Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|December 7, 2020|14 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

The Chairman Of The Billionaire Board

In Uganda they call him the chairman; his seat of power lies in mansion on a hilltop in Buziga, high above Kampala, with a stunning view over the wide blue waters of Lake Victoria. Yet far from this opulence, the foundation of Godfrey Kirumira’s fortune was forged in the darkness and fear inside rattling late-night trains clutching black market cigarettes. – surely, no place for a 12-year-old child.

There can be few millionaires who can claim their first step to riches came through a dance with death long before they were even shaving.

Godfrey Kirumira was just 12 years old when he sat clutching boxes of black-market cigarettes in the depths of a dark, dingy, train as it rattled towards the border and heaven knows what. He kept looking over his shoulder, every few minutes, in case a killer lurked in the shadows. These were the dark, desperate, days of the early 1970s when President Idi Amin held sway in Uganda.

“There were a lot of killers around in Amin’s time,” recalls Kirumira, “They could track you. rob you kill you easily.”

This was the reason why Kirumira’s first attempt to turn a penny was simply taking his life – as well as his black-market cigarettes – in his hands. He hadn’t taken well to school and early on the son of a farmer and teacher realised risk was the only way.

In the early 1970s, the creaking old train was on its way to the small town of Kasese on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo three kilometres west of the capital Kampala. Surviving the journey was merely the first step; the young Kirumira had to hang around a scruffy hotel in Kasese until his shadowy contacts from the other side of the border came with money to buy the black-market cigarettes.

“It could take up to a week,” he says,” But it was good money. I used to spend 100,000 shillings on the cigarettes and got back 400,000; it was good money then. I did it four times. On the fourth trip they cheated me out some of my money and I stopped going, but the money I gathered, I used to start my business.”

Nearly half a century on, 60-year-old Kirumira is an expansive man, with a ready smile, who lives life to the full.

The fruit of half a century of business are manifest, in more ways than one, when you meet him. The view that hits you in the eye: the view from the balcony of the multi-million-dollar mansion, at the top of a hill in Buziga, is breathtaking. From the vast blue waters of Lake Victoria the view sweeps over the houses on the hills to the skyscrapers of Kampala. From here can see the score of buildings that help make Kirumira’s fortune estimated in tens of millions of dollars.

The more mundane side of the wealth story is not far away on this warm morning. A manager for Kirumira’s holding company DKK arrives on the balcony of dreams with a pile of reality. One by one, Kirumira thumbs through the dog-eared cheque books paying invoice after invoice for the company as he looks over his shoulder and smiles.

There were a lot of killers around in Amins time, recalls Kirumira, They could track you, rob you, kill you easily.

- Godfrey Kirumira

“I am still analogue,” he chuckles.

It was in a far-off world in Kampala more than 40 years ago – when the world analogue was rarely used – that the 60-year-old ground out his fortune shilling by shilling. It was a gritty rise. In 1979, Kirumira ploughed his money into bicycle parts and tyres. Soon he was importing bicycles from India and by the early 1980s he was importing car tyres to Kampala from South Korea.

“I was lucky, God gave me a chance and I worked,” he says.

Yet, it was far from easy down the years amid weapons and chaos. There was a coup to put Amin in power and a military invasion to chase him out of it. There was another coup in 1985 to put present President Yoweri Museveni into power.

“There were tough times and chaos along the way. My businesses were looted in the unrest and there were people squatting in hotels and buildings. It was tough,” he says.

In more peaceful times the government knocked two zeroes off the currency costing business millions of shillings.

All of this didn’t deter Kirumira who ended the 1980s investing in property, buying hotels and setting up Kampala’s first shopping mall. On top of that DKK exports maize and beans; food to the World Food Programme in South Sudan. In later years, Kirumira invested in schools; he owns a primary and secondary school that teaches 1500 children in Kampala.

But like most of busines in Uganda, the schools were hit hard by COVID-19 and suffered months of closure.

Instead of moping, Kirumira is looking towards the future with optimism. He is banking on the nascent oil industry that the government pledges to promote after elections on January 14.

