TCS Daily


From Refugees to Tycoons

By Val MacQueen - May 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Immediately after he pulled off his '72 coup against President Oboto in Uganda, strongman Idi Amin -- full title: His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular (and also, curiously, King of Scotland) --decreed Africa should be for Africans. One of his first decisions as lord of beasts and fishes was to eject all the Asians -- some 40,000 or so, who were third generation descendants of Indians who had come to work for the British colonial administration during the days of Empire and who, when the British Empire was dissolved, created commercial enterprises.

Not for nothing had Amin been mentioned in a dispatch, when he was on the British side during the Mau-Mau uprising, as "virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter."

Having decided to eject the country's wealth-creators, he further ruled that these people, uprooted from their country of birth, could take with them only what they could carry. They had 90 days to get out.

The crisis this provoked in Britain at the time has been softened with the passing of the years, but because they were Commonwealth citizens with British passports, the government, in the face of almost universal opposition at home, did the right thing and decided to give them refuge. So 40,000 ethnic Asians arrived in an alien, monocultural group of islands in the clothes they stood up in and the one suitcase holding the meager possessions they had managed to carry with them. Their confusion and distress at having had to leave their country of birth and all their possessions to come to a cold, damp, hostile island must have been almost unendurable.

Back home Idi Amin distributed the property they'd been forced to leave behind among his friends and presided noisily over the decline of Uganda. The Asians, meanwhile, were billeted in drab refugee centers until they found their feet, and they displayed a resilience that still astounds.

What a difference two generations can make.

The British high-circulation Asian newspaper Eastern Eye, in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph of London, has just published its annual list of Britain's richest Asians. In all, six from East African refugee families made it into the top 10.

Number one is Mike Jatani, one of four brothers who started the Lornamead Group (beauty products) in 1978, eight years after the Amin explusion. Today, their company, started from scratch, is worth £650 million ($1.2 billion).

According to The Daily Telegraph, the pharmacy sector is the biggest, with the Mehta brothers (8th) and husband and wife team Navin and Varsha Engineer (12th) between them accounting for £300 million -- over half a billion dollars.

In the fashion segment, one of Britain's best loved women's clothing chains, offering outstanding fashion value for money, is New Look, owned by one Tom Singh, whose Indian parents brought him to England when he was one year old and set themselves the task of peddling goods from door to door. Tom Singh and his wife opened their first store in 1968. By the mid-1990s they had 200 stores. In 1998, they sold the chain to a venture capitalist for £156 million and Singh took a role as non-executive director. In 2004, New Look returned to the private sector and Singh rejoined as managing director. Sikh Tom Singh's in the No 6 slot. Also in fashion, Shami Ahmed, who created Bloggs jeans, comes in at No. 13.

Another Sikh, Jasminder Singh, born in Dar-es-Salaam, with his Radisson Edwardian Hotel chain, comes in at No 5.

The only new entry to the top 20 this year is an entrepreneurial travel boss at no. 18 with £95 million, displacing the fetchingly described "curry magnate", Sir Gulam Noon. Last year, Noon was 16th on the Asian rich list with £100 million, but now with just £85 million doesn't merit a place at the Asian top table. (The displaced Noon has been otherwise engaged in the traditional British rich man's sport of trying to buy a peerage under the table -- the second such Asian businessman caught in Tony Blair's latest wheeze to raise money for the Labour Party -- an encouraging demonstration of just how integrated Britain's Indians have become.)

Steel parts tycoon and cricket-enthusiast Lord Swraj Paul (he rather sweetly lists his membership of the MCC -- the world famous Marylebone Cricket Club -- on his resumé and contributes time and money to helping disadvantaged boys take up the game), is No 3 and worth £450 million. He and his wife recently managed to get Non-Resident Indian status from the Indian government, which means they will have the right to settle in India one day. Who comes around goes around.

