The esteemed conglomerate is going from strength to strength as its looks to develop new avenues of business in the GCC
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow is an idiom that can be aptly used to describe the success of the Rawji empire, which traces its roots to modest origins in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) more than a century ago.
A major player in the country’s growth, Groupe Rawji is today an international conglomerate involved in trading, banking, manufacturing, real estate, electrical and IT, oil and gas and even philanthropy, with operations spanning eight countries.
It all began at the turn of the 20th century, when an Indian entrepreneur called Merali Rawji set sail for Africa and started doing business in Tanzania before moving to the Belgian Congo in 1908. There, he set up a small trading operation called Rawji Fils in the eastern city of Kindu in 1910 and then expanded into Stanleyville, a riverside trading hub now called Kisangani. Over the decades that followed, Merali’s three sons Taki, Fidahussein and Pyarali took over the reins, and when the Congo became independent in 1960, the Rawjis expanded into Kinshasa.
TARGETING THE CONSUMER
1966 saw the Rawjis buy the 44-year-old Belgian-owned Beltexco, whose business was concentrated in the Congo. It was a good fit: like Rawji Fils, Beltexco distributed textiles and consumer goods and the company went on to become one of Africa’s biggest players in fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs).
As Beltexco’s Business Development Manager Pierre Emmanuel Barral reveals: “We enjoy a dominant market share in FMCG related goods and are expanding aggressively.”
Beltexco has gone on to become the partner of choice for blue-chip multinationals such as Colgate-Palmolive, Bel, Johnson & Johnson, Beiersdorf, Danone and SC Johnson.
The seventies saw the third generation – led by Mushtaque and followed by his brothers Zahir, Aslam and later Mazhar and Murtaza – join the business amidst testing times as the Congo was renamed Zaire, and President Mobutu sought to Africanise the economy.
Beltexco and Rawji Fils were taken over by locals but the management stayed the same and the business continued to operate. By 1976, the Rawjis recovered their firms and in 1980 Mazhar set up Podimpex, a distributor of industrial equipment from global brands such as Yamaha, Caltex, Philips and Kodak.
The five brothers Mushtaque, Zahir, Aslam, Mazhar and Murtaza – Pyarali’s sons – also established a link between all the companies.
The tumultuous nineties saw waves of lootings in DRC and the overthrow of the president in 1997. But with every crisis comes opportunity and when Unilever threw its hands up and left the Congo in 1999, the Rawjis stepped in and bought the Anglo-Dutch group’s subsidiary Marsavco.
Today, Marsavco is the country’s largest manufacturer of commercial products – from soap and detergents to edible oils, margarine and cosmetics – and has played a major role in the DRC’s economic revival.
The group also trades in FMCGs and material and equipment for mining, cement, steel, and construction industries through Hexagon Imund Export of Germany which it owns, and whose subsidiaries include Importex (based in Germany), Hexagon International Commodity Traders (South Africa) and Straina (Uganda).
BANKING ON GROWTH
The turn of the century also saw the Rawjis move into the uncharted waters of banking. Necessity had proved the mother of invention: the DRC’s banking fabric had been torn apart by decades of strife and Beltexco, with its countrywide presence, had begun to act as a financial intermediary.
Seizing the opportunity, Mazhar appointed a team of nine veteran bankers led by Belgian Thierry Taeymans, to launch RAWBANK.
RAWBANK opened its doors on May 2, 2002 with a team of 30, targeting corporate customers, and its focus on quality, reliability and speed soon paid off.
It became the first bank in the DRC to use SWIFT codes as it expanded its correspondent banking network across the US, Africa, the Middle East and Australia. Electronic banking was introduced, followed by MasterCard credit cards, electronic payment terminals (EPTs) and Maestro prepaid cards.
By 2007, it started to develop its retail banking. The first ATMs were rolled out in 2007 and today cover most of the country. A Congolese franc card was launched in 2008 and internet banking followed in 2011.
In the corporate sector, SMEs were also targeted with tailor-made services.
The bank’s success has made the world sit up and take notice: it was voted DRC’s Bank of the Year for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2011 and 2016 by The Banker.
“Being named as DRC’s ‘Bank of the Year’ by the prestigious magazine reinforces our belief to remain true to our vision and mission in all the steps and decisions that we make,” Taeymans says. “RAWBANK continues in its mission to provide world-class services to the DRC’s urban and remote populations. RAWBANK distinguishes itself not simply by the strength of its balance sheet, but also by providing unparalleled service to its clients.”
