James Mulwana died as simply as he lived. When the industrialist, farmer and respected business leader felt discomfort on Monday night, he drove himself to Nakasero Hospital in Kampala.
Never one for drama or the showboating that money drags in through the door, Mulwana drove himself around the city for many years, despite the snide remarks from his equally wealthy friends.
Eventually he hired a driver, but out of pragmatism, not pride.
“We had to compel him to have a driver. But it turned out that the person who was supposed to be driving him became the boss,” Kaddu Kiberu, board chairman of Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA), which Mulwana helped found and support, said yesterday.
“The driver would take the back seat as he drove and only sat behind the steering wheel to find a parking spot for the vehicle.”
Despite finding wealth, Mulwana never really forgot his humble origins.
When he was born in 1936, the indigenous business class in Uganda and especially Buganda was becoming increasingly restive, agitating for a level playing field with their Asian and European counterparts.
He was, in many ways, a child of the riots in the country in the 1930s and 1940s and, without much formal education, found his way to the world of business. By 1961 he had joined the import-export business and in 1967 he established Uganda Batteries Limited, an automotive battery manufacturing entity. Initially the company, Associated Battery Manufacturers Limited, was in partnership with Chloride (UK) Limited, but Mulwana would take full ownership in 1990. In 1970, he established Ship toothbrush factory Limited (later changed to Nice House of Plastics Limited in 1995) which went on to manufacture toothbrushes, household plastic products, writing instruments like ball pens, packaging products soda and beer crates, jerry cans as well as agricultural equipment (knapsack sprayers)
If you went to school in Uganda in the 80s and 90s, you probably wrote using a pen, ate off a plate, or took a bath in a basin manufactured by Mulwana’s firm. Or drove in a car powered by one of his batteries.
Mulwana contributed to Uganda’s economy in three fundamental ways. The first, was to contribute to the indigenisation of the manufacturing and industrial sector, which was (and continues to be) dominated by the Uganda Asians.
His second major contribution was to add value to the country’s agricultural produce. Where politicians spewed rhetoric or threw good money after bad, in one mega agricultural programme after another, Mulwana quietly but diligently set up Jesa Mixed Farm in 1988 – long before “value addition” was mentioned in a political speech.
With a herd of 550 Friesian cows, the farm later expanded into Jesa Farm Dairy Limited (1994), with a milk processing, pasteurising and packaging plant to produce packed milk, butter, yoghurt and cream.
In 1992, Mulwana had started Nsimbe Estate Limited, mainly involved in horticultural farming for export of cut flowers, in a joint venture with a German partner. And in 2002, he would form Jesa Investments Limited, a commercial property development entity.
Mulwana’s third contribution was in organising his fellow local entrepreneurs and serving as an inspiration to many starting out in business. Apart from UMA which he helped kick-start in 1988, he was also instrumental in the set-up of the Private Sector Foundation Uganda, a body that, like UMA, is a pro-business lobby.
“It will take us decades to have a man like Mr Mulwana,” Gerald Sendaula, a friend, former finance minister and key player in both organisations said yesterday.
“We had to drag him along each time we had a meeting anywhere in the country. His presence alone each time we were meeting the President was enough. And when I was in government where we would find difficulties, we would drag him along with us—and that was enough to have matters sorted. As far as I am concerned, Mr Mulwana was a gift to this country.”
A fair man
Gordon Wavamunno, a self-made entrepreneur himself who knew the departed for over 50 years, said yesterday that Mulwana always reached out to other budding businesspeople.
“I don’t remember him taking sides all through the time I have known him,” he said. “He wanted all of us to succeed.”
That turned the humble, self-made man into one of the titans in the country’s corporate boardrooms, putting him on the boards of A-list companies like Airtel, Standard Chartered Bank, Umeme and several others.
Ultimately, Mulwana’s biggest contribution was to the country. In a society where robber barons and get-rich-quick con artists are serenaded, and where overnight “tycoons” of questionable provenance are celebrated, Mulwana remained true to his humble origins; a self-made man who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps.
Several anecdotes poured forth yesterday as news of his passing went around. One person recalled attending a burial ceremony where Mulwana went around serving tea to peasants and other humble mourners.
That clean reputation was tested in the aftermath of the Chogm feeding frenzy when questions were asked about accountability for a forum he had helped organise but he eventually emerged with his reputation intact, his record unblemished.
He remained a simple man right to the end. Doctors pronounced him dead in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Details were not immediately clear but family sources said he had developed complications from a long-standing stomach ailment.
And when death did come calling, it found Mulwana ready; family sources said he had willed that his burial should take place as soon as possible, with minimum fuss.
The industrialist also asked that his funeral be made as simple as possible, his remains to be laid to rest at his farm without the hassle of a public viewing of the body, et cetera, and that his death should not disrupt his business.
Family members yesterday advised against a post-mortem examination being done while resisting calls from several quarters to put the burial off until the weekend to allow dignitaries to pay their final respects.
James Mulwana would not have had it any other way. He is survived by a widow, Sara, and three children: Geoffrey, Primrose and Barbara.
Makerere University Management and the entire community have learnt with great shock of the sudden death of our dearly beloved Professor James Mulwana. The late Professor was a selfless man of immense business acumen and skills we would all like to have. As one of the founder Trustees of Makerere University Private Sector Forum, Professor Mulwana played a big role in bridging the gap between the academia and the private sector. Makerere will always remember him for exposing the university to the Commonwealth Business Forum (CHOGM 2007). We shall also remember him for opening up links for the University with UK and China based industrial parks in order to help Makerere plan her own Science and Technology Park. In December 2006, James Mulwana was awarded Honorary Professor of Makerere University to facilitate the training of students especially through internship. His entrepreneurial giftedness helped Makerere in her bid to link up with the Private Sector and to strengthen the University’s ability to respond to the changing economic demands. Our hearts go to the Mulwana Family. In this difficult moment, trust in God. He is the answer. We shall dearly miss him. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Professor John Ddumba Ssentamu
Vice Chancellor, Makerere University
On behalf of the Board, Management and Staff of Umeme and on my own behalf, we join the family and the nation in mourning the sudden passing of a dear friend, mentor and invaluable board member Dr James Mulwana. Over the years we have been privileged to work with him, seek his counsel and tap into his wealth of experience and knowledge. It is going to be difficult to imagine business in Uganda without the icon that was at the heart of the industrialisation of Uganda. I know that mere words cannot match the grief his wife, children and family are going through but I hope it helps to know how much he meant for us and did for us. We shall always remember James by aiming higher, being better and by pursuing success with the same kind of energy, grit and determination he did.
May God bless our dear friend with eternal rest and may perpetual light shine upon him.
Chairman, Umeme Limited
Government of Uganda has learnt with shock and sorrow the sudden death of the Honorary Consul for the Royal Kingdom of Thailand, James Mulwana Mulwana will be remembered as a genuine industrialist and philanthropist who contributed to the development of Uganda and Africa as a whole. Mulwana was not only a true patriot but also a friend of the NRM government and all peace loving Ugandans. He will be remembered for his extreme modesty and discipline. He was known for his dedication, sheer hard work, humility and honesty. Indeed, he was a man of peace. Government of Uganda would like to extend special condolences to the bereaved family at this trying moment.
May the good Lord rest his soul in eternal peace.
Mary Karooro Okurut (MP)
Minister of Information And National Guidance