Pan African businessman Adam Molai’s success has always been credited to two prominent men: His father, a successful businessman and the late former President Robert Mugabe.
He was known as “Molai’s son” on the strength of his father, one of the first black directors of the Spar Guild by virtue of owning three supermarkets then.
When Molai married Mugabe’s niece in 1998, he became “Mugabe’s in laws”.
It was this lack of personal identity that made the executive reclusive as his actions would reflect on someone else.
“I therefore felt compelled to avoid soiling the reputations of the individuals I had been linked to – which was either my father or my uncle- in-law. I decided to just get on with my work as quietly as possible, avoid the limelight as much as possible and avoid getting involved in anything that was potentially contentious,” he told Business Times.
He has two examples of people who knew about Molai and Pacific but without actually knowing the person.
“The first was a late former Minister of Finance. I requested an appointment to see him to discuss excise proposals for cigarettes as we had been requested to submit a proposal as a company. At our meeting, before I could introduce myself, he went on a tirade saying “so this Molai feels too important to come and see me himself and has sent you, tell him I won’t see you”. I presented my business card and he then laughed and said “Ndiwe KaMolai kacho!” [So you are the “little Molai”). ‘I wasn’t expecting a young man like you but rather an older man with a belly’,” the industrialist said.
“The second was former VP Kembo Mohadi. When he arrived in Singapore to collect the late Mugabe’s body, he asked me what I was doing there. In all the years we knew each other, even when he was Minister of State Security, he never knew my relationship with his former boss.”
He is now able to “appropriate” his own identity, separate and autonomous from the identities that had been foisted on him.
“So, it’s a case of finally being able to own one’s voice and being able to do and say as I believe, without my words, actions and beliefs being unfortunately appropriated to an innocent third party,” said the businessman whose 21-year old TRT Investments seeks to develop African businesses to earn a place on the global “business table”.
The industrialist said the journey to develop African businesses to be able to compete on the global economic table continues and success is a journey rather than a destination in itself.
The Mauritian investment holding company recently bought a 49% stake in KAS Africa, a manufacturer of personal, home, baby and oral care fast-moving consumer goods.
The game plan of TRT is to lead in the African industrialisation agenda, Molai said, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic has presented the continent with a unique opportunity to become the alternative supply chain to the world.
The industrialist has also seized an opportunity in adversity and the best thing that could have happened in the TRT development trajectory was the Housing Corporation Zimbabwe (HCZ)-NSSA dispute, he said. NSSA lost a US$30m arbitration dispute with Molai’s HCZ.
Molai said when allegations were made by then head of investigations at ZACC Goodson Nguni, the immediate response was to set the record straight and take legal action for defamation: a $200,000 suit was filed against Nguni.
“However, when the political intentions of frustrating and scandalising a project that had been progressing so well were laid bare, I decided it would be in my best interests and those of my family to emigrate. I didn’t want to associate with politics. It was a disheartening scenario in that thousands of families were deprived of exceptional housing and over 600 direct jobs were lost,” he said.
“My exit from Zimbabwe really facilitated a level of focus I could never have had while in the country and I credit the growth and development of TRT to the HCZ dispute and my move to the diaspora.”
Molai plunged into the billion dollar tobacco sector at the turn of the millennium.
His best teacher on business was BAT Zimbabwe, which ironically had facilitated their entry into the business.
“We had a great idea to establish contract farming, but didn’t have the financial resources to make it happen. BAT loved the idea but didn’t want to be directly involved in contract farming given the risks it created for them in that they could potentially face international lawsuits from dispossessed farmers,” he said.
But at 27, the tobacco regulator and senior executives at the central bank felt the scheme was meant to help former commercial white farmers externalise money and it would destroy an “orderly system” of marketing tobacco that had stood the test of time, he said.
When the authorities relented there was another clause: they had no recourse to any farmers’ assets should they default which almost torpedoed the vision. Undeterred, they launched the first contract farming business, the Zimbabwe Tobacco Growing Company.
“We worked alongside BAT until 2004 when we decided to venture into cigarette production, at which stage the relationship with BAT became untenable and we sold our stake in the contract farming business and this business then re-branded to what today is known as Northern Tobacco,” Molai said.
Pacific Cigarette Company would follow suit in 2002.
Molai said they started off through the acquisition of a liquidated tobacco threshing plant on the outskirts of Harare which was buying tobacco stems, processing them and then export.
“Raising capital was the major hurdle we had to surmount but this was made simple through the support of Interfin Merchant Bank which facilitated our capital raise to get started. Cigarette production commenced in 2004,” he said.
The original two founders of Savanna Tobacco Company were Molai and Nick Havercroft, then a successful Marondera farmer.
The intention was to have permission to process tobacco Havercroft was growing into cigarettes on the farm. But the plan went off track after Havercroft lost his land during the fast-track land reform programme.
…so the micro idea of growing and processing of tobacco then grew into a macro idea of contract farming which was the only mechanism within the statutes that would have facilitated what we wanted to achieve,” said Molai, one of the experiments of the 1978 integration of black students into what was then group A schools.
The tobacco sector has seen the rampant smuggling of cigarettes especially to South Africa. Molai said cigarette smuggling has been a global phenomenon, perpetrated by the multinationals, “way before I was even born and way before the Zimbabwe cigarette monopoly was broken”.
He said cigarettes are smuggled, globally, from low to high tax jurisdictions: a case of arbitrage.
