Sembule thriving on resilience and re-invention

Workers at Sembule Steel Mills.

What you need to know:

Mr Sembuya advice to budding entrepreneurs: Have faith that things are working for the better and they will, never fear to fail, so many times I have failed but in all I have managed to get up.

For the younger generation, the name Sembule makes no meaning but the name will resonate with the older generation as they recall the portable FM radio receivers, corporate desk phones and some buildings that were constructed in the 80s and 90s.

After 50 years in business, Sembule Steel Mills is still owned and run by the Sembuya and Buwule families, and Christopher Sembuya has since remained its managing director and chairman in a slow transition to his son Francis Sembuya, an economist.

The Nalukolongo based Sembule steel Mills and electronics manufacturing giant of the 80s and 90s is one typical example of a home-grown company from a humble start to notable success that it registered. It is part of the Sembule Group.

According to Christopher Sembuya, the Group managing director, Sembule was established in 1970 as a small hardware shop called Ndeeba Hardware from a salary saving he made and a merger with his younger brother Henry Buwule (RIP) to give birth to the company which became a force to reckon with in the region.

“However I owe everything to my father the late Yafesi Magulu. He told me that as long as I continued working for government I would never get richer, not even reach him. That haunted me. I was under secretary then at the Ministry of finance and they were preparing me to become permanent secretary. I resigned from the government job and went to my shop plotting the next move,” he says.

The following year, two brothers bought a nail manufacturing machine from Kenya and that marked the start for Sembule Steel Mills. Though he remains tight lipped about the current value of the company, at some point analysts ranked the company’s worth at about Shs 40 billion - considering extensions into Banking with Sembule Investment Bank which was established in 1984. It later became Allied Bank following its sale off of the majority shares to Banque Belgolaise and Development Finance Company of Netherlands in 1996. Since then, the names have been changing to the present day Bank of Africa (Uganda).

The Group tried its hands on Insurance and agricultural production mainly in Cocoa growing, with a farm at Nkokonjeru, Mukono district.

He adds, “We never wanted to sell off the bank but policies changed and the Bank of Uganda demanded a sale of certain shares. We sold the majority shares. My brother with whom we had worked and ran these things had passed on two years before that and everything was on my head; the rest is history.”

With the coming of other sector players in construction and hard ware manufacturing and a combination of others factors, including the death of his brother Buwule in 1994-one of the co-founders- legal battles and bank loans plus the alleged support to opposition politician Ken Lukyamuzi, the business suffered some reputational challenges.

While many Ugandans think of fallen President Idi Amin Dada as one of the worst leaders ever lived, the business mogul holds a balanced view. In fact to this effect, he has authored a book entitled; The other side of Idi Amin, published and launched in May 2009.

‘The Other Side of Idi Amin’ does is not out to exonerate Idi Amin of his mistakes but the industrialist explains the fallen General’s positive contribution to the development of this nation including the hosting of the OAU summit in addition to promoting sports, building and buying national assets abroad, developing the Uganda Airlines Corporation, the Uganda Railways and the energy sector among others.

“I am not absolving Amin of the documented mistakes he made. I am making a sincere record of the positive contribution which he made to this country. This is a first-hand account because I served in the Amin era as a civil servant. It is important to revive Uganda’s economic growth and development and it is important for the economy to be run by local investors. No economy run by foreigners can ever fully benefit local people, what happens when they pull out.”

Sembuya is nostalgic of the earlier days when the economic environment facilitated young people like him and other industrialists like the late James Mulwana of Nice House of plastics, Prof. Gordon Wavamuno, Bonny Katatumba among others to flourish.

“The economy is slowly going back to foreigners and government seems to empower them so much in all possible ways at the expense of Ugandan investors who have since remained mere participants. We want government to empower African investors. The economy is being handed over to foreigners, especially in the manufacturing and banking sectors which are key economic sectors. It is worrying us; you hardly see Ugandans in the manufacturing sector”

“Yes, it can be true that Ugandan companies do not have capacity” he continues “but look at all those foreign companies in road construction. They are supported by their home governments and when they come here they go a head to import even the cheapest of labour,”

With its maiden Sembule Steel Mills Ltd, the company still manufactures several products including Barbed Wire, Chain link Fencing, Roofing Sheets, Expanded Metal Lath, Hollow Sections, Steel Plates, Steel Welding Electrodes, Reinforcing Bars, Reinforcing Fabric (BRC), Wire Nails among others which are on the local market.

Sembuya has also pledged to revive Sembule International which produces Television sets, Radio sets and Telephones with Bulbs as the latest product to be added on list of the Sembule electronics before the end of September.

The Sembule Group employs about 200 people directly. Asked about the lessons drawn from this long journey to manufacturing Sembuya says, “never fear to start, for we are all created to start and impact on society.

Fear is a ruthless enemy of faith. Have faith that things are working for the better and they will, never fear to fail, so many times I have failed but in all I have managed to get up, dust off and continue even now we are getting up with bulb production on our product list.”

But before the interview ends he retorts, “maybe another thing that we should have learnt from the Asians is to teach business to our children for easy transition for our children to take over but because we do not that is why I am still working even at this age when I should be resting. I think Africans should learn this Asian habit and that is why there (Asians) business continues running even when they are no longer available. ”


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