Qasim Ibrahim embodies the spirit of the self-made man: a young boy who overcame adversity to become one of the country’s leading entrepreneurs through perseverance and remarkable business acumen. In this interview, the founder of Villa Group, one of the largest private companies in Maldives, shares insights into his career and unveils his hopes for a country that he has also served in a political capacity
You have gone from being a clerk at a government hospital in Malé to becoming one of the country’s most prominent business leaders. How did you know when to make the right decisions at the right time?
Either fortunately or unfortunately, I am a very normal person. I was born on the island of Dhidhdhoo in Alif Atoll. My mother passed away when I was just 39 days old, and I was looked after by my grandmother. They were very poor people and those were difficult times. At the age of 10 I had to go out to work with my blind father, and four years later I was sent to Malé to work at the house of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom [president of the Maldives from 1978 to 2008] and I was studying at the same time, so it was very hard. After nine or 10 years of this, I got a job at the government hospital, and later worked in a trading company. I saved some money and took out a small loan of $2,000 from the State Bank of India to start my business in 1976, when I started trading in commodities. Because of my experience at the hospital and in the private sector, I knew that the fuel business was a good place to start. This venture went well, and a few years later I expanded into building materials because these are a necessity in the Maldives. I also branched out into fisheries, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s I had a lot of capital. In 1986 I registered the business under the name Villa Shipping and Trading Company Limited. I then moved into the tourism sector. The State Bank of India continued to support me throughout this time, and I have to say that much progress has come to the Maldives through this lender.
What is your approach when you enter a new market?
I believe that when you want to break into a business, if you start at a very low category, it may be that a few people can manage to be successful, but for most it is very difficult. So we always worked on a higher level. More recently, we have invested in an airline and airport facilities, and we are now building infrastructure in the country in a way that nobody had ever done before.
What do you see as your contribution to the Maldives?
We have done a lot to bring progress to this country and its people. I have also started a foundation that helps with education, providing school equipment and awarding study grants to many children. We also fund medical facilities, and every year I spend between $9 million and $10 million on philanthropic work. We have worked hard to bring the entire country to a higher level through progress, freedom and choice. I continue to support democratic processes in this country as I have done throughout my career. I have also served in politics in various capacities, including as finance minister and now as speaker of the People’s Majlis, the legislative body of the Maldives.
Why should investors from the Gulf region consider the Maldives?
We want more investors to come to the Maldives with their different perspectives. Our country is a peaceful one, which is good for business. Also, they are Muslim nations just like us, which creates a very strong common bond. We already get many daily flights from the region – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and so on – which reinforces the relationship. We are also getting a lot of backing from Saudi Arabia, and Maldivians are grateful for all of this support. We do not support extremist views: people are people whether they are Muslim, Jewish or Christian. As a human being, I have respect for everyone and most Maldivians are the same way; they are nice, hospitable people. There is no reason for investors to hesitate about coming here.
What is your final message to readers of Gulf News?
I want to bring about a new Maldives, to open up the country. The Muslim nations in the Middle East and Gulf area share many similarities with us, and they are natural partners. We are blessed with a peaceful country with warm, stable weather 365 days of the year, without typhoon seasons, with clean waters and fresh air. The return on investment is very good, and the infrastructure is improving quickly. We have a good and reasonable tax system without income tax. Nowhere else in the world can you find all these elements together. This is a good time to come and invest in the Maldives.