Dr Manu Chandaria’s world is now small. It’s mostly limited to his Nairobi’s Muthaiga home, upstairs in the sunny playroom, where he sits in a chair next to the unlit fireplace with a dozen framed pictures of his family, facing a window wall overlooking his tranquil garden.
There, he plays a game of Patience on his phone, a solitaire type. Save for a closing door or the light footfalls of the house staff or his wife on the wooden floors, the house remains tomb-quiet.
He has built a multi-billion empire, Comcraft Group, employing 40,000 people in three continents. His philanthropy work under Chandaria Foundation, established in 1956, is lauded for social impact and progress. He’s met anybody of note worth meeting, broken bread with the low and mighty.
But now he’s retired. He’s a man in a chair, in a quiet house, playing Patience. At 95 years of age (and in reasonably rude health), there isn’t much to do after doing and giving the world so much. Now, at his discretion, the world occasionally comes to him in this light-flooded room overlooking the garden.
How are you doing with that game, sir?
I’m at 385 points, trying to get to 500 points today. My wife is better at it; she’s at 5,000 points, but she also plays it often. It’s not a game you play to win; it keeps you occupied.
When people come here to meet you, what are they most curious about?
They’re curious about how I built myself. How did I make it? How am I where I am? What did I do?
Looking back, are you surprised at the way you made it [became successful]?
Yes, I’m surprised that it’s a story of success because of how it all started. We were farmers in India; my father, who couldn’t speak, read, or write English, came to Kenya in 1916 to serve on the railway. My mother’s father had immigrated earlier in 1911.
He planned to get land and start farming, but then the land was only for Europeans. He ended up in Nairobi’s Biashara Street, where he began trading. He would wake up, clean the un-tarmacked streets in the morning, and open his employer’s shop. He had promised his father that he’d return to India when he made 4,000 rupees.
However, at the end of the month, he had made only 20 rupees. He thought, “At this rate, how long will it take to make 4,000 rupees?” He was very disappointed. His boss said, “Don’t worry, you are hardworking and honest. Work for me for six months, then I’ll give you goods [on credit], and you can set up your shop elsewhere. You can pay me later.”
That’s how it worked; men like my father started opening their shops elsewhere, ten, 30, 80 kilometres away [from their benefactors] when there was no significant profit to be made there. That’s why there was a duka in each Kenyan town owned by an Indian. In the first year of operation, he made more than 4,000 rupees. So he said, “Now I’m not going to return. I will just stay here and work.”
When do you think the tide turned for him, for you?
The point is how Indian businesses flourished. My dad was just a cog in the big wheel. The idea was, I’m walking this way. Walk with me, let’s go further together. But it was tough because we were a lower-middle-class family staying in a one-room house by the time I was born.
We were very frugal, saving every cent. Back then, I’d rather walk one mile and save 10 cents. That and honesty to purpose. The tide was education. Since my father couldn’t read, write, or speak English, doing business with the Europeans was challenging. We had to go to school. I did my high school in India and then engineering in the US. There is not a single Chandaria descendant who doesn’t have one or two degrees or even a Ph.D.
So you came back and got into the family business?
Yes, after my studies in America. I joined Kaluworks, which started in 1929. At the time of my entry, it had 40 workers and six family members. I was the second engineer on its payroll.
As the business grew, a second brother and a third joined. A few cousins also followed in our footsteps. In two years, we had 200 staff. Since I was the group’s spokesman, I asked my dad if I could set up a foundation. He looked at me and wondered, “A foundation? Is something wrong with you? What ideas are those? You have stayed too long in America.” I was thinking of the charitable works of the Rockefeller and the Fords.
I told him, “If we don’t start a foundation now when we don’t have money, we won’t be able to when we have money.” This was, what, late 1940s or early 50s?
Why was it important for you to start a foundation?
I was influenced by the US. Everywhere I went, I saw the big boys: Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Morgans in universities, hospitals, and schools. They were spending money to build their people. I thought we had a responsibility to help the people who cannot help themselves. My dad said, “Build the company first, and then we will talk.”
So when we hit 400 employees, I returned to him, and he said, “Fine, I will give you 10 percent of my company, and that is how Chandaria Foundation was created in 1956. We kept growing the business, and in 1961, we started expanding beyond Kenyan borders.
By 1965, we were a Pan-African company. Then we looked further. Someone was sent to Toronto. Currently, we’re in 35 countries. How did we do that? We did what we knew, and that is sufurias and aluminium products. When we went to Europe, we realised they were 100 years ahead [in innovation], so we had to enter new businesses. We failed, we won, we failed, we won.
Has your view on money changed over time?
No. Money is a medium. To handle money, you have to first understand who you are. Use money for a purpose, not the other way around. Money will never help you find your purpose.
My brother was a clothes horse. He had 150 suits. But I don’t because that is not what has shaped me. I mean, you can’t wear two suits together. I can afford 50 suits, but should I own 50 suits? You have to use wealth to serve humanity, not just yourself.
What surprises you about the world now?
The world has got more and more problems. Population is increasing. Everybody has great ambition but no hard work, no determination to back it. Graduates are out in the streets. I was a university chancellor, so that breaks my heart.
What was the most difficult period of your life?
Well, difficult periods are always coming because when you are in business and expanding, you will encounter challenges.
