Reviews & Profiles
Ugandan Asians: The making of Ruparelia Group
Posted Wednesday, October 3 2012 at 00:00
In the last part of our series from Vali Jamal’s book Uganda Asians: Then and now, Here and There, We contributed, We contribute, we bring you an abridged story of Sudhir Ruparelia, one of the most successful Ugandan Asians of his generation.
Fact file: Sudhir Ruparelia
Born: Kabatoro, Kasese, 1956
Where was he in 1972? Kampala
Where did he go to? The UK
Has lived in Uganda, since 1985
Family: Wife Jyotsna, daughters Meera and Sheila, son Rajiv
My great-grandfather came to Mombasa in 1897 from India where he had a family farm that sufficed to feed the family plus generate some surplus for the market. Everybody around them was in the same situation, as Gujarat at that time was 90 per cent agricultural. Big landlords owned a majority of the land and extracted a huge proportion of the produce in rent. So you could say our family were slightly better-off compared to most people around them, yet it was a situation of being just above the poverty level.
By about the turn of the century, Indian people were going to “Afrika” to seek out a living. Stories were coming back of most people beginning to succeed. It was said there was lots of land in Africa and even a fence stump would take root. My great-grandfather simply jumped on the next dhow sailing from Porbandar. He was an adventurous person and it was like that for many an adventurous youth – they simply boarded, sometimes even stowed away, on any dhow in the harbour.
My great-grandfather set up a trading store at Mombasa. The railway was being built so provisioning the rail administration and workers provided a lucrative line of business. He was associated with the firm of Kalidas Kanji & Co. They moved along with the railway to Kisumu and from there crossed the lake to reach Uganda in 1903. The business he set up was what everyone was doing at that time and for which there was a great need – duka, supplying everyday goods to farmers in return for buying their sim sim, beans and similar produce. Cotton had just been introduced.
My grandfather was born in Uganda in 1918 and my father in 1932. The marriages took place in Gujarat, because practically no women came out to Africa. It was considered dangerous and against religious customs. I was born in 1956 in Kabatoro, Kasese District. By this time our family could be called upper-middle class, owners of three shops. Whereas most of my school-mates could afford only one pair of school uniform, I could afford two. So when I came to school my clothes were always well-pressed, whereas many of my friends would turn up in shorts that were still slightly damp.
Going to school
The start of my education was at a kindergarten in Jinja. Not many parents could afford to send their children to a nursery school, so there again you can see we were well-off. It was an exclusively Asian school. I think it had been donated by Inder Singh Gill who was a big industrialist in Jinja at that time. The primary and secondary schools had been donated by the Madhvani family. Within two years, our family had moved near Kampala and I started school at Bat Valley School, which belonged to the Indian community.
I was living in the “boarding” at the Patidar Samaj, which had just been opened. There were a couple of dorms, with double-decker beds. Again within a year we had moved near Jinja and I continued my primary schooling there. In 1971, I joined Kololo Secondary School. Mr Raval was the headmaster. It was a beautiful school with manicured lawns and gardens. It had surpassed the Old Kampala School as the elite school for Asian children, at par with the Aga Khan School down in the Makerere Valley.
Well, 1972 happened. My parents had British passports. My brother and two sisters were Uganda-born with Uganda passports. In the frantic atmosphere prevailing then, there was no choice but for my parents to go to UK and for us to join them. After queuing interminably at the British High Commission, the necessary permits were obtained.
At this point I had a brainstorm: I wanted to stay on in Uganda! I was only 16 years old; I had still not finished my schooling, but I just knew I wanted to stay put. I knew of many people who were going to stay on, among them my father’s brother, uncle Babulal. The atmosphere in town was electric. Shops were abandoned, even luxury motor cars. Amin was racheting up the rhetoric that he would send us to Karamoja. My parents were calling on long-distance to implore me to please leave Uganda and join them. So just before the last days of the deadline I boarded a BOAC flight to Heathrow. By then, the Stansted run of the British passport-holders had been concluded.
My parents had gone to live in the north. I decided to make my way in the south, nearer London. I had two tasks ahead of me: To feed myself and to complete my education. The former preceded the latter. I got a job in a factory making test tubes – not for making babies!, but ordinary test tubes that I had recently experimented with in the Chemistry class at school. My salary was £12, Shs15. That was enough to pay rent in a shared building and buy food. I enrolled to do my O-levels.
There were a number of Uganda Asian students there. I even completed my A-levels in accountancy-related subjects. I was often holding two or three jobs at the same time. At one time, I worked in a supermarket shelving cans and boxes, I was night-shifting. I ran a taxi at the week-ends and I studied. The taxi sector had been deregulated under Mrs Thatcher and private individuals were allowed to run taxis in the suburbs and over long-distance. A “central” called in taxis over radio-phone. It was fun because it had an aspect of adventure to it. You never knew who you were picking up. I am sure from the “blings” some of my passengers wore, they were drug lords. I ferried fashionable girls to meet their dates. Sometimes, they’d give me a big tip. I was setting up, man! The first thing I did when I had accumulated enough savings was to buy a house. This had been a high personal goal. It cost me £5,000. I was now something and I could aspire to get married.
Meeting his future wife
In 1974, I met this most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She had a part-time job at a bank, while also doing studies. I was captivated. I managed to get an introduction. I hadn’t reached 20 years yet. We courted for three years and then got married – November 14, 1977. It was a small function with the immediate family, a registry wedding.
I was keeping tabs on developments in Uganda from UK. I was surrounded by Uganda Asians. Now and again we would hear of some “big Uganda businessman” coming to London to procure essential items for the army. There was the whisky run from Stansted in army planes. Coffee was being brought in on the inward flights. All this was generally known among the expelled Asian community. We followed Museveni’s bush campaign in the news. All the villages and towns he fought from were known to us. At the end of 1985, I just boarded a flight to come to beloved Uganda. Obote’s regime was collapsing. There was much shooting in town. In January 1986, Museveni’s NRM stormed triumphantly into Kampala.
I looked around for business opportunities. I lucked out on the very first project I hit upon: Importing salt from Kenya. That basic commodity was lacking in Uganda! The prices were sky-high. I set up a depot on Kampala Road itself. I brought 5,000 bags per month. The prices began to drop for the consumers. I made a profit of $5,000 on my capital of $25,000, a return of 20 per cent. I bought up some properties in town from Asians who had just repossessed them but were unwilling to return to Uganda.
Going into selling beer
My next venture was in wholesaling beer. I’d buy from the importers. It soon occurred to me that the greater profit was in importing beer oneself, so I became the biggest importer of beer to Uganda. You have to remember that none of the Uganda-based beer factories were operating. I imported Tusker from Kenya. That created the cash-flow, something very important in any business. People paid me in dollars. The balance I’d return in shillings – the start of foreign-exchange dealings! It was the prevalent practice then in Uganda. Of course from there I decided to open a forex bureau as soon as the sector was legalised. I was the largest dealer in foreign exchange within six months and have remained so until now. Soon other people entered the sector and formed a cartel against me. I was already lending business people money on an ad hoc basis. The interest rates were commensurate with the risk – and people’s needs! Of course, the next step was to set up a proper bank. The “traditional” ones were up and running – Barclays, Standard, Baroda.