Sikander Lalani: Uganda’s steel magnate

Infrastructural challenges were mere obstacles to be overcome for this entrepreneur, whose resourcefulness launched a steel producing firm that exploited an overlooked yet profitable niche. Lalani explains how he did it.

Tuesday May 6 2014

Sikander Lalani shows the writer some

Sikander Lalani shows the writer some of the machines in the Roofings Rolling Mills plant in Namanve. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa 

By Abdulaziizi K. Tumusiime

When Dr Sikander Lalani says he started small, one may be forgiven for disbelieving the remark. Why? He is a down to earth man whose business (Roofings Group – in Namanve and Lubowa) sits on 150,000 square metres of land. “How could he have achieved all this?” one would wonder.

It all becomes believable when he narrates his story.
School had cut out the young Lalani to be a histopathologist – he read histopathology at university. He was trained to earn his daily bread from the study of the cause of death and disease.

He practiced this at the London University Hospital for two years. At the end of the period, he was convinced that it was not his calling. He left to search for the right one.

Personal life

Lalani was born on October 4, 1944 in Nsambya hospital. He is married and a father of eight children. He likes spending his free time with his family. He goes swimming, plays tennis and once in a while he hangs out in a club, to relax his mind. He is an enthusiast of Japanese delicacies. Reason? It is healthy.
“I can eat Japanese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says, “This is at times not easy for the rest of my family.”
He is a regular at Yujo Japanese restaurant and Izakaya located on Kyaddondo Road.

Starting in Rwanda

He opened a retail shop in Kigali, Rwanda, in the 1970s specialising in electronics.
“I was an agent of Phillips, the electronics company,” he relays, adding, “I would sell their products, deduct my profit and return the cost price.”

A bond was nurtured between his Japanese suppliers and himself. He later ventured into the car tyre business the distributor of Good Year tyres in Rwanda, consequently.

Birth of the steel business

His new Japanese friends set the next destination for Lalani’s entrepreneurial journey. In 1976, they interested him into the idea of setting up a metallic roofing line in Rwanda.

“The idea was a very feasible one. In fact, a very close friend, one Hirokawa, went as far as helping me to form alliances with Japanese companies to source the equipment and inputs required for the initial process,” he says.

“However, I did not have enough money for the project.”
Way forward? He applied for a loan of Shs2.5 billion ( $1 million) from the World Bank through the Rwandese Bank of Development.

He succeeded. In 1978, the Roofing factory was set up in Kigali. The 69-year-old says he had to make painful sacrifices to make his new business enterprise a success.

“For over two years, I would work from 8am to 3am,” he says, “I would have breakfast, lunch and supper at the factory. My family missed out on a fatherly figure.”

Three years later, the profits started coming in.
In 1994, following the outbreak of genocide, he left Rwanda for Tanzania. The system in Tanzania, he says, was riddled with a lot of bureaucracy. He also left Tanzania and returned home – Uganda.

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