From humble beginnings, Gordon Wavamunno has managed to not only survive, but thrive as a businessman.
From humble beginnings and through the chaos of post-independence Uganda, Gordon Wavamunno has managed to not only survive, but thrive as a businessman. From his book “Gordon B. K. Wavamunno”, we unbundle the man, reveal his motivations and the challenges he went through to build his business empire
Rugaaga — the land of my birth — is one of the remotest and least developed areas in southwestern Uganda. It is located in Bukanga county, 60km on the Mbarara- Rakai road. It was the headquarters of the old Bukanga county, before that county became part of Isingiro.
When I was born, Rugaaga was one of the six sub-counties of Isingiro county in the colonial Ankole district. Rugaaga has not always been as remote and underdeveloped as it is today. However, this once prosperous land had lost its past glory by the 1930s due to a number of reasons.
First, the cattle economy of the area was devastated by the rinderpest epidemic of the 1890s. As the people moved out of Bukanga, their land was reclaimed by the tsetse fly. It was not until the 1950s that the government launched a systematic campaign to eradicate the tsetse fly and, by so doing, to revive the cattle rearing sector of the economy in my homeland.
Secondly, with the advent of British colonialism, the centre of gravity in Ankole kingdom shifted to the Mbarara area. Thus, the Bukanga region, including Rugaaga, lost much of the geopolitical clout it enjoyed during the pre-colonial period.
Wavamunno (left) with his brothers Eliabu Lukyamuzi and Eridad Lule in the 1960s. (Courtesy photo)
In retrospect, I was lucky to be born in Rugaaga. I was brought up in a rich Kiganda culture and I have always been proud of my ethnic heritage. But given the ethnic and religious pluralism of the land of my birth, I learnt at an early age to appreciate the cultures and religions of other people. In addition to Luganda, I learnt to speak Runyankore fluently.
This language became my second mother tongue. This rich and varied cultural experience has always been the anchor of my life. It has taught me the virtues of tolerance and friendships across artificial ethnic divides.
Thanks to my upbringing in Rugaaga, I have made numerous friends not only in Uganda but all over the world, regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds. An average man of my age, who was born in Rugaaga, was destined to lead a rather limited and miserable life. He was bound to live, work, marry, raise children and eventually die within the confines of Rugaaga.
He was not likely to go to school. He was condemned to a peasant life, characterised by poverty, ignorance and disease. His wife was bound to bear children without professional maternity care. His children were condemned to suffer from malaria, measles and whooping cough without the prospects of modern medical care.
Ordinary people did not dream of escaping from this dreary sort of life. They were resigned to their rather monotonous boring peasant life. They were content to live from hand to mouth. Their living conditions seemed to be ordained by God. For these reasons, they did not have the means and the will to change their rural way of life for the better.
They did not realise that making money and educating their children were the keys to development. Accordingly, for all its potential, the Rugaaga of my youth was not attractive enough to retain ambitious young men, including myself.
My father’s home was located in Rugaaga trading centre. Therefore, compared to my contemporaries who lived in isolated villages deep in the countryside, I grew up in a relatively urban atmosphere. This meant that I had more exposure and contacts with the outside world than the typical rural child of my age.
For example, I was, early in my life, introduced to petty trade and the good things of life, such as sugar, soap, good clothes and, above all, money.
President Yoweri Museveni (centre), the Wavamunnos (standing next to him) and Michael Timiss and his son. (Coutesy photo)
I have no doubt that my enduring passion for business has its roots in the Rugaaga trading centre of my youth. I was brought into this world on December 16, 1943 at the height of the Second World War. Like most babies of my generation, my mother gave birth at home without modem maternity attention. In those days, there were no antenatal, maternity and postnatal services in a place like Rugaaga.
Fortunately, from what she told me, for all her 13 children, my mother never suffered any pregnancy or childbirth complications.
According to my mother, I was a healthy and bouncing baby, who was lucky enough to escape from the deadly, but preventable diseases that have caused so much pain to millions of African children for generations.
My father named me Gordon Babala Kasibante Wavamunno. When I was a baby, Nyense Nansimbi, my cousin and daughter of Paulo Kitakule, my maternal uncle, helped my mother to nurse me and my brothers and sisters.
From the age of about 14 years, during my school holidays, I used to accompany my father on his cattle and coffee trading trips around Ankole.
