James Kanyije, through his KK Fresh Produce Exporters Ltd, exports 70% of the total exports of fruits and vegetables from Uganda – about 40 tonnes in a go. The company, worth about sh8b grown in two years; works with 10,000 farmers and employs 50 people. But things have not always been this rosy for the 44-year-old self-made businessman.
Born in abject poverty in a remote village of Mbarara, Kanyije, who only joined school at 11, often walked for miles to class, peddling crude waragi on a bicycle for equally long distances to raise his school fees. As an adult, he was bitterly exploited by his first employer and betrayed by a business partner he trusted. Yet he made it anyway. He told SEBIDDE KIRYOWA and ELVIS BASUDDE how.
Who is James Kanyije?
I was born in 1969 to the late Karyarugokwe and Jacinta Mayonde in Rwampara, Ngugo Sub County, Bugamba County, Mbarara District. I am the fifth borne of 11 children. My father died in 1991 when I was in S4.
As a child at home, I was a work horse. I was incredibly versatile and much more energetic than my siblings. I also had a very positive attitude towards work and I was very fast. As such, my father preferred working with me to screaming with siblings.
I was good at grazing cattle; I could squeeze juice from bananas and did virtually all the chores that were required to keep the home running. I would wake up in the morning, milk the cows and take them for grazing. This I could do by the time I was four years old. By the time I was six, I was very advanced in all this skills. By the time I was eight, I had mastered the art of digging with a hoe.
I could dig and complete my allotted part in record time, harvest the bananas and beans from the graden then go home and cook food. All the while my siblings would still be struggling to complete their parts in garden. They would return home to find the food ready.
I was so preoccupied with these daily chores I never had time to go to school. My parents liked having me around because I made life much easier. Before I knew it, I was 11 years old. That was when my father woke up and told me to go school. So, I joined Primary one at Ngugi Primary School in 1980 at age 11! Not that it was much to write home about. Those days, it was common practice. We did not have a kindergarten anywhere in the district so most pupils went straight to primary school. Still, it was an advantage for me to join school late because I knew so many things by the time I joined.
Joining the army
Around this time, my father used to go take his cows to Kampala to sell them in order to get school fees. This was the time Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels were fighting Obote’s government from the bush. Along the way, he and his colleagues would be mistreated by government soldiers – the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). One time these UNLA soldiers beat him so badly he almost died. These soldiers would raid our villages and mistreat people. Even as a young boy, I was bitter. I wanted to join the rebels and avenge my people. We had suffered a lot at the hands of these soldiers.
So, I joined the rebels as a kadogo (child soldier). I was about to be taken to Kasese to start fighting when my father came and took me out of that place after only two months.
Joining the seminary
When I completed Primary five, being a Catholic, my father said he wanted me to be a priest. He took me on his cycle to do an interview at Rushenje Sub parish headquarters. There were 100 children. I was among only three who passed. I was admitted to Mushanga Seminary in Bushenyi district where I continued on to Primary six in 1986.
I started studying to be a priest, but life in the seminary was deplorable. The young ones especially suffered, there was a lot of bulling, and the food was not good. We were taught by nuns and priests who, shockingly, despite being religious people, were incredibly brutal to us.
When I finished P7, I was supposed to proceed to Katabi Seminary for my secondary education but I did not want anything to do with this Catholic establishment after what I had experienced. So, I joined Lukoni Secondary School in Ntungamu district. I would walk 35 miles from home to school! It was so tiring and time consuming; I practically spent most of the time I would have been in school commuting in between.
I later joined Ruhanga Adventist Secondary School in Ntungamo District, because I wanted to perform better. The facilities at Lukoni were so bad. Sadly, my father dad died two weeks before the S4 exams. He was sick and I knew he would die because he had a liver complication.
We had talked about it before I left home and he had instructed my mother to sell everything after his death to enable those who wanted to proceed with education to do so. I had to walk 58 km from school to home to bury my father. I was exhausted and my feet were swollen by the time I arrived.
Packing fruits and vegetables for export at the Naalya offices. PHOTOs/Elvis Basudde
In my Senior four vacation, I went back to the village to help my mother. I peddled milk on a bicycle from village to village to raise money for my school fees in high school. I also brewed and sold waragi (a local gin).
