What you need to know:
Dr Ben Khingi is a man who has not let hard times put him down. Instead he used what was readily available to him, his brains and hard work to get ahead in life
He does not strike you as a person with an imposing personality. When he speaks, it is with a soft reassuring voice, one featuring many encouraging words like, “It’s possible”, “It’s achievable”, and “It can be done.”
Dr Ben Khingi is an embodiment of a man who has seen it all. He is a leader and a man who is humble and down to earth. A surgeon by profession, in the department of plastics and burns at Mulago Hospital, he has treated many such cases, even performing surgeries, which offered victims a second chance. He was instrumental in forming the Burns unit in Mulago and founded the Acid Survivors Foundation that helps victims of acid attacks cope with the stigma.
Getting him for an interview was not as hard as I had thought it would be, given his busy schedule. I managed to secure a Saturday afternoon appointment with him. We met in the gardens at Kings Agency, a company he started two years ago.
Dressed in a pink shirt, with a matching red striped tie, Dr Khingi cuts the image of a gentleman, an ordinary kind, just like any other working person today. But he is different. He is more than just what meets the eye. He is a doctor with an eye for business and helping others.
Dr Khingi has touched many lives. Those who have interacted with him like Edward Opio, an Administrator at Kings Agency, a mobile asset-tracking firm say “he is a friend and mentor.” To the community of Namuwongo, where he stays and operates, he’s much more than just another neighbour. His clinic, Friends Medical Centre has served the community for over 13 years, providing the much needed health services.
Dr Sylvester Onzivua, the interdicted Mulago Hospital pathologist and a long-time friend, says, “Ben has been my best friend ever since our high school days.” They went to the same high school and eventually worked together at Mulago. Dr Onzivua says, “He is such a gentleman and very cool headed.” It’s these virtues that saw him become head prefect in S.3 at St Charles Lwanga Koboko.
But regardless of his achievements, Dr Khingi’s is a story of humble beginnings and one of dedicated service that has seen him rise through his ranks and tread in fields that are not his primary area of competence. He is passionate about his work and believes one can achieve anything as long as they put their heart to it. He is married to Dr Annet Kugonza Khingi, a radiologist at Jinja hospital. They have three sons. His story is one of patience and perseverance.
“I was born on 9th March, 1962, in Bara, Arua to the late Samson and Peninah Avua of Arua. My father was a public administrator in Arua,” he says. He started his education during the hard times of the Amin regime. “I went to Arua Demonstration School for my early primary and then moved to Moroto P/S when my father was transferred there to replace the town clerk who passed on. We had to leave everything behind and move. It was a difficult time for the family,” he says. Shortly after, their father was transferred to Kampala in 1973. This was to mark his first time to come to the city. These movements also greatly affected his education as he had to repeat a class.
The challenges at school
In Kampala, their father tried to get them in to Buganda Road Primary School.
“We did our interviews and waited, but we got to understand that the Indian principal of the school told our father that his children are useless,” he says. He later on got a place at Shimoni Demonstration School, but his father sent him back to Arua-Jiako Primary School where he completed his primary education. His first choice for secondary school was Kings College Budo. Khingi wanted to be a doctor from childhood and he hoped to achieve this dream in Budo.
But he failed to make it. He instead joined St Charles Lwanga Koboko Secondary School. He says he is the man he is today because of that school. The war at that time disrupted his education and he had to start afresh. “The retreating soldiers went through the school and looted everything they could get for their survival. The whole of west Nile was cut off due to the war. I went back home and looked after cows with my father. I basically lost three years,” he narrates with a low voice. Their family decided to move out in search of a safer area within Arua to live, leaving everything behind. He finally got back to school, settling at Busoga College Mwiri.
At Mwiri, he repeated S.3, but he was now determined to pass. “I read with one heart,” he says. In his final year in O-level, he had one motto, “Let the record say that I worked hard” and indeed he excelled. He scored enough points to enable him be taken to Kings College Budo, the school of his dreams, but that was far from being achieved because Mwiri wanted him back. “The Headmaster of Mwiri had earmarked him for head prefect,” explains Dr Onzivua, his former schoolmate, also at Mwiri.