“In the case of our region, cigarette taxes are highest in South Africa and thus cigarettes emanate from the entire region into South Africa. These cigarettes are made by all the cigarette manufacturers including all the multi-nationals,” the industrialist said.
He said there were cases of Air Zimbabwe staff being caught in London smuggling Benson and Hedges cigarettes from Zimbabwe.
These cigarettes, Molai said, were cheap in Zimbabwe, where taxes were low, and then sold in London where taxes were much higher.
“So, really, nothing has changed other than that it was acceptable when the cigarettes were from multinationals but is now exaggerated when cigarettes from independents face the same fate. BAT was never alleged to be smuggling Benson and Hedges to London, it was Air Zimbabwe staff who were accused but in our case, if the same Air Zimbabwe staff had been caught with Pacific cigarettes, the story would have been Pacific cigarettes is smuggling not Air Zimbabwe staff. It’s merely a case of every story will glorify the hunter until the lion learns to write,” he said.
“So, the allegations have been made for the past 17 years and in the 17 years, our company has never been charged anywhere for any such offence.”
Molai grew up in a business family. The grandfather worked for Vandoros family in Marondera involved in wholesale and retail and would buy goods from his employer and sell them in their home town. This activity grew until he opened his first shop. When he died, Molai’s father took over the reins by virtue of being the eldest son. He would develop the township shop into a supermarket chain.
Beyond retail, his father once led the board of the Pig Industry Board and also sat on the boards of Diamond Insurance and Zimre.
“So, growing up with a father who was so entrepreneurial raised me to become entrepreneurial,” he said.
“My first lessons in arbitrage were learnt there, my first money was made there and my teeth in business were cut there,” the industrialist said.
By the time he married into the Mugabe’s family, Molai was already a businessman. He had returned from Canada in 1996 (after doing a commerce degree at Lakehead University) with over US$50,000 he had saved.
“By the time I got married, I left the wedding and moved in with my new wife into a brand new fully kitted modern house I had just completed from my own resources. This house still remains in Marondera and was a 5 bedroom house on an acre, in the then most exclusive suburb of Marondera called Winston Park.
Two years after Molai’s return, his father died.
“That’s the day I grew up and two days after I buried my father we had the official opening of my stationery and copy bureau business,” he said.
His first meeting with Mugabe
Molai first met Mugabe in 1982 when he came to officiate at the Prize Giving and Speech Day at Peterhouse.
“I was given the role of being the student who had to give him the dish of water for him to wash his hands after he planted a tree at the school to commemorate his visit,” he said. They would meet again 16 years later when the businessman went to pay lobola in Zvimba in late 1998.
The businessman regrets he didn’t spend enough time with Mugabe until after he left power due to their busy schedules.
Molai felt the former leader was ostracised by his peers and even some family and therefore needed support.
“It was then that I made a point of ensuring I would visit him at least once a week in the 2 weeks a month that I was in the country. Also in his final days when he was in Singapore I made a point of trying to visit him almost every month; where possible, and was there until his death,” he said.
Molai said Mugabe died without visiting the Pacific factory.
The industrialist said society didn’t really know and understand the late President and that he was not a capitalist.
“While he was very supportive in urging you on through moral support in whatever you are doing, I am not aware who in the Mugabe family he gave a cent for business or for whom he facilitated business opportunities,” Molai said.
When he told Mugabe that his company wanted to set up a cigarette business, the former leader sounded very bullish and supportive of the idea.
“Almost 8 years later in 2008, after the election campaign, he mentioned that in most villages and areas they were flying into by helicopter he kept on seeing shops branded Pacific and asked his security team what it was and was told it was the cigarette produced by our company.
He then admitted to me that while he was happy to hear young people in Zimbabwe having such big aspirations, he never believed that in his lifetime something of that nature would ever happen.”
Mugabe told Molai that he never thought a day would come when a local company would rival BAT.
“This concession, that he didn’t genuinely believe we were going to achieve our cigarette manufacturing ambitions, in spite of him having acted like he did when we spoke about it, was a really humbling compliment,” the industrialist said.
The businessman has launched an entrepreneurship programme to fund upcoming African entrepreneurs. The fund, JUA Kickstarter Fund, was launched in November has a kitty of US$2m after partnering with Simba Global Start-ups of US.
“It allows us to take a stake in the emerging tech boom and play a role in supporting and mentoring young Africans to also become the Mark Zuckerbergs of Africa. So, it’s an opportunity to pay back to a continent that has been really kind to me and pay forward to facilitate a new generation of successful African entrepreneurs,” he said.
JUA seeks to provide funding and mentorship and “are excited with our journey with 7 projects across the continent which is scalable and able to address the myriad of challenges afflicting the continent”.
Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu is also running an entrepreneurship programme on the continent. Molai is inspired to see more hands-on deck and more Africans playing their part in facilitating the next generation of African success.
“I see this as a relay, and each of us has a role to pass our gifts to the next generation. I’m always inspired by David Viscott who said ‘The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away”. So, I believe both Tony and I are focusing upon giving our gift away,” he said.
Molai draws inspiration from Africa’s founding fathers who sacrificed everything for the political independence of the continent.
The businessman considers himself a “student of life”.
“…I have been enriched by readings but some of the books that have left indelible lessons and helped shape my views on business include Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan which I encourage all our new employees to read; Africa Rising by Vijay Mahajan; The Power of Habit by Duhigg Charles and Ikigai by Francesc Miralles,” he said.