Mohamed Zakir does not come from a long line of businessmen and traders in the Coast. He grew up in a small sleepy town called Samburu in Kwale, before moving to Mombasa for his education.
School was not his bag, so after secondary education he started a glass company in 1990. A few years later, together with his three brothers and brother-in-law, they started Fairdeal Group that also added furniture in their portfolio, with Fairdeal Furniture as their mothership.
They are also in real estate, hardware and energy business. The company has grown over the years with 200 employees currently and they import furniture from China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the US.
JACKSON BIKO met him in his office in Mombasa; a swanky minimalist-contemporary space with brick and wood panelling and overhead lighting shaped like atoms. He talks about business and his new passion as a person living with albinism.
Do you think you were destined to sell furniture or it is just something that came along your way and then you took it up?
I started selling glass first and my younger brother was handling furniture. After a while, we swapped roles and I started handling furniture. The furniture market was changing and China’s doors were opening to great deals so I took it.
How do you run a business with brothers and one brother-in-law? What happens when you have major rows? How have you managed to do business as a family without splitting?
The first thing we did when we set up this company was to make our own constitution called the Fairdeal Family Constitution. We were thinking about 50 years from today. How are our children, the second generation, going to join business?
And if they decide to join what is the procedure? We may be sending our children abroad to study but they might want to come back and join the business. We have also thought of the third and fourth generations.
Therefore, we have a clear structure of dos and don’ts, which means conflicts are solved by just opening the constitution and asking, “what does this say?”
Are your children keen to join the business of selling furniture?
I have one daughter who has just turned 18. She has just finished her A-levels and she is going to study food and nutrition in Dubai. She isn’t into furniture or getting into anything related to furniture. (Laughs)
Does that break your heart a little?
(Laughs) No. Young people have a right to follow their dreams. This was my dream. But interestingly, we are five brothers and their sons are already in the business. It’s only I who has a daughter so it’s good to have one of them doing something else.
What does it take to get where you have got in business?
Focus. When you get to a certain point in business, you ask yourself questions that are bigger than you or your business. You wonder if you are making a difference. I have been asking myself that for a while now and I’m in the final process of founding the ‘Mohamed Lukmanji Foundation’ to work with albinos and disabled people.
You don’t see a lot of Indian albinos, do you? I suppose it’s not very common.
It’s very rare. At least in Kenya, it’s rare. I want to rally other CEOs and company owners to provide job opportunities for albinos because we cannot do jobs that expose us to direct sunlight. This foundation will also help set up education and scholarship opportunities.
I want to help albinos in rural areas to rise and become people in the corporate and work environment, to empower them and have them recognised.
How was your experience as an Indian albino, especially in your own community?
I didn’t have any issues. Not any that I can remember because look at me I could pass for a European. (Laughs). I have never been categorised as less fortunate or something. I think I’m always an equal.
Do you see yourself as somebody with a disability?
No, I don’t. In Kenya, we are classified as persons with disability but in Europe they are not. Of course, there are benefits that we get from the government, so it’s fine. I have to say that the new Constitution is really friendly towards us.
I didn’t experience any discrimination in my community but I plan to get into public service to champion the rights of albinos. So I have enrolled in a degree programme as the first step. I’m 48 years old now and going back to school.
Did you not have this fire when you were younger?
When I started doing business it was difficult to do these two things together; philanthropy and business. You need money for the former. I promised myself that I’d work to make money and when I hit 45 years I’d embark on this philanthropy journey.
Then I forgot to get on it when I was 45, I only remembered at 46 but it’s never too late.
What’s the biggest advantage of living with albinism?
I think I stand out. (Laughs). It’s easy for me to be recognised. When I went to the US a few days ago, I met my classmate after 30 years. He came and said, “Mohamed, how are you?” I said, “I don’t know you.” He said, “You do, we last met in 1987!” It’s hard to meet me and forget me, which is a good thing.
Do you remember the experience of when your daughter first realised that you were ‘different’, so to speak. And what kind of conversations did you two have at that point?
(Pause) I don’t really recall any exact moment when we had this conversation. I don’t remember her coming from school and saying people had made fun of her father. I don’t think those things happened.
But at some point I told her what albinism was and that I had it and what that meant. I made it normal because she heard it from me, I guess. I don’t remember her asking any questions or being overly interested in the fact that I looked different.
What do you have to do or leave on this earth that will make you immensely proud when you depart?
(Long pause) To see one of us rise to the highest seat in the land. To see an albino as a president of this country. I think it will send the strongest and most powerful message that we are also people and we are capable for everything that anyone else is capable of.
I mean, look at me, am I not running this business as any other person would?. There are many people living with albinism that think they are not capable because society has made them believe they are not capable. So, an albino for president!
And it starts with you, in this nice office of yours…
(Laughs) Yes, right here! Why not!