Described by BBC as one of the people who “represent the part of Ethiopian life where dynamism, creativity and an adventurous spirit are allowed to thrive,” Harsh Kothari of Mohan Group of companies is a passionate entrepreneur and charity advocate. Born in Ethiopia, he spent more of his formative years in Addis Ababa. Here, he reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on Mohan, the status of the dwindling Indian community of Ethiopia, on charity and gives advice to young people as well as the diasporas who want to follow in his footsteps. Excerpts:
Tell me about the Mohan Group of Companies?
We are a diversified group of companies that primarily focus on polymer compounding and integrate it to manufacture footwear. Our flagship company, Mohan PLC, is involved in the manufacturing of Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) Compounds, Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) Compounds, Color master batches, Filler master batches, and recently we have started producing Thermo Plastic Rubber (TPR) Compounds, the first in the whole of East Africa. Our chemicals are bought by varied customers in diversified sectors. For example, we supply compounds to the cable industry, which use our products to coat the cable. We supply to companies that manufacture pipes and hoses.
We supply our compounds to many footwear companies. Interestingly, we also manufacture Filler Master batches, which is an important element in the flexible packaging industry and the furniture industry. 20 percent of a PP woven sack or 20 percent of any PE film can be substituted with filler master batches, which makes products, get certain special properties, and at the same time reduce their cost. Plastics are omnipresent around us, and our color master batches provides for the aesthetics for a lot of the plastic products we see around us (including the buckets, jerry cans, shopping bags, etc).
We used our advantage in chemicals and plastics and integrated into footwear. We manufacture our own rubber and EVA sheets and process it further to make soles for leather based casual and jogging shoes, and flip flops; we manufacture our own soles using our own PVC compounds and make canvas shoes etc. I am happy to inform you that we now have a very successful and popular shoe brand, Highlander Shoes.
There is now a strong but dwindling Indian-Ethiopian population in the nation. Your family has been in Ethiopia for three decades and there are some who have stayed longer. Tell me about that?
The Indian community in Ethiopia is growing and getting stronger. My family has been actually here for five generations. My son is the 5th generation in Ethiopia. We have been in Ethiopia for over 100 years! There are about 100-150 Indians who have been living in Ethiopia for generations. Though in the past decade or so, we have seen a great increase in the number of Indians participating in the dynamic economic growth in Ethiopia, whether they are from the professional, teaching or business background. As you probably already know, Indians and Ethiopians share a very similar culture in many ways; from cuisine to the concept of family living to the way in which we do business and even linguistic similarities. I am of the personal opinion that Indians have a natural advantage in Ethiopia, both in life and in business, which is because we feel at home.
Mohan is a known brand, especially on its corporate responsibility gestures. It has supported many charities including the Lions Club. Why is that mantra important for the company?
I am happy that you have asked this question, because it is an issue that is very close to our hearts. We are the 1st corporate Lions Club in the world, “Lions Club of Mohan PLC” and we work hard to pay back social dividends in life. Many perceive our activities as charity, but for us, it is something we do for ourselves, for our self-satisfaction and for our self-esteem. In cooperation with the Office of the First Lady and Ye Enat Weg Charitable Association, Mohan PLC is feeding 126 students two meals a day at the “Alpha School for the Deaf”, where we noticed that children with a hearing impairment were a lot more motivated to come to school, learn and perform exceptionally ever since they got their meals. Interestingly, we even gave an internship to seven students from this school in our shoe plant in Gelan, and realized how talented and bright they are. As part of a Lions Club project, we have also worked on building an eco-village where we drilled a well, powered the pump using solar energy.
We then connected one pipe for drinking water and another for sanitation and hygiene. All the waste water was then filtered through weeds and got used for irrigating a vegetable farm. In the meantime a separate charging kiosk was made for villagers to charge their mobile phones etc with the surplus energy produced using the solar panels. We also hold an annual blood donation drive, we just donated blood last month, and we feel good to see a great deal of participation from our staff, business associates and friends.
Social programs help us bond with people better, and it also motivates our team to work harder on business matters so that they know that the rewards in business are not only for theirs to keep but to be shared with society. Giving also enhances better self-esteem and self-respect, and we feel happy to see the growing self-belief in our team.
The company has tried to complement the policy of the Ethiopian government in the manufacturing industry rather than focus on what was the known route, which was the importation of goods from aboard. Share with me the highlights?
