Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|May 31, 2021|107 Minutes|In Billionaire Talks

Billionaire Talks

It took a week before we found his body and my mother went to hell and heaven

Multi-millionaire Patrick Bitature spoke candidly to Billionaire Tomorrow editor Chris Bishop from Kampala about his life, loss, pain, and his inspiration. Of hunger, humiliation, tears, terrible times in Tanzania, and why African entrepreneurs should embrace free trade and try to be like Muhammad Ali. 

How is business in Kampala right now?

We’re ticking along slowly but surely, we are done with elections because we had a double whammy. Besides COVID we had elections at the beginning of this year. So, we are more or less past that we don’t have a new cabinet yet, but we finished with the deputy speaker of parliament, so we expect the cabinet within the next few days, and then back to normal back to business.

But in some ways, it’s good for business people like yourselves that you have continuity, you’re not going to have a radical change in parliament that might cause you to think again maybe about investments. 

No, the good thing is that our presence has been very consistent in the last 35 years, that is consistency, at its best.

Just tell us about your sort of fairly humble origins in Uganda. 

Well, there’s nothing extraordinary I was born in Uganda in remote part the western part of Uganda, a place called Fort Portal, in the Kabarole District of western Uganda for the very beautiful part at the foothills of Mount Rwenzori, which is the second-highest mountain in the region and its snowcapped, but it’s a quite a warm, lovely, place and I was born in a Catholic hospital; baptized there. I was raised there for the first few years and then my parents moved to Kampala, the capital city, for a few years and then the rest of my junior years I was in Kenya because my parents worked in the East African Community. So, I was raised in Kenya and I spent a lot of time with the domestic workers in Kenya, so I learned the language and the culture and I guess I’m as comfortable in Kenya today as I am in Uganda. I only returned to Uganda at about 13 or 12 years old and then I lived in Uganda and the story will unfold from there.

When you were 13 there was a really tragic and cataclysmic event in your life, your father was executed before your eyes. That must have been difficult but just tell us a little bit about that incident.

Well, I was raised from a reasonably wealthy family. My father had worked hard, he was amongst the first Africans when the colonization period was ending, and they were choosing who would take over as leaders. So, he was one of the leaders chosen so he was taken to the UK trained and brought back, and he was growing up, coming through the ranks quite quickly, because he was the Director-General of the East African civil aviation, and we had an airport in all the three countries at the time Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, so he had to overseas aviation business and so he was based in Nairobi, but would occasionally come to Uganda. He retired very early, in his early 40s, and chose to set up businesses. So, he began some businesses in Kenya, and they came to Uganda, when Idi Amin came to power, in 1971, he thought setting up businesses than starting a new life in Uganda; little did we know that was the most costly mistake or costly decision he would ever make because it was only a year after he came back from Uganda, that his life was cut short in a very unfair way because he had done absolutely nothing wrong. He believed in law and order he thought there was a rule of law, and he would go to the police if there was a problem so he went to report a case at the police station, only to find the very people you’re trying to talk too are the people that are going to turn against you. They just called the army; they came and looted the house, and when they took the pickings from the house they thought this was it, there was no going back. Then, there was only one way to finish it and so they took him away and hoped that he will never appear again and that was the last we saw of him alive. It took a week before we found his body and my mother went to hell and heaven to try and look for his body to every mortuary, every hospital, and to every dumping site before she eventually found his body; a week later. I was taken to witness the body and prove that it was him. I was the eldest son amongst my family, so my mother thought it was the right thing to do, to make me a man and so she took me there, and that exposure made me who I am I think, but also damaged me for a very long time.

I mean you were 13 years of age because this wasn’t just a terrible, awful bereavement. This was also the fact that your whole life of your family dived downwards after that you lost everything.

Yes, we lost everything material we never went back to the house we walked out as we were and not only that but we were being pursued. So, we’re scared that would be prosecuted for nothing and so we had to live with a Catholic priest who took us in. He was a British-born Catholic priest called Father Graham, who took me in that made a difference in my life. All along I’ve been living, but I was not really awake. I was hearing people talk, but I was not really listening and I became a man overnight. I could see clearly then thereafter, I got 20/20 vision, my academics changed, I was generally the last or second last in class, I was breezing through life. But thereafter I started to understand what life was like I saw the ugly side of life; It was a very ugly slap that woke me up it was a rude awaking, it was.

In later years, did you have to have some sort of counseling for this or did you deal with it yourself this trauma? 

I had to deal with it myself and until much later in life. When my eldest daughter said she wanted counseling, and I couldn’t understand what counseling for and because she didn’t get into Cambridge and she went to another University where they were making her take law but she didn’t want to do law and she thought she needed counseling. I couldn’t understand it and we had to spend a fortune flying her to different places first to South Africa then to London and meeting people and eventually in America for therapy, about something as mild as that. Now, seeing that she’s got my genes and what we had been through. I thought the children of today are so spoiled, they don’t understand life. Simple things you deal with, and we dealt with very deep scars, but they felt the scars that I had were so deep that I never recovered from them. I almost became like with an elephant skin you can endure anything after that because you’re invested. 

When did you get over them, and how did you become more productive, more optimistic life if you like.

First of all, because I was with Father Graham, and he made me pray every day I become like a Page Boy in church I’d sit behind and prayed a lot, and I would cry myself to sleep every night. That happened for about a year maybe 15 months and in the period of trying to sleep, I would pray, I would try to communicate with the Lord spiritually and I couldn’t understand why he had forsaken us why he had done this to us, and I’ve been raised to believe that the world is equal there’s fairness there’s justice, but we have been treated so unfairly that I almost had an argument with the Lord. So every night, we’d have this quarrel between me and him and slowly I learned to listen to him, rather than waiting for him to shout he was always actually whispering, that this is what happened and until you learn to listen to those whispers, then you start finding a bit of peace and then he whispers to you what to do. Then I realized I could do things better. I came from the back end of the class to the sixth class to the third in class and thereafter I was always in the top three in class, simply because I could listen now to another voice rather than what was obvious and that helped me to business, always kind of listen to your gut. Trust your gut, even when you’re driving if you’re driving very fast and you’re approaching a corner, something tells you don’t overtake, something around the corner then you hold and you realize that there is a broken-down truck with no lights, and you could have died in that accident.

