There is a good chance that the fancy sofa set you bought from your high-end furniture store in Kampala was not imported from Malaysia, but actually made in his Cool Furniture workshop in Kyebando.
Meet Amon Gamparo, the young entrepreneur poised to rock the local furniture industry in the very near future. ‘Poised’ because he only started recently, but his impact is felt throughout major towns in Uganda.
But what is unique about Gamparo is not so much what he did to get to where he is so far as is what he gave up to achieve his current status.
The 34-year-old MBA holder was already a secondary school headmaster in Kampala at 27. But even with all the trimmings that come with the job, he thirsted for more. Saving up, he quit employment to try his luck in business, selling Valued Added Services before he noticed and took advantage of a gap in the classy furniture market. He told Sebidde Kiryowa his story.
I was born 34 years ago to Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Gamparo in Mparo, Rwamucucu, Rukiga County in Kabale district. I am the second last in a family of eight.
My father worked in Kilembe Mines before their closure in the 1970s. He later started dealing in bicycle spares parts. My mother was a housewife and subsistence farmer.
With quality products produced locally, Ugandans do not have to import furniture. Photos by Ronnie Kijjambu
I started my primary education at Kihanga Boys Primary School in Rwamucucu Sub County, Rukiga County, Kabale district. In my Primary Four, my father transferred me to Kabale Primary School in Kabale town.
While studying at the school, I stayed with my elder brother, a teacher in the same school. He guided me and became my role model.
In 1994, I joined Kigezi High School. I was again re-admitted for Senior Five where I studied the history, economic geography and divinity.
I passed my Uganda Certificate of Advanced Education (UACE) exams with BBBB (21 points). However, due to stiff competition, I missed out on government sponsorship.
My father implored me to repeat Senior Six but I refused. At that juncture, I ran away from home and came to Kampala where I stayed with my friend, who was a police man.
We started hatching a plan on how I would join the Police but the recruitment time was not forthcoming.
I subsequently abandoned the police project and applied for private sponsorship at Makerere University where I studied for bachelor of arts in education degree because for sh407,000 a semester, it was the cheapest good course on the list.
My mother was overjoyed because it was still prestigious in our village to have a son at Makerere University. She convinced my father, who finally accepted to pay for my tuition.
However, since he did not have a stable source of income, he kept selling off pieces of land just to get me started.
Even then, my elder brother and sisters had to top up just to sustain me in school.
Seeing the struggles my family was going through just to keep me at university, I felt the need to contribute and ease the pressure. So, I went out looking for work and acquired a sales job with Trans-Sahara, an inland car bond that was located in Nakawa.
My salary would supplement the cost of my education. I would take care of things such as maintenance and accommodation fees.
Gamparo inspecting a worker in his workshop
First job after school
I graduated in 2004 and started looking for a job straight away. After three months, I read an advertisement calling for teachers in a new school in Kansanga. I applied and was called for an interview.
I was chosen to help in preparations to open the new school. These included admissions, registration, choosing the name of the school, choosing the uniform design and colours, recruitment of support staff and purchases of necessary requirements to open up the new school. We named the school, Newcastle High School.
In 2005, the school opened and I was appointed the deputy headmaster in charge of administration. I also taught geography and economics, both at ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels.
However, the school was operating without a headmaster. So, I was the acting headmaster for a year. Thereafter, I and a colleague of mine, who had been in charge of academics, were subjected to intense interviews for the job of headmaster. I emerged the best candidate for the job.
Despite my young age, I was appointed headmaster, entitled to accommodation, a vehicle and other benefits.
At that time, I worked diligently and the school performed well in terms of discipline and academics.
However, as a new school, we badly needed to raise the number of students from the initial five to hundreds. My boss and I decided to go to Kenya where we recruited a number of Kenyan students.
Students’ numbers started increasing by the day and my work became more and more demanding. At the end of the day, because of the overwhelming duties I had to perform, I realised the money I was being paid was not commiserate with the work load.
I needed more money. However, my boss was not willing to increase my pay. So, in 2006, I resigned. However, I cherished my time at the school. I learnt a lot of things from my boss, for instace financial and human resource management. I generally picked lessons here and there about how to run a business from my boss.
