Monday November 11 2013

Amina Omusementi: The Somali woman building an empire in Kampala

Amina Omusementi: The Somali woman building an empire in Kampala

Hersi gives the President a token of appreciation for his assistance in making Laburnam Courts a reality. She has managed to grow her business footprint in Kampala by making smart connections. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye. 

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

The President of the foreign country Amina Hersi Moghe now calls home speaks highly of her and he openly vows to offer all the assistance she requires and protect her from any roadblocks.

She has a rising real estate empire – having built Oasis Mall which houses Nakumatt Supermarket and the posh Laburnam Courts Apartments. And she has built alliances with the biggest politicians, businesspeople and banks in Uganda and beyond.

This cannot be bad for a daughter of a migrant Somali cattle keeper. Her father’s search for better fortunes took him from Somaliland to western Kenya in the second half of the 20th century.

Hersi thus grew up in the border town of Bungoma in western Kenya, from where she moved to Nairobi, before following in her father’s migrant footsteps when she relocated to Kampala in 1998.

She is a woman of average height and weight, not exactly as light as your usual Somali. Hersi adheres to the Muslim dress code, complete with a head scarf and speaks English – not perfect English – with a heavy Somali accent.

A chance encounter with her may therefore not immediately suggest that she is a very successful businesswoman in Kampala, playing in the biggest league.

But she must fondly look back to the day she set off for Kampala, although it was forced by a heavy dose of sadness.

She had suffered a most gruesome incident, she says, when her two little daughters were killed in a motor accident. She took advice that she needed a change of address to start a new life.

In Kampala, Hersi set up a cement dealership, first as an agent of Bamburi Cement in Kenya and later established relations with the nascent cement factories in Uganda.

“In fact most people know me as Hersi Omusementi,” she says.

Building alliances
Hersi’s stamp of authority on the real estate sector in Kampala grew stronger when on October 3 her Laburnam Courts Apartments was launched with President Museveni as chief guest.

Also in attendance were prominent businesspeople – representatives of banks, cement factories and others. There were also politicians from Uganda and Kenya, including DP president Norbert Mao.

The High Commissioner of Kenya, Maj Gen Geoffrey Okanga, presented Amina with an award – The Moran of the Burning Spear – from the government of Kenya, in recognition of her contribution to the Kenyan economy.

Hersi is the managing director of the Oasis Group of Companies, which owns Oasis Mall and Laburnam Courts in Uganda and is said to have interests in real estate in Kenya.

Hersi’s mother, Sarah Hersi Ali, and her siblings stayed back in Kenya to take care of the business that side when she moved to Kampala. Her mother, she says, laid the foundation for the family’s real estate empire from a modest restaurant and food store. Hersi built on that foundation to ally with powerful people in Uganda, and it didn’t take her long to get to the core of Ugandan business.

Shortly after arriving in Kampala, she teamed up with Sudhir Ruparelia, who had embarked on building a business empire of his own.

She pitched camp in Ruparelia’s office at the then Crane Forex Bureau on Kampala Road, in the process benefitting from her association with quality business company. She had arrived driving a Mercedes Benz with Kenya registration plates, which she says led many of the people she dealt with believe she had a lot of money and this gave them ideas to rip her off. Sudhir solved her immediate problem by giving her a less sophisticated BMW car.

Her business relationship with Sudhir, perhaps now the richest person in Uganda, would only grow and when Hersi later embarked on bigger projects, Sudhir’s Crane Bank became one of her financiers.

Enter Museveni
It is not clear how Hersi got in contact with Museveni and other powerful people in the government. But the President makes clear his admiration of her qualities, which he says is a far-cry from what most Ugandans exhibit.

“I have a problem with Africans,” the President started out at the launch of the apartments, “Africa is so rich but many of the Africans are not serious. That’s why I am always very happy when I see some Africans who wake up.”

Museveni said Hersi approached him asking for a then vacant piece of land just below All-Saints Cathedral in Nakasero to build apartments.

“If you saw this land, it was just a valley where those who go to church would park their cars and also come to relax; but see what she has done here.” Museveni said.

The Laburnam Courts Apartments comprise a triangle of lime green flats – 154 two-bedroom and three-bedroom serviced apartment units in all – with a swimming pool in the middle. The place also has health facilities, a children’s playing area, business centre and gym.

The proprietor says the apartments have attracted clients from oil and telecom companies. At the time of the launch, it was said that 95 per cent of the apartments were already occupied.

Museveni said Hersi was able to build these apartments, in addition to the Oasis Mall, because she is different from most Ugandans.

“If you go to Kabalagala now,” Museveni said, “they (Ugandans) are all in bars, every time drinking. How much money are you squandering? Lack of discipline, lack of initiative and lack of imagination, that’s the problem Africans must fight.”

Apart from offering the land on which Hersi built the Laburnam Courts and the Oasis Mall, Museveni also ensured that she benefitted from other incentives, like importing building materials without paying taxes. Museveni said at the launch that he protected Hersi from officials of the Uganda Revenue Authority who were demanding taxes from her.

He said that Hersi had planned her project expecting tax exemptions on imported construction materials and that even if her project was a bit late, removing the exemptions would derail her project.

The President aimed a swipe at bureaucrats, who he said just sit in offices and “frustrate” investments.

“There is another project of hers they are trying to fight; we may now have to fight that war,” Museveni said to Hersi’s delight.

Hersi had earlier said that she is looking to embark on another project; one “in which so many women will be involved,” but she did not say exactly what she intends to do.

Museveni looks at women as a key constituency and the mention of a project that could further the women’s cause is likely to warm him up. Hersi was in 2008 named Best Woman Entrepreneur by the Uganda Investment Authority.

At the launch was a Somali choir which sang Museveni’s praises. A translation from one of the songs went: “You are the most educated among the people in the world. You are the wise of the times. You are the father of Africa. The Somali people are grateful to you. Museveni, you should know.”

Tenacious Hersi
But whereas there can be no denying that Hersi has benefitted immensely from her association with politicians and big businesspeople, there must be something special about her.

Admassu Tadesse, the president of the PTA Bank, said at the launch of the apartments that Hersi “has a rare tenacity” which the bank looked to tap into by investing $16m (about Shs40b) in the $50m (about Shs125b) apartments project.

One of the synonyms of the word “tenacity” that pops up on my computer screen is “persistence”. And Tadesse is right if this is what he meant. Hersi refuses to give up when she is convinced that she is doing the right thing.

For example, she said at the launch of the apartments, she hopped from bank to bank seeking financing for two grand projects – the mall and the apartments – at the same time without substantial collateral.

Most banks advised her to pursue one project at a time, she said, but she rejected the advice. “I knew the two projects were different and they were both viable,” she said. She would move on to another bank until she got a positive response.

She was in bullish mood as she thanked the banks which “stood with me when I didn’t have anything,” all in the knowledge that she will find it easier to get financing for future projects now that she has seen grand projects through.

And she has guidelines in her dealings with banks: “Banks which have a lot of excuses; I don’t deal with them.” And, going by Hersi’s new profile, it is very likely that the banks won’t give her many excuses when she approaches them for future financing. If this prediction is true, then the story of the Somali woman who is taking Uganda’s real estate landscape by storm is just beginning to unfold.

emukiibi@ug.nationmedia.com

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