Taeymans says the bank is now installing a digital workflow solution which by the end of 2018 will make it extremely efficient, and facilitate its goal of becoming paperless.
“Our reach to our customer needs to be seamless, whether on a physical bricks-and-mortar platform or the digital platform, and our quality can never be compromised. Once this strategy has been rolled out, we will have a blueprint for an efficient and effective institution that can be replicated in other African markets that hold the same growth promise,” he adds.
The Rawjis’s newest manufacturing venture – a $270-million cement plant called CIMKO –launched production late last year. Located in Bacongo, the plant was the fruit of a joint venture with Pakistan’s Lucky Cement and has a capacity of 1.2 million tonnes a year.
CIMKO Managing Director Riadh Ben Khalifa says the new plant, which manufactures two types of cement, CEM II 32.5 and CEM II 42.5, will have a “positive impact on the economy”.
“Our target market is large construction companies and government projects and we expect these will form a significant part of our capacity utilisation in future,” he says.
CIMKO does not aim to become an exporter in the near future and will evaluate government projects before ramping up capacity based on demand, he adds.
The group plans to continuously modernise and adapt its product lines for the benefit of the consumers, while respecting the needs of society and the environment. “We are one of the country’s largest employers and we take great pride in supporting the local population and participating in the development of the economy,” says Ben Khalifa.
With the Rawjis active in real estate through its two firms Parkland and Rafi – the latter of which also operates a port – Mustafa Rawji also sees this sector as another area of promise especially in the GCC and the African continent, as the middle class continues to grow.
“In the long term, we aim to consolidate our presence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia through the acquisition of industrial assets as well as setting up of green-field projects,” says Mustafa, a fourth-generation Rawji who sits on the group’s Corporate Board. “This would be part of our horizontal growth and would involve integrating our existing knowledge and experience domestically and internationally.”
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Beltexco’s Barral, too, is upbeat about the consumer goods market in Africa. “In order to improve our competitiveness and address the logistics challenges of Africa, we are investing in state-of-the-art repacking facilities for FMCGs,” he says.
He says products must be offered in small sizes to match the low purchasing power of the African populace.
“Smaller-sized products can be distributed across traditional and informal trade channels where international-standard product sizes cannot reach. For example, 60 per cent of the powdered milk market is sold in 10-12g pack sizes. If you want to be in each and every household, you have got to go small!”
“We are now looking beyond distribution agreements and forming joint ventures with FMCG leaders. Retail opportunities are under study and will be considered as the next step in our business,” Barral adds.
Apart from their very successful businesses, the Rawjis are also noted philanthropists with the Rawji Foundation supporting several welfare projects since its launch in 2003. A public, non-profit organisation, the foundation contributes to the country’s development by establishing schools and providing student grants, developing safe sources of drinking water, building hospitals, leisure centres, and old people’s homes.
Groupe Rawji today is a respected international player, and with the fourth generation of the Rawjis now involved in the family business, the future certainly looks bright. But more significantly, the Rawjis have indelibly etched their name in the history of the Congo with an enduring and sustainable legacy for its people.
Groupe Rawji is also keen to boost its presence in the UAE and the rest of the GCC, says Mustafa. “Over the last decade, we’ve strengthened our assets and operations and now have a mature portfolio,” he says.
“We will expand horizontally, by growing our existing businesses, as well as vertically, by integrating and merging with other firms,” he says. “Our expansion will be driven by our market knowledge, strong roots, and an international interest in the Middle East and Africa.”
Mustafa points out that the Rawjis will set up strong links in Dubai, which remains an unrivalled logistical hub that seamlessly connects Asia, Middle East, and Africa.
“We are setting up our corporate presence here to promote our existing businesses, as well as to remain abreast of new opportunities,” he says, adding that their presence will help bring them closer to international players who are present in the region and who are looking to participate in the foreseeable growth in the African continent over the next decades.
He continues: “The UAE is a very attractive energy market in terms of contacts, potential partners and sub-operators and more importantly, can be leveraged through the African continent, where global growth will be concentrated in the next two to three decades. Additionally, the UAE is vibrant in terms of development and allows us to maintain focus on GCC and African opportunities.”
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