At Najjanankumbi, on the Kampala-Entebbe Road, there is an imposing piece of architecture. The unmissable building, called Freedom City, houses a hotel, children’s play area, shops and an assortment of other businesses.
Industry players say Mr John Ssebalamu, the owner of the building, spent an estimated $30m (about Shs111b) to erect it.
Mr Ssebalamu, born in Kasanje, Kalungu District, is a cog in a family of first generation billionaires who own a significant part of Kampala City.
Mr Ssebalamu and his brothers – Paul Lubega, John Bosco Muwonge, and Haruna Ssegawa – owe a lot to their sister, Ms Christine Nabukeera, herself a property mogul in Kampala.
In the early 1980s, sources close to the family say the brothers worked closely together running businesses in Masaka.
Mr Ssebalamu, the youngest of the lot, says they struggled together carrying banana clusters and coffee bags on their bicycles from the villages to the market in the peri-urban areas of Masaka.
Change in business
Their sister, Ms Nabukeera, had already migrated to Kampala and saw no hope for her brothers trekking every day to sell perishable commodities in the urban areas. She helped them start an apparel shop in Masaka Township.
“We would come to Kampala to buy apparel in bulk and go back to Masaka where we sold it in our retail shop,” Mr Ssebalamu says.
They had to supplement their incomes by selling some of their apparel in flea markets. “We suffered in the flea markets, especially during rainy seasons,” Mr Ssebalamu says.
Given the nature of flea markets, they moved around major towns in the sub-region in search of clients, thus getting trade exposure and connections.
Mr Lubega had earlier married his wife Gertrude, and Mr Muwonge later also married Gertrude’s sister, Resty.
Mr Ssebalamu later married the sister of his brothers’ wives, Ruth. That makes three brothers married to three sisters. It was on the recommendation of his elder brother that Mr Ssebalamu married Ruth, he says.
“It is my brother John Bosco Muwonge who got for me a wife, who is his wife’s sister. It started as a joke but it has worked for us and we are happy about it,” Mr Ssebalamu says.
“Today, if you are to tell our youth that you are choosing for them a spouse, they will not allow it, but it is good practice. You should allow parents to get for you spouses,” Mr Ssebalamu says.
Mr Ssebalamu says even after Mr Muwonge got him a wife, he helped him throughout while forging an independent life.
It was through those connections that they chose to move to Kampala and continued with trading in apparel near Buganda Bus Park (now Qualicel). They started importing clothes from the Middle East and their businesses grew with time.
Mr Ssebalamu found a gap in the city centre. Dozens of business people were used to operating in a one-old fashioned big shop that was poorly lit and congested.
In the early 1990s, he bought a structure commonly known as Mini Price on Ben Kiwanuka Street and erected the first arcade in Kampala City. His brothers and sisters followed suit.
At the time, there were several old properties that were being sold cheaply, but Ugandans didn’t take interest in investing in them. The family members bought old properties and built arcades.
Today, Mr Ssebalamu owns Freedom City, Capital House, Naiga Chambers and several other properties.
He also established a garment factory in Uganda, but it failed due to the burden of taxes and low incentives. He described failure of the garment factory as government neglect of indigenous investors.
Among his immediate relatives, Mr Ssebalamu is considered to be the most approachable and tolerant to his tenants.
While attending Mr Ssebalamu’s wedding anniversary, Mr Godfrey Kirumira, the chairman of Kwagalana Group, an association that comprises Kampala property moguls, said he has never heard Mr Ssebalamu’s tenants complaining about him.
His elder brother, Mr Muwonge, is considered to be one of the major landlords in the city centre, with properties dotted all over Kisenyi area, Kafumbe-Mukasa Road to Old Kampala and the Central Business District.
In the city centre, he owns Premier Centre on Nabugabo Road, Superior Complex on Ben Kiwanuka Street, Kati Kati Plaza, Premium Centre Building, Boost Arcade, commercial structures for Buganda Bus Park and a dozen others.
Mr Ssebalamu has sometimes been involved in wrangles with occupants of the land he wants to develop.
He was once involved in a bad incident between the Muslim faithful at Kalintunsi area in Kampala where he bought land from some of their leaders. The group that didn’t want him to buy the land attempted to use violence against him. But in one way or the other, he wins the land fights.
His most recent investments are in Kisenyi, where he has bought the biggest chunk of land on which Nabagereka Primary School sat and repurposed it for other commercial activities.
