Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|May 21, 2021|21 Minutes|In Billionaire, Billionaire Today

Billionaire Today

“Try something and fail.”

Patrick Bitature is the brain that launched a million cell phones. It made him one of the richest and most influential people in Africa. He’s the head of the multimillion-dollar Simba Group, one of many African companies bearing the brunt of Covid-19. A man who saw his life shattered at the age of 13 when the Idi Amin regime murdered his father. A child left with nothing, who traded his way to everything.

For a fleeting moment deep in the bush of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, 9 hours drive south west of Kampala, one of the richest and most powerful men in Africa froze powerless. In a shady bamboo thicket, stood an incredible sight that stopped tycoon Patrick Bitature in his tracks. Just a few yards away, standing over him was a mighty silverback gorilla; free, feral and twice his size. It wasn’t your average day out for a multi-millionaire.

“It’s partly because your body has never reacted to something like that. Your body’s normal reaction, if you are in fear and your adrenaline kicks in, it’s either fight or flight. In this case you can’t run, and you can’t fight, so the combination of hormones that your body gives off – happiness, joy, satisfaction – it’s amazing to experience this right next to such a powerful creature that can snap you like a twig. A creature that’s so powerful, so beautiful and so dangerous at the same time…it’s intoxicating,” he says.

For Bitature, this humbling stand-off with one of Africa’s giant primates loomed as large as fate over his fortune. He’s been through it all: Idi Amin; two global recessions; and a crippling pandemic.

Sheer grit and determination have been the guide for this humble entrepreneur to grow his multi-million-dollar company Simba Group with mobile, airtime, hotels, energy, travel, real estate, and media.

His founding business, in telecommunications, has been the pièce de resistance. In essence, you could say that Bitature was the man who put more mobile phones in the hands of Ugandans than anybody else; certainly, many more than the government of the day had telephone lines.

“In 1998, people said Africa wasn’t ready for communication. In Uganda we only had 33,000 fixed telephone lines in the country. People kept saying that mobile phones weren’t for Africa. They cannot afford them. And they made a misjudgement about Africa,” he says.

Bitature didn’t and reaped the rewards. These days Simba Telecom is the largest distributor of airtime and the biggest mobile phone retailer in East Africa with over a hundred shops. A far cry from the humble store where he and his wife, Carol, spent working late into the night back in 1998.

The company was one of the first franchisees to bring MTN to Uganda. Within just six months Bitature brought in over five times as many customers as the network had achieved in the previous four years.

The company continued to expand reaching the homes of millions of Ugandans. By 2010, Simba Telecom was the largest seller of MTN airtime, with gross sales of more than $80 million. From its base in Uganda, Bitature forged into Kenya and Tanzania, to become the largest distributor of airtime products in East Africa. In 2015, Simba Telecom recorded a turnover of more than $500 million per year, according to the Africa Report.

“Don’t be scared to do business. You don’t wait for all the traffic lights to be green before you start the journey. You start the journey and deal with what you’ve got. It’s very important that Africa embraces this discipline,” he says.

For Bitature, the business was as much about connecting people as it was about profit.

“My desire at the time was to put a handset into every person’s pocket…There’s a race to the bottom of the pyramid, and then it’s a numbers game.”

“Your body’s normal reaction, if you are in fear and your adrenaline kicks in, it’s either fight or flight. In this case you can’t run, and you can’t fight, so the combination of hormones that your body gives off - happiness, joy, satisfaction - it's amazing to experience this right next to such a powerful creature that can snap you like a twig. A creature that’s so powerful, so beautiful and so dangerous at the same time…it’s intoxicating.” Patrick Bitature, founder Simba Group. 

Patrick Bitature

His business has outlasted some of the biggest names in the cell phone industry.

“I remember talking to the deputy CEO of Nokia when Nokia was doing so well. I remember telling them you’ve got to bring the price down. If you bring the price down, then everyone will be connected. They told me why would you want to bring the price down? Because you won’t make a profit. I told them even if I only make $1 dollar [profit on a phone] it’s okay, let’s connect as many people as possible and we all make $1. Rather than make $20 dollars that we were marking up at the time.”