 

Now you’re business career dates back to when you were 13 when you’re going through all this turmoil, and now I understand the catalyst one day you realize that no one really had sugar to put in their tea in anywhere where you were living, and you decided to do something about it. You started to go to Kenya, just tell us what happened.

In Uganda, after the takeover (by Idi Amin) there was a shortage of nearly everything very quickly, and everyone just grabbing property. The Asians were expelled all the industries came to a grinding halt, the stock was sold, they didn’t care or think about where it came from, and very soon the shortage of nearly every commodity, and sugar was one of those commodities. So we came six months after my father died and we got together as a family because we had been separated and put in different places. We were put on a carpet to have some tea and there was no sugar for the tea and this is something that we felt now we expected now with my younger siblings they thought, now that we’re united, everything is back to normal. When my younger brother started crying out for sugar, that there’s no sugar in the tea I wouldn’t take the sugar then my mother started crying too and I feel this lump in my throat because she cried so hysterically and she was looking up to the sky and asking for the Lord to take us all in now that we all together take us this time, take us when we can’t do this why did you forsake us. So that’s when I realized I got to do something she had a little bit of money in her handbag, so I got the money bag and I just kept walking out. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew where the sugar was because we had lived in Kenya and this was just down the road from where we lived, so I got on a bus, and all I had was the fare to Nairobi and once I got there, I didn’t have the money to take me to the bus station to the place where we used to live and I went there and the neighbors were happy to see me but shocked as well to see me,: “ What are you doing here?  we heard your father died, only a few months ago, and we’ve never heard from you” because they no communication of course in those days and coming from Uganda to Kenya was no small journey it would be an overnight travel on a bus so I got there in the morning they heard what I had come for they were not happy; they tried to reach my mother but in vain. They quickly put together some money, found some friends and relatives, neighbors, and they bought some sugar, gave it to me, put me back on the bus, and I was an overnight bus back to Uganda. When I got home, my mother was very happy to see me, but also very angry. How dare you do this at this tender age she was crying, and she was worried that I’d be taken too. But that’s the beginning of my journey.

 

When you got that 15 kilogram bag of sugar it must have been like gold dust where you were living you managed to sell it all?

Because the neighbors had come to my mother’s home, because there was a vigil, because they thought I’d died too. So many people had come to the house to comfort her, and they were worried where I was, trying to find all the contacts, where I could possibly be they had no idea where I’d been and after 24 hours, the police have been notified then they see me all arrive with this bag of sugar. So first of all, they’re all rejoicing that I come then they see this heavy and they see this sugar. So, the neighbors are excited and because they’ve been supportive say please come some buy some you can’t have this all for yourself, because I’m inclined to sell it, and I thought I’d sell it yes at a cost let’s share it out but no we sold it at a profit and they were so happy to pay, five, six times what the price was and please, this is it and they were so delighted. So for me, satisfying a need was identified that day because the people buying the sugar were so happy they were so grateful, they felt that they ought to give you more than what you ask for 

When did you decide to become an entrepreneur in earnest, it was going to be your life?

 

When I was about 16 I had to make a decision about what studies to do. Now, either I was going to try to become a soldier to avenge my father, or go into politics so we can have better leadership in the country, or become a businessman like my father was, that was my matter. I chose at that time, it will be a business career that I want to peruse I shall do Bcom at university and get the tools for business, it was very clear in my mind I didn’t want politics I felt my family had spilt enough blood. We sacrificed enough for this country and my father thought he was doing the right thing and stayed in Uganda was trying to build the country and he came to naught. So, I stood, I chose business at that day, and then thereafter I started honing my skills, understanding what it takes, and trying to get the right tools. 

And once you’ve made that decision what was the first formal business that you started out with?

 

Well, thereafter, I started at school, whatever, whenever I saw a need in the market, I would try to satisfy the need. Even though there were some products that can I do better, can I provide a better service can I provide a better good can I provide a better price because there were so many gaps? Now my teachers wanted shoes, many of the teachers didn’t have shoes, so I would buy shoes from Nairobi I take their size before the holidays, even during the holiday, I get on the bus, because I’d lived in Kenya, I knew where to buy theses goods somebody wanted to watch, I delivered, I know these things I’d make a small markup but they were so grateful that I delivered the goods that they wanted, they were the genuine stuff a Timex watch or an Omega watch or Safari boots, whatever they wanted I would deliver the product and that was the beginning. Then the school would run out of chalk so I would supply the school with chalk. When there’s a power outage I knew where the candles would be bought so I provided candles to every Dormitory and every classroom, so at least there was a bit of order so providing a need for servicing that gap in the market became my niche, so. I train my eyes to look for the gaps in the market.

 

When you finish your education and you’re looking around and you’re looking for needs where do you think then would be the best place for you to start out as an entrepreneur?

 

My mother desperately wanted to get a job, in the government, she thought the government gives you a job it’s pensionable, it’s not easy to get fired, you’d always be secure and you’ll get a cheque at the end of the day. I had a strong disagreement with her because I tasted what would like to make my own money and satisfy a customer. So, the first thing we looked at what was the gap. So, during my A-level vacation, I realized you have many women in the banks who are paid well, and the women had a lot of money, but they had no time to leave the bank and they wanted certain goods. So the first thing I realized was that women spend so much money on shoes so I started looking for where to buy shoes, I found a wholesaler with ladies’ shoes, they were being imported from Greece and from Italy and very few people knew where these shoes were. So to get them on wholesale on credit, and take them to the bank in the boot of my mother’s car and I would sell them from there, everything would be sold on that day because I had to pay the money back the same evening then, later on, I needed to have more credit where I had to leave my mother’s car as security for shirts or T-shirts for the men at the dairy, I leave my car at eight o’clock there my mother’s I take her to work I drop her then I leave the car security I take the goods and I  pick up, I go and sell these goods but I’ve got to retrieve my mother’s car before five o’clock because she didn’t know I put it up for security. So I sell the goods, make a profit, pay the supplier, get my car back, take her home, then the next day, then the next day I look who else can also give me credit, whatever it was a little cash I have probably my mother’s car, and that’s how I do this.

You mentioned banks, there the first question we’re getting from the audience here they asking that. How did you overcome the road bumps that you encountered at your time in your time in, formal corporate business, how did you do that?

