Hasan Kalair, 32, is the managing director, Aisha Group (Uganda) Limited, a company that imports used and new Japanese vehicles to Uganda.
He is also the proprietor of Mr. Tasty, one of the most successful local fast food chains in Kampala with six branches in Kampala and prospects of going continental.
The car import business was started by his uncle who, as a young man, was forced to go for ‘kyeyo’ in Japan to fend for his family in Pakistan, which included the young Kalair whose circumstances back in Pakistan were dire.
However, Kalair had the sense to tap into his uncle’s growing business network, zeroing in on Uganda which is a bustling market for used Japanese cars. He moved here in 2005 with nothing, but the hope that his uncle would trust him enough to send him cars for sale. He told Clare Namanya and Darious Magara how he has based on that trust to build an empire of his own.
I was born in a family of four in Kotgnagat Khan, Punjab, Pakistan in 1982 to Mohammad Ashraf and Safia Sultana Kalair. I went to Government Middle School in Kotgnagat Khan for my primary up to advanced level between 1986 and 1997.
I enrolled for a diploma in civil engineering at the Government College of Technology, Rasul, and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2004 from Punjab University.
Upon graduation from university, I started running the family business of agriculture. We grew rice, sugarcane, wheat and run a rice mill in Pakistan, which I managed to grow. I later worked at H.K Motors Pakistan (importing used cars from Japan) before moving to Uganda in 2005 to open Aisha Motors bond here. He said the circumstances were not bad at home, but Uganda and East Africa through research presented great opportunities for this business.
Both my parents were secondary school teachers. Their salaries, like those of most teachers in the developing world, were meagre. They, however, supplemented their income with farm produce to take care of the four of us. Otherwise, we would never have survived on their salaries alone.
My village, Kotgnagat Khan, was agrarian. It was known for growing rice, sugarcane and wheat. At home we cultivated these crops on a 25-acre piece of land and during school holidays, we worked on the farm as a family to supplement our family income. Our parents were strict and always instilled family and religious values in us and they always emphasised to us to pray to God always.
Life was not easy since we had to balance between work and school. They were all important to us since our parents did not earn enough to sustain the entire family.
Hasan in his office at Aisha Group (Uganda) Limited, Kampala
Aisha Group International
Aisha Group was actually started by my uncle, Choudry Shahid Mehmood Kalair, who left Pakistan for Japan in 1988 at the age of 21. Life in Pakistan was tough and he wanted a better life for all of us. At the time, Japan had no visa restrictions for Pakistanis.
He found it even tougher there and struggled for a while because it was not easy getting jobs and there was a problem of language barrier. He found a job at the Suzuki Car Factory where he worked for three years. He was an engineer. With time, he earned enough to enable him save a little money for himself and manage to repatriate $2,000 (sh5.2m today) to us back home in Pakistan every month.
Due to the challenges he faced with employment in Japan, he decided to start up his own business. Although Choudry had experience selling cars and dreamed of owning his own car inland depot, he did not have the required capital to set out in this business. So, he decided to start out by buying one used car from someone and selling it for a profit.
By 1992, he had saved up to $20,000 (sh52m today) as business grew and was ready to set up a car bond with 17 used vehicles in Gunma Ken district, 200km from Tokyo, Japan. He named the company Aisha Motors Japan, after his grandmother, Aisha. However, he soon discovered that used cars in that quantity did not have market in Japan, one of the leading car manufacturers in the world at the time. So, he decided to look to foreign markets.
Exporting to South America
Like most start-up businesses, it was long and hard for him and it involved high financial risks. However, two years after he started his car inland depot, Choudry managed to send his first batch of 150 cars worth $300,000 (sh790m) to Chile, South America. The business of second-hand cars was booming and so he decided to strike when the opportunity presented itself.
The cars were received by an acquired business associate, who, unfortunately, he swindled all the money made from the sale of the vehicles. This kind of dealership involves a lot of money, so when someone robs you, the losses are huge and some businesses never recover.
In that same year, Choudry sent our cousin Mubashar Kalair from Pakistan to Chile to manage the business to avoid a repeat of the previous bad experience and to pursue payment for the money that his dealer in Chile had swindled. Luckily Choudry’s money was recovered after a struggle.
In 1995, Choudry established another car depot in neighbouring Peru, still in South America, starting with 50 cars. Again, Choudry feared being fleeced, so he sent his younger brother there to run things. Business started booming.
Because life had treated him so harshly in Pakistan before he moved to Japan, Choudry spent 12 years away working and building his business, but finally returned to Pakistan in 2000 and got married.
