For many university students, life is about books and enjoying the independence that comes with post-high school life. Not for Ernest Kiiza. As a student of forestry, Kiiza spent this time looking out for opportunities of making money.
That is how he developed a love for what would later become his lifeline — printing and publishing. As a student, he would use his upkeep allowance to buy stationery from fellow students that was supplied free of charge by government and sell it to printers at Nasser Road in Kampala for a decent profit. Upon completion of his studies, while his coursemates scrambled for jobs, Kiiza rejected a job offer as a district forestry officer and headed to Nasser Road to do business.
Today, Kiiza, who recently became an MP and cabinet minister, owns Earnest Publishers Limited, a fast growing publishing house, valued at about sh12b. His business empire straddles media, agroforestry and real estate with well over 200 permanent employees. He told GLORIA NAKAJUBI how he made it.
Who is Ernest Kiiza?
I was born on July 23, 1967, to Eriya and Matilda Kiiza in Nyangahya village, Central Division in Masindi district. My father was a dispenser in Fort Portal and rarely came to Masindi. So we were basically raised by our mother.
My father had a number of children but from my mother, we are seven children of which I am the last born. My dad passed away in 1981, when I was in Senior One, and mother took up the responsibility of raising the family. Later, my elder brother, Robert Kalemba, came in to assist our mother in raising our school fees.
I attended Kabalega Primary School in Masindi up to Primary Six and then joined Masindi Public School from where I sat Primary Seven. I was the best pupil in Masindi district in 1980. I joined St. Mary’s College, Kisubi, for O’level from 1981 to 1984, and Busoga College Mwiri, for A’level.
I studied physics, chemistry and biology. Thereafter, I joined Makerere University for a bachelor of sciences in forestry degree from 1987 to 1991.
My first encounter with business was when I was a student in secondary school. We had a variety of fruits at home that included mangoes, passion-fruits, jackfruits and pineapples. My mother, who was a nurse, would sell some to her colleagues and patients in a nearby hospital.
During the holidays, I would go with my mother to the hospital and help her sell these fruits. She would let me keep the money from the sales I made and this is where I first learnt about the saving culture. Actually, she also kept her salary with me.
However, I started doing serious business as a student at Makerere University. As students, we were entitled to an upkeep allowance popularly called boom from the Government. In addition, we were given reams of paper to use in our course works.
Many students did not utilise this stationery. Some always had leftovers from the previous terms. It then struck me that I could actually make money from these students by buying the paper they did not need. So, I used my allowance to buy reams of paper from fellow students.
I would then take it to Nasser and Nkrumah roads, the centre of stationery business in Kampala city, where I would sell them and make a decent profit. This was my introduction to the world of stationery and printing. With time, I made friends on Nasser Road and every time I would go there, I would learn a thing or two about this business.
I remember the one person that was fundamental in grooming me in the business of printing was the proprietor of Particle Printers and Stationery. Because he was my main client for the stationery, I would spend a lot of time at his shop watching how things were done.
Life after university
Upon completion of my degree course, I was offered a job as a district forestry officer Mukono. I took up the job and reported for work, but after a day, I realised that was not what I wanted to do. I had fallen in love with business. I quit and headed back to Nasser Road to pursue my dream.
Using the savings from my stationery trade at university, I bought a computer worth about sh1.5m from Ssembule Industries. At the time, sh1.5m was such an enormous amount it was not easy for me to pay off. I also bought an old photocopier and some binding machines and rented a room on Nasser Road.
I did photocopying and secretarial work. Because I had operated on this street before, I utilised the networks I had built to grow my business. If I was unable to offer a particular service, I would get someone else to do it and earn a commission off the deal.
This was especially so for printing services. I always relied on my friend, Peter Mutebi, who already had a printer. Gradually, business gained momentum and among my first big clients was Diamond Trust Properties (currently Diamond Trust Bank), who required photocopying and secretarial services on a daily basis.
I later managed to get some contracts from the Ministry of Local Government for printing and photocopying services because they required market dues tickets, examination papers for primary schools and graduation tax tickets.
Kiiza and his wife Betty supervising work at their printery. PHOTO/Tony Rujuta
My home districts of Hoima and Masindi local governments were among my biggest clients at the time, consuming the similar items to the ones I supplied the central local government ministry. So, I decided to take the services closer to them and in 1996, we opened up bureaux there for both printing and photocopying services.
This was untapped potential because few people offered such services out of Kampala. These bureaux were run by my wife, Betty Kiiza. Other than just the local governments, we managed to acquire other clients there from schools to individuals, who needed secretarial services.
