James Tumusiime, a pillar of indigenous publishing in Uganda

Tuesday August 28 2012

James Tumusiime, a pillar of indigenous publishing in Uganda

Mr James Tumusiime in his office. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa 

By Kahunga Matsiko

A typical traditional career path would perhaps have seen him today at the helm of the Ministry of Agriculture, but 62-year old James Rwehabura Tumusiime chose a totally different path. Now the Group Chairman of the Fountain Group, he is among the pillars of the indigenous publishing industry in Uganda.

Passionate about culture as the basis for knowledge and wealth creation to nurture society, his current involvement, investments and work underscore his mission for Uganda’s publishing, tourism and media industry. He has seen Uganda through her major politico-economic eras, thus well placed to give an informed analysis of Corporate Uganda’s evolution, from the colonial times to the present and accurately predict its future.

The shaky roots of Corporate Uganda
According to him, the British did not build an indigenous corporate management class in the seven decades that they ruled Uganda.

“...all companies were British, senior managers and directors were British. ‘Ugandans were not sufficiently exposed to corporate governance at the high decision-making level. Companies like Nytil had British managers, with Indians as middlemen to supply cotton they bought from Uganda farmers. The Ugandans there did clerical jobs.’’

Therefore, at independence, there was no indigenous management skills pool to run the corporate world. This explains the poor management of the parastatals where Ugandans were managing at high decision making levels. A poor work ethic and lack of sound management and accounting principles in the running of parastatals undermined their survival. The only sector where Ugandans had a strong base was in the cooperatives, though they also had a poor work ethic, thus their poor performance.

The Amin era was a case of an ‘elephant in a china shop’. The Ugandans who acquired the expropriated businesses had no idea on how to run them. However, like in any other dark cloud, there was a silver linining in Amin’s ‘economic war’. A few enlightened Ugandans learnt the basics of business management and this gave rise to some of today’s corporate leaders like Mulwana, Wavamunno, Mwebesa and others.


‘Corporate’ Uganda therefore should be judged over the last 15 years. “Before that, it was 35 years of disorder, institutional break-down,” he says. Even when stability returned, the major players were foreign companies, which were returned to their owners. The banking and insurance industries, for example, are dominated by foreign multinationals. Save for Centenary Bank and two or three insurance companies, the rest are foreign-owned, and foreign-managed.

The Publishing Industry
Like other sectors, the publishing industry was foreign-dominated and served British interests. Culture being the fertile ground on which knowledge and information is nurtured; the British had a mission of spreading their culture, thinking and language, among others. The entire African, Carribean, Pacific area used the same books and syllabus. Africa-specific books to be published were Nigerian, thus even East Africans used these West African books.

In East Africa, subsidiaries of British publishing houses started in the 60s, based in Nairobi, with such publishing houses as Longman, Nelson, Heinemann, Macmillan, Oxford and others. East Africa was managed as a single market, the reason why for example, the adventure story of the Mutabingwa Family in Oxford’ s Primary School English for Primary schools runs across the region. Each reader was targeted to read themselves in the story.

“Even then, the only indigenous things about the books were the authors and titles. The rest of the value chain was done outside, editing, proof-reading, and designing and the rest of the pre-press work.” Publishing of a book begins with identifying a knowledge gap, seeking the knowledge, processing that knowledge, editing, proof-reading, designing, printing and distribution. All this was done outside Uganda, thus there was no skill developed. Moreover, all the earnings at these value chain stages, plus the profits from the sale of books were all repatriated.

“There was no local investment to develop new books, except those needed in the school curriculum...a publishing house is situated between the cathedral and the stock market. There must be investment of the profits earned from the sale of syllabus books, into areas that are not profit-making but essential to society like local languages, children readers, and scholary books. This was not possible at the time when the industry was dominated by foreign publishing houses,” he asserts.

The birth of Fountain Publishers and sister companies
After a successful pioneering career at The New Vision, where he was the founding editor and deputy editor-in-chief, with the remarkable landmark of being instrumental in the starting and growth of the vernacular papers, namely Bukedde, Orumuri, Rupiny and Etop, James Tumusiime ventured into the world of books in 1988, publishing children books in local and English languages, scholarly and tertiary books, and later textbooks. His launching pad in book selling was when he re-opened theUniversity Bookshop of Makerere in 1996, having been closed by the University authorities for close to three years for being unprofitable. With no local skills to start with, the secret of Fountain’s success is testimony to his ingenuity in applying the management concepts acquired in his MBA course at ESAMI, to the practical realities.

“It was about innovation and a blending of the seven M’s of management, before you come to the last M, which is money. These are market, manpower, management, materials, machinery, methods and finally money.”

With no local skills to tap, the initial innovation was to rely on foreign skills, mainly spouses of diplomats, who had the requisite skills in the key pre-press stages of publication. This was coupled with co-publishing with established foreign houses, who had the requisite skills. Man-power development is one success secret behind Fountain.

“And this was virtually in all fields...editing, proof-reading, designing and marketing.”

Now a regional power in the industry, Fountain Publishers is living to its dual-role of being situated between the cathedral and the stock-market. Proceeds from government contract books are ploughed into non-syllabus but essential literature. This would otherwise get marginalised in a country where there is no support for authors or publishers.

“In Canada for example, government supports local authors and publishers, to prevent American literature from invading and suppressing Canadian knowledge, Uganda needs to do the same,” Mr Tumusiime asserts.

Another jewel in Tumusiime’s crown is Igongo Cultural Centre, situated 12 kilometres outside Mbarara town on the Mbarara-Kampala Highway. Another cultural and hospitality venture founded by James Tumusiime, the centre houses a museum, a craft shop, a library for indigenous knowledge, arts, skills and culture besides a modern hotel and restaurant. According to Mr Tumusiime, his vision for the centre is a world-class cultural tourist site, on the same level as those in Europe that attract millions of tourists annually. And this is the future of Uganda’s tourism, according to the man who has a string of ‘founder’ to his name: Radio West, National Book Trust of Uganda, The New Vision, besides chairing several industry councils in Africa and globally.

Who is he?
• Born in 1950 in Rwampara Mbarara District
• Holds an MBA from ESAMI , a Bsc in Agriculture from MUK and Diploma in Publishing from the UK.
• Worked in Kenya in the media as editor and consultant
• Chairman University Council of Mbarara University of Science at Technology
• First African to chair the Afro-Asian book council and to serve on the Executive committee of International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY)