From the cotton fields to House of Manji and produce exporter

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He is better known as the face behind the gaint biscuit company, House of Manji, and also has a hand in the operations of Britannia Allied Industries, real estate, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, both in Kenya and Uganda.

In Nyanza, locals see Dawda Hasmukh first as a friend before they start looking at him through a financial lens. Others view him as an agricultural revolutionary keen to improve the lives of the people around him.

This multi-billionaire entrepreneur is also the proud owner of Muzuri Growers Ltd, a plantation orchard in Makindu famous for fresh mangoes, sweet melons, oranges, coconut, cashew nuts, cassavas, passion fruits, maize, tomatoes, red pepper and onions.

But life for Dawda was not always so rosy. His has been one journey through mountains and valleys of social and economic turmoil. For a man whose biggest childhood dream was to own a shop (like his father), Dawda is today worth millions of shillings, but it is his story of resilience and “starting from scratch” that is most inspiring.
The beginnings

As the battle for political freedom gripped Kenya in the 1950s, one village buried deep in the sprawling wilderness of Nyanza ignored the drums of war and went to work, seemingly unperturbed by the cacophonic frenzy that enveloped massive swathes of land (particularly) along the Mt Kenya and Aberdare ranges.

And so, as youths at their prime took their bows and arrows and headed to the forest, those at Ndere village in Siaya took their hoes and shovels and headed to their cotton farms, and in between took time out to go to class and study what the rest of the world was up to.

One of these was Dawda, a determined and inquisitive youngster who hailed from a large family of 11. Dawda was easy to notice wherever he went because his light, Indian complexion separated him from the rest of his peers.

Born in the rural hamlet in 1950, his parents were ginners, and so it was only natural that he toddled his first steps in the cotton farms. By the time he clocked five years, he was so immersed in the world of cotton farming and ginnery that you couldn’t yank him off his infatuation with cotton buds.

“Life in the farm was a beautiful routine: waking up in the morning, having breakfast with
farm workers dressed in overalls and gumboots, and women having children strapped on their backs,” says Dawda, nostalgia written all over his face.

“Nothing can replace the wonderment of witnessing cotton balls sprout from the plants, or the natural marvel of seeing the fibres expand ever so slowly, until they burst the ball.” “I’d harvest the ripe cotton balls by hand with the farmers singing thanksgiving songs in Dholuo in the background,” Dawda says.

At Ndere Primary School where he schooled, Dawda had no idea that the principles life in the farm inculcated in him would help propel him to the highest heights of industry and impact upon the lives of millions across the whole of East Africa.

Here, he had no privilege: “I struggled to pay fees like other children. My father was a shopkeeper and his large family was just too much for him,” he says. The burden of bringing up the family was too much for the old man that Dawda was forced to drop out of school at teenage.

“The only option for me was to go into business, so I started hawking sweets. That required tolerance and patience, as I had to struggle to move my merchandise in the scorching sun,” he recalls.

For the undiscerning, that may not mean much. But when you think about the empire the sweet hawker managed to build from that humble background, is when you realise how far he has come.

“I would dress in khaki shorts, open shoes and a simple shirt. At dawn, I would pick my wares and head for the streets as other boys my age headed for school. I knew I was losing an opportunity for education but there was little I could do about it,” he says.

Because of his promising enterprise, young Dawda was easily noticed by an Indian shopkeeper who employed him for Sh150 a month until age 13. From the “steady income”, he worked for six years and managed to save about Sh2,000. The ambitious boy knew what he wanted by the time he called it quits at the Indian shop. “I used the savings to pay a down payment for a pick up worth Sh5,000. I was to pay the balance in instalments,” he explains.

Later, he started a small shop in Ndere and it did so well that from the proceeds, he bought professional equipment to process his main product of trade – sukari nguru.

By 1970, Dawda was already doing well enough to rent a jaggery and started to deal directly with sugarcane farmers alongside cotton and fruit producers. The challenges faced by the farmers forced him to learn simple farming solutions, and these he transferred to the rural folk. Five years later, he built Uholo Factory, a jaggery that runs to date. Fast forward to 55 five years later, and Dawda no longer waits in anticipation for the cotton buds to burst, but swivels in his chair as he manages the operations of about seven high-flying businesses across East Africa. While the passion of his youth still burns within his chest, the man has ventured further a field into the world of
commerce.

Under the umbrella of House of Dawda Group of Companies, he entered into the manufacturing
business with the establishment of Jambo Biscuits in 1985. Eight years later, he started Mombasa Salt and, a short while later, acquired the multi-million Manji Food Industries, which he has since turned into a profitable company. Among other companies in which he is involved in management and strategic planning are Pan African Housing Limited, Harp Housing, Uganda Pharmaceuticals Limited and Mazuri Growers.

