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Narendra Raval: Billionaire who rides boda boda, has one pair of shoes

Narendra Raval, chairman, Devki Group of Companies during an interview at his Ruiru office on April 19, 2021.

Narendra Raval is 58 years old and estimated to be worth a staggering $500 million — or Sh50 billion—according to Forbes 2015 list of Africa’s 50 richest people. He made his money from steel, barbed wire, cement, aluminium, and reinforcement bars.

Nobody calls him Narendra or Raval, he is simply called Guru. He is called Guru not because of his knack for making huge amounts of money but because he comes from a caste of priests ( Brahmins) and served as a priest in India and an assistant priest in a temple in Kenya, learning the ways of the spiritual world.

As a result, he reads palms and faces, and has mastered astrology. He made the headlines recently for stopping the manufacture of steel at one of his factories to produce oxygen which he gives to struggling public hospitals for free.

Guru keeps giving away his money. He is a philanthropist. He owns one pair of ordinary $60 official shoes, a simple mobile phone, six ties and four suits, because his “wife insists I need more than one suit.”

He has no wallet, and no credit or debit cards.

He wrote an autobiography called ‘Guru; A Long Walk to Success’ that he says has sold over Sh100 million, money he has donated to charity, every last cent.

He runs children’s homes, has adopted many government schools, built classrooms in others, and feeds thousands of poor children.

JACKSON BIKO interviewed him at his office at Devki Group headquarters, a behemoth rising from the dust of Ruiru.

He stressed the ethos of humanity, selflessness and recounted a long difficult journey that started from India where he was born in poverty, to Kenya where he found a wife, children, and great fortune.

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Why do you think some people like you attain a certain level of commercial success running into billions of shillings, while some struggle and work hard but never break the glass ceiling?

It’s not magic. I realise that many people who are cleverer than me never quite find the same success. Making money, lots of money is about courage. First, most successful people are courageous. They take risks. You can’t be a successful businessman if you don’t take risks.

The second thing is focus. Have you watched big cats hunt on National Geographic? Once a lion has started chasing prey, it will focus on one animal even though many will run before him, many that look easy to catch, he will only go for this one animal.

Third, you are only as big as your biggest dream. When I was very poor, I didn’t have a shoe on my foot. Do you know what I used to dream of? A helicopter. Can you believe how insane and unrealistic that was? Not a motorcycle, not a big shop…a helicopter. I didn’t even know how to spell helicopter but I worked for it and I never forgot that dream.

Did you finally own one?

I own three.

After 35 years of marriage, what do you struggle with?

I never struggle with marriage. Marriage has only helped me to grow to where I am. You become close friends the longer you stay together, raising children, working towards something important for both of you. My wife used to work with me at our shop in Gikomba when I was starting and we shared a lot of ideas on what we needed to do. We don’t keep secrets between us. The beauty of marriage for me is that whatever problems I have, I always know they will be shared and halved.

How old are your children now?

My eldest is 30 years, I have a girl who is 22 and my last born is 15 years.

For a man of immense means, how do you make sure that your children don’t grow up entitled, that they don’t live in a vacuum of privilege?

It is very difficult for you to decide on behalf of your children. And yes, I have that fear that my children might not absorb certain principles that I want them to.

But it helps a great deal that we all stay together, three generations in one home. I have two grandchildren. My wife’s parents stay with us. In our home, we have people who are 92 years old and right up to two years old.

It is easy to pass down a culture of humility, sharing in this close setup. I can’t teach my children how to make lots of money but I can teach them the value of money which is a more important lesson. I teach them this every day.

My eldest comes to work every day and handles many things. Business is in his blood. He went to Harvard University but came back and joined the business seven years ago.

Where does your philanthropy come from?

Two places; priesthood and poverty. I have won one pair of clothes and gone barefoot for many years. I have gone without food. I now own only one pair of shoes that I wear for a minimum of five years.

It’s not necessary to own many pairs of shoes. I only have four suits because my wife insists I have to have more than one.

I have no wish to have more money or more luxury. Poverty has taught me to give back because I have not had food on my table. Anybody who steals food is a criminal as far as I am concerned.

Do you know how much money you have?

I don’t know. The day you start counting your money that is the end.

Oh! Why?