Cool Furniture makes fancy furniture of different fabrics and designs
Taking on a second job
After my resignation, I undertook a sales course and in 2007, joined Bayport Financial Services as a sales consultant in charge of extending financial loans to civil servants. The organisation needed to expand its scope of operations and I was transferred to Jinja to open up a new branch and head the sales team.
Together with the regional manager, I recruited more staff in the Busoga region. I was also pushed to Kaliro to open up new branches. After a year working with Bayport I felt I had accumulated enough savings to venture into my own business. At the end of 2007, I resigned and did just that.
Joining advert production
I have always had a passion for graphics. I had a good friend who used to work in the marketing department of Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) television. He was normally involved in making television advertisements and he would tell me there was good money in advertising.
So, he brought me on board and started featuring me as a model in some of the adverts he produced.
Whenever I would go with him to meet clients, they would recognise me first. So, he encouraged me to register a media agency and get into the business.
So, from the proceeds I had made from the advertsisements, which came to about sh30m, I bought video cameras, computers and other gadgets to set up an editing studio for video adverts, documentaries, audio recordings and still photography.
In January 2008, I registered Airwaves Media, an advertising and public relations firm dealing in production of video documentaries, radio and television advertsisements, video coverage, photography, graphic designing and generally marketing and promotions. We had about 10 permanent employees.
I started out covering most of my friends’ wedding functions. The business slowly built a name and started picking up. However, we ploughed back all the profits we got. Overtime, we kept buying more and more equipment.
Expanding into bulk SMS
We then ventured into value added services where I got a short code for mobile communications from Uganda Communications Commission. We went ahead to acquire direct connections from all telecom companies.
We were aggregated by New Vision. We then rolled into bulk SMS and have provided this service since then.
This has turned out to be the most profitable in terms of returns. Today, the business’ net worth is sh500m. We employ seven field staff and six others that do editing and other administrative work.
We have an office at Colline House building and the studio is at Kisozi Complex. But for the bulk SMS and content management, our servers are in the field.
Gamparo with his family
Going back to school
When the company stabilised, I decided to enroll for a master’s in business administration (MBA) degree at Uganda Management Institute (UMI). I will graduate next month.
Our consultants challenged us to start our own businesses and stop working to make other people rich as employees.
Starting Cool Furniture
In 2012, I looked around for furniture for my house around Kampala. I wanted something fancy but affordable. However, all I could find was imported furniture that cost in excess of sh5m. The alternative was furniture stuffed with rubbish; the one sold by the roadside.
I realised there must be many like myself. I immediately got the idea to get into this business and bridge the gap. Fortunately, I came across a gentleman who made good and unique furniture.
After purchasing from him, we had a chat regarding how he did his business and where he got his supplies. We then struck a deal; I would start a shop and he would supply me with sofa sets on condition that the shop was not within Kampala.
I then registered a company called Cool Furniture Ltd to do this using savings and profits from Airwaves Media.
I went to Mbarara to do my due diligence and research about furniture business there.
I realised that the business had potential. I looked for a shop to rent and started a furniture shop which I fed with supplies from my workshop. It cost me sh30m.
Business started well. The supplies came in on time. People in Mbarara liked the furniture because it was nice and unique. Time came when the demand exceeded the supply.
Trouble in paradise
However, overtime, the supplier became inefficient and sloppy. I would send him money to make for me furniture but he would take long to deliver. I started becoming inefficient in the eyes of customers and some of them became rowdy and accused me of fleecing them.
It was then that it struck me; I had to get into making my own furniture to ensure a stable supply to my shop. It was a tough decision that I had to make. I was studying in Kampala and the business in Mbarara was not doing well.
I had to run around researching on how to start a furniture workshop. I visited many workshops to look at machines which they used and how they did their business.
During that time, the shop in Mbarara was empty but I had to keep paying rent to keep the space as I planned to get into manufacturing. Actually, I lost a lot of clients during this time.
I sold the car I had at that time and topped up with on my personal savings and profit I had accumulated in that short period of around six months. I managed to raise sh45m to set up Cool Furniture workshop.
I started out by buying all the machines I needed and looked around for the best human resource to start making sofas. I managed to reach out to the suppliers of timber, leather, fabric material, sponge, and other accessories.