But how does he manage to turn a healthy farm produce, even in the most hostile of climes at Muzuri? “Irrigation and proper water management are my secret at Muzuri. The use of irrigation, coupled with proper farming skills and support, have boosted the production tremendously,” he says.

Dawda also imported into Makindu the art of soil drainage from his old days at Ndere. “We used to do soil drainage tests before cultivating crops in the farm. We use the same technique here,” he says.

He has also used the principle of intercropping, and today, Muzuri is a fruit basket that never dwindles in yield. “The farm is a practical example of what Kenya can achieve in agriculture,” he says, adding, “We receive local and international visitors who marvel at how well we have managed to turn around the fortunes of this semi-arid region.”

The empire Dawda built in the “Land of Bananas”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has recognised Dawda for his efforts to alleviate poverty among Ugandans. As he spread his business wings across the region, Dawda spotted the promise of the Ugandan white gold – “cotton” – and set up two cotton ginneries in the ‘Land of Bananas’. These are the Kyoga Cotton Company and the Masaba Cotton Company, the largest such ginneries in North and North Eastern Uganda.

Touched by poverty levels in Uganda, he traveled extensively in the cotton growing regions and established personal relationships with farmers. In two years, they were able to turn productivity from 200kg per acre for cotton to an average of 500kg. His duty was to buy the yield for export. The ginneries have revived cotton farming in
the region, and many children are now able to attend school. Working with cotton farmers in
Uganda convinced Dr Dawda that a green revolution in East Africa would reduce poverty.

“The first step was to mobilise women. There were over 100 women groups with over 5,000 women embracing agriculture fully. It was beautiful to see hundreds of women armed with farming tools and equipments. They have never looked back,” reveals Dr Dawda. His work was noticed by the President and for that he was invited to start a fruit processing plant under Britania Foods and Juices. “This opened the door to fruit farming to about 6,000 small scale farmers,” he says.

“From a 30 per cent yield, we jointly grew the yields to over 70 per cent and created a market for the farmers,” he says, terming Uganda his role model in this revolution.

He has engaged the farmers in pineapple, banana; cassava and maize production, and has a farm that caters for thousands of children through his Universal Human Service Trust as part of giving back to the community.

In his quest to help farmers, he set up programmes that educate outgrower farmers through extension projects in partnership with the government of Uganda.

Dawda strongly believes in putting effort in agriculture and making Uganda and Kenya a green revolution, and his farming model has earned him admiration from specialists the world over. To cap it all, cross-border invitations to give talks on agriculture dominate his diary.

One of his biggest contributions to regional agriculture came through an initiative to set up an Agronomy Department by the Ugandan government, whose operations he spearheaded, giving the department direction and purpose.

“We improved the livelihood of farmers by promoting the required variety of fruits, and this guaranteed market for Britannia Uganda,” he says. After teaming up with several farmers’ organisations to boost other fruits, he has never considered slowing down. “Agriculture is the future of nations and the world. For Uganda, agriculture was the best redemption for curbing poverty and making life better,” observes the billionaire.

As his business empire grew, he acquired Britania Uganda, which had until recently been importing its requirement of fruit pulp and concentrates from abroad for its fruit juice processing. “Now we are fully self-sufficient in the fruits and juice industry,” he says with a tinge of triumph.

To add value, the industrialist imported a fruit processing plant and brought in specialists from India to train farmers in fruit grafting, among other things. Uganda is home to over 600 factory employees dedicated to pushing Britania’s Splash Juices into the East African Market.

Data seen by Smart Farmer shows the Splash brand dominates about 80 per cent of the market in Uganda, while in Kenya it enjoys about 10 per cent dominance among 28 juices manufacturers. With the help of non-governmental organisations, Britania Uganda has managed to bridge the gap between farmers and the market with steady growth and new and fresh networks every year.
“Uganda is reaping huge benefits from agriculture and Kenya should follow suit,” says the farmer, who often invites  farmers’ groups to visit his factory to interact with the juice production facilities as a motivation to produce quality fruits. His commitment to agriculture saw him appointed chairman of the National Taskforce Committee on Agriculture under the auspices of the Office of the President of Uganda.

He also serves as an advisor to the “Big Push” programme for poverty alleviation, run by the government.
“Uganda acknowledged their weakness and reached out to people to solve the problem. That is what I call national development,” he says. Also the Chairman of Universal Peace Federation in East Africa, a global peace forum that advocates for inter-faith approach to faith matters, Dawda received an honorary Doctorate Degree last year for his sterling role as an Ambassador of Peace. That is why he is proud to be called Dr Dawda Hasmuk.