Because my money is not what I have in the bank. My money is the 6,500 people who work for me. My money is the oxygen that patients in hospitals are now breathing because we donated. My money is the food on plates of poor children. That is my wealth, not what I spend on myself or my company or my family.

I don’t know what your religion says about sin, but mine says we are all sinners.

What’s your most problematic sin?

[Pause] That’s an interesting question. [Pause] I sin every day. Only I do it unknowingly. My sin is not knowing sin. I don’t set to lie to you or promise you something I have no intention of delivering. When you do it unknowingly it is not a sin. I have no reason to steal from anyone. I will offend someone, yes, or hurt them, and that is also a sin, but I try to make sure that I call that person before I sleep and apologise and ask for forgiveness.

What do you think brings man true happiness?

Not money in the bank or a good house or a big TV or nice clothes. Material things do not give you happiness. These are all external happiness, they are drivers of happiness outside of us. This kind of happiness is endangered by outside factors that you can’t control. The only happiness you can control is here. [Points at chest]. It’s within you and it will always be with you until you die.

What car do you drive?

Until not long ago I drove an old Toyota but then my family insisted that I get a Mercedes-Benz. I drive myself now because I let my driver go be with his family during this pandemic. I also get on a boda boda when traffic is a mess. I remove my tie, jump on one, and pay Sh200.

What makes you very vulnerable?

When I disagree with my family. I can fight with the whole world, I have no problem. But I can’t fight with my family. When my family disagrees with me, or when I disagree with my children especially, I feel the most vulnerable and the poorest person in the world. And when you are defeated by your own family, then you can’t win any war.

When was the last time that happened?

When my eldest son was in London for further studies and I limited his monthly expense to 400 pounds (Sh60,400) per month. My whole family was against me and it was a difficult time for me. But I knew why I was doing it.

I donate millions of shillings daily and so my family could not understand why I was holding back money for our son. He had to look for a job as a clerk and earn extra money to supplement the stipend I was giving him. See, I was teaching him the value of money not the volume of it.

What does your wife find very annoying about you?

That I don’t give the family sufficient time. I am a workaholic. I wake up at 3:30 am and work until 5:30 am when I start my prayers. Then after that, it is back to work, meetings after meetings.

You have met so many important people going by the photo gallery downstairs. But who is the one person you’ve met who made the greatest impression on you?

The late former President Daniel Moi. He was very punctual. If you delayed by a minute he would not see you. He lived his life by the clock, to the minute. I learned punctuality from him. Time management is a very important element of success because if you don’t respect time, yours and others, time will not respect you back and if time stops respecting you, you are done.

How can we be more giving as humans?

Think of death. This nice table here, I will leave it. I will leave everything behind. You will leave your nice watch here. Why hang onto it with dear life when you will leave it? But the question is, how can you be more useful in your time here? How can you do your best not for yourself but for society?

Surely all this money should accord you something that satisfies you on a “selfish” level. What is that thing for you, what’s your biggest luxury?

I like flying helicopters. I’m a pilot. I will fly over the game parks, I will go to the factories in my chopper sometimes. I enjoy it.

The last time you sent M-Pesa, where did you send it and how much did you send?

I don’t have M-Pesa.

How much hard cash do you have in your pocket right now?

[Patting pockets] Nothing. I don’t carry cash. Or cards. I only have my car key. Can I tell you something? If you took me now, with nothing on me, no cash, no phone, and you dropped me in an arid land in Ethiopia or Somalia, I will build another Devki dynasty in no time without taking a penny from anywhere or knowing anybody.

Where does that confidence come from?

The confidence comes from success. If you fail once, twice… then your confidence level goes down but success is the mother of confidence.

What do you regret in life?

I regret my childhood. I never had a childhood. I was a priest from 11 years old. So I never knew how to be a child.

I never dated girls, never wore shoes, I never owned a bicycle. I was responsible from the age of 11, working to send the money I earned at the temple to my parents and so my childhood was lost.

When you miss your childhood, how does that manifest itself in your adulthood, what do you find yourself doing now to compensate?

I support so many orphanages and we have adopted so many government schools. In Emali, for instance, we started with 36 children in Devki Emukutan Primary School 10 years ago. Now they are 350 children who we school and feed. When I bought my first helicopter, my first passengers were children from the school. They may not have sat in a car before like me in India, but they rode in a chopper. Hopefully, that experience has sown something in them. – businessdailyafrica.com