Donat Kananura: Houseboy to business mogul

Sunday September 15 2019

St Donati Catholic Church in Kanungu which  Kana

St Donati Catholic Church in Kanungu which Kananura built for his community. Inset (R)Kananura during the interview at his home and inset (L), the family of Kananura during his childhood. PHOTOS BY RACHEL MABALA/COURTESY 

By Gabriel C Buule

Long before Kananura was born, a fortuneteller told his father that a son would be born to him who would save his people from poverty. The prophecy gave hope to Kananura’s father who had been unable to have children with his wife. Out of frustration he married a second wife and the two had a son. He, however, divorced her following pressure from the church.

Kananura was raised by his grandparents after the divorce. He was two years old at the time of divorce. His father passed on two years later. Being orphaned at such a young age, taught him self-sufficiency; he had to work to earn his school fees. To give his life purpose, Kananura chose the bible scripture, Hebrews 11: 1 (Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) as the foundation of his life.

“I would do odd jobs for as many as five families in Kabale. Those days (1950s) the wealthiest families were either Indians or British, those are the people I worked for,” Kananura explains. After leaving school in level six, Kananura tried his hand at any manual job that promised to give him a semblance of financial independence.

“I have been a porter on construction sites, shamba boy, washer boy, turn boy, a market clerk and a carpenter to mention but a few. I did any job that was available that I could qualify for. As a 17-year-old school dropout, my options were limited to the menial jobs,” he adds.

Kananura’s path to wealth
Kananura’s first substantial salary was Shs30 at a construction site in 1954. He later upgraded as a mason for which he was paid Shs90. “The life of a porter is not an easy one. You work hard yet you are underpaid. As a result I was always tired and hungry because I could not afford to feed myself well enough. I quit as soon as I got another job,” Kananura shares. The new job was with a wealthy Indian family in Kabale where he worked as a houseboy.

“My employer was kind to me. Not only did he treat me humanely but he went out of his way to give me basic maths lessons,” Kananura recollects, adding that although at that time he was unaware, his boss was grooming him so that he could be able to handle bigger responsibilities and earn a decent pay in the process.

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As soon as the Indian was satisfied with Kananura’s capability he turned him into the company’s procurement officer. The job was short-lived however after his boss was fired by his firm for shoddy transactions.

The entrepreneurial journey
The youthful Kananura having tasted and seen how different life can be with enough money was not willing to go back to menial jobs. His gig as a procurement officer had exposed him to the business community and he had made valuable connections and friendships.
“I consulted with my friends about what business I could do with my little savings and make some money. I was advised to tap into the garment industry that was booming at the time (1957). I bought a sewing machine and my friend Karema gave me lessons so I could do the tailoring myself,” Kananura relates.

While he was still mastering tailoring lessons, his former boss who had found another job at a tin mine made him the mine clerk. He did not give up on the tailoring business though but decided to do it in the evening and weekends so as not to clash with his day job.
A year later, Kananura relocated to Kyeshero-Kayonza, Kanungu District to establish his business. In addition to tailoring, he also ventured into the coffee and paraffin business.

“I would travel to DR Congo to buy coffee and paraffin to bring it to Kabale. This was a journey of about 25 kilometres while carrying 85 kilogrammes of coffee daily but it was worth it. I managed to make a lot of profit since the two commodities were on demand,” Kananura adds. As the business grew, Kananura needed more supplies so he employed 30 young men to ferry the goods and opened up stores.

He invested his profits in a tea plantation in Kayonza and started looking around for other profitable business he could invest in.

Robbed clean
Kananura’s business involved travel and he believed that buying a car would make it easier. He saved enough money for the same purpose. As he was still debating on whether to buy a car or invest the money in another business, he was approached by a gentleman who convinced him to join the tin business. The gentleman showed him the amount of money he could make. it was more than he was making from paraffin and coffee combined. The only challenge was finding the tin.

Kananura set off in the quest for tin all the way into Congo with all his savings. Unfortunately, Congo was in a state of anarchy with each area being controlled by armed factions. He was arrested by one of these factions and they took away everything he had.

“I left as a well-off businessman chasing more wealth and returned penniless. Thank God that my wife and mother had some savings that helped us through this period. I also went back to my tailoring business to get some capital to help me buy more coffee,” he says.

Hitting the big time
At this point Kananura had learnt the importance of social capital and being disciplined. Because of his honesty and fairness while transacting business, Kananura was trusted and loved by the Congolese business community enough to get goods on credit.

“They told me that since I was trustworthy; they would trust me with a gold nugget so that I could sell for them in Kampala which I did,” recounts Kananura.

Kananura sold the gold nugget and after paying the Congolese their share; he still had enough balance to buy a car.
“I realised this was a big deal. But in order to make it a safe and profitable business, we needed to establish rules and guidelines. I started an umbrella body of gold dealers in Uganda and I became a treasurer,” he shares.

Kananura who never ditched his coffee business continued to invest in gold, owning deposits in Uganda and selling in Kenya.

Giving back to the community
Between 1968 and 1969, he built Kyeshero Primary School, Nyamiyaga in Kanungu District which he gave to the community and entrusted it to the government under the ministry of Education. In addition to the school, Kananura provided piped water seven kilometres away from Butogota Trading Centre in Kanungu District.

He is also the helping hand behind Kyeshero Secondary School where he built teachers quarters, classes, sickbay, laboratory, offices and also pays teachers’ salaries. In addition he supports the Catholic Church which the community chose to name after him St Donati Catholic Church, Kyeshero Kanungu.

Inspiring the young generation
Even-though Kananura had all avenues and money, he says he refused to engage in any dubious business and drugs and he always asks youth to shun drugs and dubious dealings.
He also advises people not to be reckless with their money. “Keep your money to help you when you are old,” Kananura advises

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