I would ferry two jerry cans of waragi and two crates of beer on the bicycle from my village to Mbarara town, a distance of 28km. I would sell the waragi and buy beer which I would return with and sell in my village.
I saved enough money to enable me join Mbarara School of High Education for my Advanced Level 1992-1994. I studied history, economics, geography and divinity. I only got 10 points so I did not make it to university. That was to be expected. In fact, it would have been nothing short of a miracle if I had done any better considering my circumstances.
In my senior six vacation, I started teaching in a new secondary school Mr. Senyonga, a former teacher, had established in Mbarara. I would be lying if I told you I knew what I was doing. I could not even speak proper English. The people I taught were even more knowledgeable than I was. I learnt a lot of things myself during this time.
I remember teaching just about everything from commerce and economics in Senior Four and Five to geography and history. You name it. But I was confident and I am proud to say two of our students passed and went to Makerere University.
Life after school
I applied and joined Nakawa College of Business Studies (Makerere University Business School today) where I got a diploma in business studies. Although it was not my major discipline, I attended accountancy classes while at Nakawa.
During my second year, I secured a job with Uganda Fish Packers, working as an accounting clerk. I worked here from 1995 to 2000. I started out earning sh85,000. Of this, I rented a house of about sh30,000 along the Ntinda Stretcher Road. I met my wife, Edwing, a nurse who worked at Rubaga hospital, around that time and we moved in together. As I grew through the ranks to assistant production manager, I was earning sh200,000.
I quit because the Indian owners mistreated us so much. We exploited as regarded as worthless. They would bring in people from India, have me train them and then give them 100% rise after months. I had risen to the second most senior person operations and yet they still paid me peanuts. I swore never to work for anyone else.
Getting into business
While at the fish factory, I had made a lot of friends and networked with people who did business with the factory. I teamed up with my former production manager, an ice lander, who had resigned before me, to start a company called Ice Mark Africa Limited in September 2000. I had 10% shares in this company.
We started in one of the bedrooms in the Icelander’s house in Naguru which we converted into an office. Because we did not have money, we started out doing freight handling of fish for clients in Europe who imported from Uganda. These are people we already knew who were buying fish from Uganda Fish Parkers.
Starting Ice Mark did not require a lot of money. The freight was pre-paid. We earned commission. I first earned about $30 (sh75,000) per deal but that was very short-lived.
Basically, a client in Europe would chatter a flight to deliver his fish from Uganda. He would purchase it from Uganda Fish Parkers. Our duty was to deliver the fish to the aircraft, make sure that the aircraft is loaded in time and everything in Entebbe is paid before we could see it off. I was in charge of handling these flights directly.
Business grew so big I remember loading two flights on the same day totaling 140 tonnes in 2007. Meanwhile, we had since moved on from fish. We got an Indian client from Holland who wanted okra, an Indian spice. I visited him in Holland. It was from him that we accessed the market in England then the rest of Europe. We started handling fresh vegetables and fruits.
In the meantime I started KK Foods, my current company, on the side just in case things went sideways with the Icelander. My Indian client had cautioned that since my shareholding was minority, I ought to get a safety net in case the worst happened. I would procure fish for clients who used to buy from the fish factory and earn a commission. In one such deal, I bought a car.
I had to have a car to meet the right people. I knew I needed people. To survive in this world, I had leant, you need people. I acquired that car and a mobile phone before anything else. With this car, I would also easily drive to the airport and do my work.
Soon, we graduated from just handling freight for customers to purchasing produce from farmers and exporting it ourselves. We could then make profits off the produce instead of getting commission for handling its transportation.
But now this was a different function and business from what we had registered the company for. Besides, it was too much work. So, we registered another company called FFP Uganda Limited, which was charged with buying vegetables and fruits from farmers. I had 30% shares in FFP.
I created a brand called Masamba under which we exported our fruits and vegetables. We would also export flowers and fish. By 2011, we had grown too big that we started chattering our own flights through MK Airlines. We would seek out the produce, pay farmers, load the planes and export. We were loading two planes a week, 100 tonnes each. The company was worth about $13m (sh32.5b). We were number 98 amongst the tax payers in Uganda.
