Mohamed Jaffer
Kenya
Mohamed Jaffer
  • Chairman, MJ Group (Cargo Handling)
Born Mombasa, Kenya, 1948.
“I think entrepreneurs should dwell on this thought - you are not safe in a castle if those around you live in shanties.”

Summary

Mohamed Jaffer is Chairman of MJ Group, Kenya’s largest provider of cargo handling services. MJ Group traces its history back to Haji Dewji Jamal, who opened a trading office in Zanzibar in 1860. The merchant family had a business spread over South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. They opened a branch in Mombasa, the capital of Kenya in 1890. Five years later the British established a protectorate over Kenya, and the family established good relations with them, even at one time, according to company folklore, acting as bankers to King George V, the British king between 1910 and 1936. However, as this interview begins by noting, by the end of World War II in 1945, the family’s business interests had fallen to a low point. “By the time I finished school,” Jaffer observes, “I had to start from zero.” In 1968, he joined his father in an insurance brokerage position but quickly changed his mind and proceeded to establish his first business, a car dealership, with a partner. Jaffer discusses his first major setback when, after giving his partner the power of attorney while traveling for Hajj and Ziyarat, he came back to find that his partner had taken everything. Jaffer started again in 1974 with a 20,000 Kenyan shilling loan and went into pallet manufacturing up until 1983. When the pallet business started slowing down, Jaffer moved into the container business, and ultimately came up with the idea of bulk grain handling after realizing that bagging could be done at the silos for a reduced cost and with reduced waste instead of at the quayside. Jaffer discusses the challenges he faced trying to obtain the necessary permission from the Kenya Ports Authority to participate in grain bulk handling in Mombasa, and how he finally received permission in 1992 after eight years.

He took on the grain bulk handling terminal as a regional project, with the port in Mombasa also being used for Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. In this interview, Jaffer talks at length on the transportation infrastructure deficit in East Africa, and how the failure of the meter-gauge railway and the inability of the roadways to support the resulting traffic with trucks transporting cargo, has created one of the biggest problems the region currently faces. As a result, Jaffer promotes the upcoming standard gauge railway, which has been exclusively financed by China, as one of the best projects happening in Kenya. Jaffer additionally discusses topics including corruption, diversification, the importance of focusing on the local workforce, and the significance of the new and legal designation of Asians of Kenyan origin as Kenya’s official 44th tribe.

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Mohamed Jaffer is Chairman of MJ Group, Kenya’s largest provider of cargo handling services. MJ Group traces its history back to Haji Dewji Jamal, who opened a trading office in Zanzibar in 1860. The merchant family had a business spread over South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. They opened a branch in Mombasa, the capital of Kenya in 1890. Five years later the British established a protectorate over Kenya, and the family established good relations with them, even at one time, according to company folklore, acting as bankers to King George V, the British king between 1910 and 1936. However, as this interview begins by noting, by the end of World War II in 1945, the family’s business interests had fallen to a low point. “By the time I finished school,” Jaffer observes, “I had to start from zero.” In 1968, he joined his father in an insurance brokerage position but quickly changed his mind and proceeded to establish his first business, a car dealership, with a partner. Jaffer discusses his first major setback when, after giving his partner the power of attorney while traveling for Hajj and Ziyarat, he came back to find that his partner had taken everything. Jaffer started again in 1974 with a 20,000 Kenyan shilling loan and went into pallet manufacturing up until 1983. When the pallet business started slowing down, Jaffer moved into the container business, and ultimately came up with the idea of bulk grain handling after realizing that bagging could be done at the silos for a reduced cost and with reduced waste instead of at the quayside. Jaffer discusses the challenges he faced trying to obtain the necessary permission from the Kenya Ports Authority to participate in grain bulk handling in Mombasa, and how he finally received permission in 1992 after eight years.

He took on the grain bulk handling terminal as a regional project, with the port in Mombasa also being used for Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. In this interview, Jaffer talks at length on the transportation infrastructure deficit in East Africa, and how the failure of the meter-gauge railway and the inability of the roadways to support the resulting traffic with trucks transporting cargo, has created one of the biggest problems the region currently faces. As a result, Jaffer promotes the upcoming standard gauge railway, which has been exclusively financed by China, as one of the best projects happening in Kenya. Jaffer additionally discusses topics including corruption, diversification, the importance of focusing on the local workforce, and the significance of the new and legal designation of Asians of Kenyan origin as Kenya’s official 44th tribe.

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Video Clips by Topic

Ethnicity and Race

Mohamed Jaffer, Chairman of MJ Group, which is Kenya’s largest provider of cargo handling services, recalls the long struggle of locally-born Asians to be considered truly local. In 2017 the Kenya government finally recognized Asians as Kenya’s 44th tribe.


Social Impact

Mohamed Jaffer, Chairman of MJ Group, which is Kenya’s largest provider of cargo handling services, argues that business is “not safe in a castle if those around you live in shanties,” and points to the availability of excellent talent in Kenya which can be used productively.

Keywords: Social Impact, Kenya


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Additional Resources

Additional Resources

Interview Citation Format

Interview with Mohamed Jaffer, interviewed by Tarun Khanna, Mombasa, Kenya, May 15, 2019, Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection, Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School.