- Adam Molai says: "I had already been given the title of Zimbabwe’s National Business Person of the Year (before marrying Mugabe's nephew)."
By Mutsa Makuvaza
ZIMBABWEAN businessman Adam Molai, who is married to former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s niece Sandra Mugabe, has dispelled rumours that his businesses grew because of his relationship to the former First Family.
Molai is a Zimbabwean industrialist and founder of TRT Investments which manages a diversified sector portfolio and operations in Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana, and whose latest interests have seen a foray into the US and European markets.
He has also been involved in Zimbabwe’s tobacco sector and says all his businesses are start-ups and he would still have been where he is if he was not Mugabe’s nephew-in-law.
Speaking to a Nigerian publication over the weekend, Molai narrated how he grew his businesses at a time virtually everyone with access to the Mugabe family used the relationship to make money through any means fair or foul.
“My entrepreneurship did not start in Zimbabwe. My entrepreneurship started even when I was on my educational journey in the United Kingdom, even when I was on my educational journey in Canada. By the time I came home to Zimbabwe, I was investing funds which I made from these entrepreneurial exploits during my days living in the Diaspora.
“So, I didn’t get any bank loans in Zimbabwe, there’s no bank that can say they gave me a loan when I got back to Zimbabwe. I came back with capital that I deployed into the businesses that I established when I got back to Zimbabwe,” he said.
Molai added: “And that was way before I got married. I only got married years after I was already in business, and, unless we were able to do some miracle business, within a year of my having gotten married, I had already been given the title of Zimbabwe’s National Business Person of the Year.
“This was for businesses that had been developed pre-my getting married. This was from businesses that had been developed pre my getting married. I’ve always said to people if there was an albatross that was actually a big hindrance to an ability to drive business to the level and scale you want to, it was that political expectation.
“If you look at all the businesses we’ve embarked on, we’ve never had one tender in any country in the world and we don’t do government business. We’ve never been tenderpreneurs – doing tenders I call tenderpreneurship; it’s like hunting in a zoo. Where’s the fun? The animal is caged, right? And you say I went hunting. The animals already caged. So, for me, the hunt is what we enjoy.”
Molai, who was with the late former strongman during his last days in Singapore, said if his businesses were founded on his relationship to Mugabe, they would have crumbled when the former Zimbabwean strongman passed on last year in September.
“If that had been the case the growth of our businesses post ‘his’ departure from the political scene could have meant our business would have crumbled. But instead they’ve grown.
“We’ve grown phenomenally since his departure from the political landscape. So if you look at one thing in common with our businesses, other than the one which I was talking about, they were all startups. The first business I talked to you about, the chicken business, was a startup, the tobacco business was a start-up; it didn’t exist. The housing business was a startup; it didn’t exist. The protective wear business I was talking to you about? Startup, it didn’t exist. The bottling business I was talking to you about was a startup, it didn’t exist. We started from the ground.
“If anything, I can say, our growth was marred in many cases because certain of our brands as we developed them, when people associated them with your relationship with a certain politician who they either didn’t feel happy about or whatever, actually had negative consequences.
“So, we have actually had to work harder because of it, rather than it been something that made life a lot easier for us,” Molai explained.
Molai took the opportunity to narrate his wide business portfolio and how he grew to be the businessman he is today.
“My father was a retailer back in the days before the independence of Zimbabwe, it was still Rhodesia and I, unlike the other children who were playing soccer in the townships, on the streets, used to spend my time standing on a Coca-Cola crate selling over the counter.
“And why Coca-Cola? It’s very strange because today we have taken 60 per cent of the market from them, when it used to be the stool upon which I started my entrepreneurial journey. There were always shortages in Africa and the greatest one I remember is there were shortages of matches and the big brand then was Lion Matches. We’d get two big boxes of matches to sell in my father’s supermarket. They’d put it in the store to sell.
“I’d say, okay, sell it to me. And 200, 300 metres away was a big district bus station where everybody going to the rural areas went. I’d go there and start selling each box: they had five cents written on them – and I remember I’d sell them 20 cents each, make my 15 cents, go back to my father’s supermarket, give them their five cents and keep my 15 cents. So that’s when I learnt arbitrage. I was still 10 years old.”
He went on: “In high school I never got pocket money. I used to run a little feeding business. You know the food on Sundays at high school – I was a boarder – it was terrible. I never used to like it. I started asking the guys from my father’s shop again to bring in meat, baked beans and we started doing barbecues or braais as we call it here. And all the other students were now buying meat, buying baked beans, buying rolls every Sunday.
“So, I was running a flourishing braai business whilst I was in high school and that’s how I survived.
“When I got to the university, it was the same. I ran a network marketing venture when I was in the UK and within one summer, we made a considerable amount of money, so much that I decided I didn’t want my father bothering me about what I was doing in the UK. I then said okay, I’m off to Canada and I went to university in Canada, paid for myself from my money that I made and also paid my way through working again.
