights with friends to read up on how to start a nonprofit. He learned Swahili. In quiet moments, images of street beggars confronted him. Or he recalled children tugging at his shorts, begging for textbooks.
The children moved him most. He never had questioned that books or desks would be waiting for him, or that there would be a school for him to attend. As a business student, he knew economies flourish only with educated citizens.
Achieve in Africa, a nonprofit designed to improve the lives of Africans by expanding their access to education and health care, was born. So far, the endeavor has raised more than $140,000, overseen the expansion of a primary school in Olasiti, Tanzania, and begun construction of the village’s only secondary school, benefiting 800 students.
“What we’re trying to do is break the cycle of the status quo,” Callahan says, “where a child goes through lower levels of education and then drops out and helps in the field.”
While Achieve in Africa has roots in Callahan’s time at Boston University, his Georgetown MBA made the nonprofit what it is today, he says. In class, he would draw a line down each page in his notebook. One side contained the notes for the class. The other listed ideas that could make Achieve in Africa more effective.
“Overall, what I learned is that people are everything,” he says. “The people on our board are what enable the organization to do everything it does. Donors make it all possible. Our people in Africa are our eyes and ears.”
Those people include Rick Rivera (MBA ’13), Achieve in Africa’s board treasurer, as well as his fellow McDonough students. When the Evening Program Class of 2013 found out about the organization, students donated enough money to buy 91 desks for the school — almost enough to fill two classrooms. For now, Callahan works full time leading change and process improvements at Lockheed Martin, but he would like to move Achieve in Africa from an all-volunteer structure to something more professional.
The organization’s success rests in the dreams of the students, though. Recently, the teachers at Olasiti’s primary school asked the students what they would like to do for a living. The answers? Pilots, doctors, businessmen.
“These kids are dreaming of what’s possible,” he says. “If we were to have done this poll five years ago, I don’t think they would be saying those professions. It would have been, ‘farmer, truck driver.’”
Langa Township in South Africa had a problem. With a 50 percent unemployment rate and a legacy of subsidized housing, the area needed investment. But few business owners visited the area, which is just outside of Capetown.
Enter Cherian Thomas, Tim Powers, and Ted Fahy. The men, all students in McDonough’s Executive Master’s in Leadership (EML) program, had a plan. For two months before they visited the township in August 2013 as part of a global residency project, they worked the phones, email, and Google to identify a business that needed filling, one that could help lift the area out of poverty, spur entrepreneurship, and even clean up the environment.
The solution would become HLAZA Innovation Center, a hub for private-sector recycling of paper, glass, and plastic. But when the trio started, there was little guarantee that it would work.
“We did a two-month blitz before we got there,” said Thomas, 29. “The odds were against us. I don’t think anyone involved in this project thought we’d get the assets required to get the center launched in time.”
But pretty quickly, the pieces started coming together. First, Thomas, who is vice president for procurement at Maryland Paper Company, found his counterpart in Marc Snyder, regional manager at paper company Sappi Refibre. Snyder has the same role as Thomas at Maryland Paper Company, and the two hit it off immediately.
Together with Fahy and Powers, Thomas asked, If the Georgetown students could educate the people of Langa about the value of their waste, and commoditize and arrange for their transportation, would local manufacturers buy the sorted and baled material? And would they get local buy in from South African companies in Cape Town?
The answer came quickly: Snyder and Sappi were in. Soon, other companies were signing on, lured by the promise of doing the right thing and being part of a Georgetown-affiliated project. Soon, agreements were made with K & C Waste, CONSOL, PETCO, and The Glass Recycling Company.
But they still had to find a location for the center. Research revealed that the city of Cape Town had approved plans for a recycling center in Langa 20 years before. But it looked like, after signing the agreements, the project had been abandoned. The center was run down and vacant.
“The property and the blueprints looked beautiful,” said Thomas. “But it was not being used for the right purpose.”
Now they needed the community to buy in. After all, they’d be the ones to bring in the recyclables. That’s where Tayo came in. Tayo is from Langa and speaks the local language, Xhosa. With Tayo’s help, Thomas and his team held a workshop with residents. They were on board. The government quickly signed on, and the Georgetown WasteNot Initiative seemed like it would happen after all.
For Thomas, the visit was a real cross-cultural experience, and not only because of how differently people in South Africa, with their low labor costs, do business compared with people in America. Historic racial barriers broke down as the community and business owners came together to transform the center into an economic hub.
“Not many outsiders come in here, and your team is coming in here to help my people,” Thomas remembered Langa residents telling him. “They kept saying, ‘We can do things on our own. We can work hard.’”
Their response? “If you work hard, and pick up collectibles, we will weigh them and pay you cash and always be fair,” Thomas remembered. “There will be no cheating because of literacy. This is the price, and this is what we pay.”
Today, the program is bringing money and economic stability to the area. Soon there may be more. This year, new EML students will attempt to replicate the program in other townships.
“It says a lot about the university that they aren’t doing this as one and done,” he said. “They’ll send more students next year, and they’ll do another center to build on top of this footprint.”
When Dewji was born in 1975, Tanzania had been independent from colonial forces for only 14 years. Almost all goods were imported from abroad or from neighboring Kenya. It was good to be a trader, as Dewji’s family had been since his grandmother began selling goods out of her rural home.
When the country’s economy collapsed in the mid-1980s, Dewji was spared its effects. By then, he was used to accompanying his father on trade trips to China. Soon, he would find himself in Florida, attending Saddlebrook High School and being voted “most accomplished” by his peers. The other winner was tennis player Jennifer Capriati. “She was a tennis star,” he recalls. “I was class president.”
The “most accomplished” vote was prescient. In the years that followed, Dewji would receive a BSBA from Georgetown and start influencing his father’s business during summer trips home. If they imported soap, he asked, why not manufacture it ourselves in Tanzania?
His ideas caught on. Since graduating from Georgetown in 1998, he has helped to revive domestic manufacturing by buying and rebuilding ailing industries, made MeTL the largest land owner in Tanzania, and transformed his father’s business from a trading company worth $13 million to a conglomerate worth $1.2 billion.
Today, if you are a citizen of Tanzania, you are likely to brush your teeth with Mo Dent, shower with Mo Soap, dry off with a towel made in a MeTL textile mill, sit down to a breakfast of chipati made of flour, oil, and sugar from MeTL mills, and have tea from MeTL’s tea gardens. You likely dress in clothes made by MeTL and hop aboard a bicycle made in a MeTL factory.
You may even work in fields owned by MeTL, and you most likely would sell any crops to MeTL to distribute. The company employs about 24,000 people, about 4 percent of Tanzania’s formal employment.
“This is why we call ourselves the people’s brand,” he says. “We touch the lives of people in all ways.”
Dewji has driven economic growth as much as profited from it, and he feels compelled to give back. In addition to his business, Dewji has been a member of Tanzania’s parliament since 2000. There, he argues for more growth to fund health care, education, and business infrastructure. He wants to expand the port and railroad system, easing the backlog of ships at Dar es Salaam’s port and potentially bumping up the country’s growth rate even more.
“What drives me is, of course, the passion for doing business — I like doing business,” he says. “But it’s not just about earning money anymore. I like to make money, but I also like to employ people. The more money I make, the more I have to spend in terms of giving back to the country, doing development projects for health care, housing, and schools.”
-- Heather Boerner