Wavamunno tells his entrepreneurial journey

Tuesday October 30 2012

Some of Mr Gordon Wavamunno’s gestures during the interview. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye

Some of Mr Gordon Wavamunno’s gestures during the interview. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye 

By Matsiko DB Kahunga

No better way to sum up the life of the man behind the success of the Spear Group of companies than this excerpt from his autobiography, The Story of an African Entrepreneur.

Today a household name in Uganda’s corporate world, his BSN status can easily overshadow the instructive evolution of this 69-year old corporate pillar, who witnessed the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the Ugandan Flag, at Kololo on October 9, 1962, as one of the six young men representing the youth of Mbarara.

In corporate jargon, BSN stands for Been-there, Seen-it-all, Nothing-to-prove, usually used to refer to people who have reached the pinnacle of achievement and success.

How else would you describe an Honorary Consul, a Queen’s Knight, Honorary Professor, Franchise-Holder for Mercedes, Jeep and Wingle, Publisher, Industrialist, Cultural Advocate, Farmer, and many others, all rolled into one?

One of the key Ugandan entrepreneurs who have witnessed the evolution of corporate Uganda over the last 50 years, Mr Wavamunno advocates for active state support to indigenous enterprises, to enable them compete against multinational companies.

‘We have Ugandans who pioneered business at the time when it was dominated by foreign companies. People like Mzee Asumani Matovu and Mzee Mbiringi in Mbarara, in Kampala, we have Dr James Mulwana, the late Walusimbi Mpanga, the Kulubya family, and many others..’, he says.

These inspired Ugandans into venturing in various sectors of business, including manufacturing. According to him, such entrepreneurs are today outcompeted by foreign multi-nationals; thus, the need for government affirmative action.

The case of GM-Tumpeco, one pillar of the Spear Group stable, is very instructive. Incorporated as GM Company, it is a medium-scale light and heavy engineering industry, with installed capacity to build bus bodies, truck bodies, truck trailers, tractor trailers, water tanks, fuel tankers, water tanks, and light agricultural implements.

‘But because government officials prefer buying foreign-made vehicles, we could not continue manufacturing...we lost market, says Mr Wavamunno, adding that the company built buses for Mbarara University, the Ministry of Health, transporters like Rugaaga Bus Service and others, using chassis imported from Brazil.

Matters have not been helped by lack of government policy on used trucks, which now dominate the Ugandan market, yet with a favourable policy, new trucks locally assembled can be affordable; thus, minimising the effect of the used trucks.

‘Even this market of used vehicles is dominated by foreigners...the money Ugandans spend on these vehicles goes outside the country, not invested here. Government should have a policy prohibiting foreigners from this business, which should be run by Ugandans, who will invest the money here’, he adds.

After buying the state-owned Tumpeco (rebranding as GM-Tumpeco), the enamel products were outcompeted by plastics, while the company has to compete with foreign companies for the supply of hospital beds and related furniture, in government hospitals.

He maintains that Uganda’s economic transformation lies in modern agriculture, to replace subsistence farming. Even with smallholder farmers, a government tractor hire scheme supplemented with irrigation is the way to go, so long as farmers are supported to produce quality produce, even at the small-scale. It is possible, he says, if government reduces expenditure on public administration, including the size of the police.

Youth employment
On youth employment, the Honorary Consul of Hungary in Uganda finds a fault with the disbursement of cash to the youth under the Youth Fund. ‘Giving cash to fresh graduates is dangerous...someone will buy shoes, pay rent...and the money will be finished even before he starts the business.

He argues that the youth should be supported with facilities and space for modern small cottage industries, to engage in production, with quality assurance.

Even simple things like snacks and cakes, what the foreigners are doing here. The facilities should be set up by government or local governments like KCCA, with the youth allowed access and use. This way, they will gain skills and eventually go into big business.

The Future of Corporate Uganda
‘Honesty.’ This is the prompt, curt prescription he gives. Ugandans are not honest. The corruption in the public sector has affected the private sector as well. When the shareholders and managers are honest, each knowing that they earn a living from this company, then, the company will survive. The other factor, he says, is the ability to read the trends and re-adjust accordingly. ‘You let go what cannot continue...we had a city bus service, City Link, but we could not compete with the matatus. We moved out of hotel business, banking, flowers...’

About Wavamunno
Born in 1943 in Rugaaga, Mbarara( present-day Isingiro District), he ventured into business at an early age after his secondary school, having acquired skills and the acumen from assisting his father in running the family retail shop. From his autobiography, he started working for an Asian family in their produce stores in Mbarara, later graduating into buying produce from the villages around Mbarara, selling to the Asians.

Using his first car, he ventured into taxi (special hire) business in Mbarara, eventually growing into a driving school and then, Spear Touring when he relocated to Kampala. This is the mother company that gave birth to the flagship of his business empire, Spear Motors.

Business Empire
The flagship of the group, which he calls the Jewel in the Crown, is Spear Motors Ltd. Principally a Mercedes Benz franchise( with an installed capacity to assemble vehicles at semi-knock-down, SKD stage), the company has diversified into the American brand Jeep and recently brands from China, notably Great Wall and Wingle. Other companies are Wavah Broadcasting Services (WBS TV), Star Times digital satellite television service, Spear House, one of the first modern office blocks in Kampala; Wavah Water; GM Tumpeco, Fancy Furniture that imports high-end office and domestic furniture, Wavah Books and Nakwero Farm in Gayaza.