Mukwano: From a shopkeeper in 1980s to regional investor

Friday July 12 2019

Gone. The late chief executive officer of

Gone. The late chief executive officer of Mukwano Group of Companies, Amirali Karmali, at his offices in Fort Portal, Kabarole District. PHOTO BY ALEX ASHABA 


Amirali Karmali, popularly known by his trade name Mukwano, has gone to a destination of no return but in his trail, he has left an indelible legacy of unparallelled resilience against odds and enviable success in business.
Prior to the infamous mass expulsion of Asians by the then president Idi Amin in 1972, Karmali had been living in Gomba County, now a district.

He fled to Kenya where he later started the journey to build his vast Mukwano business empire in Uganda and the region.
Through a man called Muwonge, Amirali linked up with the late Egesa Njola, who owned Egesa Commercial Agency on Dustar Street in Nakasero. He was popularly known by his first name, Amirali.
“It was Mr Muwonge who told Mr Egesa that there were Indians in Nairobi who wanted to come back to Uganda in 1977. So they went and met him and they came back with Amirali and other Indians,” recalls Ms Justine Egesa, Njola’s daughter.

Since Asians had been expelled, other Asians abroad used to send fabrics, electronics such as TV sets and fridges to Amirali to sell in the local market.
Egesa and Amirali later teamed up and smuggled 17 Indians, among them Yusuf Karmali, his young brother (former a rally driver), into Uganda through Zaire, now DR Congo.

When President Amin learnt that some Asians had discreetly returned to Uganda, he ordered the then Inspector General of Police, Kassim Obura to arrest them. Egesa and Amirali were arrested.
This misadventure earned the Egesa family incessant harassment from State Research Bureau operatives who thought Egesa was an Indian.
It was upon the arrest of Ms Jane Egesa that the state operatives realised Mr Egesa was an indigenous Ugandan.

“I remember the war (between Uganda and Tanzania) was about to start, when Amirali and Mzee Egesa were arrested. Amirali and Mzee [Egesa] were released on bond. Mzee was being accused of returning the Indians. Every day, he would drive to the shop, where he would be handcuffed and taken where the trial would be. Because the war was looming, Mzee Egesa had shipped all the children to Busia but I refused to go.

One day, before going out, he told me; ‘If I do not come back by morning, know I have been killed, close the house and go to Busia. Luckily enough, he returned at midnight and he said he had not been found guilty,” Ms Egesa recalls. She says when she asked her father what had happened, he said his co-accused Indians had been found to be non-Ugandans and were deported through Entebbe but Amirali had been spared.

“Later that day, Amirali came to Najjanankumbi guarded by soldiers in a vehicle. They drove us [the family] to Busia. Amirali continued to Nairobi,” Ms Egesa recounts.
After the fall of Amin, Amirali returned from Nairobi but found both shops had been looted. He later continued operating in Egesa Commercial Agencies on Dustar Street in which he was a shareholder and later opened Mukwano Enterprises on Luwum Street selling fabrics.

First cut. The truck that the late Amirali

First cut. The truck that the late Amirali Karmali first drove. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa


He later bequeathed his shares to his young brother, Mr Yusuf Karmali and settled in Mukwano Enterprises. His other relatives one Patel set up a shop on Namirembe Road.

It is believed the name Mukwano (a local word for friendship) was derived from the strong friendship between Amirali (Indian) and Egesa (Ugandan) that helped the former open business in Uganda, which later morphed into a regional business expire.
Egesa and Amirali later fell out. Egesa was a supporter of Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) headed by Yoweri Museveni, now President while Amirali supported the then ruling party, Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), in 1980.

“What I remember is that Mzee Egesa was UPM but he was not happy when Amirali funded UPC, a party he never supported,” Mr Joseph Kiyingi, who worked closely with both men, says. Mr Freddie Egesa, a son of the late Egesa and now a private investigator, says his father and Amirali’s businesses were looted several times during the chaotic period and after the fall of Amin.

Amirali tried to protect his business but could not stop the looters who had brought a bulldozer to raze his shop.
They broke into the shop, triggering a stampede and one woman, a looter, was crushed to death inside Mukwano Enterprises shop.

After the 1985 military coup, Amirali continued trading in fabrics. He later acquired land and built a factory on present day Mukwano Road producing soap, cooking oil, plastic containers and other products such as chairs, tables and diverse items.
Mukwano products have become a household name in Ugandan homesteads. His small Mukwano Enterprises on Luwum Street in the 1980s grew into a huge empire expanding into forex bureaus, real estate, tea estate in Fort Portal where he produced Mukwano Tea and other industrial products.

When government liberalised the economy in the early 1990s, Amirali utilised his enterprise acumen to build a strong business empire that has footprints across Africa.
Former Trade minister Daudi Migereko said: “He was able to use the opportunity of a conducive investment to grow his business.”

Infrastructure. Mukwano Shopping Arcade was one

Infrastructure. Mukwano Shopping Arcade was one of the first malls Amirali Karmali constructed. File photo

Mr Moses Byaruhanga, a senior presidential adviser on political affairs, says the other specific government intervention that helped Amirali grow his business was liberalisation of foreign exchange.

“In 1980s, Bank of Uganda had a system of Window One and Window Two, which made it hard for importers like Mukwano to access forex because they had to first apply to the Bank of Uganda. But the President later ordered the opening of forex bureaus, which helped Mukwano and others to easily access foreign currency,” he said. In mid 1990s, Amirali expanded his business to real estate. During the government divesture programme, Amirali bought former Uganda Transport Company parking yard and built Mukwano Arcade.

More expansion
He also bought land behind former Mitchell Cotts (which now hosts Mega supermarket) and built another shopping mall, but he later sold it to Seroma Enterprises.
Around the same time, he built another arcade at the former children’s Public Library on Ben Kiwanuka Street opposite Arua Park.
He built another arcade at former Kyaggwe Road Primary School and built Bai Hospital in Old Kampala on Rashid Khamis Road. He gave it to his daughter to manage it. All his arcades have a similar external design of red clay bricks.

As Amirali’s business empire expanded, the family developed misunderstandings. As he grew older and weaker, Amirali moved to Fort Portal where he lived most of the time.
Visiting him one time at Mukwano Arcade in Kampala, Amirali, in company of Col Andrew Lutaaya, told Egesa’s children: “Aah, wamma abaana b’Egesa mubulire oyo bwenakolamu ebintu byange” (Aah Egesa’s children, tell him how I made my wealth).
“Lutaaya nze tonsobola, bwekuba ku simagolinga nsobola, tonsobola ggwe” loosely meaning: “Lutaaya, I am incomparable, you cannot estimate my capacity; if it’s smuggling I can smuggle and you cannot rival me,” Amirali joked.