The Baluchi Mosque in Mombasa, Kenya is
a rather noticeable building in the otherwise ordinary Baluchi Street,
neighboring the Makadara Grounds open space; a small alleyway opens its
ingress almost in front of the mosque and hosts, right at the beginning,
an impressive array of on-wheels book stands, containing all kind of literature,
journals, comics, essays, novels and dissertations, all there on sale
with other articles of more prosaic nature.
Heritage & Education
This is the place where Issa Baluch’s grandfather
came to the world in 1902.
This is also the place he had to leave as a twelve-year-old
boy, starting his long and complex life journey, which eventually brought
him back to Mombasa, when he died in 1986, after spending the last part
of his life in Dubai with his devoted grandson Issa Baluch, who is one
of FIATA’s Past Presidents and current Chairperson of the FIATA
Knowledge and learning must have taken roots
back there in Mombasa and flourished in these distinguished personalities
through a couple of generations.
Baluch, (right) Senior Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University,
Chairman, FIATA Logistics Academy in the picture with (center) The
Hon. Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, President of the South West State of
Somalia, and (left), Professor Wesley Harris, Charles Stark Draper
Professor and Head, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.
Harvard Science, Technology &
In 2011, Issa Baluch was invited by Harvard University
to become a Fellow in their Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) programme,
just to become senior Fellow and Associate of Science, Technology and
Globalization at Harvard Kennedy School the year after.
He is, now in 2019 considered as a visiting Senior
Fellow and serves on the Dean’s Council.
Issa has authored two books on transport logistics:
Transport Logistics, Past, Present and Predictions, which was published
in 2005; Transport Logistics: the Wheel of Commerce, published in 2010;
and a third book, Africa Risk Dashboard, published 2017, which focuses
on African trade development.
Protected by the radiant Mercury of June, this
gentleman is a thoroughbred work horse, whose elegant pace fascinated
logistics experts and captured the confidence of friends all over the
world. Issa has also contributed to creating a large and diverse business
that spans across continents and cultures, always firmly focusing on Africa.
I might just limit myself to listing Issa’s achievements, thus easily
fulfilling my writing assignment, yet still providing valuable information
to the reader, but there is also a personal dimension in writing this
article, as Issa and I are more or less the same age and have been in
contact with each other for almost a generation by now.
Issa’s background is as remarkable as his
success and this fascinates me immensely, so I wanted to do more than
merely celebrate his success. Issa wrote once that “life is about
mutual respect” and this is precisely what I believe he deserves.
Let me see that his achievements gain a little space in the hearts of
our readers, too.
Almost Born In Kenya
We all know Issa Baluch is a man who has achieved a lot in his life, and
not only in FIATA, which crowned him as its President in 2003. Issa is
surely not a person to enter a room unnoticed. He is strong, rather tall,
still wearing his masculine charm easily in 2019, despite the fact that
the young logistics trailblazer he was in the ’80’s has now
adjusted into the thoughtful professor and father to a large family we
all know, while his own multifarious talents have safely landed onto the
planet of talent-mentoring in more than one university across several
Close to the banks of Lake Victoria, Issa was
born in June 1952, a true son of East Africa, where his family travelled
extensively between the towns and villages from Kumuli in Uganda to Kajiado
in Kenya, and other towns and villages extending to Tanzania and even
Northern Rhodesia, currently known as Zambia, which were then under British
rule. He received his education at the Jinja secondary school. At that
point his life suddenly changed. So let us try to start our story from
Issa was born in in East Africa to loving parents.
With six brothers and five sisters, he was part of “a tight community
of Arabic and Asian East Africans”, which traced [its] roots to
the Arabian Peninsula and was involved in various trades and small enterprises.
His father’s job in the British African
tobacco industry implied extensive travelling within Kenya, Tanganyika
(Tanzania since October 1964), Uganda, northern Rhodesia (Zambia since
1964). So young Issa, around age twelve, already had an understanding
that the world is wide and diverse; cultures are many and rich; and there
is much to gain in learning different languages and habits, with respect
for every individual.