Two major taxi and bus parks in Kisenyi are owned by Mr Muwonge, and he has upgraded the once marshy areas to a new trading centre.
He is now offering shops to tenants for three months without paying rent to attract business in Kisenyi.
Mr John Kabanda, the chairman of Kampala New Generation Traders Association (KNGTA), says Mr Muwonge established one of the biggest shopping malls in Kisenyi called Gwanda and he has cut rent in addition to three months of free rent for new tenants.
“He has promised us not to increase rent for five years. The shops of the same size that we have been renting at Shs3m, Shs4m and Shs7m in the Central Business District, he has brought it down to Shs300,000, Shs800,000 and Shs1m respectively,” Mr Kabanda said.
On Kafumbe-Mukasa Road, he constructed a building near Usafi Market in Kalitunsi area. Across the road, he bought part of the land owned by a Muslim faction and constructed an arcade. A few metres away, he bought a 1.2 acre piece of land on which the army veterans under Kampala Veterans’ Development Association Limited (KAVEDA) had a market and established commercial structures.
He also owns Namayiba Bus terminal and the buildings that sandwich it.
But he has been involved in running battles with his tenants as they protest increases in rent. At one of his arcades near Arua Park on Ben Kiwanuka Street, a raise in rent resulted in a protest which ended in a shooting that left one dead.
But Mr Kabanda said Mr Muwonge has greatly improved his relationship with tenants.
“We talked to him about rent arrears during the lockdown for the tenants in his buildings in the Central Business District (and) he has promised to negotiate,” Mr Kabanda said.
Their sister, Ms Nabukeera, is one of the few women in the city centre with shopping arcades in Kampala.
Ms Nabukeera owns Kisekka Auto Centre Plaza, Victor Plaza in Kikuubo Business Hub, Nana Arcade in Nabugabo, among others.
Like her brother Muwonge, she is tough on rent paid by her clients and would often raise it when the Uganda shillings slid against the dollars.
Her tenants at Kisekka Market had to close their shops protesting increase of rent last year. Ms Nabukeera’s response was that she had loans to pay.
Ms Nabukeera’s brother, Mr Lubega and Mr Ssegawa, too have heavily invested in property in the city centre.
Mr Lubega, who is the most reserved of all, has several buildings in Kisenyi and Kafumbe-Mukasa Road.
Mr Ssegawa, like his brothers, started by putting up a commercial structure in Kikuubo, a city business hub then bought properties and land outside the Central Business District, especially in Kisenyi.
Mr Ssegawa also trained his children, including Mr Hamis Kiggundu and Mr Haruna Ssentongo, into investing in property business.
Mr Kiggundu, in his 30s, now owns Ham Enterprise that has developed commercial structures around Nakivubo stadium.
Mr Ssebalamu, the youngest of the lot, owns Freedom City, Capital House, Naiga Chambers and several other properties.
John Bosco Muwonge
He owns Premier Centre on Nabugabo Road, Superior Complex on Ben Kiwanuka Street, Kati Kati Plaza, Premium Center Building, Boost Arcade, commercial structures for Buganda Bus Park and a dozen others.
Ms Nabukeera owns Kisekka Auto Center Plaza, Victor Plaza in Kikuubo Business Hub, Nana Arcade in Nabugabo, among others
Having each other’s back
Despite the successes and expansion, some of the family members have challenges, for instance paying back bank loans.
Last year, a City Bank attempted to auction Nabukeera’s building over alleged failure to repay a loan.
Given the family network, these relatives and their friends bail out each other financially and sometimes sell buildings to their members to offset debts and financial distress.
The family members continue to work together. On January 7, 2018, when Mr Ssebalamu and his wife were celebrating his marriage anniversary at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at Rubaga in Kampala City, his brothers, Mr Lubega and Mr Muwonge were by his side, alongside their wives.
Ms Ruth Ssebalamu says unlike other men, who get wealth and then abandon the women they struggled with in the first place, her husband has been exceptional.
“He has been with me throughout. I thank him and his brothers for loving us,” she says.
Masaka Bishop Emeritus John Baptist Kaggwa said the unit of their families has been key to their success.
“When the husband goes to Dubai [United Arab Emirates], the wife remains in the business and does everything with transparency. They looked at marriage differently. Their marriage is about friendship,” Bishop Kaggwa said.
“Can you believe Ssebalamu started working on a bicycle and in the alleys of Masaka Town? But they now own buildings on Entebbe Road. Thank you for being a family of the people,” he said.