 

The first big contract or big break I got was when MTN came to Uganda they gave me a contract I was an exclusive dealer for the whole country for MTN and I thought that bit a little bit of a track record in business, I had a bit of money I was trading with, about $100,000, but I needed about $200,000 in working capital. I went to every single bank with my contract in hand to ask them for a loan every bank single bank turned me down I had a little bit of assets here and there my friends assets and I asked them to sell them take a punt on me, trust me and I will share the profit with you. So I had to sell my assets my mother taught her friends, and put together a fund, and had to open 10 shops simultaneously, the day before MTN launch, and have stock in them and train the staff and put them in uniform. So that was a challenge the first challenge with the banks none of the banks wanted to talk to me, but after day one when we open, all the shops were inundated with customers. There was no time even to count the money that was coming to us because we were selling so cheaply on mobile phones and selling a SIM card and selling airtime and was like a revolution was happening. The day we launched, we collect the money from people in a bundle, you don’t even accurately counted they give you plus extra just in case, because everybody wanted a phone you rush this money to the boot of the car and drive it somewhere safe they counted somewhere else and that’s how we began, of course, two months after that, every bank was chasing me trying to give me a facility and quoting to bank with them, but I learned that if you don’t have money the banks will give you an umbrella when it’s sunny.

It seems something that unites banks around the world when they offer you money when you don’t need and too much of it you can pay interest on but that business of telecommunications as one that a lot of entrepreneurs made a lot of money in. Did you know, before you went into it that it was going to be is booming as it was or did it just happen?

 

I was only doing a bit of a telecom business with cell tell I began doing that but the growth was very slow, and we make $100 on every SIM card that was the margin. So when South African company MTN told me you got this model upside down I was not making a penny on the airtime. So they asked me to go with them to South Africa, and see how the business is, my business model was like a pyramid sitting on its head, and they wanted to turn it around so do you have a solid base. I went and spent a week there, and they came back convinced that my model was wrong and they changed the business model, and my dream then was to put a mobile phone in everybody’s hand and create as many customers make a little as much profit from everybody but in a bundle, bit by bit you make a bundle. 

 

What are the big problems you have to deal with in the telecom business?  I mean, especially the time you’re talking about it sounds like it was happy days but What difficulties did you have to deal with?

 

I had to build a brand very quickly and I had to recruit 500 staff, very quickly these were young people. If you give your keys and the money and all the managers to people I delegated, I had some faith in humankind. They were young people, I train them very quickly, I was a chief trainer, I was a CEO, I would move around most of the shops, talking to them, encouraging them, try and show them, it can be done. Of course, a few bad apples come along, they steal the chain, they set you up but compared to the majority 90%/ 95% of people were honest, all they wanted was a good day’s pay and to be respected, be recognized, to feel champions. I had a lot of faith in very young people and when people come up to me for jobs, I had 1000s of people, I would interview them in three minutes. All I was looking for was your attitude, and I could sus out your attitude as quickly as possible occasionally I got it wrong but with practices are getting better and better along the way and I don’t care if you have a degree, A level What I want is you can communicate well and you got the right attitude.

 

Just a little bit about the time that you were in this business with MTN Still though, I understand Kampala is only about 30 thousand landlines I mean one of my favorite stories about one of the big chiefs of MTN he said in Nigeria, the authorities were skeptical, they said we’ve only got 90,000 landlines in Lagos, so why would people want phones, no one actually saw it coming, did you see it coming?

 

I can’t think that we couldn’t estimate the opportunity so big when MTN came here the target was to get 100,000 customers within the first three years. We got 100,000 customers in the first three months! Now, that was mind-boggling. The stocks we had everything was working out so much faster. We hadn’t planned for that so they were trying to fly in stock as quickly as possible chartering planes to bring products and that’s the demand we had because the stocks were flying. I didn’t know what if MTN was making money in the beginning because they were investing heavily but their business plan was bang on, they had fantastic marketing strategies.

 

This was the bedrock of your company has made your fortune Simba mobile. How long did it take you to build up to setting up your own operation independent of MTN.?

The first million is the hardest to make. I mean, you make the first million dollars, you could easily lose it because as easily as you can make it will dissipate and that’s your money. All the trappings of life and luxury are available to you, you want to travel business class, you want to travel first class you want to buy a better car, better house. so you’ve got to be very careful.  So the first million took a bit longer to make but after that, you get certain habits; the habits you form to make it to arrive there are what will protect you. The second million is easier to make and the third is much easier make because now you put the habits in a place you get up very early structures in place, you know how to recruit you how to delegate, you know to put system, it’s all about putting systems in place and then scaling. Once I got the mother ship going that was symbiotic

Then, I had to diversify my portfolio I thought this business would not last forever, the honeymoon would come to an end one day. So I had to fortify myself and every time I went to a bank, the bank would say, we needed security I’ve got a good business plan, good cash flows, but all the same, they wanted security, so I started investing in property. I bought a lot of property, and I went into office buildings I went into apartments I went into hotels to fortify my base to put some assets on the ground, so that if this telecom business is destroyed by the stroke of a minister’s pen or government pen, then the business changes on you then you out of business so I had to fortify myself. Then I realized that you’ve got to be looking for the next big opportunity and that was electricity because I saw there was a gap and the country went into load shedding, and there was this big question, we just didn’t have enough electricity so I said, Can I do something about and I get involved. I had no idea what was going to be, how big the challenge was going to be until I got into the space of energy.

 

Just tell us a little bit about that as well because it’s quite an interesting story in the fact that a lot of Ugandan still are not connected to the grid but those who are there’s actually a surplus for the customers that have power cuts like other nations in the continent. How do you spot that need in energy, and again, how did you develop it how did you start?

