Entrepreneurs

The Priest Who Unearthed Fortune in Africa

Narendra Raval shares how a humble temple priest became a business magnate.
The Priest Who Unearthed Fortune in Africa
Image credit: Entrepreneur India
Chairman, Devki Group
7 min read
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Ask any successful person about his or her journey, and chances are that you would get a reply that life wasn’t bereft of hardships and challenges. As Churchill puts it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” It was not fortuities but courage, vision and dreams to give a lasting legacy to the world that kept Narendra Raval going. He shares how a humble temple priest became a business magnate.

It is said that “Dreams come true, if we only wish hard enough; we can have anything in our lives, if we are willing to sacrifice everything else for it. I have always dreamt big, no matter what the circumstances were. As a 12-year-old, with no proper clothes on my back, no shoes to wear, residing in a charity hostel and studying on a free-ship, I dreamt of riding a helicopter, a dream that I went on to fulfil 41 years later.

I was born in a traditional Gujarati Brahmin family in a tiny village in Mathak, Gujarat. Though my grandfather was the second richest person in our village, family disputes stripped us of all luxuries. At the age of ten, I first faced life’s reality and also experienced poverty first hand. As a child, I was playful, mischievous and least interested in studies. Due to this, I studied at different schools in Gujarat and most of them on free-ship. To add to this, circumstances taught me to find ways and means of fulfilling basic necessities of life and support my family.

These challenges gave birth to my business instincts. Circumstances did not deter me to think and dream big at 14, while studying in Bhuj; I received an opportunity to serve as a priest in the Swamynarayan Temple. This was a blessing in disguise and through the earnings I was able to support my family. Three years later, life presented me a big-break, when the Bhuj Temple Management offered me the role of a priest in the EASS Temple in Nairobi, Kenya. In 1978, at the age of 18, I travelled from India to Kenya, where I served as the head priest for nearly three years.

As a teenaged priest, I bravely faced all challenges, frustrations and loneliness, with the sole purpose of supporting my family residing in India. Even as a priest, money and business always played on my mind. In 1981, after three years I returned to India. But fate and circumstances forced me go back to Kenya in search of livelihood. My next four years as a priest in Kenya were quite eventful — it was during these years people nicknamed me “Guru”. Later, I joined a steel industrialist to understand the steel and hardware market. In 1985, I met Neeta my life partner and we got married. I took a life-turning decision and promised myself that I would never work for anybody again. I wanted to master destiny of my life and decided to set up my own business.

In 1985, like in Bollywood movies, with a courageous heart and empty pockets, Neeta and I opened a hardware shop ‘Steel Centre Limited’ in Gikomba, Nairobi — an area where no Indian would dare to step into. For half a decade, both of us worked hard to establish our company, burnt our midnight oil and with the support of about 7-10 employees, we became Kenya’s largest hardware trader. At that time, there were hardly 1-2 manufacturers of steel and hardware products in Kenya. With my larger than life vision and strong determination, with a workforce of 71, we ventured into manufacturing. Thus, giving birth to our first steel rolling mill, ‘Devki Steel Mills’ in 1994. The next three months, where I witnessed crashing global steel prices, piled up stocks, unpaid wages brought the best out of me, at the end of which I had successfully turned from a trader to a manufacturer.

Our steady growth led us to an investment of $100 million and helped us to build a roofing sheet mill ‘Maisha Mabati Rolling Mills’, which went into commercial production in 2010. A long cherished dream was fulfilled when we led the foundation of our cement business ‘National Cement Company’. This was a major achievement for our group, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) contributed more than USD $ 250 million, which become operational in 2011. Today, after four decades of tireless hardwork, perseverance, dedication and ambitious spirit, we have a workforce in excess of 4,500 and a group annual turnover in excess of $700 million, we have created a niche for ourselves in the East and Central African infrastructure industry.

Finally, in 2013, at the age of 53, I acquired my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) and fulfilled my dream of flying my own helicopter. We have also set up our own aviation company, in which we charter helicopters. I have come a long way in life. God has filled my life with all colours he could possibly fill in life, poverty, starvation, struggle, frustration, failure, loneliness, love, happiness and tears, jealousy and success. T

oday, at the peak of my successful business career, people attribute my success to good fortune. But very few, acknowledge the hardwork, pain and struggle that I endured. I would like to share the secret of my success. Firstly, I believe that nothing is impossible in this world for a willing heart and determined mind. The limitation is in our minds.

If someone like me with so little formal education, but a lot of common sense and determination can become a steel tycoon with more than 4,500 employees in his fold, then anyone can achieve whatever he truely desires. Secondly, I suggest after formal education and before you jump into your own business, work in a business house or industry, so that you can gain an insight into the business. If you venture out on your own without obtaining any practical training or experience, chances of failure are bright. Thirdly, many have the ability to run an enterprise, but lack the capital or resources to venture out on their own; this does not mean that they are not entrepreneurs.

I advise them to take up an employment, utilise their skills in various fields, thus benefitting both their organizations that they work for as well as for themselves. Fourthly, and more importantly, have a dream or vision and stay focused on it. Never lose focus on one’s vision and strive hard to accomplish your goals. Keep your focus on the importance and value of money, think practically and understand the importance of money and its worth in your lives. In today’s modern age, people view what you have rather than what you are. So while studying, working or managing business, stay competitive and focused or there are bright prospects that you may be thrown out by competition.

Lastly, before you take a second step in business, ensure that your first step is firm and solid. Despite scaling heights, I have not forgotten my poverty and past. Personally, I have pledged to donate 50 percent of my earnings to charity. Both individually and through our CSR initiatives, we have contributed immensely toward the less fortunate of the society. My life’s journey continues, however, there is still much more to be done and achieved; the destination is still far away.

As Robert Frost puts it in one of his poems: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep; But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep”

(This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)

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