Motorists park near Mbarara Central Market on Buremba Road, Mbarara City, August 7. PHOTO/RAJAB MUKOMBOZI

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How Mbarara City turned into western business hub

What you need to know:

  • Mbarara City that is projected to have about 500,000 people during the day has become the heart of business in western Uganda, write Rajab Mukombozi  & Sheillar Mutesi

On July, 2020, Mbarara Municipality was elevated to city status together with nine other municipalities of Arua, Gulu, Jinja, Fort Portal, Masaka, Hoima, Mbale, Soroti, and Lira.

Tracing its history, however, Mbarara started as an administrative centre for western region during the colonial governments in the 1900s.

It derived its name from the local grass Emburara (hyperemia ruffa), which the colonial masters mispronounced as Mbarara, according to Mr Yayeri Gumisiriza, 85, a resident of Biafra, Kamukuzi, Mbarara City North.

Mbarara City is strategically located in the central part of western Uganda and a gateway to neighbouring countries of Tanzania, Rwanda, DR Congo, and Burundi.  It is about 270 kilometers (167 miles) away from Kampala, Uganda’s capital City.

Mr Asanansio Rubagyera, 80, a resident of Kiyanja, Kamukuuzi, Mbarara City North, recounts that Mbarara City evolved after colonial masters started erecting administration units at Booma Hill, turning the present day Rwebikoona into a business centre, which is about two kilometers from the present city headquarters. It is here that Indians opened up businesses in makeshift shops.

By 1957, Mbarara had become a township before being elevated to a Municipality in 1974. The town continued registering successes in infrastructural development until 1979 when the war against the government of President Idi Amin Dada halted the progress.

After the war, the town started flourishing again. Different businesses started opening up and there has been increasing construction of commercial and residential buildings, recalls the Mbarara Deputy town clerk, Mr Richard Mugisha.

The city currently boasts of warehouses and more than 20 shopping malls and arcades that include Amazon, Easy View, London Arcade, City Light, Kirimi, GBK, La Plaza, De Posh, Portville, Adit, and Mbarara City Mall, among others. The completion of the Shs21b Mbarara Central Market at the centre of the town on Buremba Road has given traders a chance to operate from a conducive environment.

A symbol of the Ankole long-horned cattle at a roundabout in Mbarara City. PHOTO/FILE

Before the city Status, Mbarara was made of three divisions of Nyamitanga, Kakooba and Kamukuzi, with a population of about 195,013 people, according to the 2014 population census.
Mr Mugisha says the population has since increased and the city is projected to host 500,000 people during the day and 300,000 people at night because of the three sub-counties of Nyakayojo, Kakiika and Biharwe that were merged to form Mbarara City North and South divisions.

Mr Mugisha says the city has a budget of Shs48 billion and of this, Shs3.6b is generated locally.  Mr Rubagyera says he came to Mbarara Town in 1973 and settled in Kiyanja and has seen the town grow to where it is. 

“Mbarara Town was very busy, but with few developments at Kamukuzi Hill that housed the Ankole Kingdom structures. I stayed here in Kiyanja after the Ankole district administration then rallied people to come and develop this area, giving them free land,” he says.

Mr Musa Musana, 67, a resident of Kijungu in Kakoba Ward, says he has seen the area develop into a business and habitable place.

“By 1980, this place was still bushy and a hideout for criminals. I came to this town in 1970 to do odd jobs because I could not manage staying in the town centre that was beginning to grow, I made a makeshift house here, but we lived in terror because the place was a hideout for criminals,’’ Mr Musana says.

He adds that traders started putting up commercial houses, which attracted more locals to start businesses.

“Because of the growth of the town, most of the pioneer residents started selling off their land and houses to businessmen as the cost of living was high. Luckly, the town planning authorities had been put in place then. That is why the area now has a good percentage of planned settlements and commercial buildings,” Mr Musana says.

The mayor, Mr Robert Mugabe, attributes the rapid development of the city to some of the bold steps the authorities took on physical planning, sanitation and hygiene and infrastructure development.

“This is the business centre of western region, there are issues that we cannot get compromised on and these include sanitation and hygiene, we cannot attract investors in a dirty  city. We have also put in place stringent measures to ensure a city of good physical planning,” he said.

