- Mohamedali Natha Hirji 1926–2014
Contributed by Sultan Jessa
The distinguished Natha Hirji family migrated to East Africa at the same time in the early 1900s.
Mahmoud Hirji, son of late Kasamali Hirji, the former president of Aga Khan Council in Moshi, provided some information about the early settlement. He made it clear most of his information is based on hearsay and anecdotes. “I cannot corroborate any of it,” he emphasized.
Natha Hirji moved to East Africa around 1910 as a young man and first landed in Mombasa where he, like many new immigrants, found employment within Alidina Visram’s growing empire.
Hirji was accompanied by brothers Merali and Habib to seek fortunes and settle.(Since Merali Hirji was recorded in the German Colonial Handbook as living in Lindi in 1901 onwards, it is safe to assume that the brothers must have come a few years years-as in like 1890's-Editor)
Some of the pioneers quickly established themselves as successful businessmen and leaders of the community.
The Hirji and Moolji families and assisted many to settle in the town or to learn business dealings from them and eventually moved to Nairobi, Kampala and the Congo. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Hirji and other Ismaili families went back to India and only returned to Africa at end of the war.
After the defeat of Germany, the Hirji family began to establish a dynasty in the British territory. The family had the sole distributorship of British American Tobacco (BAT).
Due to his legendary honesty and ethics, Hirji refused to market tobacco in the black market due to universal shortages, and resisted the chance and opportunity to become an overnight millionaire.
A group of Brits tried to wrestle the BAT distributorship away from the family, complaining to the government about “Indians” being allowed the distributorship. The frustrated and unhappy Brits eventually lost because BAT recognized the integrity and of the Hirjis. Several other attempts by the British rednecks also failed.
One was to buy inferior South African brand tobacco and attempting to boycott the “Indians.”The Brits were once again openly buying cigarettes and other tobacco products from the Hirji family, Many Brits did not like the South African product marketed under the brand name of Upstarts. This company admitted defeat, packed up and left.
“This is a sweet story of honesty triumphing against the forces of racism and evil,” Mahmoud (Hirji) said. “This is what I remember from stories told to us.”
The Hirji family, apart from BAT distributorship, also operated other businesses in Moshi and neighbouring Arusha, including Coca Cola Bottling, Unga Limited, Brooke Bond Tea as well as Plaza and Palladium cinemas.