Sembuya; entrepreneur, pioneer industrialist

What you need to know:

  • Mr Sembuya, polite to a fault, slowly cleared his voice. “Think big, don’t be afraid of failure, keep trying.” “Mulowooze ebintu nga binene”. 

2022 is only a few days old but it is harvesting fast. As I drove back into the city on the first day of the year, I ventured into what ordinarily is a no-go zone, Kyengera-Busega-Nateete-Mityana road where snarling traffic is a triple menace, pollution, congestion and sometimes insecurity. 

I drove past Busega, craning my head looking for the exact spot where the residence of Uganda’s first Prime Minister Ben Kiwanuka once stood. I was then reminded I was looking too early, when we drove past the now empty plot, I wondered why the new owner did not possibly preserve the home as a museum.

My classmate John Sempeebwa, a former official of the Uganda Tourism Board, has acquired some genteel (it still needs to be polished) expertise in the museum and antiquities business.

He already runs two museums; Ssemagulu in Mutundwe and in my hometown of Kalangala, Ssese Museum. Whenever we have visitors after they take in the fresh air of Kawanga Forest I quickly recommend them or drive them to his museum laid out on posters in a compound in the middle of town to study something about the history and traditions of Ssese Islands, a later acquisition of the Kingdom of Buganda. 

We then rolled on to Nalukolongo. Sandwiched now between a number of structures is the former Head Office of Sembule Steel Mills.

At its helm was the now late Christopher Sembuya and his brother Francis Buwule. Interestingly the late Wasswa, their brother and father of John Sempeebwa, set up Kiwa Industries that still makes roofing materials.

From the raised Masaka highway the building seems shrunk by age and time but its historical position in Uganda’s economic history is yet to be documented by academia and policy analysts.

It should quickly be designated as a museum before the last equipment is rolled out of its compound. 

In 2019, as we prepared for my father’s 87th birthday, I contacted his son Stephen, an entrepreneur in his own right, of the “Pink Chocolate” fame to ask his Dad to attend a small event as a guest of honour.

I later knew that Mr Sembuya was one of the first people who helped my father upon return in 1980 to reorganise the Democratic Party and prepare for the 1980 General Election. But I will simply re-draft the story he told at that time. 

“In 1962 at the turn of independence, I was already a university graduate. I had served as a District Officer (who later became District Commissioners). I was posted to the Ministry of Finance as an assistant secretary. In 1964, I was promoted to undersecretary.

My career was in top gear. I was pleased with myself. I shared the news with my dad, Mr Magulu, who shared little with me in the form of formal education but was an economic success with over 600 acres of cocoa in Nkokonjeru.

My father did not sound very impressed. I continued to tell him I could see my career goals as Permanent Secretary/Secretary to the Treasury within sight. He looked me in the eye and asked me how much I made”. He was embarrassed as he only made a fraction of what his father made.

“My son did you go to university or government to make this?” “This was my life-changing moment. In 1966, I had resigned and applied for my first loan to set up Sembule Steel Mills. 

Mr Sembuya, polite to a fault, slowly cleared his voice. “Think big, don’t be afraid of failure, keep trying.” “Mulowooze ebintu nga binene”. 

Mr Sembuya had lived this philosophy translated in other economic systems as “US- conglomerate”, “South Korea- chaebol”, “UK- group”.  Had he been given sufficient economic support or what after his time were acknowledged as essential, “bailouts” he would already have delivered an electric car way before its time in Uganda. He had the discipline of a thinker and modesty of a capitalist and never trod far from his roots in the rich farming country of Nkokonjeru, a few kilometres from Katosi in Mukono. 

I had seen Mr Sembuya for years first in 1994 working in Sembule Investment Bank, and later on in 1995 attending a shareholders meeting of the now defunct Pan World Insurance Company. He had big chemistry that allowed him to bring together a skill-set and a mind-set so varied. A resume of Sembule alumni cannot fit in limited newsprint. Mr Sembuya was let down by the vagaries of the bourgouisie economy, saddled with bank loans but he never lost his spirit. Remembering him as a pioneer manufacturer, banker, social entrepreneur is the best memory we can afford him, as we mourn him. May His Soul Rest in Eternal Peace. 

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-At-Law and an Advocate. 


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