 

Well, I realized when there was a lot of load shedding the whole country was being load shedded for several hours, and the government was grappling, who can supply the power? So they brought in a company to supply diesel thermal power, which is going to cost about 60 cents a kilowatt-hour. I thought that was ridiculous I thought sure we can do better than this, but they got a massive contract backed by the World Bank for payments, and within the three years they were here, I think they collected over a billion dollars. So that left everybody with a bitter taste in your mouth. So I tried to see what does it take to generate electricity, I read about it and we knew how it was developed in the Western world, so I said why can’t we do it here. So I started doing some research, I wanted to do the hydro dam because that would be continuously giving you revenue, even when you’re asleep. If the dam is working and the electricity was being consumed so I wanted to provide a service or social service that can have a bigger impact. But I found that building a hydro dam will take five or six years, so I said let me set up a thermal power plant that can provide power, at less than half the current price. So I lobbied hard and I eventually got a PPA power purchase agreement with the government for 10 megawatts. It took a bit of time, nobody had faith in me and my own government all the people said that is not something that a local person could do that space is only for external international investors and they wanted the bigger companies. I took them to court and eventually court ruled that I should be given a chance but they gave me a 10-megawatt power plant that would give $10 million about that. But I went to the banks and the banks still didn’t want to finance me they said it’s not viable to do a 10-megawatt power plant. So, I had to look around to get a bigger license and get a bigger power project so I eventually got 20 megawatts power plant, I had to borrow some money, and this time I had to come out South Africa again to raise the money because the local banks were not ready to take exposure, eventually a South African banks gave me the money. I had to borrow $40 million and paying that off was going to be a tall order. I’m glad to see that I paid it off in six years, every penny in fact I paid 68 million dollars in total because of the interest it was steep, but eventually, we pay this loan off, and that’s how I got into the space. When I did, thermal power I realized I was generating a big huge carbon footprint. So I went in forestry, so I planted a square mile of trees, and also built a 10-megawatt solar power plant to try and offset my carbon foot print.

 

You say you see you look for needs and opportunities as an entrepreneur. Surely there’s a need for a bank to lend money to entrepreneurs to help build the economy have you ever thought of going into a kind of a business?

 

I set up a small microfinance and that was easy for me to do because it wasn’t heavily regulated, and so many people are coming to me to borrow money, because now when you’re successful, the tendency in Africa is all the people know you: school friends, relatives, everybody wants to have helping hand and it was not sustainable to give everybody money so when I formed a small microfinance company called CMF. It grew very quickly, and it grew to a customer base of 100,000 and that’s where I put some capital, and it would lead people, and they payback, and then you lend people. Then I realized, we could use the Grameen model unbanked people we could go to the lower end of the market, and it started becoming profitable. Now, this started conflicting with my spiritual values of Jesus chasing the moneylender out of the temple so I felt conflicted so I sold the microfinance to a bank and I realized that it was bought by a regulated bank for about $5 million, but being in the money lending business you must be their personally because at the end of the day you cannot delegate the responsibility the buck stops with you. You can delegate authority, they can lend out money but if anything goes wrong, the regulation becomes quite tight, so I chose not to get into the banking space and let me focus on social impact. What can I do that will transform people’s lives.

 

Now when you are looking to transact in your business obviously you’ve done some big deals, how they approach it. What do you look for when you’re when you’re looking to transact in Africa?

 

You got to get into a space where you have an edge, a competitive edge. What gives you the edge? It can’t be political. It can’t be just that you know somebody because everybody gets to know somebody, then you’re there, you got to look for something that will have a silver line, then you’ve got to see, and can you build a team around it. Like I said earlier, once you get something right you got a good idea, build a system behind it If the system, and work, and the system is scalable, that’s when you scale, tested, tried it and then scale it, see if you can have more rooms. If you’re building a hotel, learn the business and then go for a bigger hotel see where the gaps are, what you can do differently. The same with apartments, the same with office space, try and do things with systems, then who will manage. If you try tie everything to yourself that you’re the only person who can run the business then you’ll be stuck in that one business, so I would always try to relieve myself of the responsibility, work myself out of that job of CEO then I moved to being the chairman of a holding company. I train young people, I inspire them, they should believe that they can grow they can do things themselves and slowly, it seems to work the majority of people are largely honest.

 

What do you think about the young crop of entrepreneurs coming up in Africa right now, from what you have seen, are you inspired or what’s your feeling?

 

Bit of both I’m inspired because they’re hungry, and there’s so many opportunities and Africa is so full of opportunities. They only see the problems but wherever there’s a problem you flip the side and there will be opportunity, of course the limitations are there capital, a bit of know how a bit of technology, but the future is so bright, there’s so many more opportunities today than they were 20 /30 years ago, so I keep telling them, just keep looking you can do things better. The downside is, so many of them come out of schools especially out of university with this sense of entitlement and they want to get rich tomorrow, instantly, they don’t know what we’ve gone through the steps we had to walk up, you can’t go to the top and find success in a cloud, you can’t, there’s no lift, there’s no jet, you’ve got to climb  the steps one at a time and build your business, brick by brick, one day at a time and that’s what I’ve gone through it’s been painful, and people only see the success today. They don’t know how many mistakes I made along the way, how many failures how many times we lost money, whether it’s because of carelessness or miss judgment, but each time there is a lesson to be learned and the quicker you pick yourself up and learn that lesson, the better you are.

What was your biggest and most expensive mistake as an entrepreneur?

 

I think it’s clearly the one in Tanzania I was working with Vodacom because I’ve done well in Uganda, I went to Tanzania they signed me up I became a big dealer with Vodacom and Tanzania the opportunity came in Kenya with Safaricom. So I went to Safaricom set up shop there In each country, I set up 50 shops, I trained about 400 staff I put them there, and I had the machine working that’s the system I was talking about. I delegated to a lady who I trusted as a manager we’d been in school, I trusted her, she’d been in America, she was very exposed, but I don’t know, something went wrong, she started giving a lot of credit to hit her targets. She gave us so much credit and she didn’t realize that also when she was giving credit, the staff for the network Vodacom was colluding with my staff and taking also credit from them. So I found myself with a hole for over $1.5 million that is owed to Vodacom and I wasn’t in that country. I flew in for a meeting and they told me there’s a problem. When I saw this problem, one and a half million dollars, they said, we realize this collusion between our staff and your staff, and they’ve taken a lot of stock without the right process. So we’re going to let you go cancel your franchise, walk away, go away we will write this off. I went to the hotel I couldn’t even sit on the chair I sat on the floor in my room and I sat for hours and couldn’t believe this had happened.

 

So you sat on the room on the floor in your hotel room in that moment have been absolutely crushed. 