In order to be competitive in the dynamic Ethiopian economy, we have realized that it is important to add value to products. Value addition helps to be more sustainable and create sharper competitive edges. Being a part of a larger cycle of a product value chain helps in innovation as well because you can monitor the impact of one innovation on the entire product cycle. The government also felt that the need of the hour is to add value to products in Ethiopia so that Ethiopian products are more competitive in the larger context. We do believe in aligning ourselves to government policies and creating linkages amongst industrial players.
As the nation continues to face forex shortages, it is crucial that companies like ours take a position of import substitution enablers. I think creating import-substituted linkages within the manufacturing sector in Ethiopia is seen as one of the key areas of sustainable growth under GTP-II, and we are happy to continue playing a role in that direction. We have received support and cooperation from the government in setting up and executing our footwear project successfully through transformative agencies such as LIDI, and we have realized that their support has helped us go a long way in building our footwear brand, Highlander Shoes, because they supported us from the feasibility study to the training of our workforce to designing some of our shoes during the early stages of production.
What is the long-term vision of the company?
Our vision is to be a global player of repute in the plastic raw materials, polymer compounding and footwear business.
When you look at the Ethiopian economy from the perspective of a foreign investor, what are some of the areas that have a potential to grow?
I think the Ethiopian economy will grow in every way. I am very bullish. There is a large market, 100 million people looking to consume different products. Within our own products, I feel that chemicals, footwear and lifestyle products will boom in the near future. If companies understand the demand patterns and the complex consumption patterns of consumers in Ethiopia, there is a huge opportunity that needs to be tapped. For many, using Ethiopia as a base to export manufactured items is also a lucrative business model.
It’s hard to list out ‘some’ areas of potential growth, because I think the whole Ethiopian economy will grow and hence almost every sector within the business world will grow in Ethiopia; whether it is manufacturing, agriculture, agro processing, trading, information technology, hospitality or services. However, I feel that flexible packaging will have a special growth in the near future because for almost every manufactured or agro processed product, packaging will be required. The flexible packaging requirement will be huge for such a large market that is growing so rapidly. Of course, as a group we enjoy manufacturing so we will continue with our focus on that.
Within Ethiopia, when you long for authentic Indian cuisine, what is one restaurant that is close to the ideal Indian food?
Honestly, the most authentic Indian cuisine will only be found at home for me. My mother is an amazing cook! Indian food as you know is very diverse and subjective, and if I had to choose a restaurant in Ethiopia, it would be Sangam Restaurant.
There are now thousands of young entrepreneurs move to Ethiopia from abroad – diasporas and foreign investors looking for opportunities. As a veteran businessman in Ethiopia, what advice do you have for them?
I don’t consider myself as a veteran businessman. I’m still relatively young and new, and I have a long way to go in my career. However, my only advice to any new businessperson is to be passionate and self-driven. These are 2 key characteristics to be successful in business. Though it is necessary that these two are complemented with earnest, honesty, and sound ethics because that determines your relationship with the people and institutions around you. Ethiopia is a large market, and there are a lot of things that can be done here, so I also encourage young businesspersons to be innovative and unique in whatever that they do. Diasporas coming from abroad have exposure to many new business models and start-up ideas, it will be interesting to see products, services and technology that can cause market disruptions and become giant businesses.
India is seen an exemplary nation for many emerging nations such as Ethiopia. What can Ethiopia learn from India?
India and Ethiopia share great ties; cultural, diplomatic, political and commercial. Ethiopia is witnessing a great growth trajectory. India too is the fastest growing economy (from the large economies), and has a robust and dynamic business sector. As long as Indians and Ethiopians work together and share their experiences regularly, as long as the people-to-people connect grows (like it has been growing), then Indians will learn a lot from Ethiopia and Ethiopians will learn a lot from India. India is witnessing a fast-paced economic growth and like Ethiopia, we too have a young educated population. This young blood can play a crucial role in IT services, business process outsourcing to global multinationals, innovative start-ups and who knows, there may be innovations related to sending satellites in space. India has sent a mission to Mars and the young generation coupled with innovative SMEs made India’s technological advances possible. I foresee a similar scope in Ethiopia, where young bright minds will pave the way to human technological success from the cradle of civilization.