You once joked about becoming the richest man in Africa. Is that really a goal?
If that ever was my agenda, it’s not now, after the ordeal I had.
What helped you get through that trial? How did it change you?
I was blindfolded for nine days with both my hands and legs tied. When you can’t see anything and you’re not sure what’s going to happen to you, it is tough. I was doing principally three things.
I was praying, may God save me. When you do that, you think, there’s so many people dying in tragedies and accidents. Why would God want to listen to me? I’m just nobody. But even so, you pray, number one.
Besides my major in international business and finance, I’m also a theology minor. So number two, you start thinking how you have sinned in this world. You might have hurt someone, insulted someone. Maybe you didn’t fast or pray on time. So I was repenting all the things I could have done better.
Number three, I reflected on what I should do differently. I’d been in the rat race, running all the time, accumulating wealth and trying to build and build and build.
I reflected on my kids. I have a 15-year-old. In three years, she’s going off to university. The last 10 years, I hadn’t spent an abundance of time with my kids. I’ve got two young boys. I wasn’t spending enough time with them.
Overall, the experience has made me a better person. As a Muslim, when you go through a difficult time, how do you know if God is testing you or punishing you? The answer is that what takes you closer to God is a test. What takes you away from God is a punishment. This experience brought me much closer to God.
My priorities are not just more dollars any more. My priority is not just about building an empire anymore. I spend more time with my children. And I am deeply focused on giving back.
I signed the Giving Pledge [which encourages the world’s richest individuals to commit half of their wealth to philanthropy, launched in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett]. I’m spending more and more time on philanthropy. It’s changed me that way. Most importantly, if you followed the Tanzanian media, the Tanzanians, they stood up for me.
This is something that really, really touched me. I am forever going to be indebted and grateful to these people. Political differences often divide people. I’m not an indigenous Tanzanian, and that can divide people. Religion can divide people. In Third World countries, the greatest division is between the haves and have nots.
In a country where poor people are struggling to make ends meet, there isn’t much thought for the rich, rich man who encounters a problem. But I’ll tell you something: Tanzania came to a standstill when I was kidnapped. I’m forever indebted to my countrymen.
Did it help that you have invested so much time in connecting to people through social media?
For sure. I feel that I need to be connected in the sense that I give hope to people. I’m the largest employer, after the government, in Tanzania. I need to act like a leader to the youngsters of Tanzania.
They need to know that I want to share this wealth I’ve accumulated. I bought a football club. It brings happiness to millions of people. And I think they know that that club is burning cash. It is burning a lot of cash. But it brings people closer together.
The ruling elite, the wealthiest people in any country, are often seen as remote. They’re caught by photographers as they walk from their limousine to their private plane. Has social media given everyone access to you?
Yes. But also, I’m very approachable. People randomly ask me for selfies and I never refuse. If somebody asked for advice, I would never refuse. Respecting people is very important. That is something that my parents taught me from a very, very young age.
Do you now travel with a security person?
Yeah, my life changed. I’m moving around with armed people all the time.
It must be inspiring for people here to see one of their own do as well as you have.
Yes. I think they also see that I am giving back and that opportunity is growing for everyone.
I gather from reading the local media that there’s also an appreciation for how well you dress.
It’s the only thing I do well. It’s something that grew on me when I was in the US. But actually, I think I dress normally for a business person except for my glasses. I have a fetish for glasses. People take note of that.
Do you see a new generation of billionaires emerging from Tanzania?
I think that’s true not only in Tanzania, but Africa in general. In the next five to 10 years, there’s definitely going to be more billionaires out of Tanzania and Africa.
What would you like the global business community to know about your nation’s economic potential?
It’s got eight countries neighboring it. It’s a corridor of eastern central Africa. From Tanzania you can access Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Malawi and Mozambique. We’re probably the fastest growing in terms of population growth in the world. We are rich with resources: gold, diamonds, agricultural products, coffee, sesame seeds. Iron, coal and natural gas. Tourism is huge. We’ve got Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro. If you look at all the variables, they add up. Over the last 10 years, we’ve been one of the 10 fastest growing economies in Africa, with an average GDP growth of 7 percent. Inflation is controlled. Tanzania is one of highest recipients of foreign direct investment in the whole of eastern central Africa.
We’ve got political stability. Every five years, we have elections. We’ve got a two-term limit for the president. After that, there’s a proper stepping down process, a transfer of power. We have no racism. Our people are very, very good people. We don’t have any religious tension. Everybody practices their own religion freely.
Who are your heroes or mentors in the global business community?
I’ve got two heroes. I would not be where I am without my father. People have asked, “Who’s smarter, you or your father?” My father didn’t have money. My family didn’t. He is a self-made man. It is far more difficult to make a million than a billion. It’s easier to multiply money than to make money out of nothing. At 70, this man is still very disciplined. He is my hero.
The other is Bill Gates. I’m trying to follow his footsteps. I want eventually to step down and just focus on philanthropy, like Bill has. He came here once, to Tanzania, and we had a chat and we meet other times at the Giving Pledge, and I ask him questions about his transition and how he did it and what he’s doing.