 

Yes, I was gutted; it was nothing short of being gutted completely. But I went back in the morning to the Vodacom management team, and I asked him to give me a chance I wanted to pay this money back, give me time, they set a contract, agreed to go the legal team and make a contract, I pay the money back in three years and all the money I make in Tanzania will go to paying back the loan. Within 12 months, that loan had been fully repaid; we worked hard, some money from the Kenya business and from Uganda, but within 12 months were fully repaid and the Vodacom team was so proud of what we have done because we paid every single penny back. But that shock taught me that I cannot delegate power completely at the responsibility completely. Until today, I sign nearly all my checks in most of my businesses, I put checks and balances in place, I have managers that signs up and limits, but to take that amount of money without a red flag system that will raise the red flag never again. 

 

There’s always a question these days very fashionable in the business of entrepreneurship, people talk about due diligence, you should have done your due diligence; you should have seen it coming. You should have researched it beforehand. Do you think that there’s stuff that you can’t actually ever foresee in business? Or do you think people should be a bit more skeptical when they go in?

 

This person was an honest person I’d known her from maybe 15 years 20 years she lived in America, was made in America, she had her head screwed on. She could not do this to me. No way. She didn’t realize the power of corruption and if you give somebody authority, nearly everybody has a price. What is your price? So when people started taking this credit and realizing they were genuine people, but when you leave them, the temptation of walking away with this amount of money is incredible somebody buys a house for $100,000 and it disappears. They want to go and live abroad or somewhere else. So this is what happened, this circumstance they seem to be honorable people, they began well, when they are no checks and balances before and people realize that you’ve actually missed the big hole is a big hole in the system. They just took advantage of it. So I didn’t have her incarcerated, she cried a parent’s came, they were on their knees, there’s no way they would have paid this amount of money. So I guess I said go home let’s close the chapter. I did prosecute her and this was my mistake so I took the back and yes, we just worked it took us a year of very hard work for all the companies but made sure we paid that loan back because it was not like lone it wasn’t structured not much as they allowed us three years, it was really hurting our reputation and if I was kicked out of Tanzania for that, it would hurt my reputation in Uganda and Kenya everywhere tried to go. So you can only do so much due diligence, there will always be the unexpected and that’s what you got to be prepared for and when you’ve never taken a loss so big, then you cannot take a big gamble, that gamble taught me to take bigger risks, I probably wouldn’t have gone into electricity and borrowed $40 million behind and lost a million dollars and being able to make it so I tell people it’s necessary that you go through those steps.

 

What do you advise young entrepreneurs, even yourself at that point, you’ve been through a lot of your life, a heck of a lot in life and business, and you must have thought, my gosh, is this is what I’ve worked all these years? What do you advise young entrepreneurs to do when they get punched in the face like?

 

To me a good boxer like Muhammed Ali is not about being able to give out a good punch, more importantly, be able to take a good punch. If you don’t have the head for it your chin can’t take that punch don’t give big punches don’t go fight way above your weight stick to a weight you are comfortable with because you should always expect the unexpected something will come your way. Nobody’s saw corona coming I put so much money in hotels, and just after I opened a new big hotel in Kampala under the Marriott Corona kicks in now for a year and a half, we’re down to zero occupancy is very low and these are the chances you take you think you work out everything and mitigated the risks, but there will always be something that you do not foresee. So you got to expect that got to be prepared and build the resilience inside have the stomach to take it because things will come, a tornado will come an earthquake will come things that you just don’t expect. So you got to be prepared for that. I think the fact that I walked out of my father’s house and never went back, that ability to accept loss and begin from zero is something I’ll never let go of these things we have the trappings we have of success and much as you try to fortify your business with all these assets, you could easily lose all of them one day, but have the resilience to build again from scratch because now you know how to and that’s the most important thing.

The big questions people ask me a lot are entrepreneurs, are they born? Or are they made? In your case? Do you think if you hadn’t been through the terrible trauma you’d went through as a teenager that you would be the big hitter that you are now?

 

Absolutely not I think it is out of that adversity that I got the strength, adversity is a good teacher. It’s a painful teacher, but it’s probably the best teacher and that’s suffering that’s strength to go that distance to go that distance I’ve visited so many other successful people who are so much more successful Jack Ma you listen to some of the what they have gone through to achieve what they have achieved and then you see something like what happened to the hand group because of a stroke of a pen, the government had destroy your business, and you can go into a depression, you got to have the strength, that forges you to keep going, regardless of what will come at you, you’ve got to believe in yourself so deeply to that nothing should deter you I encourage young people to make a blueprint to make a roadmap, where they want to be in five years where they want to be in ten years and always go back to your roadmap and see have you achieved this. Because today, I asked myself, what is enough? We just keep chasing, you’re running after your shadow, you’ll never catch it and never create a gap between yourself and your shadow. You can’t be in a race with other people, you got to set your own goals, and everything will happen in its own time.

 

Daily discipline, as well. Just give us an idea, for instance, like yourself, on a discipline level? How do you approach your day every day to make sure you keep on track? What exactly do you do?

 

When I used to be a very religious young man, and my father died and his competition with God, I learned one thing, discipline is key, in every with my academics, with my sports, with my health, and also with business, you need to be anchored on disciplined. As soon as you start letting small things creep upon you, and you postpone them or eat them on the side you’re in trouble. Discipline is so essential for success and for the resilience you must set these rules and you must stick them step by step. They should not be a compromise. When I get a good idea, it’s a three in the night, I get up, I get out of bed, I get the calculator and work on it, and I write it down, then I can go back to bed and then my wife would wonder what the heck are you doing. But that’s what it takes if you sleep, and I’ll deal with it in the morning you’ve lost your opportunity. That’s how I would see opportunities. You’ve got to do what you can do when you can and I tell young people, discipline is the cornerstone of success if you don’t have discipline in your way of life, and the habits you form because the things you do become your character and your character become who you are. People start trusting you and you build a brand, a brand around the way you conduct yourself, what you say and what you do and if you keep delivering live up to it, then you become successful. So to me, getting up early in the morning became a habit. You’ve got to work hard you’ve got to the hours, even when you go to bed early or in trouble, keep reading, keep learning, keep researching. Then it becomes the best part of your life you enjoy. It’s fun, its pleasure; I am most comfortable when I’m working so work is not a bad thing. I enjoy it. When I go on holiday, I plan a week a week after a day or two I’m bored and I really want to be doing something creative, adding value. So if you live like that, then you will always keep going growing.

when you’re looking at a new project or even an acquisition. what do you look for in a business that actually convinces you and what do you look for in a business that maybe you think might be a problem you weren’t recovered from?

