by Ben Taylor
Tanzanian billionaire, business mogul, author and philanthropist Reginald Mengi has died aged 75. From humble roots, Mr Mengi had grown a business empire spanning mining, consumer goods and the media, worth, according to Forbes Magazine, US$550 million.
The legend of Mengi’s rise is well-known, as he was not shy to tell the story regularly, including in his 2018 Memoire, I Can, I Must, I Will. He describes how he started life bedding down with the farm animals in a small hut, but made his way out of poverty via an accounting college in Glasgow. He took night classes and worked as a bus conductor and cleaner to pay his way. He got a job as an accountant with PwC and was posted first to Nairobi then back home to Tanzania, in Dar es Salaam. By 1989, when he left the firm, he had risen to the role of Chairman and Managing Partner.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine in 2014, Mengi describes how the want of a pen sparked his mind on the way to his fortune. Amid widespread shortages of basic supplies in the 1980s, he had spent a whole day searching the streets of Dar es Salaam for a pen when he ran into a friend who knew someone, who knew someone else, who could export pen parts to Tanzania. He assembled them on his bedroom floor. “That little business gave me my first million dollars,” said Mengi.
The extent to which such stories were exaggerated as part of the management of his public profile is unclear, but it is also said that Mengi’s first marriage, into a well-connected family in his home region of Kilimanjaro, helped move his career and business along considerably.
Today, his flagship IPP Limited owns several newspapers including The Guardian and Nipashe as well as several TV and Radio stations including the country’s leading TV station, ITV. He pioneered independent media in Tanzania when state monopolies were relaxed in the 1990s. The company also has interests in a number of Coca-Cola’s bottlers and bottles its own brand of water, Kilimanjaro Drinking Water. At the time of his death, Mengi was planning to expand into vehicle assembly for Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo cars in East Africa, as well as mobile phone manufacturing.
Mengi was also one of Tanzania’s most prominent philanthropists. He gave away large sums – reportedly millions of dollars every year – to Tanzanian educational, medical and religious institutions. Through this, and with the assistance of the highly visible presence he was able to command through his own media outlets, he had become a very popular figure among Tanzanians, well known even outside business, media and political circles.
Rumours often circulated that Mengi had aspirations for a political career. His name was mentioned occasionally as an outside candidate for leadership within CCM, though this never materialised. Perhaps his occasionally outspoken remarks on environmental causes and good governance made it impossible. Or perhaps this was part of an astute business strategy: rumours of political ambitions could provide useful leverage in his dealings with government.
“I am shocked at the death of an elder and a friend Dr. Reginald Mengi,” said President Magufuli. “I will remember him for his immense contribution to the development of our country and for the words he wrote in his book. I offer my condolences to members of his family, IPP workers and the entire business community.”
Previously, the President had spoken at the launch of Mengi’s book. “One of the things that Mengi has showed us with his life is that it is possible to rise above one’s circumstances if one is willing to pay the price,” he said. “There is no shortcut to success. Mengi’s story is a wake-up call to young Africans to work hard and persevere despite of the odds,” he added.
Mengi is survived by his second wife, former beauty queen Jacqueline Ntuyabaliwe Mengi, and four children.