Reviews & Profiles
A businessman who stayed true to his humble origins
Posted Wednesday, January 16 2013 at 00:00
James Mulwana was a man who might not have had much formal education but that did not stop him from building a business empire. Even with all his wealth, he remained unto death, a modest man of clean record.
James Mulwana died as simply as he lived. When the industrialist, farmer and respected business leader felt discomfort on Monday night, he drove himself to Nakasero Hospital in Kampala.
Never one for drama or the showboating that money drags in through the door, Mulwana drove himself around the city for many years, despite the snide remarks from his equally wealthy friends.
Eventually he hired a driver, but out of pragmatism, not pride.
“We had to compel him to have a driver. But it turned out that the person who was supposed to be driving him became the boss,” Kaddu Kiberu, board chairman of Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA), which Mulwana helped found and support, said yesterday.
“The driver would take the back seat as he drove and only sat behind the steering wheel to find a parking spot for the vehicle.”
Despite finding wealth, Mulwana never really forgot his humble origins.
When he was born in 1936, the indigenous business class in Uganda and especially Buganda was becoming increasingly restive, agitating for a level playing field with their Asian and European counterparts.
He was, in many ways, a child of the riots in the country in the 1930s and 1940s and, without much formal education, found his way to the world of business. By 1961 he had joined the import-export business and in 1967 he established Uganda Batteries Limited, an automotive battery manufacturing entity. Initially the company, Associated Battery Manufacturers Limited, was in partnership with Chloride (UK) Limited, but Mulwana would take full ownership in 1990. In 1970, he established Ship toothbrush factory Limited (later changed to Nice House of Plastics Limited in 1995) which went on to manufacture toothbrushes, household plastic products, writing instruments like ball pens, packaging products soda and beer crates, jerry cans as well as agricultural equipment (knapsack sprayers)
If you went to school in Uganda in the 80s and 90s, you probably wrote using a pen, ate off a plate, or took a bath in a basin manufactured by Mulwana’s firm. Or drove in a car powered by one of his batteries.
Mulwana contributed to Uganda’s economy in three fundamental ways. The first, was to contribute to the indigenisation of the manufacturing and industrial sector, which was (and continues to be) dominated by the Uganda Asians.
His second major contribution was to add value to the country’s agricultural produce. Where politicians spewed rhetoric or threw good money after bad, in one mega agricultural programme after another, Mulwana quietly but diligently set up Jesa Mixed Farm in 1988 – long before “value addition” was mentioned in a political speech.
With a herd of 550 Friesian cows, the farm later expanded into Jesa Farm Dairy Limited (1994), with a milk processing, pasteurising and packaging plant to produce packed milk, butter, yoghurt and cream.
In 1992, Mulwana had started Nsimbe Estate Limited, mainly involved in horticultural farming for export of cut flowers, in a joint venture with a German partner. And in 2002, he would form Jesa Investments Limited, a commercial property development entity.
Mulwana’s third contribution was in organising his fellow local entrepreneurs and serving as an inspiration to many starting out in business. Apart from UMA which he helped kick-start in 1988, he was also instrumental in the set-up of the Private Sector Foundation Uganda, a body that, like UMA, is a pro-business lobby.
“It will take us decades to have a man like Mr Mulwana,” Gerald Sendaula, a friend, former finance minister and key player in both organisations said yesterday.