Through a thick forest came sweet melodies from the hearts of different birds. As I settled for a quick interview with Mr Samuel Mugenyi before the evening downpour, the songs of the hornbill were a reminder that I am at the border of a paradise that hosts more than 300 bird species.
“You are at Kibale Guest Cottages. It is a hotel at the boundary of Kibale National Park,” Mr Mugenyi welcomes me. I had travelled to Kibale to find out how 52 year old Mugenyi was fairing in retirement. But what he had done with the withdrawal benefits he received from National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
Mr Mugenyi, a Forestry graduate of Makerere University, made his first contribution worth Shs50,000 to NSSF in January 1996, having found a job at British American Tobacco-Uganda (BAT).
He spent most of his earlier working years as an agronomist, ensuring tobacco is grown in Bunyoro, North Kigezi, West Nile and East Congo regions. By the time he left BAT in 2015, he was head of growing tobacco allover Uganda and East Congo.
By 2004, his contributions had hit Shs1m a month and it is at that time, that he started pondering life after retirement. He could not get rid of thoughts of owning a business in the tourism sector. So he took a decision.
“What I would be doing in tourism was not clear, it would be in guiding tourists or something,” he says. His wife, Ms Immaculate Mugenyi had found out thousands of tourists came to the park but slept in Fort Portal or Kasese.
With combined savings from their salaries, Mr Mugenyi and his wife bought six acres of land and began constructing mid-range African accommodation for tourists.
The first tourist slept in the cottages ten years later. Even then, a lot of work still needed to be done. The earlier plan was to retire at 50 but at 48 years, he resigned and journeyed to Kibale for good. Business was growing but slowly. His wife did the reservations while he ran operations. In a review, he noticed the hotel needed investment. Two more years and he would get his benefits.
Today, there are 12 cottages on the six acre land, a garden and below the undulating landscape, is a forest on a newly acquired piece of land. For most of the years, his business has relied on customer feedback as most of the investments are directed by ideas from the tourists. For him, the peak season starts in June till September and picks again in November until January.
“Our bookings are 50 per cent a year so there is still a lot of advertising to do and engagement with agents. We are running a vibrant website and we have made mileage. But I would like us to step up the occupancy. If you remove the low season, it could be more,” Mr Mugenyi says.
He is now planning to tap into the low season by adjusting rates as long as he can cover operational costs.
“This business makes money. But you must know your clients. You do not put up a hotel and people walk in,” Mr Mugenyi says.
“If there is a problem in Kasese and they see Kibale next to it, they do not come. As soon as Ebola came up, we registered withdrawals.”
Like other businesses, he is still hanging in there with finding skilled workers. A single night costs a customer between $85 (Shs314,000) and $190 (Shs703,000) and it is for this reason that he believes his NSSF savings are paying off.
“My children are all in international schools. That is how I measure myself. I employ ten people. The income from here is going to complete the holiday homes in Kampala,” Mr Mugenyi says.
“My current turnover is $10,000 (Shs37m) a month and it is growing. We meet salary payments on time. NSSF savings of the workers, do reinvestments and pay taxes.”
There is more to be done to maximise the country’s tourism potential. More talk about the attractions could help. Investment in virgin areas too. The hotel has tapped into the country’s diverse culture and he is now thinking about what value he could add to create more than a hotel with beautiful gardens.
“I have acquired four acres of land, it is now under reforestation. We are planting indigenous trees and we have developed 40 minute trails for walks,” Mr Mugenyi says.
He has been called to new jobs but his answer remains in the negative. He believes, in retirement, if one already has an income generating activity, they should not search for jobs.
“You only focus on how you can grow it. I am now stable, the earlier you leave, the better. There is a lot of demand from the job and what takes people back is lack of what to do. By 60, I should be seated somewhere reading newspapers and traveling,” he says with anticipation that his son will have taken on management then.
For now, he is participating in the NSSF Friends with Benefits contest. He trusts his hotel business sets him apart with the value he adds in terms of employment, taxes, environmental conservation and community development. But most importantly, it is his simplistic approach to running it, almost two years after he invested his savings.
“In December 2017, I made a withdrawal of Shs527m from NSSF. I held a long list of priorities and it took me months to figure out what I could do. As I waited, the list kept growing and I realised I was about to mess up so I sat with my wife and the first priority was the cottages,” Mr Mugenyi explains.
And so he sank two deep wells to pump 5,000 litres of water a day. He brought in quality wooden furniture. He bought modern cutlery for the restaurant, ovens and refrigerators for the kitchen. He bought new linen for the bedrooms.
There was also investment in better lighting and artwork for the guest rooms. Then came the big one, electricity. He invested in generators and a solar system that lights 200 bulbs overnight.
“From my NSSF savings, I deployed Shs120m in the cottages and the other Shs400m was deployed in Kampala, in six holiday apartments that are currently on roofing stage,” Mr Mugenyi says.
To vote for Samuel Mugenyi in the NSSF Friends with Benefits competition, dial *254# or go to www.nssfug.org”