His dream of joining Budo was stronger than the opportunity to be head prefect. “I wrote back to the headmaster of Budo, telling him I made the points and attached my results.” But the conditions of joining Budo were far beyond his means. He could not afford the fees and requirements of joining the school because he was required to go with a double decker bed, probably to create space for himself.
As the saying goes, every dark cloud has a silver lining. Luck smiled on him through Miss Ann Cutler a teacher in Gayaza. He met her through his sister who taught with Miss Cutler at Gayaza. Cutler said someone had sent her money to help a person in need in Africa and she believed it was him. “She gave me money that was enough to cater for all my requirements and hire a pickup truck to drop me to school,” he says. At Budo, he realised that he needed more than determination in order to succeed.
“My sister told me even those who fail go determined. I had to work extra hard to pass my finals,” says Khingi, nodding his head. While the rest went for coaching at Makerere University, he could not afford it so he introduced what he called the organic hour, which he dedicated towards practicing chemistry every day.
And when the results came back, he made it to Makerere University on government sponsorship, fulfilling his child hood dream of becoming a doctor. Such determination and perseverance has moulded him into the person he is today.
At Makerere, he was very active in the church choir and was among the pioneers of the Anglican Flames, the Church of Uganda youth choir. The doctor is persistent and very patient with life, even when the doors have been closed on him. He went to medical school in 1986, after surviving the liberation war, which partly affected his diet in school. “We had to eat beans and maize boiled together because the grinding mills were down.” But the tests and challenges that life threw at him moulded him into a man of many talents.
His first job was at Kiwoko Hospital that had been started by Dr Ian Clark, then a missionary. Dr Khingi found a gap in the area of surgery. He soon assumed it and worked on many cases. His most memorable time in his career was performing an operation from a book on a child who was born with an abnormal tightening of the gut. The operation was beyond him and they did not have the right equipment to handle it. But the boy had to be saved because he could neither eat nor drink any food.
So, with the experience he had acquired and lessons learnt from surgeons like Dr Peter Bills, he performed an operation on the child using local anaesthesia. “It was successful and after a week, the child had improved greatly,” he says.
Kiwoko hospital offered him many more things as it is here that he met Dr Annet Kugonza, whom he later married. It is also here that he acquired his first bike which he used to visit his wife who stayed in Rubaga.
Building his companies
He left Kiwoko Hospital and moved to Mulago where he worked during the day. He set up his first clinic at Namuwongo to help raise money for his further studies in medicine, since the ministry was not willing to sponsor him. This clinic was set in Namuwongo in a two-roomed shop that his cousin advised him to rent. He worked in the clinic in the evening hours every day after his shift at Mulago.
The proceeds he made from the clinic helped him study and he also saved up enough money to buy land in Munyonyo which he later sold to start up King’s Agency, a mobile asset tracking firm, and a medical centre which are all located on the same street. However, he still maintains a drug shop in the same room he rented for his clinic 16 years later. He speaks passionately of how it is important to invest in other areas to secure your future. “I went into real estate business, which has helped me setup other businesses like the tour and travel company and also set up Kings Agency.
When I ask him how his other competitors would describe him, he thinks for a while, before saying, “I don’t know.” But one thing he points out that has kept him going is hiring a strong work force. He fondly quotes his father’s words, “In life you will work with people you don’t like or know, but the art of administration is getting work out of them.” This has made him a good employer.
One of his inspirational books in business is Rich Dad Poor Day. He says the habit of saving has helped him invest. When I ask him how he manages to balance work, business and family, he replies with a joke, “Give a busy man work to do and he will get busy with it.”
Just like any other businesses, he has also been cheated by his drivers or even the clients who refuse to pay. But he has overcome all this by employing his recent innovation that he believes will save lots of lives on the road by reducing road accidents. The innovation requires installing car tracking devices, which help monitor the movements of the vehicle.
His parting words of wisdom are, “Be open minded and attentive because then will you be able to learn from other people. Treat others with respect not because they may be a somebody but one day you will need them to complete your puzzle.”