To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.
To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, MICHAEL KANAABI brings you Gordon Wavamuno, the business man who has built an empire and been knighted by the Queen of England for his charity work
Talking about business in Uganda, Gordon Balaba Kasibante Wavamuno is one of the most respected and wealthy businessmen in the country, with a career spanning over five decades. Wavamuno has built an empire with businesses in different sectors including mining, beverages and insurance.
Having witnessed the independence day celebrations as part of a six-boy contingent seconded by the Mbarara district commissioner to the official ceremony at Kololo in 1962, he has seen independent Uganda through the 50 years doing business. He was recently knighted by the Queen of England for his leadership and contribution mainly to the St. John’s Ambulance, which is a free emergency ambulance service in Uganda. Wavamuno is the chairman and commander of St. John’s Ambulance in Uganda and has been involved in other charity works over the years.
Wavamuno was born in 1943 in Rugaga village in Mbarara district. He went to school in the same village until he started helping out his father in his commodities trade, which involved transporting produce to Mbarara town for sale. Wavamuno says his father asked him to leave school and join him in the business that was bringing money into the family to learn the way things are done.
His father, Yovani Wavamuno, later sent him to his Indian friend, Merali Jivram, where he learnt more about doing business. It was not long before Wavamuno ventured out on his own and moved to Mbarara town where he says he realised that there was much bigger potential for business success. In Mbarara, he ventured into a number of businesses that included dry cleaning, passenger transport and commodity trade.
Wavamuno says throughout the 1960s, his businesses prospered, but along the way, he got bitter rivalries with fellow businessman and soldiers, whose clothes he refused to dry clean for free. He adds that he started to be harassed by the soldiers, who were influenced by business rivals. “Things became worse when the country started to become unstable, especially between 1969 and 1970 when a coup looked eminent,” Wavamuno says. It is then that he decided to move to Kampala and start a new life.
Through the turbulent years
Thanks to his relatives living in Kololo, Wavamuno had a place to stay when he came to Kampala as he looked around for business opportunities. He decided to join a couple of friends to start a car hiring firm, but soon left the business due to his partners’ change in priorities. He then started Spear Touring Services in 1971, which was the first black-owned company to have offices at the newly-opened prestigious Conference Centre. Wavamuno says business was booming until then president Idi Amin banned tourists from coming to Uganda.
The turning point
While contemplating what to do next, Wavamuno’s friend Ambassador John Ntimba, then the permanent secretary in the foreign affairs ministry, alerted him about a business opportunity where German car maker Daimler AG needed a local distributor.
This was after their previous distributor had been nationalised by Amin’s government, forcing them to cut ties with the company. After maneuvering all the politics and bureaucracy around acquiring the franchise and government approval in April 1975, the business that made Wavamuno an internationally recognised businessman took off. From then on, Wavamuno has ventured into many other businesses and started companies such as the United Assurance, now UAP Insurance, Nile Bank, which he sold off to Barclays Bank, GM Tumpeco, a metal fabrications firm, Wano Engineering, Spear House, Wavah Water, WBS TV, Radio Simba, Wavah Books and Lake View Hotel.
Wavamuno’s decades of business and charity earned him knighthood