Manu Chandaria: First African to receive Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy

Business tycoon Manu Chandaria has built a legacy in philanthropy that very few wealthy Africans can match. His support for social causes that started in the 1950s has caught the world’s attention.

Last week, he became the first Kenyan and African to receive the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, which honours innovative philanthropists and highlights the contributions that they have made to society.

And for Mr Chandaria, the contributions are immense.

Back in the 1950s, he told his father that they should start a foundation.

“He told me I was stupid, but I kept saying that we need a focal point where the family can work to help the community,” Mr Chandaria told the Knowledge at Wharton, a business analysis journal in a 2013 interview.

But as they grew their global conglomerate Comcraft, founded by Chandaria’s father more than eight decades ago, so did the billions of shillings they put aside to better society.

Over the years, his philanthropic hand, through Chandaria Foundation, has stretched wide into schools to hospitals, benefiting millions of people.

Even at his advanced age, Mr Chandaria, 93, has maintained his stubborn resolve to change lives and make a difference. He was among five persons named as this year’s recipients of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

The other recipients are four Americans; actress and country music singer Dolly Parton, investor Lyda Hill and billionaire businesswoman Lynn Schusterman and her daughter Stacy Schusterman. Non-profit organisation, World Central Kitchen, was also recognised.

The honourees will receive their medals at a ceremony in New York in October.

Mr Chandaria was honoured “for advancing opportunity and addressing critical needs in Africa through investments in healthcare infrastructure, secondary and higher education, poverty relief, and environmentalism.’’

Dolly Parton was honoured ‘‘for alleviating poverty, strengthening early childhood education through the distribution of free books worldwide and increasing college access and advancing medical research.” She is also among the people who donated $1 million (Sh119 million) to help fund coronavirus vaccine research in 2020.

Mr Chandaria joins the coveted Carnegie list which since 2001 has had the Gates family, Rockefeller family, and George Soros, who has donated Sh3.8 trillion so far to a foundation that advances justice, education, public health and independent media.

The Tata Family of India, with interests from salt to software, and which was named among the biggest philanthropists of the century, is also on the list.

Mr Chandaria aims to encourage more African businesses that make a profit to give back.

“We are now pushing as hard as possible for other businesses to follow our lead and create foundations that will commit to putting a certain amount of money back into areas where they can make a difference,” he is quoted saying in a past report.

“This is working, but it’s certainly difficult. Ask me how many local Africans and local businesses are doing this. That’s what we’ve got to crack.”

The University of Oklahoma graduate has cited the works of John D. Rockefeller and automaker Henry Ford as his source of inspiration in his philanthropic endeavours.

‘‘Business is only a means. The end is to make a difference in society. Profit is not the answer; people around you must have improved life,” he said. “You develop that kind of generosity and maturity of mind over time after interacting with people of values.”

For a man that once gifted his wife a Rolls Royce car, the billionaire industrialist says his is a simple life. He is also a vegetarian and a stickler for ethics.

‘‘I believe in truth and in holding the hands of others. I believe in humility and always being honest,’’ he said.

Part of his success, he says, also stems from his wife’s support.

He has been married to Aruna Chandaria, who he met at the height of World War II.

He says about his wife: ‘‘I have been building industries, setting up various institutions and doing a lot of philanthropic work. I would not have succeeded if she had not supported me in all those aspects.’’

To the soft-spoken entrepreneur, having good values is as important as possessing business acumen.

He says a society that lacks moral values is on a path to ruin.

"We need to put emphasis on values and make it a subject on its own in our primary education so that our students learn from the beginning how they will live their lives,” he said during a peace conference in 2020.

Organisers of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy say the recognition seeks to inspire a culture of giving by honouring innovative philanthropists. The honourees’ philanthropy work had “a significant and lasting impact on today’s most pressing issues.”

These range from support for medical research in cancer and paediatric care, advancement of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and reduction of racial, gender and economic inequalities.

They are also honoured for promoting education and improvement of the quality of life in Africa. These are areas that have benefited from Mr Chandaria's philanthropy. For instance, eight years ago, he funded a project at Gertrude's Children's Hospital to the tune of Sh100 million.

Besides entrepreneurship and donating money to different causes, he has styled himself as a speaker on various issues, among them global peace.

He is the country's patron of the Global Peace Foundation and a member of the Global Leadership Council. Mr Chandaria also sits on boards of several companies in Kenya and the region.

He is also a recipient of the Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear (EBS) award, a presidential honour conferred on him in 2003 by then President Mwai Mwai Kibaki “in recognition of outstanding or distinguished services rendered to the nation in various capacities and responsibilities”.

In 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta conferred on him The First Class: Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS).

Now a retiree, after stepping down from actively running his businesses three years ago at the age of 90, his focus is on family and charity.

‘‘Unless you detach completely even from [what] you have been running for many years, you will always be thinking about it and not retire,’’ he said.

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