I must say we really played our part. I got a lot of recognition even on a national level for working with farmers. I started getting the gold award for performing well in exports. I won the President’s Exporters Gold Award for best exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables from 2005 to 2010. The awards were hosted by Uganda Exports Promotions Board (UEPB).
Kanyije’s JEK Hospital has improved health services in Luwero district
Getting into farming
Within the 10 years of running Ice Mark, I had saved up and bought plenty of land in and around Kampala. But most of all, I wanted to be able to grow art of the produce I exported. So, I bought 100 acres of land in Busiika, Luweero District at about sh100m in2004. We have a banana plantation of 30 acres, the biggest and only one in Buganda. We sell the bananas for export.
I have cows there to provide manure and we grow a variety of crops including sweet potatoes, egg plants and other fruits and vegetables. At the farm, we have built a warehouse which will accommodate 300 tonnes of vegetables in a cold room at any time.
Because the road in Busiika is bad, access to medical services is hindered. Women would deliver on the roadside to far off hospitals. My wife and I decided to do something about the situation. Using our savings, we acquired one and a half acres of land in Busika town at sh40m in 2009 and embarked on construction of a 35-bed hospital called JEK Hospital.
The hospital is one of the most well-equipped private hospitals in Luweero. It has an operating theatre, administration block and pharmacy. We employ three doctors. The whole project cost about sh800m and it was solely financed from our savings.
Things fall apart
Back at Ice Mark, in 2011 something changed. My partner suddenly decided to move back to Iceland and brought in his country man to take over as managing director; to manage me yet I was a partner not an employee in business! He started doing a lot of suspicious things like opening accounts in Mauritius.
He repatriated most of the money. When I went to check on the account, the company had no money. The company that was very liquid was actually in debt. We had since bought the house he lived in Naguru but he sold it. He bought a factory in Iceland using the company money but he sent me an email saying that I could not be part of it because I was not allowed to own shares in a foreign country; which is wrong.
It dawned on me that I was being short changed. So, I started planning for the future.
Flying solo with KK Foods Limited
It is just as well I had formed KK FOODS. My partner had no idea I had all these things on the side. He thought I had nothing.
I could not do much about the developments as a 10% shareholder but I knew I was the Ice Mark and Ice Mark was me; I knew who to talk to and who to deal with, I had all the clients at my fingertips.
The company rented for me a home in Naguru. Fortunately, I had already started making down payments on the premises. I wrapped up deal and got the premises signed over in my name.
I had another property on plot 1567 in Nalya opposite the Northern Pass where we stayed from 2003 to 2005 before vacating it for Naguru. The place had since been rented by Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the UPDF spokesperson. Fortunately, his time was up and he quit. We renovated the place and turned it into our current offices.
I had talked to all the clients I dealt with while still in Ice Mark about the changes. They promised they would work with me and even placed orders there and then.
I needed money to start the processing going – procure the produce from the farmers, book a flight for my first shipment plus all the other expenses like set up an office and legal fees. Fortunately, a friend in the UK owed me about £90,000 (about sh380m) which I called in.
On June, 25, 2011, I registered my company, set up a website and did everything. On July, 1, 2011, I resigned from Ice Mark and signed off all shares to my former partner free-of-charge. That was the day KK Foods officially started operations.
At KK Foods buy fruits and vegetables from farmers and export them. We deal with over 40,000 farmers currently. We employ 50 people directly and about 8,000 indirectly. Today, I export about 70% of the total fruits and vegetables going to Europe from Uganda. We export 40 tonnes of organic fresh produce to Europe in one go. No company has done that.
Going into processing
All a long I have been chili on the supermarket shelves. The label reads “Made in the United Arab Emirates”. These people don’t get a quarter of the rain we get here. I started thinking to myself; why should we export jobs? I made it my mission to process pepper and supply it to our own super markets.
I went to Agribusiness Initiative (aBi) Trust, a multi-donor entity jointly founded by the Governments of Denmark and Uganda, to promote private sector agribusiness development to enhance wealth creation in Uganda.
