Enduring world of the Shahs in Kenya's economy

Businessman Manu Chandaria. The Oshwal community has created employment opportunities and also strengthened primary education in the country. [PHOTO: WILLIS AWANDU/STANDARD]

They came to Kenya barefoot, riding on rickety dhows but now drive top-of-the-range vehicles.

Their population in the country is slightly over 12,000, yet, that small Visa Oshwal community affects millions on a daily basis.

Their business acumen and resilience has immensely contributed to Kenya's economic outlook for the last 100 years.

Their influence goes beyond the well-known brands. The Oshwals have built one of the most respected networks of schools; from nursery to college level, delivering promising students and successful graduates. And plans are underway to build a university.

Among the most notable sons from the community are  industrialists Manu Chandaria, Atul Shah and Vimal Shah.

"The community has not only excelled in business but also in social affairs. It has all been about teamwork and toil and the  need to help one another succeed," says Atul Shah, Nakumatt Supermarket's chief executive officer.

Such a history of resilience is one that Mr Atul knows all too well. His father, Mangalal Shah, migrated to Kenya from India in 1947 and set a small shop in Embakasi to serve quarry workers.

His search for greener pastures took him to Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret and Nandi Hills. He dealt primarily in clothes, before importing other forms of merchandise in order to diversify his business.

However, he almost went bankrupt as some of those he supplied goods to ran off without paying their debts. At one point, Atul quit school after completing his primary education to help his father build the business.

Today, the family runs one of the most successful retail businesses in East Africa.

The story is no different from that of the Chandarias, a family that built one of the greatest business empires and philanthropic missions on the continent and beyond.

Like Atul's father, Manu Chandaria's father came to Kenya with nothing but hope. For lack of a better opportunity, young Manu had to make do with a wardrobe that consisted of two pairs of pants, two shirts, two pairs of underclothes and one pair of socks.

Humble beginnings

"It was a very small beginning and lot of hard work—from nothing until when I was born, the family had built a reasonable business. We used to live in a concrete building except it was one room to a family. But, when one has grown in the country from nothing, one has that special kind of attachment to it," said Mr Chandaria in an interview at the Harvard Business School.

Then there was Meghji Pethraj Shah, who sailed to Mombasa in 1919 at the age of 15 years. After working at a shop in Mombasa for three years, he left for Nairobi where he managed to start not less than 50 trading companies within 35 years.

One of his enduring legacies in Kenya is MP Shah Hospital, named after him. Recently, the community held an annual meeting at the Oshwal Centre in Nairobi. They have held 74 similar meetings before. This one, however, was different.

The 75th Adhivashan, as their annual meetings are called, was marked by the release of a documentary detailing the history of a group that changed the way business is done in East Africa.

It is an account of toil and sweat, a far cry from their prosperous business empires that straddle the region. Their story goes back over the last 117 years. A story of rags to riches – how their pioneering spirit blended with determination, adventure, entrepreneurship and sacrifice to build one of the most powerful business communities in the region.

The pioneering Oshwals came to Kenya without any money, education, or skills. Today Oshwals have made their presence felt practically all over the world, successfully creating and driving all kinds of businesses and ventures and excelling at almost all known professions.

The name 'Oshwal' comes from the place they lived in India, which was called Osiya Nagri, 32 miles North of Jodhpur in Rajasthan State, India.