 

I look at things that stay because now in this stage of my life, I’m looking for social impact. It can’t just be about business. I’m invited everyday business opportunities, whether it is to deal in gold or to deal with something which could be very profitable. But I don’t see that as something that I want and it’s not about just making money, I want to touch people’s lives now and that’s a different part of my life that has come only recently. When I was young I didn’t think about but now I look at the risks of every business. What are the risks are they worth taking? I weigh the risk against the benefits. The benefits will always be there and at times you’re clouded by the benefit that you underestimate the risk. But risk is very important mitigation. Number two is cash flow you got to look at businesses that will give you long-term cash flow. I don’t go for businesses with a short-term perspective. You make a quick buck here, and then it’s dead and gone. I’m not interested. I like businesses that have got a long-term horizon. Now when I invest in apartments, I don’t build to sell. I build to rent for a long time I build hotels; they are a 50-year-old business. I try to look at businesses that last generation will be intergenerational. If I’m going to be on a large scale so that you can be generation. I don’t want to get in a business that makes money today and tomorrow you are starting fresh.

 

What about red flags? What do you look for there?

 

I’ve learned with time the biggest part of business is the people. If you don’t have the right people to help you do the right business then you’re in trouble because you can’t be the one at the steering wheel all the time. You got to set up a system and step aside and build a system that works to me a system-driven business is so important, where you set up things and then people know what to do. I haven’t been to Kenya now for over one year, and I have over 400 staff who works for me diligently. I just get monthly reports because of COVID have not been happy and that’s useful to see that the system is working. Of course, you must make a phone call once in a while to check on them. You make questions, support them, pat them on the back, but you’ve got to have a system that works.

 

This question of getting the right people is something that entrepreneur’s world over talk about. What are your tips on it? And perhaps can you give me an example of somebody maybe you employed in the gut feeling was unlikely person that turned out to be a good person. Can you think of someone?

 

Yes, there are several who are who are very good at telling a story and or doing an interview. They are very impressive, but then they can’t walk the walk. So what I’ve learned is you got to find my job largely finding good quality people. One thing I asked them is you smarter than me if you’re not smarter than me? If you’re not going to do things better than me why should I hire you, I want to surround myself with people who are smarter than me who see what I don’t see. Otherwise, I can do it myself. That’s the beginning thereafter I’ve got to nurture these people, grow them, make them feel they can do better if you’re nurturing them like, like how you feed a  garden, the garden grows and blossoms and when people are blossoming, they are doing their best. You’ve got to be careful because then everybody wants to stay. So you’ve got to find a way to retain the good people because you’ll always find the people who are not growing will stay with you for 15 years they don’t want to go away. But the ones who are really full of potential, ambitious, and delivering results they are very ambitious. They will probably be approached by the network like MTN who will pay three times as much as I pay to take my good staff and I realize mine was a training yard, I train young people, I retain as many as I can, but I don’t mind if they get better prospects and let them go happily and I want them go and succeed and that’s how that’s my attributed to human resources and many times I found them in key places, and I’m very happy that came to my hands. 

 

What about diversifying as an entrepreneur? I know you’ve diversified your business greatly in the last decade or so. What’s your advice on that because not every business is for everyone, you may be successful in one place, but not in another. What’s your philosophy and related to the businesses that you’ve got?

 

First of all, in Africa, I’d like to make a distinction businesses in Africa, especially, are more prone to certain risks that are not there in the Western world. A person like Bill Gates can focus on Microsoft alone and stick to his computers all his life and he can go breadth and depth of the world. Here, when you’re in a small market, anything can happen and change your business completely. So you’ll find nearly all the very big successful businessmen in Africa, from Dangote, to Patrice Motsepe, they diversify their portfolio, they don’t put all their eggs in one basket, you’ve got to diversify your portfolio and have different revenue streams. Because in our environment, for whatever reason, one stream can go dry overnight and you’ve got to keep feeding that the river, the rivers into the main lake, keep that lake going. I use the analogy of Lake Victoria is fed by hundreds of streams, but that fills up and it feeds the river Nile and that goes all the way to the Mediterranean. So you’ve got to have a diversified portfolio that is continuously feeding the lake, then the lake does not run dry, the levels may drop occasionally, but never run dry and that’s why you’ve got a solid business with a diversified portfolio.

 

In terms of you’ve mentioned a number of entrepreneurs there who are the entrepreneurs that you look up to in this world?

 

Many of those I look up to are mainly in Africa not because I don’t respect the ones in the first world but I think doing business in Africa has been exceptionally hard in that this last 100 years. The first world changed monumentally after the second industrial revolution when they got electricity industrialization happened and the first world zoomed ahead. Later, also Asian did the same. In Africa, we simply could not make it those big breaks. Now people like Motsepe, for instance, he was working in an environment with the odds stacked up against him to change from to the collapse of apartheid, and the change created opportunities for him and he happened to be in the right place at the right time  and he scaled, he saw the vision and he kept growing. Ali Angote began the same in Nigeria, he did so by going first with probably rice, sugar, and then cements commodities, providing it and scaling it, and he built a system that it was no longer individual. But he built a system and army below him that could do the things that he’s done to transform the richest man in Africa. So I’m not looking for being the richest man and many of my friends, especially the Asian friends, who I look to as mentors, I mentioned Korean analogy and zein xhouan nearly all of them had challenges with their health because they worked so hard on their business and the art of building a business means you got to be like a good swordsman with your right hand but then what do you do the left hand, you can’t have a family the skills for raising a family. The skills for looking after your health are all in the left hand and very few people are dexterous. So nearly all my friends have had a heart attack, stroke, and had a bypass, their families are broken they divorced a few times so that’s a challenge. How do you keep that balance where you can succeed, but don’t push it too much? Don’t step on the pedal all the time, there’s a time to step on the brake there is a time to look at caution. Don’t throw caution in the wind and that’s where keeping a balance is so important.

 

How do you know when to stop as an entrepreneur? I mean, you may have made that decision to work less hours, spend more time with your family relax, and then there’ll be a fantastic deal. Surely you’re going to be like an old warhorse, you know, with the smell of gunpowder in your nostrils and you’re going to be out there. How do you know when to stop?