I told them I wanted to train farmers in growing chilli and pepper so that they could provide me with raw materials for processing for export. They extended me a grant of $200,000 (sh500m). In only a short period of working with them, the farmers have doubled production. This is a big achievement for me, coming from a very humble background to dealing with a multibillion company.
aBiTrust also agreed to fund 50% of the processing plant with is nearing completion here in Nalya. We hope to process one tonne of pepper per day for export because we don’t know if we shall get enough for export from farmers.
What makes him tick?
The way we do our business; the way we handle people makes a difference. The advice we give others in turn impacts on our business. The most important thing is the way we relate with our clients. We believe in the future, not in today.
Involving your family
My wife is part and parcel of what I do. We only started working together recently but her involvement in the business in indispensable. I have four children, two girls and two boys. I would advise any family in Uganda to ensure they do business together; whatever they do it is better done together, than independently.
We meet a lot of competition and challenges in the market where we take our products because they are expensive in relation to our competitors due to high flight costs. This limits us to a certain tonnage per week. Other countries have flights with subsidised export costs. In India, the exporter gets 40% of his cost covered while Rwanda subsidises total export costs by 50%.
Poor infrastructure. Where our products come from, the roads are impassable and this is a very big problem. When it rains the goods do not reach the market in time and this is a challenge to us because the flights do not wait, yet the products we deal in are perisable.
Unscrupulous people abuse our trade by using it as a cover to smuggle illicit drugs and cigarettes. This tends to undermine our business in the countries where we take our produce. It is even more disheartening to know that these people do this with the knowledge of some officials at the airport.
The world’s demand for horticultural products is high and Uganda’s fruits and vegetables are acceptable worldwide. However, the quality leaves a lot to be desired in meeting international market standards. Our products fail to meet the international market requirements especially for the EU, United Kingdom and North America.
We are dealing in agricultural which produce is prone to vagaries of a nature like draught. Unfortunately, since most farmers do not have access to irrigation, we can only get supply in one half of the year yet we have to maintain a constant supply to the markets abroad.
The absence of a cold chain system amongst the framers not only increases the burden on us exporters who incur extra costs of controlling the atmosphere but also affects the quality of fresh produce in transit. We have to store the produce from the farm until and after exports.
Advice to young entrepreneurs
Young people are lazy and they are looking for easy money. We go to school to get knowledge to utilize to better our lives not necessarily jobs. You should not always look to government for jobs. If you cannot find any, create your own opportunities. In western economies, you find very few people working for government.
Here everyone wants a job from government. “I’m working for such and such a company” seems to be prestigious for young people to say but it is actually self-defeating.
With the help of AbiTrust, we are looking to train and groom up to 1000 hot pepper farmers alone. That should provide ample supply to our factory and jobs for our people in the short run.
Within the next two years, we want to eliminate importation of processed chilli. This we should be to achieve by building the largest food processing plant in Uganda producing for both local and the export market.
With the help of Uganda national bureau of standards, we want to promote chilli standards in Uganda. We want government to invest in standards; research and training that will help farmers secure good seeds that will produce quality harvests.
Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr, the US commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War of 1991, said; “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy. So, even in business, character is fundamental.
You need to believe in yourself that this is what I did. In business, you must remove the word “impossible” from your vocabulary. All you need to focus is where you want to go.
Say “I am going to do this” and focus all your energies on that. One time I said I want to meet the president and I met him. Now I am saying I must create thousands of jobs and that’s exactly what I am going to do.
If you want to make it in life, forget how far in school you went; that will only make you look at certain lines of business as either contemptible and beneath you or way beyond your reach. You cannot afford that attitude. Whatever it takes to make money, as long as it is legal, is good enough for anyone. Money knows no PhDs. It will have the same value regardless of how you come by it.
Make sure to be a person of the people. You must be approachable and down-to-earth.
In business, once you master the skill of customer service, the rest will be added unto you. The customer absolutely has got to be your priority. Whatever you are selling or dealing in, you will not sell to yourself. Same thing applies to your suppliers.