For instance, in Ethiopia, the language and laws are different, and the governments are different. Idi Amin [former Uganda President] took over everything [businesses owned by Indians] but gave them back. In Ethiopia, they took over everything but never gave back.
Yet, we didn’t shy. We went back, and we did it all over again. The point is that financial, family and even national problems keep coming, but you must remain balanced in mind and in life. Accept life as it comes. And I think it has done very well for us.
How does it feel to be 95 years old, sir?
Everybody says, “You’ll be 100!” I say, “I don’t want to be 100.” My brother is 97. I asked about his health today, and they said, “Well, now he can’t recognise people.”
Listen, I don’t want to get there. I want to be what Manu Chandaria is. I just don’t want to be there, but not there [senile]. I want to remain sharp and focused.
Does mortality occupy your mind?
No, no, no. It’s not in my head. When I came [born], I didn’t know and when I’ll go, I don’t know. And I won’t argue whether I can go or not. It’s for the Almighty to decide, not me. I’m a pawn. I focus on good thoughts, good work, and sound philosophy.
I support, help, and worry about others. I worry when my plant is not doing well. Let me tell you a story. When I retired, I closed my office, and everybody there had to go home except my secretary and accountant. I worry about those people because they have families. I fear that I gave them hope only to retire. Why has God kept me here at 95? I don’t know, but maybe there’s time for me to do good work. That’s it.
What are your flaws as a human being?
As any human being, it’s lust for things. You want things that won’t serve you. We all want something in life. Wants are never ending in life, but you’ve got to discipline yourself.
If you put your life in the hands of wants, you’ll only ask for wants. You won’t achieve anything. Temper yourself, don’t ask for something you cannot even reach.
What would you do if you had 25 years left of your life?
I wouldn’t want to do anything. What I’m doing is good. As long as I can help more people, I can set up more institutions. I’m very happy.
Every individual should strive to ease pain in the world. In my life, there was pain, and somebody helped me. We are all interwoven. The minute you start understanding the pain of others, you forget yours.
You have obviously met a lot of eminent people. Who’s the one person that had the greatest impression on you?
Look, I didn’t shake hands with Gandhi. I wish I had. I met Nelson Mandela. I was a trustee of the Pan-African Parliament. I’ve met many people: ministers, presidents, dignitaries, monks, and everybody you can think of. And what have I taken from them? Humility. Mother Teresa came to this home four times but would not take a drop of water.
She said, “I’ll eat and drink with the people I’m serving.” She added, “Can you take me to the State House?” So I said, “Sure.” I phoned the State House and organised it. At State House, President Daniel Arap Moi asked her, “What can I do for you?” She said, “Nothing, I only came to say hello and ask for water. I have old people, orphans, and mentally retarded children who need water."
Moi picked up the phone and told someone that the home should never run out of water. She could have asked things for herself, but she asked for water.
Is humility a muscle you have to work on?
Absolutely. When my daughter was growing up, we didn’t allow her to work [in the family business]. When she graduated, she came back home and said, “Papa, I’m bored.” I asked, “Why are you bored? Do something.” She said, “I want to, but you won’t allow me to work in your place.” I said, “You don’t have to work for me. Work elsewhere. Mother Teresa is building a home in the slums, why don’t you help her?”
She said, “I don’t want to go work in a slum.” I said, “Well, that’s where the work is. That’s where she has chosen to build her home.” She finally went and spent one year working there. She was very happy. That experience taught her something.
I don’t know why they decided I should be given OBE, Order of the British Empire. So when I went over there, there were five of us being honoured. A handler told me, “Don’t speak to the queen unless spoken to.” The queen came, we [honourees] stood in a line, and while pinning my coat, she asked, “And where are you from?” I said, “Your Majesty, I come from a country where you went as a princess and became a queen.” “Oh, Kenya, Sagana, Treetops,” she said and started talking about everything. She was very interested in where I came from. When it was all done, this fellow asked, “Why did you speak to the queen?” I said, “You told me not to speak unless spoken to! She spoke to me!” Humility is not something you can buy in the shop.
Describe your typical day.
I get up at about six o’clock in the morning, go to the bathroom, clean up, exercise, and walk a bit. I then have my breakfast and carrot or vegetable juice with an apple, papaya, or some other fruit. You know Mung, green lentil? You put it in water, and it sprouts? I take that with almonds.
At 11am, just before you came, I had coffee and a little bit of something to eat. Then lunch and a very light dinner at 7.30pm. And now, I am keeping a nurse overnight because of a fracture on my ankle.
Do you have regrets?
Well, regret is that you have not been able to do as much as you wanted. I’d give more priority to good work than wealth.
Who do you talk to the most in a day?
My wife. And my secretary. I phoned my daughter in Geneva this morning (Monday) and my son in Singapore. My granddaughter phoned me yesterday (Sunday) from Los Angeles, US. Like that, you know, it’s just a conversation with people.
Of all your businesses, is there one that...
Look, there are so many. You know, one of the businesses that we got in Italy, we started making clothes hangers. Guess how many hangers we are making? Half a billion hangers a year. Because every cloth has to be hanged.
Do they still give you a salary?
No. I’ve earned enough. Listen, I don’t own anything. Everything belongs to the family. There’s a family trust that creates the businesses where we all work, we get our salaries, and that’s it.
By the time I go, I’ll have nothing that’s mine. This house belongs to the family. It goes to the family. I will go as I came.