This was a lesson he had grown up with; listening to the needs of your customer. It has been the hallmark of a long career born in the depths of adversity. 

Born and bred in Fort Portal, in the Kabarole District of western Uganda, Bitature’s life was shattered when the Idi Amin regime murdered his father in the political turmoil of the 1970s. At the age of just 13, Bitature was left a grieving and bereft breadwinner of the family.

Bitature grew up as the first born with five other siblings in a modest middle class family. They had a car and could afford to go on occasional trips to neighbouring Kenya. But his father Paul fell foul of the regime. One day Amins executioners came knocking. They murdered Bitature’s father in cold blood. The regime stripped the family of its properties and privileges, forcing the Bitature’s into a shack in Kampala. One day came the bitter realisation that they couldn’t afford sugar in their tea. 

“It was a period of adversity for me. When I reflect now, I see many people come out of adversity stronger. Some people just shut down. If you take the responsibility in your own hands and say I’ve got to make a difference I don’t have a choice. Then you soldier on, inevitably they succeed,” said Bitature. 

He found salvation in trade. It happened when he was still a young, hungry, teenager. Bitature boarded a bus to Kenya and smuggled home a 15kg bag of sugar in his school bag.  It was gold dust back home in troubled Uganda where commodities were in short supply. He sold half the sugar to his neighbours at a profit that was four times the cost

With the sweet smell of success, mixed with a whiff of triumph over disaster, an entrepreneurial spirit was born. Sheer grit did the rest. 

In those early days, Bitaure threw himself into a number of businesses. From selling women’s clothes, used cars and ice cream, to running a forex bureau. He ran a nightclub and also at one stage was even a wrestling promoter, bringing grapplers from the United States to fight in Uganda, according to the Africa Report. 

Through it all, he continued to follow the same business philosophy: find a customer; work out the need; take a calculated risk; and deliver the best quality goods and services as possible. 


“The higher you climb the bigger the obstacles. But you must have the resilience to push through. Initially it’s for your own survival. Next, it’s for your loved ones. And before you know it, it’s expanded into your own community and then to your country and then to your continent,” he says.


One of the biggest obstacles for Uganda’s second richest businessmen – reputed to be worth anywhere between $100 and $650 million was a problem that no amount of money could ever ward off – Covid-19. 

“The pandemic was something we always talked about in the background, nobody planned for this eventuality…Across the section we are impacted. Telecoms first took a hit at the beginning, but it quickly recovered, because people need to communicate,” he says. 

“Many people were coming out of poverty, and have been pushed back into poverty and that is a major consequence of this pandemic,” Patrick Bitature, founder Simba Group. 

Patrick Bitature

“Many people moved from the way they load their airtime and how they spend their mobile money because they were impacted by Covid-19. Their livelihoods have had to change, people are spending a lot less, they are becoming more frugal, spending only on priority areas.”

Another industry hit hard was tourism. Before the pandemic, Uganda tourism accounted for about 7.7% of the country’s GDP, bringing in $1.6 billion, twice agricultural exports. 

“The pandemic was something we always talked about in the background, nobody planned for this eventuality. It’s come of course and has probably hurt us more economically, I don’t mean to be inhumane, more economically it has hit Africa. Many people were coming out of poverty, and have been pushed back into poverty and that is a major consequence of this pandemic,” he said.

Bitature is passionate about travel and the country’s gorillas and has invested in both. He owns two Protea hotels in Naguru and Kololo, in Kampala, that employs 380 people as well as his own travel agency.

“Many are business tourists or adventure tourists. That business literally shut down. Occupancy dropped from 68% in the hotel industry to 2% when there was complete lockdown,” says Bitature.

“It’s been a very tough time for the travel industry, globally, with no exception in Uganda. We’ve been trying to weather the storm for the last 14 months or so…We are beginning to recover with local staycations. [Hotels] are hovering around 8% activity. It’s keeping the lights on.”

As the country adjusts to its ‘new normal’, innovation has ridden to the rescue. One way in which the travel industry has been transformed is through the rise of digital migration to operating businesses on social media pages like facebook, Tripadvisor or Airbnb. 