I also utilised the Internet to look at different sofa designs and accessories. I approached my brother who had an incomplete house in Nabweru, Wakiso, and he allowed me to set up my workshop there, on condition that I would pay rent upon stabilising.
We worked very hard and made the first products, which I sent straight to Mbarara to replenish the shop.We had kept a visitor’s book where customers would sign and leave their contacts when the business boomed.
We even recorded those that were window shopping. I collected the numbers, went into my Airwaves bulk SMS system and sent messages notifying our customers that we were operational again.
Business picked up again and the supplies were now fully flowing from my workshop in Nabweru.
Stab in the back
At that time, I was still doing my MBA course, supervising the workshop in Kampala as well as frequently traveling to Mbarara to see how business was doing.
Because I was spread too thin, I decided to employ one of my relatives who resided in Mbarara, to oversee the business there. That turned out to be a mistake!
I would send her consignments and she would bank the money after sale. During the time when I was reading for my final exams, money was not coming in from the business. The excuse I got from her was that business was slow. I thought maybe the stock had overstayed or people did not like the designs we had made. I decided to produce new stock, loaded it and sent it to Mbarara.
I had given the boys orders to bring back the old stock and display the new stock but I was told there was no old stock. I almost collapsed.
Apparently, my trusted relative had sold the stock and swindled the money! Moreover, she had gone ahead to get her own personal supplier whom she had dealt with to sell to my customers behind my back.
At that time, I needed to pay rent for the shop for the next three months, pay workers and was also doing my final examinations. My brother had also decided to sell the house where I worked from in Nabweru because he had his own challenges.
I had to close shop and bring the new stock back to Kampala where I stored it until I completed my exams.
After exams, I reorganised myself and started again. I approached land brokers in search of an empty plot of land I could rent. They found one in Kyebando. I moved from Nabweru with my workers and all the machines to Kyebando.
Overtime, we built a strong customer base advertising our products on facebook and refferals.
We also took orders from the Internet, producing and delivering the furniture to clients’ homes.
The stock for Mbarara was subsequently sold through the Internet.
Today, we deliver sofas in all parts of the country. We started supplying office furniture imported from Malaysia. We also sell our products through our website: www.coolfurniture.co.ug.
We have since re-established ourselves in Kampala where we opened up a showroom on Mawanda Road.
At our workshop in Kyebando, we do re-upholstery for old sofas to give them a brand new look and also exchange old imported sofas for brand new ones.
We have also established a relationship with one factory that makes for us quality customised premium high density sponge on order which our competitors do not have.
We have since acquired the plot where the workshop is built at sh80m, from the proceeds of the furniture business.
We are working an expansion strategy. We now import materials and all other accessories directly from Dubai and China and we are opening up other branches in Lira, Jinja, and Mbale in the near future.
Investing in real estate
Overtime, I have invested in real estates where I buy several plots of land in and around Kampala.
I have since bought more than 10 plots of land, especially in the planned housing estates.
I have managed to construct a good residential house for my parents back in Kabale.
I have also managed to pay school fees for my brothers’ children and have supported my entire family.
I am now constructing my dream house in Kiira town council and will soon wed my fiancée, who has always supported me through the challenges.
The cost of power is high
The biggest challenge that we have is power outages; load shedding is a problem, while the cost of power is very high.
Some people come as customers, but end up duplicating our designs using substandard material and sell them so cheaply by the roadside where they pay no rent.
The customers often fail to differentiate the products until it is too late; when rats invade their sofa. Skilled labour to pull off some of the designs we want is not always forthcoming.
A lot of the youth we work with want quick money and will not care much about quality yet it is quality that sustains the business.
What other people say about Gamparo
Denis Semwanga, workshop supervisor
I have worked with Amon Gamparo since he started out in the business of making furniture. He is passionate about what he does and he is very aggressive in marketing his business, especially using new technologies.
As a boss, his greatest strength is that he cares about his workers. He listens to our issues and responds appropriately.
Patrick Kiconco, Economist at Parliament
Amon Gamparo and I have known each other since Senior One all through to high school and university. I have watched him in his business journey since he left formal employment. He is very aggressive in business.
If he has an idea, he does not let go of it until he gets results. However, in his pursuit of results, he is very patient. He is also quite reliable and dependable.