“Across Canada they used to have what they call small businesses consulting services. It was a service where they were trying to train young Canadians to be entrepreneurial and offer their business skills to small businesses and municipal governments. The one at the university I went to had been closed.
“We restarted it, grew it to an extent where we rebranded it from small business consulting to management consulting services because we started offering services not only to small businesses, to municipalities, to the provincial government and even to the Federal Government.
“Up till today there is a scholarship of my alma mater in my name, because I left a $50,000 annuity. I left there in 1996 and up till today a student gets a scholarship annually from the annuity we created,” Molai disclosed.
He went further to explain how he grew from selling chicken to tobacco business, to mining and various other portfolios.
“When I moved to Zimbabwe my first business was the chicken business. It was the joke of the family to say that ‘This young boy, what has happened? What has gone wrong? We sent him to the United Kingdom, we sent him to Canada and he’s come back to grow chicken and sell chicken! But they didn’t understand the vision behind everything, what we were trying to do.
“We really created chicken and moved it from being a special occasion meal. At that time chicken were sold as full chicken or, in some instances, half chicken. So, coming from the experience of selling in my father’s supermarket butchery, people would come and say ‘I’ve got $1. I need meat.’ You would cut up a little piece and wrap it in paper and they’d go.’
“That’s what we did with this chicken. We froze them, cut them up into little pieces and then people would come and say I’ve got a dollar I want chicken and you’d give them half a piece. You gave them whatever. At least they’ve got the taste of chicken in their food.
“That’s when we started and got into retailing from my father’s old shop… my father had now passed on.
“We opened another one and then bought a foundry. We then got into tobacco, started our own tobacco ventures, created a migration from auction system of tobacco where there was only 4,500 former white farmers, and when land reform came I approached government and said guys, this industry is going to die.
“If you don’t allow us to do contract farming where we capacitate the farmers, we give them seed, we give them knowhow, we give them fertiliser, the industry will die. Fortunately, they listened. They were very brave because I was 29 at that time and I don’t know if today I would listen to an unknown 29-year-old who is presenting a proposal, but they listened and it went from 45 million kg – 200 million was the height in Zimbabwe when there were all-white farmers, it then went down to 45million.
“But it then created over 14,000 small scale local farmers, who up to three years ago would grade 250 million kg of tobacco, 25 percent more than what the former white farmers had ever produced. So, that went well and we then said ‘Look, we can’t continue to be exporters of raw materials.’
“I knew nothing about tobacco, but what I know is we must value-add, beneficiate and hence started investment in producing cigarettes and from there we started going from Zimbabwe to South Africa, to Zambia, Mozambique, into all the other countries around Southern Africa. But it then took us to, of all places, Jamaica. So, we even set up a factory in Jamaica.
“But unfortunately we closed it last year because the criminal activity that started coming into the industry was more than we were willing to bear and what is BAT in Jamaica, their employees were shot dead by some drug players because they were now trying to come into the industry and that’s when we said, ‘Look, it’s too dangerous for our staff, we’ll never put our staff at risk.’ That’s when we exited Jamaica.
“So, from there we invested in all sorts of industries, we bought a mine from Anglo-American – the second largest chrome smelting, mining business which had six per cent of the world’s chrome ore, and I’m happy to as of today, we finally got our last payment and I’m now officially out of mining.
“We then got into several other industries; from financial services to, now through the pandemic that came, we then got into manufacturing of the PPEs, of masks, all sorts of masks, and manufacturing of protection kits which we are now selling in the Americas and in Europe, from online.
“Then we started getting investments into smaller things, we invested in an airline in Botswana, logistics; we have probably the largest liquid logistics business in Zimbabwe, moving from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, DRC. We are the biggest distributors of lubricants for Fox, which is the biggest German manufacturer of lubricants.
“So all Mercedes, BMW, John Deere tractors, they use Fox lubricants and we are the distributors in this part of the world. So, in a nutshell, that is my journey,” Molai said.
Back to politics, Molai said he was alive to the fact that politicians feel threatened by successful businessperson for fear of getting challenged.
“Normally, in our own environments of origin, once you get to a certain size or scale, the politicians are threatened by you, because they feel that the next thing is you’re going to go after political power, and maybe become a threat to them. But within the greater context of the continent, it’s more a lack of self-belief. It’s more a lack of belief that another black African…
“I have a story of one who said when I said we’re going to be making cigarettes, they told me 10 years later, Adam, when you told us that story we pretended to be supportive. We pretended as if we believed, but we just thought it was another one story from a young boy, just very ambitious but it’s going to among to nothing.
“So there isn’t a great level of self-belief between ourselves that our own young people have the capacity to do what we were conditioned as growing up, could only be done by Caucasians, Indians and people of other ethnicities who came to our countries.” – Zimbabwe Voice ■