Cissy Namaganda knew she wanted to run a real estate business shortly after she started working for a large construction company in Kampala. That was 2006. She had just finished a bachelor’s degree in IT at Makerere University Business School (MUBS).
But she took up a marketing job that had nothing to do with IT because she needed to earn and survive.
She leaned into it like her life depended on it. Which it did. And as it turned out, she was good at it. In a short while, she had been promoted to head of operations.
With that position came daily meetings with engineers and other real estate professionals at the company. Interactions with the clients and real estate dealers and other players in the sector became her daily routine. The dynamics were a thrill for her.
Her curious mind soaked everything in. She got to know both sides of the real estate transaction.
She found out what real estate buyers wanted. She got to know their desires and their fears and their challenges. On the other side, she learnt first-hand what it took to deliver a finished building and all the dynamics involved. And while at it, she saw the gaps and the opportunities. The fact that she was neither an engineer nor a mason didn’t faze her.
“I noticed that the greatest number of young corporate workers were not really keen on building homes of their own. I knew from experience that anyone who can pay monthly rent of Shs500, 000 to Shs1m can build a house of their own,” Namaganda says.
In contrast, Namaganda was surprised by low-income earners such as market women, bodaboda riders and other blue-collar workers who owned homes of their own. This taught her that a house didn’t have to cost Shs60m. It also taught her that one did not have to wait to have a big break to start building.
All these discoveries presented opportunities for Namaganda. Someone needed to show people, especially the young white-collar workers that a home did not have to cost huge sums. Neither did one have to have the whole sum at once.
In 2011, Namaganda registered her company, Cinam Investments. At the time she registered it, Namaganda was still working for Tirupatti. But the ball needed to start rolling. There was no time to waste. Namaganda could see a clear path in this strange wilderness called real estate and it was only a matter of time then.
“In 2013, I left the big property company. Cinam got contracted to manage operations of other big property companies that were building and selling condominiums. One of the biggest pool of clients for this segment were the Ugandans in the diaspora. I found out that most of them had been conned by their family members and friends back home as they tried to build a home in Uganda. The only option they had was to buy a finished condo.”
In 2015, Namaganda’s company would get its first construction project. Juliet Zawedde contacted her from London. She had a shell of a house in Mbalwa, near Namugongo in Wakiso District. She needed it finished. But she didn’t trust the team that had built it thus far to continue with the project. She had met Namaganda in one of those diaspora events where she had gone to market condos back home. She took a risk on this young entrepreneur running a young company.
“This lady had been frustrated by people she thought had her back. They had stolen most of her money and done minimal work. They had built a shell with money that could have finished the whole house. We did the remaining works in time and on budget. Something she was not used to,” she recalls.
The client was so impressed that she recommended Namaganda for her next job. This client lived in the diaspora too. The project was in Wakiso too, in a village called Kasengegye. This time around, the house was built from foundation to furnishing. Again, aspects of the projects such as time and budgets were in order.
Those two projects alone earned Namaganda the trust of many in the diaspora. So several more contacted her to do the same for them. They still do.
“Many Ugandans in the diaspora would love to invest in the real estate sector back home. They would also like to build personal homes so that when time comes to move back, they have a place to call home. Many rely on friends and family but the risks are many. We have all seen people in the news that have fainted upon returning to find that all their money was blown. We want to change that,” she says.
She is now a permanent fixture in the UK-Uganda conventions where she is invited to talk about real estate.
“I also found out that most Ugandans in the diaspora cannot afford a house of Shs200m, which is the price of most condos on the market. Most cannot even afford one of Shs80m.
Someone comes and says, ‘I have 20m, can’t you do something with it?’” Namaganda says.
As it turns out, this question is more common than you would imagine, according to Namaganda.
“And the answer is, ‘yes, of course,” she says. “If building a house was expensive, then low income earners would not be able to do it. “If you are a patient person, you can build your house slowly by using Shs500,000 a month. We have projects of this nature. That amount gets you a few bags of cement, a truck of bricks, a truck of sand and the house grows every month. Use as little money as you have. No pressure. You don’t have to take a loan if you do not want to. It feels good to open and close your own gate,” she says.
Namaganda has built more than 60 houses in just six years. Some for as much as Shs300m and others as low as Shs20m. And the trick is in the details. Dimensions are decreased as much as necessary. Different features of the house are stripped to the bare minimum.
“There are building materials of all prices in this country. At every stage, my client must know all the options so that we fit in their budget. If we are buying iron sheets, or doors, or floor tiles, the client must be shown all the price options,” she says.
Namaganda figured out that most people don’t have time to be on their construction sites supervising and buying materials. And that is where she comes in.
“Integrity is what I sell. Without integrity, I am jobless. When a client agrees to work with us, we become his or her representative on the site. We become their managers. At every stage, we requisition for funds, we procure materials, execute the works and report to the client. While they have no time to be present on site everyday, they must know and see what is happening on site as regularly as possible,” she says.
Namaganda is a businesswoman. Her key job is to bring the right professionals together and then manage the operations. She works with a team of four major professionals on consultancy basis to make it happen: architect, quantitative surveyor, structural and mechanical engineers.
The architect gives shape to your dream house by drawing a house plan while the quantitative surveyor draws the bill of quantities for budgeting purposes. The next stage is picked up by the structural and mechanical engineers whose job is to erect the building and fit the mechanical parts like the plumbing and the electrics.
“One of the most important stages of the project is the bill of quantities. It outlines, for the client all the details of the required materials and the prices. From the beginning, you know exactly what the project will cost you,” Namaganda says.
As a woman running a business in a traditionally man’s world, there are bound to be some challenges. Namaganda finds that the biggest challenge is people underestimating her.
“Both men and women think that because I am a woman, I don’t know what I am doing in this business. The silver-lining is that they are usually pleasantly surprised. Through experience, I know what it takes to build a house, from foundation to completion. I know how to identify the right people to work with. I know the cost of everything,” she says.
At any one time, Namaganda runs several building sites around Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono. Currently she’s running eight sites. She can’t be everywhere at the same time. That means that she has the heavy burden of ensuring that the masons and porters do not cheat her in terms of work hours and building materials. According to Namaganda, these two are the biggest reasons why most buildings stall.
“It is often the case that builders will only work in your presence. The moment you leave to attend to other matters, they run off to make money elsewhere. Often times, you end up paying them for that day. For no work done. The same applies to building materials. Either they will ask for too much and take the extra, or they will steal them and use the bare minimum,” Namaganda says.
Namaganda says providing proper supervision is one the greatest needs for anyone trying to build their house. And she provides exactly that.
“Every site must have a designated permanent supervisor (an employee of the company) who is tasked to give daily reports. As a result, two things happen: projects tend to get completed on time and budgets are not overshot. To reassure my clients, all mishaps that might happen on site are paid for by the company,” she says.
Namaganda might not be an engineer but she gets the job done.