What you need to know:
It is about making sure that the timing is right so that you don’t lose what you have as you try to chase something else. Sometimes, it is better to keep a grocery shop open than risk losing it because you gambled on starting a supermarket.
None of us knew what awaited us when we left our homes that Wednesday morning. Robert Kabushenga – who needs no introduction – had simply texted to ask if we could have breakfast at Café Javas (now CJ’s) at 7:30am.
I recognized the other six invitees – young-ish seasoned entrepreneurs – at the table and walked towards them. And then my heart skipped a beat when I got close and recognized who was sitting at the centre. Hajji Omar Mandela. Arguably the most successful Ugandan businessman of our time, it is he that we had been invited to breakfast with – and learn from.
We craned our necks to pick his every word, his low tone sometimes lost in the din from the overflowing eatery – one of the many marvels he runs alongside his other business interests. After we had gone over the shock of the surprise and introduced ourselves, he remarked, “All of you here are more successful than I was when I was you age. So, I am not going to tell you what to do if you want to succeed. I am going to tell you what mistakes to avoid, so that you can continue.”
Let us start with, is it possible to build a successful business in Uganda? Certainly. The man we were meeting that morning is all the evidence you need. But so are the thousands of others – young and old – who are investing in all sorts of ideas and making their contribution. However, we must put a caveat here and say that ‘successful’ is relative; and that building a business of any kind – especially in Uganda – might as well qualify for one of the ‘1000 Ways to Die’.
It is not possible to retell the conversation from that breakfast. However, if I had to summarize it, I would go with two words – Patience and Discipline. I will reshare two stories from Mandela that morning, and hope that young entrepreneurs will pick a thing or two, to put them in good stead on their journey. They are not things you haven’t heard before but context makes all the difference. Mostly, it is with the hope that we shall all be kinder to each other, especially to those who are brave enough to put in the work and tread where many would rather not.
Let us start with discipline, since patience is its byproduct. Mandela says that when he was just a young man, his father drove him up to Kololo hill and told him, “This is Kololo hill. It is where the richest people live. If you are stupid, you will come and rent a house and live here. But if you are that stupid, I hope you won’t buy a house here and live in it.” It is not every day that you find anyone, not least a multimillionaire, choosing to live in the same apartment from the 80s, till 2007 when he moved into his family house. He listened!
There is a funny story about how every millionaire who has gone bust also owned a yacht – and couldn’t quite explain why. Many of us constantly suffer pressures from relatives, partners and friends to buy land and build houses. Many of us can barely afford to but still, we do because it is prestigious to. It is prestigious to drive the latest car, to own the latest gadgets and be seen in the trendiest places. But at what cost? More than anything, success is a consequence of discipline, yet that continues to be an Achilles heel for many of us.
Now, onto patience. Mandela shared how he has received out-of-this-world offers for partnerships from people who want in on brand CJ’s. But also, how he has the funds to set up tens of other outlets if he wanted to. Sounds like the logical thing to do, right? The need and pressure to scale is a nightmare for every entrepreneur. It certainly guarantees increased revenues, doesn’t it?
But there is a reason why there isn’t a CJs in every suburb or major town – even if you could find clients who can afford the food. It is not about the money. It is about making sure that the timing is right so that you don’t lose what you have as you try to chase something else. Sometimes, it is better to keep a grocery shop open than risk losing it because you gambled on starting a supermarket.
Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye