In 1910, a 15-year-old boy disembarked at the Port of Mombasa from a steamship from Bombay, India, alongside hundreds of other Indian immigrants.
With the poise of a soldier, Vidhu Ramji Shah, for that was his name, keenly surveyed the land. Armed with sheer willpower, he promised himself he would conquer this land.
Years later, his vision and business acumen would flower into a business empire that has outlived him. Vidhu Ramji Shah died 1960, and his empire spanning real estate, stationery, hardware and groceries came under the leadership of his son, Sobhagayachand Vidhu Ramji Shah, affectionately known as Bachubhai.
A respected philanthropist, Bachubhai, who died in Nairobi on April 6 aged 86, was known for co-founding book retail and distribution conglomerate, Text Book Centre (TBC), the iconic Sarit Centre mall in Westlands, Nairobi, Kartasi Industries and other firms in what the family calls “a century of trading endeavour”.
Sarit Shah, the son of the departed Bachubhai – after whom the mall is named – termed the patriarch’s death a “big loss”.
“But he is with us spiritually,” Sarit told the Saturday Nation at the Sarit Centre.
He variously lionised his father as “a saint, a loving figurehead, visionary, compassionate, philanthropic and a gentle giant”.
“We remember him for the values. He always put others first. He loved children. He was never attached to his wealth but always wanted to keep the family together,” Sarit said.
The multibillion-shilling empire story begins in Murang’a, then known as Fort Hall, where the Vidhu Ramnji settled with his wife Ratanben in 1918 after World War I. He was a partner in a company named Keshavji Parbat & Co, which traded in commodities. They traded in everything from millet, maize and potatoes from as far as Meru, to beads, American clothes, blankets and bicycle spares. It was far from smooth sailing.
“Vidhu Ramji would often chuckle in later years when he recalled they had only one good jacket between them, and it was frequently passed around and worn by whichever party was going to Nairobi on business,” reads a record of the family history.
His long hours of work, fair dealings and interactive evenings while roasting maize in the open, made him fluent in the Gikuyu language, and popular among both the Kikuyu and the Hindu community. Locals fondly called him “Kagatu”.
As the business progressed, so did the lineage. In 1926, his wife Ratanben gave birth to Amrital, the firstborn of four sons and five daughters.
Bachubhai was born in 1935, the year the partners parted ways and Ramji took over the business as the sole proprietor. As his fortunes multiplied, he got more involved in community affairs. He became secretary, then treasurer of the Fort Hall Oshwal and was later involved in the construction of Visa Oshwal Community Hall, today developed as the secondary section of the Vidhu Ramji Academy, both gifted to the people of Murang’a.
Memorable visit to India
Ramji was passionate about education and only allowed his children to join the business after becoming proficient professionals in their chosen fields. Their interests later expanded to include cement, flour, milk and cigarettes.
Ramji first dabbled in the educational supplies business in 1942, when he stocked popular titles such as Kirikaniro, Ngao and Mithomere in a bookshop he started in Murang’a. It was followed by a branch in Embu in 1958, this time in partnership with the long-term family friend, Jadavji Rughani of Karatina, who had already set up Rughani Bookshop in Nyeri. They established a joint one in Murang’a named Vindhu’s Bookshop.
“After 36 years, a second memorable visit to India (after he returned to fetch his wife in 1918), became possible for Ramji in 1954, when he flew to Bombay, his first time in an aircraft. He returned by sea,” reads the family record.
The magnate died in 1960, leaving the businesses to his family.
In 1964, the family moved its operations to Nairobi, and in conjunction with Rughani, started the Text Book Centre, Book Distributors Limited and Kartasi Industries.
Rughani had arrived in Mombasa in 1914 aged 16. He and his wife Godavriben had three sons and four daughters who attended the Karatina India School.
For the Shahs and the Rughanis, it was not only business, but also deep-rooted friendship that now spans more than 60 years. The Shah sons, Bachubhai and the late Amritlal, and Rughani’s three sons, the late Maneklal, Ishwarbhai and Bhaskar, consider themselves brothers. They all embrace strong spiritual, family and business values handed down across generations.
“In every family meeting we had, Bachubhai always reminded us that we must not forget our roots in Murang’a and Karatina because, in those days, it was very difficult to make ends meet. All that we have today is the fruit of the sweat and hard work of our grandfathers and fathers,” says Bachubhai’s nephew, Nitin Shah.
The families’ partnership brought about new ideas like setting up a one-stop shop for all stationery and school supplies in 1967 at a convenient place for customers -- the TBC.
But they started off hawking books on bicycles from one town to another.
Bachubhai had a house where the iconic Sarit Centre currently stands in Westlands, the affluent suburb of the capital city. In 1973, a revered spiritual leader, his Holiness Sat Guru Sat Hariram Bapa, visited Kenya and stayed at his house.
“Never sell, buy the adjacent plots,” the spiritual leader told the young businessmen. “This land is blessed.”
They took the advice and bought more land around and after visiting the Brent Cross Mall in London, the concept of Sarit Centre was born.
“A city within city” was the two partners’ dream.
The first phase of Sarit Centre was opened in 1983, going down in history as the first enclosed shopping mall in East Africa.
It lived up to the partners’ expectation of a one-stop complex offering a great shopping experience. Business, leisure and access to health services meant high convenience and efficiency, intertwined with luxury and fun.
One could now shop for essentials, access key offices, banks, fashion centres, cafés, beauty parlours, cinema halls and medical facilities under one roof.
By 1984, it had made a big business statement, recording full occupancy and brightening the city shopping experience.
On the Christmas Eve of 1985, the complex received a whopping 50,000 shoppers, changing the prospects of the retail space in the region forever.
Rughani had died in 1983, before he could see the development of the second phase of the mall which, in 1997, brought the total space to 500,000 square feet.
The five-storey complex was recognised in 2014 as Africa’s most sustainable shopping mall and is a popular venue for international exhibitions, besides hosting family functions and banquets.
The Sarit Centre records about 25,000 visitors daily. Its key tenants include French retail franchise Carrefour, LC Waikiki, Woolworths, Text Book Centre, Nairobi Sports House, Toyworld, Max Fashion Group, top banks, Hotpoint Appliances, Java, Newscafe, Pins Bowling and Bata.
The third phase is complete and 95 per cent is already let out. The mall now comprises 575,000 square feet, an expo centre of 70,000 sqft and 1,550 parking spaces. The expansion plans, which commenced in 2017, factored in a four-screen cinema, an international standard convention centre and exhibition hall, an open-air roof garden, bowling entertainment, a children's play centre and an indoor food court.
The 22,000 square feet TBC flagship store has for years been the largest outlet for local publishers’ products. Though not a publisher, the company is a member of the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) and a key supporter of the Nairobi International Book Fair since 1999.
KPA chairman Lawrence Njagi termed Bachubhai’s death “a personal loss for us”.
“Bachubhai was keen to see indigenous publishers grow,” Mr Njagi said.
The annual book fair has been held at Sarit Centre since the early 1980s and Bachubhai chipped in when the publishers did not have money to host the event. He was a permanent fixture during the opening and closing ceremonies of the fair, during which the biennial Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature (sponsored by TBC) is awarded. The prize remains the top literary national award.
Bachubhai received the Order of Grand Warrior in 2000 and the Head of State Commendation in 2004. He is survived by his wife, Suryakala, five children, 10 grandchildren and a great grandson.