Pope Francis’ little black car

Joseph Ssemuwemba is nostalgic about having been part of the team that modified the black car that the pontiff used. He says the car had no special features. PHOTO by Faiswal Kasirye

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Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Uganda will be a major highlight of 2015, not because he is the third Holy Father to visit Uganda but due to the simplicity with which he approaches life and mostly his choice of ordinary transport wherever he has gone. Daily Monitor’s Albert Tumwine traced the suppliers of the vehicle that Pope Francis used during his visit to Uganda, to share their experience of preparing for the Pope’s transport, having learned that the vehicle was sourced and supplied in Uganda by The Motorcenter East Africa – distributors for Kia vehicles in Uganda

Joseph Ssemuwemba is the Chief Executive Officer of The Motorcenter East Africa Ltd. I found him in his office located on Plot 16 Old Portbell Road attending to his daily work. He was happy to share his experience of securing the opportunity to supply the Papal vehicle, and also the pressure that comes with such honour.

“We know the Pope prefers modest transport and we have a history of the Pope having travelled in a Kia Soul while in South Korea and the interesting part here, is that this was his personal choice in Seoul, It wasn’t about government availing him any transport, it was about “of all these cars on this list what car would you like to use?” and his pick was the boxy stylish Kia Soul,” Ssemuwemba says.

He explains that when it was announced that Uganda was among the countries Pope Francis was planning to visit in 2015, Ssemuwemba saw a business opportunity and acted swiftly.
“Riding on that history we started to look around to see how we can get to supply the Kia Soul for the Pope’s transport.”

“We wrote introductory letters to different establishments of the church. There was no expression of interest to buy at that time, and nobody invited us but we were just being proactive to go and see different prospective decision makers in this process.”

Although there was imminent need for a vehicle for the Pope’s transport, Ssemuwemba recalls, it was difficult at the start because the Papal visit had not been confirmed and those responsible had not yet taken particular decisions like budgeting for his transport.
“It turned out that in the many places we visited we did not hit it right. We were spot-on about the requirement but not on the effective demand.

Sniffing for the opportunity
Ssemuwemba says his team went to several church departments but did not stop at that, he went to Ministry of Foreign Affairs which turned out to be one of the departments that was responsible for handling some issues around the Papal visit.

“We visited Ministry of Foreign Affairs whom we knew had the docket for the Pope’s visit and true to our instinct; we found that there was a committee that was looking at the preparations for the Papal visit. It came to our knowledge that a lot of options were being looked at, in this case, all the car companies in Uganda were considered, but we went ahead to give our points on why it had to be the Kia Soul and not any other car for the Pope,” says Ssemuwemba.

He adds that it was not easy as he had a lot of explanations and justifications to present before the committee.
“We gave a number of alternatives: Kia Soul, Kia Sportage and the Kia Sorento. The Sorento would be the one to be converted into an open car for the Pope. We had a lot of interactions in order to have all issues ironed out. So we narrowed down our focus to the Kia Soul and the Kia Sorento.

Beating the competition
“After making a lot of explanations and justifications, they saw reason in what we were saying and subsequently invited us to formally bid with the Ministry of Works and Transport.” We hinged our effort on previous vehicles used by Pope Francis, specifically the Kia Soul that he used in South Korea in August 2014. We prayed about it and waited. To make a long story short, at the end of the day we got the letter of award and from that time a lot of activities began,” he says.

He says from then on, officials from the Vatican, various departments and the Ministry of Works asked to inspect the car and suggested adjustments to be made.

Change colour

Sanding in preparation for spray-painting. The original colour of the car Pope Francis used was golden brown. Courtesy Photo

He says that some of the suggestions included having the car in one solid dark colour given that the cars originally offered were toffee in color. The other was a two toned colour; dark blue with a white top.

“On inspection the team said no, it has to be either re-sprayed all blue or black. It was a good opportunity to give the Pope a befitting colour of VVIP black.”
“We went through the Uganda Revenue Authority process to have the car re-sprayed at our workshop to a very shiny non-ordinary black” says Ssemuwemba.

Remove tinted window glasses
“Another aspect that was raised was that the Pope prefers clear window glasses in the cars that he drives in and in the motoring world, cars that have a higher accessory level like the Kia Soul have privacy windows. Not tinted the way we know the word with a certain level of shade,” Ssemuwemba says, adding that, “we had to make a special order so that the Pope could enjoy clear glass. We also had to do some simple fabrications for the flag pole that was going to be mounted on the car.”

