Harish Sodha has spent so much of his working life helping other people travel to far-flung and volatile places that he has had little time to travel himself — not even to return to his native Uganda.
Mr Sodha, 63, a Ugandan Asian, is founder of Diversity Travel, which specialises in the non-profit sector, helping non-government organisations such as Save the Children and ActionAid reach the places where they work. The company employs more than 125 people and has a turnover of some £57m.
“I’ve worked hard and raised a family but I hope now to do more travelling,” he says. “I would love to go back to Uganda as I have fond memories of the place. In my teenage years, I remember walking up Mount Elgon, admiring the rich green vegetation. I still love being close to nature today, and I think much of this appreciation comes from the years I spent in Africa.”
Mr Sodha, number 14 on the UPstanding Leaders List, has no plans to retire. He is an example of the largely African-Gujarati diaspora who have found success since being thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin. The dictator ordered the expulsion of some 60,000 Asians from the country in 1972, accusing them of hoarding wealth and sabotaging the economy.
Britain allowed some 27,000 Ugandan Asians to settle after failing to persuade British overseas territories to take them. Proponents of migration in the current debate often point to their successful integration.
Other success stories include Baroness Shriti Vadera, chairman of Santander UK, and Lord Rumi Verjee, the entrepreneur who brought the Domino’s Pizza franchise to the UK.
Mr Sodha has 11 siblings and the family had a clothes shop in Uganda. They came to Britain with only a few gold bangles hidden in his mother’s sari.
“The life of a refugee is terrifying and desperate. I have seen this first-hand,” says Mr Sodha. “If each country did their fair share, the problem would not appear as monumental as it does now.”
Extended family was a lifeline as the Sodhas struggled to build a life in Britain, he says. He stayed with his sister already living in the UK, while his parents and the rest of the family lived with a brother, another early arrival.
“It was sometimes quite crowded . . . but we were lucky and knew people here,” he says. “Getting a job and starting to earn money was more of a challenge.” His siblings now work in a variety of roles and industries all are “happy and comfortable”.
“I grew up feeling a lot of Indo-phobia in Uganda,” he says. “The reason was we were a small minority but had a large share of retail and commercial success and we kept to ourselves to a certain extent,” he says. “In Kampala . . . there were many schools where Asian pupils were the majority and had less chance to mix. When my children started school in the UK . . . I’m glad they had the opportunity to integrate into a much more diverse community.”
Mr Sodha graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Bath in 1977. There were no fees and grants were available for living costs. “If it hadn’t been for these, I wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to go to university,” he says.
He decided on a career in accountancy but quit after a year. “It was the classic Asian thing to do but I wasn’t happy, the work was tedious.”
While deciding what to do next, he took a job in a small travel agency, Transroute, and came up with the idea of providing a service to non-profit organisations.
“I knew Africa and always admired the work charities did to help people. I also knew the airlines often had spare capacity on routes there,” he says. “So I started talking to them about how to give charities the chance to use that capacity with the flexibility they needed but [which] usually came with much higher-priced tickets.”
Mr Sodha sees no contradiction in making a profit by servicing charitable organisations. “The charities know we provide a good service that helps them get to lots of places safely,” he says.
“We are also in the process of forming a foundation. Our staff will decide which projects they want to support. I of course hope it will include Uganda,” he says in a soft voice with a Gujarati accent.
He founded Key Travel in 1980 after persuading airlines of his idea. “There was no investment or seed funding. I used my own money from savings built up over time to start the business. In our tight-knit community, family and friends will always help others out. I believe displaced people work even harder to achieve, to be in the position to repay family members and do the same for others that need help.”
A system of rules and checks was devised to reassure the airlines, which now include the likes of British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM, that his service benefited genuine aid workers.
“The airlines saw it was a good idea to help the charities, which could spend more on their projects rather than travel. In the early days, the airlines said no because they were worried that [non-aid workers] would take advantage. We had to be very disciplined to check people and we still do a lot of training.”
He managed to negotiate perks for aid workers that usually cost extra, such as no, or reduced, excess baggage fees and flexibility. “Charities often have to change their plans at the last moment if a project isn’t ready or it’s become dangerous. This used to cost a lot in fees,” he says.
The company suffered less than some from the disruption caused by the internet. “To an extent, we have been less affected as we deal with complex itineraries for clients that travel to very remote places at short notice,” he says. “We also have our own self-booking tool, although our clients often prefer to speak to someone who can advise them, from experience.”
Mr Sodha sold his share in Key Travel in 2005, when it had a turnover of £45m. Two years later, finding he missed the travel business, he and two ex-colleagues started Diversity Travel, which after a year operating in corporate travel, moved into a similar sector to Key Travel.
“When we started, we established small teams that serviced the individual needs of the charities we were working with,” he says. “This small business model and approach is still with us today, even after the . . . growth we have experienced.”
Other companies now target the same niche market and Mr Sodha welcomes the competition. “We are still the largest, and anything that gives more choice for charities is good.”