In many ways, Nanji Kalidas Mehta came to Uganda by accident. Born in Gorana, India, in 1888, the young Mehta, 14, left the sub-continent and travelled to Majunga in Madagascar where he was introduced to trading in his elder brother’s shop.
An outbreak of plague in Madagascar forced Mehta and many of the Indians on the island to return to India but was soon back in Africa against the wishes of his family – and with only 55 Rupees in his pocket.
Mehta landed in Mombasa but he had his eye on travelling farther down to South Africa where many Indians, among them Mahatma Ghandi, sought opportunity.
However, Mehta failed to get a permit to allow him travel to South Africa and ended up, instead, in Zanzibar where he worked for about 18 hours a day for Keshavji Anandji, a large Indian company, for 200 Rupees a year.
After a few years in Zanzibar, Mehta returned to Mombasa before he decided to head into the interior to Uganda. He travelled by train to Nairobi and on to Kisumu, took a boat to Entebbe and then walked to Jinja where his uncle had a shop.
Mehta would later recall his journey in his autobiography, Dream half-expressed, published in 1966. “Destiny laid its final seal,” he reminisced, “and from Mombasa I soon proceeded to Uganda, the land of nature’s bounty and eternal fertility, where I was free to do whatever I liked and launch any new enterprise that would appeal to my restless and stubborn self.”
Mehta was posted to Kamuli to run one of his uncle’s shops but he broke away a year later – testament to his restlessness and stubbornness – to set up his own shop in Kamuli.
“The day on which I first established my own shop at Kamuli was a red letter day in my life,” he later recalled. “It marked the beginning of my career as an independent businessman in East Africa. I had already learnt the native dialect and knew every merchant, big or small, personally and that helped me a lot.”
Here, he sold imported merchandise but also bought goods from the countryside, which he sold in Jinja, before expanding his business to Teso and Lango. In one trip to the area, Mehta records making a net profit of 6,000 Rupees – an amount his old job in Zanzibar would have taken him 30 years to make. Within two years, he had opened up a second shop 12 miles from Kamuli Town and had entered the cotton trade.
Mehta bought cotton in the villages of Busoga and transported it to Jinja and Kampala, returning with imported goods from Bombay and setting up more shops in Jinja and Kamuli.
Venturing into cotton brought immediate profit to Mehta who, by 1914, was making 20,000 Rupees per year, allowing him to invite more of his relatives from India to help supervise his growing empire.
In 1916, Mehta entered the world of low-scale ginning, setting up a cotton ginnery in Kamuli and another in Busembatia using machines borrowed from the British Cotton Growers Association.
He was partly forced into the ginning business by the colonial administration after it introduced the Uganda Cotton rules in 1913, which meant effectively that only ginning companies could buy cotton in the country.
He was able to pay back his loan from the association in a year, vastly expanding his access to capital, especially after he entered into partnership with Sheth Mathurdas Gokuldas, the cotton-king of Bombay, and received financing from the National Bank of India.
There is no doubt that Mehta was, at this point, destined to grow rich out of the cotton trade but it was his decision to venture into sugar that would go on to make him wealthy.