In 1997, I got a loan worth sh50m from Dfcu Bank, which I used to acquire a printing machine. This increased my output tremendously because previously we used to print about 2,000 copies per hour, but with the new machine, we could print about 10,000 copies per hour.
The new machine also improved the quality of our work and also enabled us to print in colour. More so, such printers like ours were few at the time hence giving us an edge over our competitors. At the time, we employed about 10 fulltime staff and would engage casual workers when the need arose.
The business grew and we acquired more rooms on Nasser Road, until we finally got a big shop still on the same street.
Venturing into other businesses
We had acquired a prime piece of land in Hoima town, but had not yet developed it. So in early 1999, I approached the already established Petrol stations at the time for partnership, but their conditions were not favourable.
So I went to Kobil Uganda Ltd, which was just launching in the country and needed partners. They advanced me sh200m and with my savings of sh100m, we set up their 11th service centre in the country.
In 2000, I wanted to engage in something that would directly benefit the people in my home district. This is how the idea of setting up a radio station was born. Bunyoro Broadcasting Services (BBS) FM started as a community radio, the first radio station in Masindi. I bought the land in Kijungu, Masindi Municipality, purposely for the radio station at sh30m.
The whole investment cost us sh400m, which we drew mainly from savings from our other businesses and a top up with a bank loan of about sh200m, which we were able to offset within just three years.
The radio station basically broadcasts community development programmes and my target is to reach the entire Bunyoro region. We started with the districts of Masindi, Hoima, Luwero, Kiboga, Arua and eastern DR Congo.
Expanding the printing business
My client base had increased and sometimes we would be overwhelmed by the orders. This necessitated an expansion in capacity. So, in 2004, from our savings, we acquired a two-colour printer.
But since we had to keep up-to-date with the changes in the industry, in 2006, we got a loan worth sh500m from Stanbic Bank, which we used to buy a four-colour printer and other hi-tech equipment all intended to grow and improve the quality of work at the Printing firm.
The Kiizas used a bank loan to buy a four-colour printer. PHOTO/Tony Rujuta
We were able to offset this loan in just three years. In 2007, we acquired more equipment from Uganda Bookshop and also ventured into digital printing to meet the changing and emerging markets. Building the home of Earnest Publishers Back in 1998, we had acquired two plots of land on Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road in Kampala at sh35m to set up our offices so we could save on rent.
However, construction did not start until 2002 because we did not have enough money at the time. Construction was not a one-off process, but gradually, we would invest bits of our savings.
In 2005, we moved into our new home, which is currently valued at sh5b. Leaving Nasser Road was not an easy decision given its strategic location and the fact that it is known as the printing hub of the country.
There was also fear of losing our clients. Nonetheless, we had to consider the long-term benefits of moving into our own premises so we took the leap. The ground floor was vacant, but when we looked around, we realised that there was no supermarket in the area.
So, we decided to set up a supermarket named Matildaz after my late mother, Matilda. The five-storeyed building also has about 12 apartments that are being occupied by tenants. The backyard was developed into a recreational garden also named Matildaz Gardens, with a bar.
The gardens are rented out for receptions and other outdoor leisure activities.
Investing in agro-forestry
About seven years ago, an old man in Kinuuma village in Masindi was selling off his 50-acre piece of land. I approached him and bought the land at sh30m. With this land in my possession, I decided to put my forestry degree to use.
I have so far planted pine trees on five and I intend to expand on this with time because other than making money, I need to engage in activities that protect our environment. Investing in Kibaale I have worked on a number of projects in the Bunyoro sub-region and I consider every district in the area as my home. So going to Kibaale did not come as a surprise.
I had interacted with a number of people from the area, so when one gentleman who was in need of money wanted to sell his land, he approached me with an offer of his 400 acres at sh120m. We agreed and I paid it off in installments for about three years.
In 2011, using savings from our business worth sh400m, we erected a commercial building in Kagadi town, Kibaale district, which is currently housing UGAFODE Microfinance Ltd.
The couple’s buiding that houses UGAFODE Microfinance in Masindi town
Joining politics I have held a number of leadership positions since primary school, and at Makerere University, I was the finance minister in Mitchell Hall; secretary of the forestry association and together with some other students who hailed from Bunyoro region, formed the Bunyoro Kitara Development Foundation.
I have been its chairperson to date. In 2011, upon consultation with the elders in Masindi, I decided to stand as Member of Parliament for Masindi Municipality, which had been created in 2010.
Based on my previous contribution to the development of the district, I was able to win the election on the National Resistance Movement (NRM) ticket. This is my first term in national politics. After joining Parliament, I was elected by the members of Bunyoro Parliamentary caucus as their chairperson and then I was also elected secretary, Western Parliamentary caucus.