“Certainly Covid-19 has accelerated the pace at which we are migrating. Many local businesses are going out of their way to try it. That is gaining traction. But it’s not fast enough when I look around at the pace at which the rest of the world is going, we’re still lagging behind,” says Bitature.

As for opportunities, Bitature sees food as the next big business. 

“Covid-19 has taught us a lesson we have got to grow for local consumption. Most people grow their own food in the rural areas. It’s a great opportunity for agritech and for agribusiness. In the past agriculture was done largely by peasant communities, self-sustaining. In Uganda almost 60% are living this way. But what I see today, a lot more affluent people are moving into agribusiness. They understand the basics and they are organized and they’re using technology. They’re not just throwing seeds into the ground and hoping it germinates in the ground. They’re doing it systematically with professional help.”

Everyday items – from pencil sharpeners to cooking oil – for Africa’s growing population will also be in big demand, he says.

“Fast moving consumer goods like cooking oil, soap, things we consume on an everyday basis are coming in today from China. We need the factories to be here in Africa where we have the materials.”

“Africa is the only contender where we have not fully developed its construction industry. There is going to be demand for housing for all these 1.2 billion people. By 2050, we are going to be two billion people. All these people are going to need basic needs – food shelter, clothing and locomotion. We have to provide these things.”

Energy, Bitature says, is also ripe for investment. To this day, Uganda has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world. Despite significant efforts over the last 20 years, it only supplies a mere 24% of its population. A lot of people use wood, even though ironically the Ugandan power grid has a surplus for the demands of those who connected. 

It’s not a new problem either. In the late 1990s, the government embarked on the most ambitious power sector reform program as yet seen in Africa to unbundle its generation, transmission, and distribution utilities, and offer private concessions for power generation and distribution. 

In 2005 the shortage exacerbated by declining water levels in Lake Victoria, the primary reservoir for Uganda’s hydro-based electric power system, due to drought. The country invested in tripling its supply output to nearly 1,200 megawatts (MW) by 2013, and to increase to 1,800 MW by the end of 2019 with the addition of the Karuma dam.

Bitature capitalized by opening the 50 Megawatt Electro Maxx thermal plant in Tororo, in 2012. It is regarded as the first and only Independent Power Producer in Africa founded, funded and operated solely African companies. 

“Since the second industrial revolution, there were huge leaps and bounds because Europe had access to electricity. Africa has always had a shortage of electricity, and this I realised is one of its biggest gaps. Today in South Africa, as much as you have almost 55 gigawatts of power, but you still have load shedding…We need to have power in abundance, it’s got to be cheap and it’s got to be reliable then we can have transformation and change.”

During Uganda’s hard lockdown, peak demand dropped to as low as 588.5 MW in April 2020 from 728.7 MW in February 2020, half of what the country can supply on a good day. 


“We took a hit. The country is slowly improving distribution. Industry is not working at capacity,” says Bitature.


Uganda’s third National Development Plan, which was implemented in January 2020 as the pandemic began to spread across Africa,  aims to fill gaps in transmission and distribution. 

When business can return to normal, even? 

“Nobody has got a crystal ball. We thought things were getting better and then we see what’s happening today in India, it’s really shocking and really scary. We’re just hoping the worst is behind us. I just hope we don’t have long to wait for vaccines because that will have dire consequences for industry. We need to brace ourselves and keep our heads down until the storm passes.”

The trick to navigating out of this storm is to find new waves, albeit rough, to ride. This is something Bitature wants all young African entrepreneurs to try.

“Be innovative. Always try to provide services better. Try and sell products better. Whatever you think you do, do it a little bit better than anybody else. Don’t ever feel like a market is so crowded you won’t get in there…Try something and fail. Too often we are taught at schools not to accept failure. [Failure is] not necessarily a good thing, but learning the lesson from it, is priceless.”

Sound advice for the man who has seen it all, from Idi Amin to sugar smuggling and airtime selling and a humbling face-to-face encounter with gorillas deep forests of the Ugandan bush. A life that’s rarely been dull. 

Along with being an active Tweeter where he posts business advice, Bitature is passionate about teaching and he even has his own YouTube web series. EMBED: https://youtu.be/g_4h_wwZ7TI