The Teacher Was Once Expelled
It was a time of big changes, as the British
rule was coming to an end in many parts of Africa. There were challenges
and opportunities and Issa was presented with a menu that contained both
in quantities that were surely greater than other guys his age were experiencing
elsewhere in the world. And without exaggeration, even greater challenges
than those who had taken to the streets as was described in the famous
song “Street Fighting Man”, performed by the Rolling Stones.
In 1972 the abhorred “expulsion of the
Asians” was ordered by the Ugandan ruler Idi Amin Dada Oumee and
this ukase affected Issa’s entire family.
The young man found himself expelled from Uganda,
along with his grandfather, who could not claim Ugandan origin.
New Life In Belgium
Removed from his school where he had dreamed
of a career in law and justice, sent away from his family and friends,
Issa found himself in Belgium, where he had landed on an evacuation flight
He was hardly twenty years old. Issa described
this evacuation as “the darkest time in my life,” arriving
“in Belgium in November 1972 with 480 other refugees without a country
[abridged], without money and completely unaware of what was in store
In Westende, Belgium, Issa started changing his
fortunes when his “heavy burden was lifted by a wonderful and loving
Belgian family that literately adopted him into their life.”
The Legein family of neighboring Oostende showed
Issa the love that he “will never forget, an extremely humbling
and compassionate experience.”
Coming Back To Settlement
In time, the option to re-settle in the newly
formed (1971) United Arab Emirates became available and this solution,
afforded through the intercession of UNCHR and the International Red Cross,
was preferred over remaining in Belgium or other alternatives (Australia,
Canada, New Zealand or USA), as the UAE was promising a future to both
Issa and his grandfather, who would otherwise remain a refugee.
The late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum welcomed
Issa and his grandfather into his country and asked the late William Duff,
who was his important adviser at the time, to grant them ID’s and
a job, i.e. the means to integrate into a society that was just on the
brim of its historic expansion to what is considered today one of the
best examples of economic and social developments in the Middle East.
From Sea To Shore & Into The
Issa was offered a job as storekeeper with the
Dubai Police and he describes the feeling of wearing a Dubai police uniform
as “glamourous”: not impossible to believe if you imagine
what other fate some of his fellow countrymen had to endure under the
despotic Ugandan ruler between ’71 and ’79.
With all the grief and uncertainty, having been
expelled from Uganda turned out to be fortuitious for Issa, who would
find in Dubai his springboard to success.
Issa & SWIFT Freight International
Listening to his boss and following his grandfather’s
advice, Issa entered the Gulf Agency and quickly made himself known and
appreciated as problem solver, in particular, regarding issues with Africa.
In 1989, after seventeen years of service, Issa was encouraged to start
his own company SWIFT Freight International, which under his guidance,
was credited with pioneering the thriving sea-air combined transport freight
business in the UAE.
Right To The Top
SWIFT gained a reputation as one of the top freight
logistics providers in the Middle East and Africa, with presence in over
25 countries within Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Asia, and North America.
A seemingly endless path toward success had started
for Issa; it was all very well after the daunting experiences in the earlier
part of his life. Reading Issa’s books you get the precise impression
that this man has been really able to adapt to different circumstances
and acquired knowledge through all of them, good or bad, or worse, as
it could have been. 1989 was the beginning of the period which marked
Issa’s increasingly fast climb to success.
One could say that 1989 also coincided with the
beginning of the rapid fall of the Soviet Union, which launched a new
era—a time of declining ideologist ideas, the emergence of the internet,
mobile phones, e-mails and the explosion of mobility.
A Matter of Focus
That is when Issa unexpectedly re-focused on
his native Africa, its foundational structure and its endless potential
He steered clear of any questionable business
and emerged out of the decade with a company that had expanded in four
continents and employed nearly a thousand.