No special features
Ssemuwemba shares that when the car was imported, they did not know who it was that would buy it. However like all Kia vehicles supplied by the Motorcenter, they had aimed to have a fairly higher accessory level than what is ordinarily available in the Ugandan car market.

“We ordered that Kia Soul from factory as ordinary precautionary stock for people to buy so it was not anything specially prepared for the Pope until the time when we had to change colour, window glasses and fabricate for the pole,”
The pressure

He says that by the time the final preparations were done on the car the air around the Motorcenter was of spiritual enrichment and feeling elevated and everyone was doing their with spiritual motivation.

“From the time we were told to prepare the car to the final day of delivery, the whole of the Motorcenter team set that Kia Soul apart as sacred, it attracted a lot of care, attention and respect up to the moment we exited it from our private bond. It got very special attention and not everybody was supposed to drive it, I drove it myself to and from the different work bays and it would be locked all the time,” Ssemuwemba says.

Delivering the vehicle
Ssemuwemba says that the car was ready ten days before the Pope arrived but it had become a challenge continuing to keep it in our premises. We were anxious to hand it over so that other people - security and other groups can take over, as well as get the time to appreciate the awesomeness of the Kia Soul. The Kia Soul has an eye catching appearance, and it has a deceptive outlook where it looks small on the outside but very spacious on the inside.

“When it was finally ready for delivery, we kept asking if we could deliver the car now.”

“I called the Permanent Secretary and the Project engineers who, equally overwhelmed by the Pope’s spiritual status, asked, ‘can you please keep it for the meantime?’. We did not want to keep it any longer at all. Finally they told us they had found a place to park it. A lot of the hesitation was stemming from the sacred status of the car, it’s unique and important purpose and also for security reasons.

It was very important for me to personally deliver the car, that I did so even though it was raining heavily,” he shares.
Ssemuwemba says that after delivering the vehicle, the Motorcenter team waited until the day of the Pope’s arrival then turned their eyes to television waiting to see their beautiful Kia Soul fulfil its purpose.

“On the day the Pope arrived we had our usual Friday drink up at work and everyone was excited to catch glimpse of the Soul. It was exciting seeing members of the Pope’s team driving the car back and forth before the Pope got into it. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and we all screamed. I usually shout when Arsenal scores but I shouted way louder this time and nearly lost my voice from screaming in excitement. It was a proud moment, a monumemtal achievement for all the team, to see the fruition of our labor and effort, a chance for the entire world to celebrate us. It was a win for Kia globally as well, to have the Pope choose the Kia Soul for the second time.

The Papal effect

From the many cars that were lined up for the Pontiff, he chose the Kia Soul, a car similar to the one he used in Korea. PHOTOS BY RACHEL MABALA

When the Pope used the Kia in South Korea in August 2014, the sales of the car went up by 63 percent. Two weeks after the Pope’s visit, Ssemuwemba says that he has received over ten inquiries and one firm order for the Kia Soul.

About the Kia Soul
Made in South Korea, the Kia Soul is a classy, durable vehicle with good fuel economy and a high level of comfort according to Ssemuwemba. He adds that it is not an ordinary vehicle per se, but when you are talking about the Papal figure and his global status, the Kia Soul is considered humble and ordinary.

We asked him why the Pope would choose Kia over Japanese brands that are well known in Uganda. Mr. Ssemuwemba put it succinctly and to quote him “Ugandans are slower to recognize global trends, preferring to ride with the tide. Case in point, few Ugandans have noticed that actually their preferred brands now are LG, Samsung or Hankook all from South Korea. They can’t remember when they last bought the Japanese brands Panasonic, Sony or JVC, and are surprised when you point out that LG, Samsung and Kia are Korean brands that are taking over the world.”

When the Pope chooses Kia for the second time, being a global leader, he has technically endorsed his global status with a global brand that is now the fastest growing vehicle brand, and the 5th largest vehicle manufacturer in the whole world.

Ssemuwemba urged Ugandans to read the signs and seize the opportunity to go with global trends, to buy Kia - a global design leader known for affordability, durability, value for money and longest warranty.

The Motorcenter East Africa was very honoured to have met the Pope’s personal requirement for the Kia Soul that transported him to all his destinations in due elegance, comfort, modesty, style, speed, safety, and in time.

About Ssemuwemba
Mr Ssemuwemba is one of very few Certified Chartered Marketers in Uganda, having attended Makerere University for a bachelors’ degree in Business Administration and later a Master’s of Science in Marketing at the University of Glamorgan, in Wales. He also attended the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the UK. He has been in the motoring business since 1996, and brought this wealth of knowledge to establish and grow the Motorcenter East Africa which celebrated its 10 year milestone this year.