Meet the agri-business entrepreneur raking in millions

Robert Rutebemberwa shows off some accolades he has won in his office along Mackansingh Street in Mbarara District. Photo by Felix Ainebyoona

What you need to know:

  • Robert Rutebemberwa, the owner of Birya United Agencies, tried his hand at several businesses before settling for an agri-business enterprise. He tells Eronie Kamukama about the rough patches he went through to build a business earning a net profit of Shs25m a month.
  • Within a span of three years, Mr Rutebemberwa had saved Shs10m. Together with his two friends, they began selling coffee as agents. He says he would buy from Rwanda and Tanzania and sell to coffee exporters in Uganda.

At only 15 years, Mr Robert Rutebemberwa worked in his mother’s restaurant in Kihihi, rural Kanungu District. He also sold beans and goats in the market. Little did he know that an entrepreneurial spirit was kindling within him.
After completing ‘A’ level at Kihihi High School in 1989, Mr Rutebemberwa parted with the village and enrolled for a Diploma in Business Studies at National College of Business Studies in Nakawa.

Right out of college in 1991, he got a job as a manager at Agip Motel in Mbarara District. He earned Shs500,000 but in order to increase his income, he ventured into a private outside catering business as he recalled the childhood joy of working with his mother.
While at the motel, Mr Rutebemberwa grew his contacts given his managerial position. He says one of his clients, a coffee exporter at the time, asked him to join the coffee business as a supplier.
Within a span of three years, Mr Rutebemberwa had saved Shs10m. Together with his two friends, they began selling coffee as agents. He says he would buy from Rwanda and Tanzania and sell to coffee exporters in Uganda.
Although he had retained his job at the motel, he resigned after working for three years,
“In 1994, I opted out to do my private business. The work was not worth the pay,” he recalls.
Tough times
The coffee business performed well until 1995 when he suffered what he describes as a “very big loss.” A kilogramme of coffee that once cost Shs3,000 dropped to Shs1,300.
“Internationally, the coffee prices went down and we got a very big loss. We had made Shs45m and my share was Shs15m. I think I remained with Shs3m after,” he explains. He terminated the coffee business and hopped onto another.
In 1996, with a Shs2m loan and Shs3m, he invested in distributing soft drinks.
“I applied for the distributorship of Pepsi Cola products in Mbarara and it was also not easy because there was dominance of those old men who had monopolised the business,” he shares.
Unfortunately, Crown Beverages Limited overturned its distributorship policy from buying from the factory to buying from the company depots or company trucks. This meant he had to transport his sodas at a higher cost.
He says: “I would hire lorries taking merchandise from along the Kampala-Mbarara Road. This was not favourable to me because I had to incur more costs. Also, the depots started selling to customers who needed two crates.”
He opted out of this business too.
In the same year, he was tempted to join the coffee business and ended up selling coffee to Coffee Marketing Board. After seven months of trade, he says: “I remained with less than a million because the agents sold poor quality coffee and stole some of the money.”
Mr Rutebemberwa then concentrated on outside catering and opened Entry View restaurant at “Amahembe g’ente” in Mbarara town, a move he says helped him to recover.
In 1997, offers rolled in and he got a tender to supply cooked food to suspects within Uganda Police Force.
He says this job was very demanding yet there was delayed payment, a problem attributed to inadequate funds.
“Every month, my supply per region was worth between Shs2 million and Shs4 million without pay. Unpaid money accumulated and I could not even maintain it so I took loans to service the tender,” he narrates.
Currently, his supplies are worth between Shs500 million and Shs800 million per month.
In 2001, he decided to name the business Birya United Agencies though it continued to operate informally.
With a Shs70m pay cheque in his hands, he took another tender to supply agricultural produce such as sugar, maize flour (posho), beans and rice to Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF), a business he admits has been difficult because of delay in payments.
In 2003, he formalised the business with the Registrar of companies because it aids in bidding for tenders and tracking one’s taxes.
The company located along Mackansingh street in Mbarara Municipality currently supplies Ugandan Police Force and UPDF in all regions. He buys agro-products from agents all over the country depending on where they are needed.
He has learnt a lot from his failed businesses.
“Because of the experience I had in the past, I decided to deal with agents who have established businesses already,” he says.
To date, Mr Rutebemberwa continues braving the hard times despite the small profit margin.
Contracts stipulate the paying time as at least after 30 days but Mr Rutebemberwa says the company spends seven months without pay.

Success tips
Any serious person can succeed in this business because people have to eat. One has to have the capital, patience and knowledge to persist in the market.

What others say

Birya United Agencies supplies agricultural produce such as sugar, maize flour (posho), beans and rice to Uganda Peoples Defense Forces. Others believe government should support local business people.

“He is a good negotiator and accurate with a sober mind. He believes in team work which has stabilised his business for a long time. There is steady progress as he employs more than 100 workers,”
Charles Tumuhimbise, general manager Birya United agencies

“He is hard working. His enterprises have benefited many people as he is a developmental entrepreneur who has also started a soap factory. He should be uplifted as a Ugandan other than government supporting foreign investors,”
Geoffrey Turyatunga, Operations manager Birya united agencies

How Rutebemberwa overcame the challenges of starting a business

He has persisted because he believes it is better to supply a consistent customer base. He explains that the business is surviving because his agents supply him food on credit. In addition, the loans have kept him going although they feed into his profit margin due to high interest rates.
The other challenge is limited knowledge on taxation which he claims exposes them to losses.
“URA takes advantage and takes what is not theirs. They charge you VAT [Value Added Tax] when these people you are supplying cannot allow you to charge them more,” he says.

Mr Rutebemberwa notes a significant growth in business. Birya United Agencies earns a net profit of Shs25m in a month.
The company emerged seventh in the Top 100 mid-sized companies’ competition. He joined this competition to benefit from the trainings and networking opportunities. He says there has been a lot to learn as he has been able to reorganise the company and streamline responsibilities within the accounting and management departments.
He realised he needed extra hands in the early 2000s and now boasts of 15 permanent staff and 25 casual labourers.
Through Birya United Agencies, he has invested in real estate business in Mbarara District. He also owns a tree planting project in Ibanda and does large scale maize growing. He has set up a 10,000 bags storage facility in Ruti Division.

Future plans
He is thinking bigger and says he is looking into supplying the East African market.