So when the Ministry of Bunyoro Affairs was created in 2012, the President, I think based on my past work, appointed me the state minister in charge of Bunyoro.
Juggling politics and business I joined Parliament in 2011 out of a desire to serve my people, but this has not affected my business because while I was there full time, I made sure I created systems that could operate independently even in my absence. I also have well trained employees capable of taking crucial decisions on their own.
I work with my wife closely
The best decision I made was involving my wife, Betty, in the business from the onset. She has been a part of it and when I joined politics, I did not have to worry so much because I knew she was in charge.
I met Betty while I was a student at Makerere University where she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social administration and languages a year below me, and we have since stayed together. It’s been over 20 years now.
The home of Earnest Printers on Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road in Kampala
Our first daughter, Matilda Kajumba, who is studying engineering at Makerere University, always spends her holidays managing the company accounts at Earnest Publishers and she has shown interest in the business.
This is a good thing and I always encourage her because with such a move, the business will have a bright future.
Lack of skilled employees
Around 1998, we had ventured into the transport business and had bought a bus, but this was burnt down by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels as it transported people along the Masindi- Gulu highway.
It was a major blow because we had gathered savings from all our businesses. In our daily operations, our major challenge has been getting skilled personnel to run the printing machines. We always have to train every time we bring in new equipment, but you cannot stop people from leaving.
Although we have tried to regulate the labour turnover, people will always find reason to move, especially after acquiring new skills. That disorganises us a lot. Competition: Some players in the industry tend to undercut the printing rates and yet with our input, we cannot operate under such rates.
This puts us at a disadvantage and makes business challenging. High loan interest rates: It is not easy to do away with bank loans if you have to grow a successful business, but the interest rates are sometimes too high, eroding all our profits.
Some clients also take too long to pay up hence affecting the cash flow in business.
We are planning to venture into commercial farming, especially in livestock and fruit farming. This will be done on the 500-acre piece of land in Masindi. We also intend to expand our real estate business because, first, with the oil production taking route, the population is expected to grow tremendously, which will also increase the middle class in the region hence increasing the real estate business.
Investing in education is the other venture we are looking at and this will be at all levels. Because as it turns out, the level of education in this region is still low and there is no university in this area, save for the one government is planning to set up.
- Persevere in whatever you set out to do in business; giving up should never be an option. It may not work out today, but tomorrow may be a different story.
- Maintain a good relationship with your clients. This should be done through ensuring quality and timely delivery of products or else they will always look out for another company that can do the job. Honesty and integrity with suppliers and clients alike will secure you social and financial capital.
- Love what you do; when you engage in something without passion, any slight challenge can put you off. Before you start up anything, be sure that is what you want to do.
- Protect what you have worked for; you should be able to attach value to what they do. It is because of this that I used to spend sleepless nights in the printing room because I knew how valuable this company was to me.
What others say
Betty Kiiza, wife and executive director, Earnest Publishers
I know him as a hardworking man, but before I fully joined the business I would complain that he was giving more time to his business than us. I have now come to understand the fact that to achieve certain things, sacrifices have to be made.
We have grown to draw the lines between family and business; when it is working time, it is strictly business and I address him as my boss and not my husband.
Working with him has made me understand what it takes to grow such a business and I am in position to tell when things are running well or when the times are hard and that way, I know when to ask for something and when to be patient.
Martin Isaac Kaahwa, station manager, Bunyoro Broadcasting Services
This is my 13th year at this radio station and one thing that has kept me here all these years is because Kiiza has allowed me to run it professionally, with no interference. Otherwise, I would have left long time ago.
I am so passionate about journalism and would not allow anyone to infringe on what I know is right for this profession. Kiiza is also an open manager who has good communication skills.
He communicates professionally about issues you may disagree upon and you discuss it openly.
Kiiza’s business journey started while he was a student at Makerere University. He would use his upkeep allowance to buy reams of paper from students, which he would sell to traders on Nasser Road in Kampala for a profit.
A graduate of forestry, Kiiza always shunned formal employment. Upon completion of his degree course, he was offered a job as a district forestry officer for Mukono district. He reported for work, but did not return the day after.
He chose to go Nasser Road and tussle it out in business. His turning point in business was in 1997, when he got a loan worth sh50m from Dfcu Bank, which he used to acquire a printing machine. This increased his output tremendously from 2000 copies per hour to 10,000.
The new machine also improved the quality of his work as it enabled him print in colour. He is the first Member of Parliament for Masindi Municipality which was created in 2010. He is also the state minister in charge of Bunyoro, a portfolio created in 2012.
His company, Earnest Publishers, is estimated at sh12b today.