Those expelled from East Africa were third generation immigrants to Africa, and had created assets and wealth. Which is why Idi Amin was so interested in them. Now, those families are again third generation immigrants, this time to Britain, and again they are rolling in wealth. How was this extraordinary feat accomplished twice?

How does one account for a group of people who came from the Third World to the First World with nothing but a suitcase, within three generations, overtook around 99.5 percent of the natives in terms of wealth?

Like the Chinese, ethnic south Asians have a reputation for possessing shrewd commercial instincts and a willingness to sacrifice short term advantage (i.e. going to work for someone else in return for a regular salary) in the service of a long-term goal. The entire family stays focused.

Those families in the 1970s were indeed strangers in a strange land. They didn't waste time on regrets. They hunkered down and got to work. The parents of Tom Singh traipsed around neighbourhoods peddling goods from door to door for years. As did others. They were thrifty. They worked long hours. They saved their money and reinvested it in themselves. Indians keep it all in the family and the mates of their children marry into the business also. Tom Singh's parents amassed some money from their door-to-door peddling, but it was their son Tom and his wife who opened the family's first store, and subsequently 200 more.

Another key to ethnic Indians' success is, they do not look to banks for money. If money is needed, they look within the family or extended family, offering a part of the business by way of repayment.

The three richest British Asians were excluded from the Eastern Eye/Daily Telegraph list because their business interests lie primarily outside the United Kingdom. Numbers two and three would be the notorious Hinduja brothers, whose fortune is estimated at around $8 billion.

Finally, not only the richest British Indian, but Britain's richest-ever individual come together in the person of international steel panjandrum 54-year old Lakshmi Mittal, born in Rajastan and whose £14.8 billion fortune puts him third in the world after Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain is worth $818 million.

Val MacQueen is a TCS contributing writer.

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9 Comments

Indian who migrated to eastern Afica are all from business community
Why they are successful even in U.K.also because, they are from business community of India. India is famous for caste system. there four main caste. one caste is this business caste. from ancient time this caste doing only business.From more then thousand genaration this caste doing only business so hard work,persistence, greediness came in their blood. In India they are only riches community. so there is no wonder that they make themselve tycoon in U.K

interesting how ramesh associates being good at business with being greedy

Ramesh has a point about the long tradition of entrepreneurship but. . .
I'm sure Ramesh has a point about the long tradition of entrepreneurship but there are surely a couple of other factors which may explain this story.

First, the article points out that the Indians were specifically brought to Uganda to help with the British administration of the country. This means that they in some measure self selected by volunteering which means they tended to be venturesome. And secondly, the British surely selected for intelligence, communications skill, willingness to work, health, stature, etc. even if only perfunctorily before shipping a bunch of folks a good way around the world.

Secondly, given that the Indians mentioned in the article did not trust banks and kept things in the family once in England, it's probable that they thought much the same way in Uganda. Surely conservative, hard working, bank distrusting, smart Indian folks who had lived through the Mau Mau years made sure to spread some of their capital in the form of loans, etc. outside of the country, and spent some on developing human capital by educating the best of their children as well as possible. They probably were literally penniless when they arrived in England, but they probably had lots of claims on relatives in India and around the world to whom they had made loans and for whom they had done favors.

Idi Amin and his thugs thought they were robbing those folks of their biggest assets when they took their empty factories and homes. Unbeknownst to them the folks and their children, with their international network of IOU's were worth far more than the mere physical goods they left behind.

None of this takes away from the hard work those folks and their kids did later in England, but it is probably not as simple as the article's story of penniless to billionaires.



The article points out that the

Ramesh has a point
Thank you, SullyA. Your points are very interesting and strengthen the piece, I think. You are right to point out that the original generation of Indians hired to help in the British administration of E Africa were self-selecting in that they were at the high end of intelligent, educated and fit. That they were chosen for employment testifies to that. And of course, the very fact that they were adventureous enough to leave their homeland indicates strength of ambition.

And your point that many of them would have had markers out to relatives among the Indians "back home" in India is also good. I think a lot - although not the human strength of will - can be explained by their fierce avoidance of banks.