Mr Kakyebezi says one has to attach proof of how to dispose of his garbage before he or she can acquire a trading Licence. 

Mr Mugisha says they are learning from the mistakes of Kampala City to have a better city. 
“Even before we were elevated to the city status, physical planning was already settled as to what business should operate from where. As demands and situations change, for one to put up a new building in the city, they need to apply to the building control committee, physical development committee and the landlord because one is required to have a title,” he adds.

Mr Mugisha says for new structures to be put up, one must have provisions for parking. 
“For the new buildings coming up in the former municipality areas, we expect them to build at the minimum piece of land of 50 by 100 plots because there is development concentration, however, in the areas of Nyakayojo and Kakiika, we are insisting that the minimum plot for construction should be 100 by 100 for a stand-alone land to avoid development of slums,” he says.

Economic activities
Some of the residents are traders due to the availability of shopping malls, arcades, warehouses and stores, and car bonds. This has attracted development in the districts of Sheema, Kiruhura, Isingiro, Rwampara, Ntungamo, Bushenyi, Rubirizi, Mitooma, and Buhweju with many business class shopping in Mbarara.

“We have more than five car bonds in Mbarara City, but previously we used to purchase the cars from Kampala bonds. The market is now here and customers come from even as far as Rwanda,” Mr Albert Tumurebire, who owns a car bond on Mbarara–Masaka road, says.

Some of the arcades that have been erected in less than two years  on Mbarara High Street, Mbarara City. PHOTO/RAJAB MUKOMBOZI

Apart from business, farming remains a lucrative venture for city dwellers, especially in the areas of Biharwe, Kakiika (Mbarara city North) and Nyakayojo (Mbarara city South), these areas though in the city, remain semi-urban.

Mr Rogers Nkamwesiga, the owner of UP and ABOUT Guest House on Mbarara Bypass, says “being a gateway to neighbouring countries has made businesses flourish ’’.
“The number of hotels have increased to accommodate guests coming from other countries that make stop overs here. Like the recent Commonwealth Heads of States meeting held in Kigali Rwanda last month, we had many guests,” he said.

Industries
The city has attracted a number of industries and some of these include Nile Breweries plant in Ruharo, Coca Cola plant in Makenke on Mbarara-Masaka Highway, GBK Milk Processing, Pearl Diaries, Lakeside Diaries, BMTS Steel Works, and Kazaire Health Drinks.

The town has developed from hosting one university of Mbarara University of Science and Technology to hosting several education institutions, including Bishop Stuart University, University of St Joseph, Makerere University Business School, western campus, Metropolitan International University, Mbarara branch, Law Development Centre Mbarara campus, Uganda Bible Institute, and Uganda Management Institute (Mbarara).

Some of the prominent Secondary schools are Mary Hill High School, Ntare School, Mbarara High School, and St Joseph’s Vocational School. The primary schools are Mbarara Junior, Mbarara Municipal Schools, St Helens Primary School, and Uganda Marty’s Primary School.

The city boasts of high quality health services provided by Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, Ruharo Mission Hospital, Mbarara Community Hospital, Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital, and Mayanja Memorial Hospital.

Mbarara is also the home of the Archdiocese of Mbarara, the headquarters for the Catholics faithful in western Uganda, Ankole Diocese headquarters, Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, Mbarara, Western regional Khadhi offices, South Western Field Seventh Day Adventist offices, and the host of born again Christian churches.

On hospitality business, the city boasts a host of hotels such as Lake View Hotel, Igongo Cultural Centre and Country Hotel, Hotel Triangle, Oxford Inn Hotel, Pelican Hotel, and Agip Hotel.  
In the neighbourhood of Mbarara City is Lake Mburo National Park. There are other tourist attractions such as Eclipse monument in Biharwe, the Ankole long-horned cattle, River Rwizi, Ankole Cultural Site, and ECHAI agro-tourism.  

Many Places that were predominantly open spaces with woodlands and farm land are now being developed. 

The cost of land has hiked. For example, an acre of land on Mbarara-Masaka Highway goes for between Shs350m and Shs500m while off the main road, an acre goes for between Shs150m and Shs300m.

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