 

That’s why I urge young people I encourage young people to write down their goals in life. If you don’t write them down, you’ll keep running this race. I found I was running a race but I was running a race with my shadow who was I running a race against I’m not chasing those who are ahead of me. You’ve got to know what is enough and when you sit down level with your family have this kind of discussion and share them with your friends, what is enough, then you draw a line because their opportunities will be presenting themselves, they become bigger they becomes sweeter, if anything, have gone one step too far, the last deal I did, I think I should have stopped, I shouldn’t have done that. Because it’s giving you stress COVID came, everything came at the same time, I said, I really didn’t need it, I had enough for my life, and enough for the next generation to stand and build upon. I’ve invested in children to think to learn to think critically, and to see opportunities, and have those values of their peers. I didn’t want their peers in the Western world to see life differently. You expose them, and then you feel I have arrived. So what do I want to do with the rest of my life? If you don’t put that down, you will always be chasing the next deal presented to you it becomes harder and harder.

 

Now in terms of doing business, in the continent, I mean, many entrepreneurs at your level, talk to me down the years about the problem of corruption. The best of them say why you just say no and if the guys you know, it’s gonna be problems anyway. What is your approach? I’m, I’m sure many, many people down the years have asked for money, and whatever bribes from you or what your approach to it?

 

In Africa, there’s corruption everywhere however you package it corruption is like a cancer. Now it can be a very bad cancer, stage four, or it can be a very mild cancer. But either way it’s a cancer once you let it in, it will just keep on growing, and if you don’t deal with it quickly it will fester. So I learned quite early that if I’m going to walk this path and try to stay away from corruption, I’ve got to do a lot of work in the community. So that my standing is high enough that people will respect me for who I am. So, I gave my time to work with the public sector, work with the government, to work with people so that when I go to any office at any level with a minister or government officials, they will respect me for who I am and it becomes harder for them to ask me for money you can ask me for a fever-like, I want a job for my child that I understand and that is something that I can live with, but actually to pay so much money for a contract. You know, I have access to the president you know, I have access to the Minister Internal Affairs, so you will hesitate to ask me such questions so I’ve avoided those situations. When I went to a neighboring country some of the key ministers were leaning on me they said you cannot do business here without us as a local partner. Then I realized that I would not spend a night in that country I would fly in the morning and fly out the same night before they realized who I was and you have to create a story otherwise, they will hound you down and frustrate your business. Eventually, the government changed some of those people walked away, and before they were realized we were lobbying with senior people. They are seeing you in government circles, giving speeches, spending time with what I call community time t to build my brand in the community in which I operate so that they respect you for who you are. Then you don’t get into an embarrassing corner situation with somebody asking you for crazy amount of money to let you do something so you’ve got to find a smart way of doing this without offending people.

What do you think is going to be the next big thing in Africa you think? What do you think is going to be the boom area in the world of business and the continent?

I think IT space has not yet opened; we’re just scratching the surface. There’s going to be so much happening with technology. The power of the Internet has not been unleashed properly in Africa. In some areas, there’s a bit of activity in South Africa and a bit in Nigeria, a bit Egypt but when we can start building platforms, there’s going to be a huge space to play in. The second is in finance, again it’s going to be related to user of technology, but the combination of Bank of bricks and motor, that’s going to have its days and there’ll be a lot more money to be made using Telecommunication or using the tools of IT one way or another. That’s the biggest space that’s been happening, of course, because Africa’s population is huge and growing I don’t see slowing down very quickly. We’ve got to feed these people. Food is going to be big business and accessing these markets. So if we can get our heads around the politics of Africa the continent free trade area and some of those barriers go down,  what will be our biggest challenge will be markets, accessing the markets, so that these markets can actually trade. Europe went through this phase before the Second World War, and everyone was fighting one another for territory for space France, Germany. They had all these kinds of things then they consolidated and realized their biggest challenge was a common market, once they got that right Europeans lived a much better quality of life. Africans won’t live a better quality of life when we remain fragmented as we are,  we’ve got to find was to remove theses artificial barriers and do more trade to one another and that will uplift the whole of society.

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It launched on January the first has been a lot of talk about it a few headlines, not as many as I would like to see I think it’s a much bigger story than it’s been reported in Africa, but tell me something in Uganda. What has been the physical impact in Uganda since it launched how it has made any difference at all to business?

 

How do we get markets for our products we have too much of some of the commodities that we’ve now got harnessed, we have a challenge selling our sugar to the neighboring countries because we produce too much sugar. We have a challenge selling our milk our beef, our chicken our problem now is the market size, because people are waking up to do things on scale. In the past, we’re doing things unsophisticated. Our coffee we put in a good a huge international market for coffee, but we’ve got to get our act together, where we are producing six or seven kilos, but three we been producing one or two kilos and getting on with it now we realize we can do so organic farming there is so much potential, our fruits. So there’s so much potential in that space and our biggest problem is market so the timing of the Africa continental free market is excellent. It’s going to take some time to be able to get to absorb it and see that the benefits outweigh the costs because some people are scared to let go of the benefits they hold, and the protection that there protecting right now, But once it begins happening, they will be blossom, all the all the boats shall rise when the tide comes in all the countries shall rise. But of course, we’ve got to check this war in the area because when I look around, Uganda, and I see these petty wars because of individual strong individuals holding their country’s at ransom, look at South Sudan, look at Somalia, and look at some of the countries around us. We have troops have to keep going in from the United Nations or from our country. That has got to stop. It stopped for Europe after the Second World War, they sat down and said, No more of this. Let’s be organized, and we shall have them, and there’s never been a real major war in Europe thereafter. America, since their north and south war they united all the countries united all the countries to create this huge market, and America became the superpower of the world. Africa has got a few steps to go before we can put our act together and have these 56 countries working in harmony and respecting the trade is more important than this politics and sovereignty of boundaries that are created. What we need is provide service and prosperity and share this prosperity for all our other better quality life.

 

How long do you think it will be though in Africa we go to any border posts from Kampala to Accra, or wherever you say hi how are you I claim my rebate I claim my rights as an African exporter  to the single market and it’ll just be a matter of course. But what I understand is there are a lot of places in the continent where it’s still not quite clear what the new rules are.

