How did a poor boy from Matanga, Masaka District, rise to a force in sectors spanning construction, real estate, property development, manufacturing, hospitality, imports trading, heavy machinery in Uganda and neighbouring countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia and Congo?
It is a career story spanning more than 40 years that captures Uganda’s development journey and surmounting its pitfalls. Much of what Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige, commonly known as BMK, wanted to say is contained in his autobiography, My
Story of Making A Fortune in Africa, published early this year. It makes summarising the story of this business colossus both hard and easy. What does one say or not say about the man.
BMK, 67, who died on Friday morning at a Kenyan hospital, did not have an eye raising net worth, or was not known for displaying his wealth both in private and public. In fact, his associates say he despised the practice and saw those who like to flaunt their riches as thieves and corrupt.
It is the relationships he built, his discipline work ethic and his generosity especially to the poor and vulnerable that made him tick. He was a free person who easily joked and related with his employees. You could have bypassed him at Hotel Africana and think he was a guest or one of the employees, remembers a friend.
“He was generous but understood the value for money. He supported so many people. He has raised humble children, unless they change after his death,” a business associate who worked closely with him in his final years remembers.
BMK’s generosity was reflected in his engagement with the Ugandan North American Association (UNAA), an association of Ugandans in the Diaspora. It was at one of the UNAA events, which BMK never missed until he became too weak to engage in the activities, that his deep pockets and generous heart fell for the fight against sickle cell.
Together with Maj Lukiah Mulumba of the United States Air Force, BMK would in July 2013 set up a non-profit organisation, the Uganda Sickle Cell Rescue Foundation (USCRF), to create awareness in communities about the sickle cell disease and support those affected. They were later joined by Erostus Nsubuga Erostus of AGT Group and Sikander Lalani of Roofings Group.
“We hold Dr Hajj Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige’s family all around the world in our prayers and pray that his loved ones are comforted by the beautiful memories and lessons he has left us with as we celebrate his life,” Henrietta Nairuba Wamala, the UNAA president and CEO, said in statement.
“Uganda and Africa at large have lost a giant, UNAA has lost a good one, we will forever remember you for you have left a gigantic mark in the world,” she added.
In Nkowe, Wakiso District, he purchased a large piece of land and donated it to the Muslim community to use as a cemetery. At this site, he was buried on September 12. His daughter and mother, who passed on recently, are buried there.
A staunch Muslim, he also set up Masjid Musa Mosque at Hotel Africana, Kampala, in 2009 named after his late son Musa. He was, however, not limited by his Islamic faith.
Years later, he would return to Namilyango, Gomba, and construct a church in honour of his Catholic aunt who raised him before she passed on. Associates say he was very close to Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga who unexpectedly died in April this year.
He had two homes, one for each of his wives, Sophia and Hawa, in Naguru A and B. The father of 18, lived at either house.
He owned hotels in Kampala, Zambia, and Moroto and two others were in the pipeline in Pakwach, Arua. He had heavy lifting businesses in Rwanda, Kenya and Zambia; spare parts businesses, a school, forex bureau, and shares in Greenhill Academy whose founding he helped to finance, among a string of other business interests built over a decade.
In Zambia, he also reportedly helped his former long-time employees to set up a business similar to his.
Some of the businesses under the BMK Group of Companies include BMK Uganda Limited, BMK Heavy Machinery, BMK Rwanda Ltd, BMK Zambia Ltd, Hotel African Moroto, BMK House Ltd, Hotel Africana and Convention Centre, Kampala, Hotel Africana Lusaka and HRN Business Services.
It was not always rosy for the businessman. A bus company to Karamoja he started collapsed, his ventures in South Sudan and DRC could not survive the insecurity while “political issues” kicked him out of Tanzania.
A common thread that emerges, speaking to the people who knew BMK in private and business dealings, is that he understood the value of building relationships and being trustworthy.
“What helped him in those formative years is his associates in Asia and elsewhere he did business with trusted him and would give him goods to sell on credit and pay back after,” says Denis Jjuuko, a communications and visibility consultant who helped him put together his autobiography. “He was a man of his word. He was punctual and honest,” he says.
Businessmen of his era who didn’t have a chance to complete school struggle to communicate in English, but not BMK. According to his biographer, BMK hired instructors to teach him English and could easily communicate with his business partners.
It’s a common observation that businesses in Uganda don’t survive the death of their owners. Few have been an exception. Mulwana Group of Companies founded by celebrated Ugandan entrepreneur and industrialist James Mulwana has thrived and survived since his demise in 2013, steered on by his daughter Barbara Mulwana.
Years battling cancer offered BMK time to prepare his empire after his death, according to those familiar with the happenings of the last years of his life. His young brother Haruna Kasule Kibirige (HKK), who has been in charge, is likely to continue running the operation.
His wives, children and siblings have all been involved in the business and will unlikely rock the boat.
“He helped most of the people he worked with, especially his children and close relatives to start businesses of their own.
His family and children are well off and it will be just greed to loot it,” he says.
Eulogising the deceased, President Museveni described him as a man on a mission to develop Uganda and Africa.
“I commiserate with the family of Dr Hajj Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige (BMK), relatives, business associates, and well-wishers. Dr Bulaimu will forever be remembered for his indelible contribution towards building a fortune in Uganda and Africa. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mr Museveni said.
Former FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye paid tribute to the deceased, saying: “BMK has had rare business acumen, entrepreneurial skills and discipline to succeed in a very difficult environment. Great loss to Uganda.”
When launching his book earlier this year, Buganda prime minister Charles Peter Mayiga described BMK’s book as “more valuable than his other businesses,” and it is hard to disagree.
Generations to come will read about his entrepreneurial journey and find a credible story of what it takes to succeed against so many odds.