ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gujarati Business Communities in East African Diaspora

Major Historical Trends

Gujarati emigrants to East Africa were central to the economic development of that region both before and during European colonial rule. Not the undifferentiated mass of 'Indians' or 'Asians' recorded by the colonial powers, the Gujaratis were both internally divided by caste, community, and religion, and bound together by common ties of language an orientation towards business. It was those ties, and the carefully maintained kinship and community networks, which the various communities utilised to build their economic fortunes in their new lands. Thus it is to those networks that attention must be turned to understand both the foundations of Gujarati success in East Africa as well as their continuing links back to Gujarat.

Gujarati businessmen ranging from ‘dukawallas’ and middlemen to industrialists have played an important role in the economic development of East Africa. As creative emigrants and settlers with an inner gift for innovation and entrepreneurship, they were involved in every facet of commercial life until the military regime of Uganda forced them to leave in the early 1970s, which resulted in mass emigration to the UK, the US and Canada. Their removal from Kenya and Tanzania was only slightly less callous But the Gujaratis are back in East Africa This is in response to a series of incentives offered by various governments, enticing them to return and bring back their investment capital and their business skills. To cite just one example, in his address to a huge gathering of Gujaratis and other Asians at the Swaminarayana temple in London in October 1997, the Ugandan president, Yowri Kaguta Museveni invited Gujaratis to return to his country. Criticising the myopic policies of Idi Amin, Museveni promised Gujaratis a privileged position in Uganda, and assured security of their lives and property.1

The creation of a Gujarati business community diaspora in East Africa since the 1880s and the recent migrations back to the area from the UK is, thus, of more than mere historical interest. It suggests that, if the democratic system in the East African states creates a favourable entrepreneurial climate, Gujaratis are likely to do well into the next millennium. This assumption is based on the performance of the Gujarati merchant princes both in the UK and East Africa and also in the US and Canada in the 1990s.2 Although they are returning to East Africa with extreme caution, Gujaratis are helping to rebuild the economies of East Africa. This key role in the present time is amply demonstrated, among other things, by recent entrepreneurial activities of the Chandaria, Karimjee, Hindocha, Mehta and Madhvani groups of industries – all of which had been very visible in the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

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