“We are not expecting a change at the elections and that is good for stability. The president has brought stability to the economy, which makes it possible to make money,” he says.

“I think oil will wake up the economy up in 2022!”

Kirumira has invested in this future to the tune of $5 million. He has bought a laboratory from Colombia in South America and transported it lock-stock-and-barrel to Kampala. It will assess the quality of the oil samples found in Uganda on the country’s long road to becoming an oil producer. Large deposits of oil were discovered in the Albertine Rift Valley in western Uganda back in 2006.

It has been a gritty road to riches for Kirumira. Ironically it was one of the loves of his life, not outrageous fortune, that nearly destroyed his dreams of wealth- in a word: football.

Express Football Club, founded in 1957 by the managers of Uganda Express Newspapers, is one of the oldest football clubs in Uganda and the Manchester United of Kampala. It was almost  Kirumira’s financial  downfall.  The Red Eagles won the national title in Uganda six times; the cup 10 times and has played in the Africa Cup of Champions six times and has gone through a vast pile of cash in doing so.

Kirumira has supported the Kampala club since he was a boy and was its chairman for 25 years where he came up with a large pile of that cash.

“It was constantly this,” Kirumira says gesturing as if he is taking money from his pocket, “We flew all over Africa for games and I had to pay the fares for 30 officials every time.”

Kirumira spoke fondly of the crowds of up to 40,000 that used to attend Express FC games, but doesn’t regret giving up the game. You get the impression that his wife Grace- a former MP who now runs supermarkets – is overjoyed.

“It was the only business I ever lost money in! It is a good job I got out otherwise I would have to have sold this place!” smiles Kirumira as he gestures towards his mansion on the hill.

Kirumira looks longingly over the valley beneath his property and talks of a link with football, his talented grandson and a shattering family trauma. It made headlines in Uganda, back in 2010, when kidnappers took fiver-year-old Keiden King Lubowa and demanded 200 million shillings ransom from Kirumira. Police and family went into action and the kidnappers – two people from Burundi one of whom was the boy’s nanny – dumped the child without getting a penny. Both kidnappers are behind bars and the family’s memory is scarred.

“In this country this kidnap thing is a problem. They can even kill your child!” says Kirumira in dismissive disgust.

Yet, football is working its magic in giving the young former hostage the chance of a happy and lucrative life. Now aged 13, the talented Keiden King Lubowa is in Manchester, in the north west of England ,learning how to be that most tricky of attacking footballers – a right footed left winger. The family says the youngster is banging in the goals at one of the top football academies in the land.

It could prove bitter-sweet for Lubowa’s proud grandfather. Kirumira is steeped in football and a dyed in the wool Manchester United fan. Yet his grandson has opted for the light blue of Manchester City

If the young Lebowa is anywhere near as gritty and determined as his grandfather he could be on the way to causing derby day disappointments for Manchester United.  Even if he does so, you can be sure, grandpa Kirumira will be smiling through and bursting with pride.

What happens when Kampala’s elite meet?

Godfrey Kirumira is chairman of one of the most moneyed and powerful groups of millionaires and billionaires in Africa.

Every month, the Kwagalana group -the name means brotherhood in Luganda – meets in Kampala in a cloud of cigar smoke to the flow of fine 30-year-old whiskey. The talk is always of business and investment among men worth billions of dollars who control a large slice of Uganda’s economy.

There are only 40 people allowed in the Kwagalana group and they have to be worth at least $5 million before they are even considered. On top of that, the elite club only allows a new member should one of their number die.

Kirumira founded the group 30 years ago with a handful of business people and has been its chairman since the beginning.

“it started out as a way we could do things and give back to society.  We build schools and churches. If the president asks us for anything we can club together easily and raise the money,” says Kriumira.

Among the members are some of the richest people in Africa like Sudhir Ruperalia who is worth more than a billion dollars, plus real estate millionaire Ephraim Ntanganda and logistics mogul Tom  Mugenga.

At the age of 60, Kirumira hints that maybe he is ready to pass on the chairmanship. Maybe.

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