 

That is true and I think that the target for the African Union is 2063. So, that’s how far they put in, and I thought why don’t we make it 2043 surely we can overcome these barriers in a period of 20 years that’s a whole generation. But in their wisdom, they put a timeline of 2063, and understandably so, because when people like Gadhafi talked about a United Africa, everyone thought that he had gone crazy. But was it something that would happen in his lifetime, certainly not? But can it happen in the next 50 years, it could happen, where these barriers come down but it’s going to be a process like it’s taking all these years for us to respect these sovereign boundaries, which were created in Berlin in 1934. Now, to move away from that and realize that the boundaries may be there but the people and goods should move freely and services and everybody prospers when that happens and it will take a bit of time. 

 

One from Mr. Amadou Chico Sissoko, now he’s asking about your simber group. Now how is it leveraging its wide network across East Africa, to build technology platforms that have a unique competitive advantage and also give rise to more entrepreneurs, obviously?

 

I must say that we have slowed down on the telecom front; we are looking at the space. There are so many applications that come to me every single day. But I don’t see a killer application, you need a killer application that really works, then you scale. So we are trying different things, but have not found the killer application. Everybody’s trying to get into the space of FinTech of lending money that will be useful because nearly everybody in Africa wants capital, they want access to capital, we need to give them an opportunity and lessons from Bangladesh, shows that the people at the bottom of the pyramid are largely honest. All they want is an opportunity, give them a chance, give them a break. I got a break and I changed my life, so many people have not been given that opportunity. So I’m looking for an application that we can scale, once we’ve tested, tried, and tested it. Unfortunately in the IT space 80% to 90% of the new ideas, collapse in the first year, very few succeed but those that succeed, and can scale exceptionally well.

 

What do you believe is your divine purpose, and how you living it through business and wealth creation sound like a heavy question, what’s your answer?

 

It is a very heavy question because when I asked myself when I retire what I am going to do. I can’t stop working I’m going to slow down my work, but I think I want to spend my time teaching. That is my divine calling sharing the knowledge you’ve acquired the experience you’ve acquired with the young people who are keen to listen, to know what you’ve gone through, so that they don’t make the mistakes, I made, there’s so much temptation out there, and everybody thinks that if I had a million dollars this what I will do, They don’t realize how quickly the million dollars will make you crazy or intoxicating you. It is as bad as drugs or petrol, drinking petrol directly so you’ve got through those steps you’ve got to listen to the stories, and these stories, especially in the African space or context are not told a lot of useful books have been written, but they’re not being read, especially in the context of Africa. When they read the books and they talk about 401 K in the USA and how the pension funds work, and the criteria for PE funds, those examples are not relevant to us. We need to tell these stories and so we need much more, many more mentors coming out and mentoring.

 

That’s another case in point when I was writing my book, African Billionaires a few years ago. One thing that struck me was there were so many people who’ve done so much on the continent, and yet people are still talking about Donald Trump and Richard Branson, they weren’t talking about the big on the continent but do you think that they should be an effort to hold up More people from the continent, you have made it a business, as like sort of paragons of virtue.

 

Yes, unfortunately, many of our people either good Muslims or good Christians and so the element of humility is a clash, it’s almost clashing with should you go out and tell you a story. So people find that they don’t want to tell their story partly because of humility and partly because of the secrets, they feel is a secret to their journey, which they don’t want to share whether it’s a dodgy secret, or something that they did that helped them therefore. So, we’ve got to change the mindset to get people to tell their story, as it is the mistakes we’ve gone through, the pain we’ve gone through the challenges that we’ve had, share them with the young people, you’re doing a service to your community, if you see it that way, you’ll be doing well. I see so many churches opening up they’re preaching the message of God, and we get it now, we’ve got that message, but we need to tie this to the real world of prosperity for everybody, people can live on an empty stomach people need education and better health care and better services. 

 

You mentioned there you said that you’re seeing your future in teaching, are you seeing yourself as an, a teacher of entrepreneurs. Would that be something you’ve put yourself into and do you think there’s a huge market out there for education and entrepreneurs?

 

I find the young people; there are so many young people who are so hungry. They’re almost gullible because of the hunger for knowledge, how can we change their lives. They’re certainly not going to get the jobs they expect when they go to school they sacrifice so much they sell their land they sell their cows and goats so that they can go to school at the end of that, there are no jobs for them. So I’m encouraging young people to learn to create value for themselves trading is the future, buying and selling providing a service, and then climbing through the ranks, step by step. That’s why I set up a University of country now so that when I retire I want to go to this university, and then I can lecture about business talk about things that are gone through and when you align with the owner of the university, it’s very hard for them to fire you. So, I’ll be there and I can do it in the afternoons I set my calendar but I want to have some discipline, and be able to attract people that want to learn the story of how an Africa built it from nothing to something, and how you tried to touch people’s lives by spreading the word, and teaching them that at the end of the day, their destinies, actually in their own hands.

 

Now he says thanks to Mr. bitatori now I would like to know your take he says on the link between our school system and Uganda, and the job market in play any role in creating entrepreneurs, what’s your view?

 

I think our school system is draconian it’s outdated, it’s obsolete, we inherited a system designed by the time by our colonial masters. We’ve tried to tweak it here and there but it needs a complete overhaul. So it’s not relevant to the current time, but it’s the best we have. We can just scrap it without an alternative. So until they build a new curriculum, until the emphasis is on critical thinking and how we can use science especially and math’s and STEM subjects to move people from where we are the needle is going to move very slowly, it will move like a clock, the hour hands, we needed to move at the pace of the second time. That’s how we transform our society, socio economic transformation is possible, but we’ve got to accelerate it.

 

Unstable or no hydroelectricity in most parts of Africa has to be sold as it tends to slow business in most areas?

 

For the first time in Uganda, for instance, we now have an excess of power over demand. In the last 50 years, we have only generated, we have built capacity only 500 megawatts. Today we have 1800 megawatts; it’s taking us 50 years to build the demand for 500 megawatts. So now we have a ton of excess power. So what we need to do is make sure it is affordable and reliable and then we can provide certain industries coming here. When industries come in, that will make a very big difference and that’s how we shall transform our society. But, electricity is key for development we were joking for the last 50 years when we are always playing catch up with supply, you need to have an abundance of electricity, and it must be affordable and reliable, those key three things can transform society without it we are wasting time.

 

 What book would you recommend young entrepreneurs to read? 

 

There are a 1000 of books to read and all of them make money, what am I reading lately. I was reading the psychology of money, that’s a great book the psychology of money. Another one for starters, wink and grow rich, an unexceptionable for the people who are starting.