How Jinja grew from beautiful scenery to Busoga regional hub

Sunday March 07 2021

After becoming the first White man to see the source of the Nile, John Speke recorded in his travel journal on July 28, 1862, that: “We were well rewarded, for the stones, as the Waganda (Baganda) call the falls, was by far the most interesting sight I had seen in Africa.

“Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I had expected. Still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours; the roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger fish, leaping at the falls with all their might, hippopotami and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water, the ferry at work above the falls, and cattle driven down to drink at the margin of the lake, made, in all, with the pretty nature of the country small hills, rock grassy-topped, with trees in the folds, and gardens on the lower folds as interesting a picture as one could wish to see.”

A British administrative seat was first established in Busoga in 1892 at Lubas. However, after the mutiny of Sudanese soldiers in 1897, the administrative seat was moved to Iganga.

 Four years later, in 1901, the seat was moved back to Jinja, making Iganga the second largest town in Busoga. 
The move to Jinja was made by the first British commissioner to Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, on grounds that Iganga was of less importance and value. 

“I have decided to transfer the civil headquarters of the administration in the Busoga District to Jinja from Iganga. Iganga is not a very healthy place, and it is, so to speak, nowhere and commanding no important route; whereas Jinja is of great importance, as being at the Ripon Falls, and commanding what may become a very important transport route along the Nile,” his February 2, 1901 dispatch to the Foreign office read in part.
“This will become certainly one of the main transport routes of the Uganda Protectorate. Moreover, there is an important telegraph station at Jinja.”

Jinja was established as a trading post by the Imperial British East Africa Company, the precursor of the British administration in Uganda.


When the Busoga administration relocated to Jinja, it came with many changes to the area. These included the composition of the population. Besides the natives, many immigrants settled in Jinja, including the British and French missionaries who represented the Church Missionary Society and the Roman Catholics respectively, who in 1901 were given land to set up base. 

Other immigrants included Nubian soldiers, Swahilis from the coast, Arabs and Indian traders.
As commissioner Johnston said in his dispatch, Jinja was a potential transport route. The very year it was made an administrative seat, Jinja became significant after the Uganda-Kenya railway reached Kisumu. 

This meant that goods from the coast destined for Uganda, and vice versa, would take a much shorter time and also increased the frequency of the steamers from Jinja to Kisumu. 

By 1928, Jinja had not only become a busy port but also the centre for finance and purchase, insurance, marketing and export of cotton. A variety of firms, majority owned by people of Asian origin, established agencies and imported staff to carry out these functions.  

One of the people who established himself as a trader with representatives throughout the region was Allidina Visram.

Writing in their 1955 publication Jinja Transformed, Cyril and Rona Sofer say: “Jinja became the main shopping centre of the Eastern Province and with this came the development of importing and wholesale businesses with customers throughout the area.” 

The introduction of cash crops in the Busoga and the Eastern Province came after they had been introduced in Buganda, but the boom in trade as a result of their introduction was more present in Jinja than it was in Buganda. Jinja as a business centre was the first to have a commercial bank besides Entebbe which was a government seat. 

The numeric presence of Indians in Jinja played a pivotal role in its growth as a commercial centre. According to the British Administration’s chief town Planner, AE Mirams’1930 report titled Town planning and Development of Jinja, out of the 3,120 inhabitants of Jinja, 2,200 were Africans and 800 were Asiatic. 

According to Cyril and Sofer, by 1948, there was a huge leap in the number of people of Asian descent in Jinja. 

“The population of Jinja had risen to 8,400, of whom 4,400 were Africans, 3,800 were Asians and 200 were Europeans,” they write.

The coming of Indians to Uganda had been encouraged by commissioner Johnston who advised that Uganda was a suitable place for the growth of the British-Indian commerce because Indians were ready to take healthy risks for commercial gains.  
“Indians have subsequently become the major non-African element in the population of Uganda. They have concentrated especially in urban and other trading centres where they have succeeded in business through their possession of capital, skills and outside contacts lacking among Africans,” Cyril and Sofer wrote.

“These assets, together with their greater willingness to incur health risks and to endure low living standards for commercial objectives, have given them a dominant position in the business life of the country.”

By 1928, Jinja had started attracting industries, starting with a cigarette factory. Proximity of the Busoga railway terminus to the town was an added advantage.

Jinja did not just grow as a commercial town, the also British saw it fit to be their military headquarters that was established in 1939. 

It housed the barracks of the King’s African Rifles, consisting of Ugandans, Kenyans and British. Jinja remained the military headquarters until the 1964 mutiny that saw the headquarters relocated to Kampala.

When the construction of the Own Falls Dam was started in 1949, it attracted major industrial concentration like breweries, textiles, a grain conditioning plant, among others.

 “Construction has started at Jinja of the buildings which will house Uganda’s first textile mill which, it is hoped, will produce nine million yards of cloth a year in five years’ time and which will ultimately produce 27 million yards annually,” reports the Uganda Herald of April 24, 1951.

“The share capital of the company will be about £1,500,000, employment will be found for from 5,000 to 6,000 Africans, many of whom will be given the opportunity to rise by merit to positions of responsibility.”

Different construction projects started in the town, all hoping to tap into the opportunities created by electricity from the dam.

“The dam project brought an unprecedented building and commercial boom with repercussions on many other fields of social activity. There subsequently arrived several subsidiary firms connected in one way or another with the hydro-electric scheme as well as some undertaking independent development projects,” Cyril and Sofer write.

“Existing local industries such as the tobacco factory and the smaller motor engineering, welding and carpentry firms greatly expanded their activities and personnel.”

This was not far from what former British prime minister Winston Churchill predicted in 1908 while on an African safari.

“Jinja is destined to become a very important place. In years to come, the shores of this splendid bay may be crowned with long rows of tropical villas and imposing offices, and the gorge of the Nile crowded with factories and warehouses,” he wrote in My African Journey.