That same year, Choudry went back to Japan, this time with all the skills and capital required to sustain him. He was there for three years before moving to Dubai, where he opened another bond with 150 cars.
Hasan’s staff at the Nakawa-based car inland depot. He employs over 20 people
Going into commercial agriculture
Meanwhile, back home in Pakistan, we were able to buy 500 more acres of land from the money Choudry had been sending home. We had ventured into growing rice and wheat commercially. We realised that it was profitable business as well, especially to run rice mills.
So in 2002, we started our own rice mill to process our farm produce. During the peak period (which is two months long), it could process 2,000 bags per day.
From the proceeds we got from the rice growing and processing, we expanded into petroleum retail business by opening up a gas station in Pakistan in 2008.
Entering the southern Africa market
Later in 2004, Choudry invested in 60 units and took them to Durban, South Africa. He started with few cars because he was not sure how the market would perform, considering that the country manufactures its own cars.
The uniqueness about this particular one is that not a single car is sold locally. It is government policy to avoid competition against their own product. All of them are exported to neighbouring countries; namely, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia, Angola and parts of Congo.
South Africa has strict regulations which do not favour used Japanese cars. They are not allowed on their roads. We deliver all the cars to wherever they are meant to go in other neighbouring countries. We have five carriers only, but for our market, these are sufficient.
Choudry ventured into the South African market because it was strategic for our southern Africa operations. It is an economically vibrant country and as well politically stable. They have modern port handling facilities and this would make business easier since it is easier to reach other southern nations from South Africa.
Aisha Motors found its way into Mozambique in 2010 with 25 cars. Now it has over 230 units and a facility of over 300 cars. Although it is growing, it is challenged with high import costs and taxes. The economy is still developing and a not many people have the means to purchase cars.
Hasan comes to Uganda
In 2004, I decided that it was time for me to set out on my own. After doing market research, I realised that in most African countries, Uganda inclusive, second-hand Japanese cars sold like hot cakes. So in 2005, I moved to Kampala to try my luck.
But I neither had capital to import the cars nor to set myself up. I began by approaching fellow Pakistani car importers in Uganda and eventually struck a deal with Cosmos Limited, a Pakistani-owned inland car depot in Kampala, which was already registered and established.
They agreed that I could import cars through their company. I then communicated to Uncle Choudry and convinced him to send me some cars. The agreement was that I would sell them, take my cut and send him back his money. He agreed and I received them through Cosmos Limited. The first batch of 90 cars sold out in three months.
I later moved and rented space in upper Coin (near Spear Motors) in Nakawa, registered my business under Aisha Group Uganda Ltd. and then asked Choudry to send the second batch of 70 cars. These sold out in four months. This marked the beginning of Aisha Group Uganda Ltd.
Because we were renting, storage costs were high — over $5,000 (sh13m) monthly. So, I thought it economical to acquire our own piece of land. We bought a 1.5 acres plot in Naguru at $570,000 (about sh1.5b), which was six months’ savings from the business. It took a lot of sacrifice to raise this money. We later developed the land to accommodate 500 cars although we have about 200 cars now.
Aisha Group Uganda has grown over the years (under the same model of business). We directly employ over 20 Ugandans and are among the leading second-hand car importers and tax payers.
We do custom orders based on the customers need. We also guide customers who purchase vehicles online and they can pay 50% and pay the balance upon arrival.
Our capacity has grown and today, we can supply vehicles to organisations as per their expectations and standard.
Based on our family history in agriculture, we thought it wise to import tractors which are on demand for commercial farming in Uganda. This expanded the company to agricultural mechanisation tools.
It takes three months, by ship, for our orders to arrive in Mombasa; 20 days at the Malaba border and two more weeks to reach our bond. The brand new or expensive vehicles are brought on a carrier while the second-hand budget cars are driven here.
We also have a branch in Mombasa, Kenya, handling the importation process at the port. It also sells cars in Kenyan.
The branch also sells unregistered cars for re-export to other countries.
Mr. Tasty has five branches in Kampala and plans are underway to spread its operations across the continent
Mr. Tasty is born
Way back in 2008, there were two restaurants called ARM Foods, which belonged to Andrew Rugasira. One was at Shoprite Clock tower and the other at Shoprite Lugogo. When I heard that he was selling them, we offered to buy them (refuses to disclose the amount) and rebranded them Mr. Tasty Fried Chicken.
We had always wanted to start a chain of restaurants, but having only knowledge about cars, we were reluctant or better still frightened to engage in that business. When an opportunity presented itself, we jumped in without even thinking it through.
Business is about seeing the opportunity and taking risk; we saw the opportunity and took the risk. It was also in line to expand our business venture besides importing cars.
We were convinced it would work because as a matter-of-fact, people have to eat!
For the first two years, we operated in losses. But since we had no experience in this field, we had no idea why the business was not breaking even. We understood cars best, then farming and nothing else. I even started feeling like we had made a wrong decision to buy the restaurant. We were patient, but at the same time looking for solutions.
We later realised that management was the problem and we had to do something fast. I did not know where to look until someone helped me source some chefs trained in international fast food restaurants. This would make us competitive. Once they were settled in, we started seeing a difference.
We also focused on unbeatable and competitive pricing. Another area we focused on to improve sales and beat the competition is customer care. Customer care is the basis of any business; we ensured that the customer’s needs are met. All staff must treat the customer as the boss.
We then embarked on strict quality control processes.
In a few months, the business stabilised and we established a reputation for quality fast foods of an international standard. That alone was enough to enable us open another branch in Ntinda in 2010.
The branch in Ntinda targeted residents around the area since we realised we had a huge customer base. The branch is performing well and the customers are happy, we also rolled out home deliveries and office to our customers.
In December 2012, we opened the fourth branch at Freedom City Mall and the next year at Garden City. This was intended for us to get closer to our customers. Each of the last three branches required capital of $200,000 (sh52.5m). Early this year, with $300,000 (sh788m), we opened another restaurant in Bugolobi. This expansion was facilitated by banks.
The restaurants have hi-tech kitchen systems to international standard. This has increased our capacity and helped avoid customer queues.
What makes him tick?
I do not tell lies. I stick to my word. When I tell you that you will get your car tomorrow, by all means, you will.
Integrity and trust have been the pillars on which I have stood since childhood.
I respect my clients because they are the why the business is still growing strong.
I also like relaxing with family and friends after a long day’s work. I am married with three Children.
If you want to grow very fast in business, go alone, but if you want to go far please go with your family. You will achieve a bigger goal since the whole family is growing. When everyone succeeds, the family succeeds.
To grow Mr. Tasty into a global brand
Our plan is to expand our operations to the rest of the countries in the East African region. We hope to open branches in Southern Sudan, Congo and Rwanda.
But our vision spans beyond car import, we plan to venture into commercial agriculture, food processing, real estate development, of course these is a long term goal. We also strive to grow our car dealership business in Uganda by increasing capacity.
Considering that Mr. Tasty is doing well, it has given us morale to push for more. Our target is to open other branches in other parts of the country. We will then roll out into regional markets.
We want to expand into the continental market. We had already registered a branch in Kenya as back as 2013. We hope to open it before end of next year.
In January, we registered the South Africa branch, which we hope to open by 2016. We believe Mr. Tasty will grow into a global brand.
Unscrupulous employees a major setback
The major problem we have, especially as foreigners, is the issue of working permits. It is very expensive. It costs $500 (sh1.25m) and $5,000 (sh12.5m) for one and three years respectively.
Moreso, the G-class working permit (that meant for the workers I bring in from home) cannot be issued without assurance that you will hire only Ugandans. Yet, for top management, we would be comfortable working with our countrymen we can trust.
Mr. Tasty: While starting out, procuring quality foods was a big challenge because often the chicken we bought from supermarkets turned out to be rotten. We sourced for a local distributor and that issue has been sorted. We buy other fresh foods from the markets.
There is a high labour turnover. After expending resources and time training waiters and waitresses, they take up better jobs. To make it worse, they do not issue any notice. This destabilises our operations.
Dishonest workers who steal from us set us back. There was a manager who stole soda over a period of six months. By the time we realised, we had made a loss of sh50m.
Some suppliers are irregular and others cannot adhere to our strict quality standards. This brings about delays in delivery of supplies.
The financing of the business is tough, yet the high interest rates on bank loans hikes the cost of doing business.
Business affected by high taxes
Sales have greatly declined following the political instability in South Sudan and DR Congo. Until recently, of every 100 car sold, 70 of those were taken by these nationals.
Generally, the economy is struggling because besides individuals not buying cars, even the corporate organisations and other business entities are not. But we are waiting for a good season and when it comes, we will sell and recover the losses incurred during a damp season.
Taxes on used imported vehicles are high. Imagine; a single car pays import duty of 25%, withholding tax of 6%, import VAT of 18%, registration of sh1.2m, surcharge tax of 20% (for second-hand) and the most recent one that was read in the last national budget of 1.5%.
There are also handling costs and delays at the port in Mombasa. This increases the costs of doing business.
We also have customers who buy cars on hire purchase, but later default on the payments, yet they have used the vehicle.
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