After having earned enough money, he began to organize caravans for domestic travelling.
His business expanded, at first slowly but later more quickly. He had extended his operations all along the caravan route, opening branches of operations of his firm in Dar-es-Salaam, Sadani, Tabora, Ujiji and of Kalima and Tindo in the Belgium Congo.
In the formative stage, he purchased cloves, wax, ivory, etc. from the native people in the villages and towns around Zanzibar instead of cloth, salt, grains, etc. Soon afterwards, he ventured in the trade of ivory on large scale and made rapid progress.
The European travellers visited the north of Kenya to hunt and collect ivory. Varas Alidina was given the sole contract to provide packed foods to the hunters.
In 1885, he joined Nasser Virji and had a chain of stores between Bagamoyo and Ujiji having bought the business of Sewa Haji Paroo (1851-1897) with several branches.
After the death of Sewa Haji Paroo on February 10, 1897, he took over his caravan trade, thus upbringing it to a logical conclusion of what Sewa Haji had started by expanding it as far as Uganda, Kenya and parts of Congo Free State and Southern Sudan. He moved beyond trade into other businesses, and towered his name as the “King of Ivory” in Africa.
In 1888, he focused his attention to British East Africa and opened many stores along the railway line in Uganda. He was permitted to install canteens at every station.
He also obtained the contract of paying the railway workers their salaries as well as providing funds to the railway authority. By 1904, he began working with governments to expand businesses and develop agriculture. In conclusion, he built over 70 branches, a vast commercial empire, stretching from the wilderness of Kenya and Uganda.
He had several dhows and a small steamer on Lake Victoria and a well-organized transport service from Mombasa to Uganda with one telegraphic address all over pagazi, meaning transporters. He had seven large plantations, mainly planted different varieties of sugar cane and rubber with experimental plots of grams, fruits, flowers, tea, and cotton.
He employed a fleet of over 3000 workers for his projects. He also owned several ginneries, the first of which was opened at Entebbe in 1910. He purchased raw cotton in Uganda and processed in his ginning factories and shipped the pure cotton by railway for Mombasa to be exported in Bombay.
A model migrant, Varas Alidina Visram was also a model businessman. Indeed, his success seems to have been the product not only of a keen business sense, but also of the good reputation he enjoyed. Around 1907, he became the close friend of Kings, Kabakas, Chiefs, Ministers, Envoys, Generals and Admirals
Varas Alidina Visram was reputed for his open heart and generous hand.
He donated a massive sum for the construction of the first Jamatkhana in Kisumu in 1905, which was inaugurated by the Imam. When the Imam visited Kisumu, the jamat prepared a special cart of four horses.
Varas Alidina and Mukhi Varas Hashim Jamal (1880-1970) and two other Ismailis relieved the horses and joined themselves with the cart to pull it.
The Imam asked its reasons amazingly. Varas Alidina Visram said, “Mawla! It is our desire to pull the cart like your horses from here to the Jamatkhana.”
The Imam replied, “I accept your ardent zeal, which should not be demonstrated in this manner. You are my spiritual children. Varas Ismail Gangji had removed off the slogan: Khoja! lift the load (khoja uthao boja). Now I will never allow you to lift this load. Come out of it and join the horses. You come and sit with me in the cart.”
He was also one of the founder members of the Ismaili Council for Mombasa, which was established on November 4, 1905 with President Mukhi Ibrahim Nanji.
It was in 1905 that the Imam advised him to invite the indigent Ismailis of Kathiawar and help them settle down in Kenya and Uganda. He and Mukhi Valji Hirji of Mombasa invited a bulk of Indian Ismailis to the African continent.
With the help of Mukhi Varas Hashim Jamal, he assisted new immigrant Ismailis to settle in Kisumu and other parts of Kenya in 1911. He established small provision stores, which sold sesame seeds, beans, peanuts, rice, jiggery, ghee, and much later hides and skins. These immigrant Ismailis settled in Homa Bay, Mumias, Sio Port and other small towns.
He was bestowed the title of Varas for his invaluable services. It must be recorded that he was the first titleholder of Varas in Kenya and Uganda. When the Imam was gracing didar in Nairobi in 1914, he was sitting on the floor beside the chair of the Imam. He at once saw the tears bursting out of the Imam’s eyes. It perplexed him so emphatically that he also wept.
Soon after a short while, he dared to ask the Imam its reason. The Imam said, “My followers in the world are so visible in my sight as the lines in your palm. I am now looking at my followers of Kutchh, who are the impoverished peasants. I am ruffled to see their deplorable conditions.” To this, Varas said, “May I do something for them?” The Imam said, “You can do everything for them. You arrange to bring them and allot 10 acres land to each of them. I will send them in Africa on my expenses.”
He agreed and made a plan with his Assistant, Rashid Khamisa. It however took him little time, but became successful and brought many Indian Ismailis in Africa.
They first joined as employees and later they started their own shops. It is said that the 90 percent of the Ismailis, who attained their prosperity in Kenya and Uganda, owe their settlement to him.
And no doubt his reputation was enhanced by the substantial fund he donated to Namirembe Cathedral, to the Red Cross and to a hospital in Kampala.
He lived to see 65 years of hard life bring prosperity in Africa, and made regular annual visits to every main branch of his vast business empire.
On one of his routine trips to branches in Congo Belgium to recover the outstanding amount from the petty merchants, he failed to get it.
Shocked by this, he contracted a cold fever upon his returned and died shortly after in Mombasa on June 30, 1916.
His son, Varas Abdul Rasul (d. 1923) built a High School in Mombasa to commemorate the name of his father.
A memorial bronze of Varas Alidina Visram was presented by Rajab Ali Hasham Paroo, his life-long associate and his General Manager, and was unveiled in Mombasa on September 9, 1937 by the governor of Kenya. This school stands as a remnant of his numerous pioneering feats.
Varas Alidina was certainly an Asian who pioneered the East African economy, and helped the British Government in all possible ways in development issues.
Dr. Cyril Ehrlich writes in The Uganda Economy 1903-1945 (p. 18) that, “Perhaps the most important individual in the early history in East Africa, Seth Alidina Visram was responsible for laying the firm foundation not only of trade in Uganda but of such industries as cotton, sugar, rubber, tea and various other agricultural products as well as of shipping across Lake Victoria.”
According to Oriental Nairobi, “An interesting point is that the Khoja community was in East Africa even before the foundation of Nairobi, the merchant, Prince Alidina Visram, also known as the Uncrowned King of Uganda, extended his activities on the mainland from Mombasa to the lower reaches of the Nile.”
Sir Frederick Jackson, the governor of Uganda described him as “a charming old gentleman, respected by everyone in the country, high and low, white or black.”
- The Monitor – Allidina Visram: The grandfather of trade in Uganda
- Allidina Visram The Trail Blazer
- Profile on Khojapedia
- Ismailis Mail: Uganda Asians Profile of Allidina Visram
- Economist: Going global – Secrets of the world’s best businesspeople
- Times of India: Bhuj boy turned African trade pioneer
- @PwaniTribune Twitter thread – Tribute to Allidina Visram
- Profile and timeline on KhojaWiki