SWIFT managed to reach out to the small businesses
with personal service and creativity that were still rooted in the cultural
intelligence it had been designed with. African “hard working people
were not just customers, but became friends, as we supported them in their
procurements in Dubai”, as Issa himself puts it.
Developing Sea Air
“In order to support their needs [in India,
Thailand, China and other Asian countries], we developed what is now called
the Sea-Air Multimodal System”, i.e. one of the greatest innovations
in logistics at that time.”
September 11, 2001 affected logistics and transport
probably more than any other industry, so 2001 came into Issa’s
life as a big game changer in his role as CEO of SWIFT.
African economies were severely affected and
security measures made the business more complicated, in particular for
relative newcomers in world trade as African countries were at the time.
Swift had to fight its way back from many challenges.
But Issa had become an established businessman
with a growing reputation for good practice, and this opened many other
doors to him.
Record of Service
Issa had been founder and first president of
the Dubai-based National Association of Freight and Logistics (NAFL),
which he supervised from 1992 to 2000, again to be re-elected in 2010-2011.
As we have mentioned, he served as President
of FIATA for two years starting in 2003, then as Immediate Past President
for the following two years.
Between 2005 and 2013 Issa served in the Advisory
Board of the Government of Dubai and the Department of Civil Aviation,
overseeing projects such as Dubai Logistics City and Dubai Flower Centre.
During this time, Issa also served as Board member of The International
Air Cargo Association (TIACA).
Reforms that Issa proposed in FIATA have shaped
the organization for a generation and have made its growth to its present
global standard possible and reachable.
Legacy of Excellence and Commitment
There are so many areas where Issa has used his
experience and skills for good.
His interest in Africa landed him on to areas
such as Oil & Gas, Agribusiness, and recently Higher Education.
He is Chairman of First Hectares Capital, an
agribusiness and forestry infrastructure investment company for Africa.
Another African venture where Baluch is Chairman is African Agribusiness
Knowledge and Innovation Leadership Initiative (AKILI), hosted at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Urbanism (MIT-CAU),
the U.S.-based non-profit organisation that provides financially, socially
and environmentally sustainable farming in Ghana.
In October 2016 Issa was named Chair Professor
in the College of Maritime Science and Management at the National Taiwan
Ocean University (NTOU) for a term of four years until 2020.
For his outstanding services to the international
air cargo industry, Issa has received two Lifetime Achievement awards.
In 2016 Issa won the International Business Excellence
Awards in the Inspirational Male Leader category for his remarkable work
I shall leave it at that, otherwise I may fall
back into just making a list of Issa’s achievements, which are nonetheless
many, many more.
I wanted to avoid this, despite it being so easy.
In closing this article, I wish to underline
what a perfect example of a purposeful life Issa has led.
By perseverance and sacrifice, through luck and
adversity, we may be allowed to achieve our dreams. As long as we can
keep learning and remain positive, displaying the joy that fortunate circumstances
bring with a smile on our face. You will rarely see Issa not smiling.
There is almost always a sparkle in his eyes.
I have only seen Issa a couple of times with concern in his eyes; once
we were both on a trip somewhere in Asia and after the first day of meetings
we were both unhappy about the way things were going.
Issa was not smiling then and I was quite worried.
We had a long chat in the evening and Issa patiently listened to me.
It was clear he had a full understanding of what
needed to be done, but he gave me enough time to come to my own conclusions.
The following day the tables were turned in our
We flew back to our respective jobs knowing that
we had developed a strategy that would get things accomplished.
Issa is someone who knows how to get things done,
a quality I can recognize light years away. Thanks for being there for
Working with Issa has been a comforting and easy
I am sure Issa will be attendance at Cape Town
in his Africa in October for the FIATA World Congress.
Let us hope thousands of members and guests will
meet you there.
Marco L. Sorgetti