Sikander Lalani: Uganda’s steel magnate

Tuesday May 6 2014

Sikander Lalani shows the writer some

Sikander Lalani shows the writer some of the machines in the Roofings Rolling Mills plant in Namanve. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa 

By Abdulaziizi K. Tumusiime

When Dr Sikander Lalani says he started small, one may be forgiven for disbelieving the remark. Why? He is a down to earth man whose business (Roofings Group – in Namanve and Lubowa) sits on 150,000 square metres of land. “How could he have achieved all this?” one would wonder.

It all becomes believable when he narrates his story.
School had cut out the young Lalani to be a histopathologist – he read histopathology at university. He was trained to earn his daily bread from the study of the cause of death and disease.

He practiced this at the London University Hospital for two years. At the end of the period, he was convinced that it was not his calling. He left to search for the right one.

Personal life

Lalani was born on October 4, 1944 in Nsambya hospital. He is married and a father of eight children. He likes spending his free time with his family. He goes swimming, plays tennis and once in a while he hangs out in a club, to relax his mind. He is an enthusiast of Japanese delicacies. Reason? It is healthy.
“I can eat Japanese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says, “This is at times not easy for the rest of my family.”
He is a regular at Yujo Japanese restaurant and Izakaya located on Kyaddondo Road.

Starting in Rwanda

He opened a retail shop in Kigali, Rwanda, in the 1970s specialising in electronics.
“I was an agent of Phillips, the electronics company,” he relays, adding, “I would sell their products, deduct my profit and return the cost price.”

A bond was nurtured between his Japanese suppliers and himself. He later ventured into the car tyre business the distributor of Good Year tyres in Rwanda, consequently.

Birth of the steel business

His new Japanese friends set the next destination for Lalani’s entrepreneurial journey. In 1976, they interested him into the idea of setting up a metallic roofing line in Rwanda.

“The idea was a very feasible one. In fact, a very close friend, one Hirokawa, went as far as helping me to form alliances with Japanese companies to source the equipment and inputs required for the initial process,” he says.

“However, I did not have enough money for the project.”
Way forward? He applied for a loan of Shs2.5 billion ( $1 million) from the World Bank through the Rwandese Bank of Development.

He succeeded. In 1978, the Roofing factory was set up in Kigali. The 69-year-old says he had to make painful sacrifices to make his new business enterprise a success.

“For over two years, I would work from 8am to 3am,” he says, “I would have breakfast, lunch and supper at the factory. My family missed out on a fatherly figure.”

Three years later, the profits started coming in.
In 1994, following the outbreak of genocide, he left Rwanda for Tanzania. The system in Tanzania, he says, was riddled with a lot of bureaucracy. He also left Tanzania and returned home – Uganda.

First, he got 10 acres of land in Lubowa. In January I995, he started construction of the popular Roofings factory and completed it in November the same year. He started out with 60 employees.

18 years later – 2013 – he opened the Roofings Rolling Mill (RRM) in Namanve. A smug smile clouds his face when he is speaking about the factory. It is ranked as the biggest steel plant in East Africa. It directly employs 2,250 people and indirectly employs many more. He calls it an early gift to his forthcoming 70th birthday in August this year.

Roofings Group - Japan ties

Yodogawa Steel Works (YSW) and Fujiden International Corporations (FIC) own shares in ‘the third phase’ or Cold Rolling and Coil coating complex at the Namanve plant.

Lalani says he has been buying Galvanised and colour coated coils from YSW for the last 38 years – including the time he operated in Rwanda.

“The reason we brought the Japanese on board was to further enhance our relationship with them and ensure that Japanese technology is continuously brought into our production units,” he says.

“They added immense technical expertise in the commissioning of the plant. There was a time when we had 35 Japanese nationals working at our facilities!”

Major achievement

The establishment of the rolling mill plant was a dream come true for Lalani. For 38 years, it was nothing but a dream. He employed a committed, dedicated and vastly experienced team from all over the world to realise this dream.

The next 10 years
“For the last 20 years, we have not stopped undertaking new projects and embarking on expansions. So, it is not going to be any different in the next 10 years. We’ll be taking on new projects,” he states.

Plant’s worth

The plant is worth about Shs312 billion ($124million). It is funded by a consortium of bankers and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The credit from the IFC is to the tune of Shs60 billion ($24 million) while the banks (led by Stanbic Bank, then Citi Bank and Barclays, among others) gave a loan of Shs100 billion ($40million).

How has he been able to earn the trust of these financiers? He replies: “It is the record you set about your personality. You have to establish yourself as a trustworthy individual and all the rest will fall into place.”

Sourcing the raw materials

They are sourced from South Africa and Japan – but mostly the latter. The preference for Japan is in line with the urge by the steel plant to offer high quality products.

Hot rolled coil is the most imported of their raw materials, from Japan.

Away from the raw materials, most of the machinery used at the facility in Namanve, such as the electric controls, automation and the mainstream equipment were imported from Japan.

The markets

The project supplies its products to the local markets, Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi and Kenya. He talks proudly of being a player in the Kenyan market:

“It speaks volumes that after paying the freight for our raw materials that are transported through Kenya, our products are then exported to the country.
This is more of recognition that the products of RRM meet the standards of the end users.”


During the early days of the project, there were infrastructure related challenges in Namanve. The plant was the first entrant in the industrial park, he notes. So there were no roads, there was no electricity as well as water.

However, with the support of the government, he states, all these bottlenecks were circumvented. Today, the plant boasts of all the above amenities as well as railway transport.

But, what has been his biggest challenge in his entrepreneurial journey? The commissioning of the Roofings Rolling Mill plant, especially the last phase (the coil coating complex), he replies.

“It was a huge challenge. The complexity and design of the plant was something new for the steel industry in East Africa,” Lalani says.

“In the rest of the world, companies usually set up the lines one by one, however due to various reasons we had the pressure of setting up five major production lines with 10 auxiliary equipments.” He says that many people doubted their capacity to make the achievement, thus looking back, he is proud that his team registered the feat.

Advice to upcoming entrepreneurs

Budding entrepreneurs should strive to think big, he says, and stick to what they are doing even during the worst of storms.

They should not give up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard, build a strong team and are committed to what they are doing. He also emphasises the importance of prioritising quality.

“It makes you a respected player in the market and the rewards are great.”

Asked about why some business as big as his “die” after the passing on of their owners, he responds: “Some entrepreneurs make the mistake of not training their children. In the absence of this, a business cannot survive beyond a generation.”

His son Oliver Lalani is the current executive director of Roofings Group. “I have trained him to respect the people he works with as well as to recognise their efforts,” he reveals.