There used to be an open cattle market every end of the month. After selling the cattle, we would buy boxes of matches, Kiganda knives, hurricane lamps, textile materials, including barkcloth and, on good days, even bicycles, which we took back to Rugaaga to sell to our customers in Bukanga.
My father always encouraged my business interest and instincts. From his numerous dealings with Indian businessmen, he had observed that they taught their children not only their culture, but also the tricks of the family business from an early age.
They had a strong sense of sticking together and helping one another. They always spoke to each other in their own languages. They never abandoned their native ways. My father always admired the Indians’ business methods of work and never missed an opportunity to tell me that, if Africans wanted to succeed in business, they had to behave and act like the Indian community in Uganda.
He wanted me to emulate their methods and business acumen and to learn as much as I could from them. In those days, it appeared to me that my father was making big profits on some of the items he bought and sold.
He used to buy a bicycle in the range of sh80 to sh120 and would sell it between sh180 and sh200, making a gross margin of sh80 to sh100. Similarly, one head of cattle, whose cost was in the range of sh18 and sh20, used to fetch between sh35 and sh50, while a pound of meat used to cost 40 cents and sell for 60 cents.
Wavamunno, pictured here with other prominent business stakeholders, display their certificates after being honoured with the title of Associate Professor by Makerere University Private Sector in 2006. (Credit: Ronald Kabuubi)
To my young and impressionable mind, such margins looked impressive indeed. Since then, I have learnt from experience that such margins were misleading.
African businessmen like my father did not keep records to work out the cost of sales and to compute profits. They did not cost their time. They did not separate their business earnings from their private incomes. They did not really know whether their businesses were doing well or not. That is why African businesses do not survive, let alone grow from one generation to another.
Whenever I accompanied my father on his numerous business trips, I worked as his assistant. I used to count the money and the goods we purchased. I supervised the loading and offloading of the things we bought and sold. In some cases, my father used to delegate to me the task of selling and buying whatever goods he was trading in.
As I grew older, my father gave me more responsibilities. He often gave me assignments to transact business on his behalf. These assignments included trade negotiations, collecting debts, delivering or collecting messages and effecting payments.
I must say that nothing gave me more pleasure than my participation in my father’s trading activities. Although I passed my examinations well and was admitted to Mbarara High School, I decided not to go for further studies in order to have an early start in business.
I was determined to follow in my father’s footsteps in business and to make it to the top as a wealthy man. I had not discussed my plans to plunge into business with my father and I did not know how he would react. Fortunately, he was thinking along the same lines.
One evening, he called me and said: “Gordon, I know you have been admitted to Mbarara High School, but I don’t know whether this is the right thing to do. As you know, I am getting on in years and I can no longer manage all these businesses on my own. I want one of you to join me in business. I have always known that you have a knack for business. What do you think?”
I was pleasantly surprised by my father’s invitation to join his business. I told him that I would be honoured to work with him to develop our family business. I was already well-groomed for the task and was familiar with his business activities.
Wavamunno was knighted with the honour of Sir from St. Johns in the UK, and as this picture shows, there is evidence to that. (Credit: Ronald Kabuubi)
I, therefore, accepted his invitation, which I saw as a golden opportunity to realise my own business dreams. At this stage of my life, I had not set, developed, refined and concretised my goals. My goalposts have invariably shifted with time and experience. Although I grew up on a farm and developed respect for hard work and the dignity of labour, rural life did not hold my fancy. As much, as I loved Rugaaga, I did not see my life tied up with that area.
I developed a burning desire, despite my small stature, to become a giant businessman. When I joined my father’s business after Gayaza, I was not formally appointed.
My father did not give me any specific terms and conditions of service. He did not tell me what my salary would be nor did he spell out my schedule of duties. In those days, family businesses did not have regular terms of employment.
Sons worked in their father’s businesses and they were somehow expected to benefit if those businesses were successful.
Personally, I did not care much about employment formalities. What I wanted most was to learn the secrets of business under my father’s tutelage so that sooner rather than later, I would be able to become a successful businessman in my own right. In the meantime, as a business apprentice, I was prepared to do whatever my father instructed me to do in any of his business activities. All these responsibilities helped to sharpen my business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit.
Meanwhile, my father had other ideas about my business future. After working with him for almost a year, he attached me to the Merali family in Mbarara town to learn the secrets of business. I was naturally excited by this decision. It seemed to be, and indeed it was, another step in the right direction.
I had always dreamed of moving to a big town like Mbarara to escape from poverty and eventually to become a successful businessman like my father’s Asian friends. Although at the time I did not fully grasp the full implications of my attachment to the Merali family, this turned out to be another milestone in my long journey to business success. Sadru Merali was a kind man.
Unlike most of his fellow Asian traders, he treated his workers in a humane and civilised manner. He also had good relations with his customers and, for all the time I worked with him, he never lost his temper.
His family operated a wholesale/ retail shop on Mbaguta road in Mbarara. Apart from the shop, the Merali family was involved in produce buying throughout Ankole kingdom. They also operated mines at Mwirasandu, Kikagate, Isingiro, Sheema, Kabira and Mayanga in Ankole and Kebishoni in what is now Rukungiri district, but then part of colonial Kigezi.
The minerals from these areas included tin, alluvial gold and tungsten (wolfram). Sadru Merali welcomed me into his home and businesses. He gave me accommodation in his quarters behind the shop. I do not know what he had discussed with my father, but as soon as I reported to his shop, Merali told me that I would be required to work as a cashier in any of his businesses.
As part of my terms of service, he offered me food and a small salary, in addition to free accommodation. Although I worked in the shop and was occasionally assigned duties in his mining operations, I was mainly involved in produce buying.
Merali used to send me and other workers to all parts of Ankole — Rwampara, Sheema, Igara, Ibanda, Kajara, name it — to buy coffee, soyabeans, groundnuts, onions, simsim, beans, castor oil seeds and many other crops.
The Merali family had two lorries, a Leyland and Mercedes Benz model 322, on which we travelled to buy and transport produce to Mbarara. The drivers of these lorries were Abdu Bamunyise and Charles Baabumba. They were older and more experienced than me and they knew their way around all the corners of Ankole.
They became my friends and I vividly remember how hard I worked with them to promote our employer’s produce buying business. In this business, my duties included paying for the produce, but in some remote and inaccessible areas, we used to carry the produce on our heads using footpaths around Ankole.
The Wavamunnos: Gordon and Morine at a function
During my apprenticeship with the Merali family, I learnt a lot of useful things about business. The Merali family was a closeknit family. They worked hard for long hours to increase sales and to expand their business. Unlike Africans who are more inclined to spend whatever they earned, the Merali family was determined to save as much money as possible for a rainy day. This taught me that saving for tomorrow is an indispensable pre-condition for business success.
Another important lesson from my apprenticeship with the Merali family was that credit and working capital were the keys to business success. Their family used to buy goods from their Asian business associates in Kampala on credit. They also used to extend credit to their select customers in Ankole.
In addition, the Merali family operated a bank overdraft to generate sufficient working capital for their produce buying and mining operations. The Merali family’s access to credit made me realise why it was difficult for Africans to succeed in business. African traders did not have access to bank loans because they did not have security.
They could not easily get credit from their suppliers. This meant that African traders were too handicapped to compete with their Asian rivals in the world of business. Therefore, by the time I left the Merali family to start my own business, I knew it was crucial to access credit. My apprenticeship taught me a lot about different types of businesses. For an upcoming African businessman with modest means, mining was out of the question.
On the other hand, produce buying was more manageable and convenient since it did not require a lot of capital and sophisticated knowledge. With modest savings, it was possible to go into produce buying and gradually expand one’s business activities from savings and profits. That is why I chose to venture into produce buying when I left the Merali family at the end of 1961.
My move from Rugaaga to Mbarara introduced me to the challenges and excitements of urban life. It goes without saying that life in Mbarara was more hectic. As a young man, I had a lot to learn and internalise.
Mbarara had more people, vehicles, schools, hospitals and utilities like water, electricity and telephones. More information was available not only about the developments in Ankole, but also about those in the country, Africa and the world at large.
There were more business opportunities for making money in Mbarara than in rural Rugaaga. There were also entertainment facilities, although apart from the cinema and football, none attracted my fancy. In any case, most of the time I was up and down the country and as such, I did not have much spare time for relaxation and socialisation.
Nevertheless, Mbarara opened my eyes to the outside world and launched me into the demanding, but rewarding world of business.
© Wava Books Limited
There are 200 copies available in leading bookshops. Grab yourself a copy.
Wavamunno: Making of a successful businessman