16 January 2013

Uganda: Untold Story of James Mulwana

In so many ways, James Mulwana's life was some sort of puzzle. Growing up in Mengo in the early 1940s, there was hardly anything about him to show he would turn out to be one of Uganda's most successful entrepreneurs.

Mulwana was a quiet boy, so much so that you would think he held in high contempt those teenagers who spent time in social gatherings. Those who know him say he never drank alcohol. It was something considered rather odd at the time, as alcohol and girls were thought to be the norm for every normal teenage boy.

Seventy-six-year-old Mulwana, who at the time of his death yesterday walked with a slight limp, displayed this reclusive character while studying at Aggrey Memorial in the early 40s. He would later serve on the board of trustees of this school where he did primary and secondary education.

While some students enrolled as scouts, took part in athletics and drama clubs, Mulwana steered clear of all this. It is, therefore, not surprising that some of those who studied with him can barely remember anything extraordinary that this boy did.

Yet, looking back, it was this simple character that would endear him to many as he built his business empire step by step, block by block.

There are so many different accounts of what Mulwana went through in the mid-50s. One tale suggests that he turned down an invitation by Ignatius Musaazi to join his political party, the Uganda National Congress.

Another tale is that Mulwana was one of the few people chosen by the colonial rulers at the time to train in refining cotton. True or false, both didn't work out; he stayed out of politics and the cotton business.

Express newspaper

It was not until around 1958 that the business character of James Mulwana came to the fore. Jolly Joe Kiwanuka, a prominent football administrator at Express Football Club, started a newspaper. The Express newspaper. It was heavy on politics, aimed at promoting Kiwanuka's political ambitions. Kiwanuka recruited a young Mulwana to work for the paper.

Mulwana worked as Advertising Manager in a department that was so thin it had only two people - the other being Jimmy Semugabi Bakyayita. The young boy, who kept to himself while at school, was now forced to go out and meet people to sell space in the newspaper and thus bring in adverts. It is here that Mulwana, who talked as if he was smiling at you, is believed to have started building his business networks.

A young Mulwana would wake up as early as 3am to drive the newspaper copies on a rugged road to Jinja in his light green Ford, a popular car back then. By 10am, Mulwana would be back in the office, which was then located near the Motorcare offices along Jinja road, plotting his next advertisement sale. Even workmates were baffled at Mulwana's work ethic.

As many of his colleagues retired at round 4pm or 5pm, Mulwana instead headed to his next workplace: Kamulu club (also known as Top Life nightclub), where he was a bouncer. The club was located in Mengo, where Sir Apollo Kaggwa primary school stands today. Mulwana, the boy who shunned discotheques as a student, was now helping revellers into the popular club. Times had changed.


How he got his breakthrough around the mid-60s is somewhat vague. Mulwana engaged in so many activities it is hard to trace his starting point. After leaving the newspaper, some say Mulwana started making bricks on Fifth street in Industrial Area. In fact, he is said to have transported sand to construction sites in his truck.

Never caring much about payment, Mulwana would nevertheless come knocking if the payment was long overdue. Others say Mulwana later partnered with a German national to start business in Kampala. He would later buy out the German, according to this account. It is also believed that Mulwana started working with William Kalema, the late husband to Rhoda Kalema. Mulwana's father and Kalema's mother were close friends who came from the same village in Kiboga.

As minister of commerce in the mid-1960s, William Kalema offered import licences to a few young men interested in business. Among these was Mulwana. Thereafter, Mulwana started importing plastics into the country. By the late 60s, he was an established businessman in Kampala. By the time the likes of Gordon Wavamunno met Mulwana around 1969, he was already a household name.

While many businesses collapsed during the volatile Idi Amin era in the 1970s, Mulwana's endured. He, however, had to send his children - two girls and one boy - to Scotland to study as they escaped the mayhem that was Uganda at the time. Through the 1980s, Mulwana continued to grow his business. He also spearheaded such initiatives as the now annual trade fair at Lugogo Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA) show grounds. His contribution to the success of bodies like UMA and Private Sector Foundation Uganda goes without question.

His business empire included Nice House of Plastics, manufacturers of cups, toothbrushes, plates, basins, pens and jerrycans, among others. His other businesses were, Uganda Batteries, Nsimbe Estates and Jesa Farm Dairy, among others. As an accomplished businessman in the last decade or so, reputable international companies such as Standard Chartered bank, Eskom and Celtel courted him to serve on their boards.

During times of tension between government and the private sector, it was Mulwana who was usually chosen to make a strong case for the business community. His English was not the finest, but his words and advice were golden.

Yet Mulwana, like everyone, had his faults. His name came up in the misappropriation of Chogm funds. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing. There was also the troubling court case in which Daudi Ochieng's widow accused him of grabbing her land in Kitintale - a dispute that still awaits court judgment.


One thing you cannot take away from Mulwana is that he was the godfather of local entrepreneurship. A picture that made the rounds on Facebook yesterday after news of the businessman's demise broke showed Mulwana wearing a grey shirt, white trousers and white gumboots. He is seen leaning on a stick, the kind used to herd cows. In the background is wild, pristine vegetation.

That picture summarises the simplicity of the moment, of the man. It is perhaps the best way Mulwana would have loved to be remembered.

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