Interview – Hassan Rattansi

The Ford Foundation is giving one-year planning grants to seven indigenous foundations in East Africa. Who are these foundations, what do they do, and how will the planning grants help them? Caroline Hartnell talked to Dr Hassan Rattansi, Chairman of the Nairobi-based Rattansi Educational Trust.

Establishing the trust

The Rattansi Educational Trust was established in 1956 by Hassan Rattansi’s father, who came to Kenya in 1902 at the age of 16, with just 20 rupees in his pocket. Later he went into business on his own account, expanded, made some money. ‘He was not very rich by today’s standards, just well off, but he always had this culture of helping people, which probably came from our village in India.’ He came from Gandhi’s village, and was himself a strong Gandhian. When he was 75, he decided to put most of his money into an educational trust.

His father’s decision clearly didn’t come as a surprise or shock to Rattansi or his four brothers. ‘He always said to us, “Look, I don’t want to leave you too much money because if you remove the struggle out of a young man’s life he will never build a character. I will leave you to fight your own battles, to find your own place in life, and it will give you satisfaction.” He was a self-made man himself.’ He saw it as his duty to make sure his sons were well educated and had enough to make sure they were all right. So he left a few properties for them, but the bulk of his money went into the trust.

Rattansi himself clearly agrees wholeheartedly with his father’s outlook: ‘If you leave your children too much money I think you are their biggest enemy. You remove the meaning of struggle and I think that half the meaning of life is gone.’ He describes himself as having felt ‘very happy’ with his father’s decision.

His childhood had clearly prepared him for the step his father took. ‘My father had this deep compassion for people around him.’ When the family lived in Nyeri, the government provided no hospitals or schools. The six or seven Asian families got together and imported a teacher from India. His father was the richest person in the area and gave up two rooms to run the little school, attended by 30 to 40 children. Later he paid to build a ward at the Church of Scotland’s ‘very nice little hospital’. It cost 10,000 shillings – worth two or three million shillings ($25,000-$40,000) today – as a result of which he couldn’t buy another pair of shoes for five years. ‘He said to me, “I have to do it, it’s my duty to do it.”‘

Following in his father’s footsteps

Hassan Rattansi shared his father’s view so strongly that the moment he was 65 he decided the same way. ‘So 15 years ago I sold out my business. I said, “I don’t want any more money, I have achieved everything I wanted to achieve in my life. I am not a very rich man, but I am reasonably well off.” Since then my wife Vijoo and I have devoted our entire lives to helping as many people as we can and making this trust into what my father wanted it to become. In doing so we have found happiness that no amount of money could have given us.’

He plans to do the same with his own children. ‘My 14-year-old son already believes strongly in what we are doing.’

The trust’s assets consist entirely of property. In 1957 the property was a very small place with a couple of shops, but the three-storey building in the middle of Nairobi known as the Rattansi Building now brings in some 15 million shillings (US$200,000) a year rental income. Of this, roughly 2 to 3 million shillings goes in bank charges and accountants’ fees. Everyone else involved works for nothing.

What does the trust do?

The trust helps students going through post-secondary education: ‘People can usually afford primary and secondary education, but a lot of parents find it impossible to send their children to universities.’ But post-secondary education doesn’t just mean university; it might mean a driving school or tailoring school. ‘My father wanted to help the small man as much as a brilliant young person’ – Rattansi often refers to his father when talking about the trust. This might enable a mechanic who cannot service a modern car because he doesn’t have the technical know-how to go to a training school and get the education he needs.

The trust mostly helps students going to local universities. ‘There are sufficient universities in East Africa if not Kenya to help all our young people to get the education they are searching for.’ It used to send a lot of students overseas but this has now become too expensive. Quite a lot go to India, because education there is still affordable. Elkanah Odembo, Director of the new Centre for the Promotion of Philanthropy and Social Responsibility in Nairobi, was himself a Rattansi scholar.

Some funding is provided directly to students, but the trust works largely through people like the special students adviser at Nairobi University. Every year it gives Nairobi University 1 million shillings, from which students each receive about 10,000 shillings. This 10,000 shillings tops up the government subsidy and makes it possible for those students to complete their education. Roughly 1,000 students are helped every year through funds distributed via universities and polytechnics.

The limits of the trust’s work

But the Trust has now reached a sort of plateau. Its income is fully utilized and there is no room for expansion. ‘I thought that we had come to the end of the road, that the trust would go on like this and play its limited role, that’s all. When you are limited, then hope becomes dim. Hope is always alive when you can grow. Without growth there can be no hope.’ This is where the Ford Foundation and its planning grant come in.

The idea of a planning grant came out of a meeting in Maputo. Mrs Mandela personally invited the Rattansis to a conference on sustainable private charities and the role they can play in today’s Africa, ‘because our trust is now widely recognized as a model of what private charities should be like, run with compassion, love, integrity, openness. Often anything you do people suspect is an attempt to hide from taxation.’ With the Rattansi Trust, only the bank makes payments, on receipt of instructions from the board. ‘My father was very careful to make sure that nobody can use the trust for their own purpose.’

In Maputo the Rattansis met some people from the Ford Foundation in New York. When Rattansi explained how the trust had come to a dead end, ‘they started thinking, what can you do, how can you expand? I said, I don’t know, you help me. The idea then came: supposing we give you a grant, we sit down together, put our brains together, and explore different avenues of expanding our activity? I said, that’s a very good idea.’

Further than that the Rattansis haven’t yet got. When asked whether he had any particular ideas about how expansion of the trust might come about, whether there are new income sources within Kenya that might be able to be tapped, his answer was disarmingly frank: ‘We haven’t given it a serious thought. We will now start exploring and finding out how we can expand our resources, find new donors.’

The Rattansis will be working with the other six East Africa foundations that are getting a planning grant, and they hope this will give them some ideas. They will also be working closely with the new Nairobi-based Centre for Promotion of Philanthropy and Social Responsiblity. ‘I think they will get us all together and brief us, you know. ABCD.’

Rattansi is convinced that the goodwill to help does exist among local people. ‘There are many very rich Africans, but giving is still slightly foreign to them. They will do something for their own extended family or tribe, but even to think of Kenya as a nation is a big step for them. When the British left us there were no Kenyans, just a loose collection of tribes. Family comes first, then clan, then tribe, then nation. This is why nobody loves Kenya today. Until you start loving Kenya, start to think of it as a nation, how can things improve?’
Dr Hassan Rattansi, now aged 80, is Chairman of the Rattansi Educational Trust. He and his wife sold their business, Nairobi Sports House, in 1985 to devote their time entirely to the trust. He is an Ismaili Muslim, but his wife Vijoo is a Hindu and he himself attends all places of worship – mosque, gurdwara, church – sharing his father’s Gandhian view that ‘all religions are basically the same’. He has held many public positions during his life, both in the philanthropic world and in the world of sport – cricket, tennis and table tennis are his games. In 1998 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Nairobi ‘in recognition of his contribution to philanthropic support for education, social justice and development of sports in Kenya’.

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