Interesting that the pattern in the West is rags to riches to rags in three generations. Theirs is a single suitcase to a vast empire in three generations.

From Refugees to Tycoons
While otherwise generally on the mark, SullyA errs in suggesting that Uganda's East Indian refugees distrusted banks. To the contrary, as enterprising merchants, traders, and manufacturers, they would have expertly used every banking service available: foreign exchange, letters of credit, deposits, chequing, security. Even in the early 19th century, these services were indispensible to anyone in trade beyond the pushcart level. With one exception: borrowing from a bank for working capital likely would have been anathema, for the very good reason that the terms for such loans, even today, give banks the power to kill companies, if necessary, to recover their money, and this they routinely do whenever the economy trembles. Which obliquely brings me to my second point:
SullyA, and MacQueen in particular, entirely miss what is likely the most salient reason for the success of many, if not most, of these refugees (who must, incidentally, wonder why MacQueen would oddly refer to them as Asians). Most of them, if memory serves, were Ismaili Muslims, and thus with never the need to beg from skittish, Scottish bankers. As members of indisputably the richest religious sect, per capita, on the planet, Ismailis turn to their leader, the Agha Khan, for the wherewithal to spin their efforts into diamonds and gold. In turn, in their gratefulness, they periodically and with great ceremony match the weight of their Agha on an enormous balance scale with an equal weight in gems and precious metal. A rather ostentatious "what goes around comes around" kind of thing.

In my haste
I neglected to mention the obvious regarding Ugandan bank borrowing, namely the Koran's regarding usury as an abomination. That takes care of the Muslims interests, so to speak. About the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and quite possibly Jains and Parsis among the East Indians also in Uganda, I'm afraid I don't know.

Not mostly Muslims, as I recall
I lived as a child for four years in the town of Jinja, in the Uganda of the 60's, straddling the days of Milton Obote and into the years of Amin as I went back to visit my parents during college years.
As I recall the Asians were mostly Hindu Indians. There were a few Muslim Pakistanis as well, along with some Sikhs, some Ismailis, etc. I do not know much about their banking habits in those days, but I don't doubt that the author is correct.
Also, as I recall, the British did NOT import the Indians as petty civil servants or bureaucrats. As I recall, ost of them were brought over as stone-cutters and laborers to build the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi to Entebbe. That was a big project over many years, and there were not any good African stone-cutters and masons in those days. Then the Indians stayed (in just another part of the Commonwealth) to fill a niche as small shopkeepers and businessmen and traders.
Those were the good old days in Jinja. Four different cinemas all run by Asians, the grocery stores, run by Asians, the gas stations, etc. My barber was an Asian who had the most memorable burps . . . .

From refugees to tycoons
There are only 5 Muslims, of any sect, in the top 20, the first one coming in at No 9. And they were willing immigrants, not refugees thrown out of E Africa. All the rest have Hindu or Sikh name and would therefore not be influenced by Islamic beliefs about borrowing money

It is business acumen and thousands of years of tradition and experience, rather than any religious teaching, that motivates the Hindus and Sikhs to keep their business dealings current and within the family.

Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis are from the Asian sub-continent, or South Asia. Far from being an odd choice of name, "Asian" has been the traditional designation for the sub-continentals for hundreds of years. Indians in all the media describe themselves as Asian, or Indian. This is how they are known in Africa. And how they describe themselves – as in the Richest British Asian List – compiled by a British Asian newspaper. Why this usage is considered odd by you is, itself, odd.

From Refugees to Tycoons
While the success of many of these South Asian refugees is commendable and impressive, it's not accurate to imply that all of these people left Uganda "in the clothes they stood up in and the one suitcase holding the meager possessions they had managed to carry with them." Most well-to-do South Asians from Africa maintained bank accounts in the U.K. and had a substantial amount of money deposited there. In fact, one of the main causes of discontent among Ugandans was that Asians didn't invest in the very country that helped them make their fortune.

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