The Indian success story in Uganda and East Africa

President Museveni hosts the Uganda Indian Community to a ‘Diwali’ dinner celebration at State House, Entebbe in 2017. Diwali is an annual ceremony that marks the ‘start of a new year’ and is symbolised by candle-lighting where priests pray for peace and harmony. PHOTO | PPU

What you need to know:

  • This month, 50 years ago, hundreds of Asians expelled by Idi Amin’s government flew out from Entebbe International Airport to seek new opportunities mainly in the United Kingdom and Canada.  In this eighth instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Timothy Kalyegira examines the factors that have enabled Indians to excel in their business undertakings.

One of the stand-out chapters in Ugandan history over the last century has been that of the Ugandan Indians, or Ugandan Asians as they are also often called.

They had always been a distinctly tiny minority in demographic terms, but played a disproportionately large role in Ugandan economic life.

This dominance and high visibility is what, in the first place, led to the boycott of Asian businesses in 1959 and finally their expulsion in 1972.

“I think Uganda will benefit if Asian [sic, Asians] are out of Uganda, because Asian have been milking Uganda’s money,” President Idi Amin stated in his address to the nation in early August 1972.

The idea that Asians were “milking” the economy and repatriating the profits out of the country was a commonly-held one in the 1950s and onward.

What the Indians experienced in East Africa and not just in Uganda, was hostility akin, to a degree, to what the Jews experienced in Europe during the Middle Ages.

In reality, the Indians also invested much of their wealth into Uganda; not just in the economy but in the community.

They built social halls, had sports clubs, had temples and mosques, donated to charity, and of course ran several schools in almost all the main towns.

By the 2020s, about 69 percent of taxes collected by the Uganda Revenue Authority are from Indian-owned businesses.

While figures for the 1950s and 1960s are not readily available, the percentage of taxes contributed to the national Treasury at the time would not be too different from the present 69 percent.

The Indians returned in the mid-1980s and essentially picked up from where they had stopped in 1972 in their ability to thrive economically.

This, alone, suggests that something about the Indians’ work ethic, social networks or business networks was responsible for their dominance of the economy in the 1950s and 1960s and not the “milking” of the economy as President Amin stated in August 1972.

Several of the world’s largest companies of any kind, from Google to Microsoft, PepsiCo and Twitter, have in recent years been headed by Indian-born chief executive officers.

There must, therefore, be something to explain this visibility in business and trade.

What was that, though?

Because most Indians are Hindu by religion, a religion that is vegetarian, to avoid having to eat food out of the same saucepans in which meat was prepared, families kept their children at home and enrolled them in day schools.

It is possible that this had two effects.

The first was the saving on school fees, which are usually much higher in boarding than in day schools.

The second effect was that growing up around parents who tended to be white-collar professionals or business traders, gave their children first-hand inspiration during their crucial teenage years.

Also, Indian businesses are typically run by the patriarchs of the family.

Not just the immediate head of the home, but by the grandfather.

The oversight and moral compass provided by the patriarch or grandfather ensure continuity, but also the motivation to maintain family honour by ensuring that the business does not collapse on one’s watch.

Michel Adam’s 2015 book, From the Trading-Post Indians to the Indian-Africans states: “Almost all the Indian traders from East Africa were from the north-western part of the sub-continent, known to be the cradle of ancient and brilliant civilisations as well as the centre of intense economic activity: Sindh (today part of Pakistan), Gujarat, Punjab, and Maharashtra.”

Adams added that the Indians were imbued “With a great desire to succeed, striving to exercise strict discipline in savings and solidarity.”

Kartikeya Nivara, a businessman based in Dar es Salaam, said Gujaratis succeed in business because they are known for taking risks.

“Business is in our blood. We learn it from a younger age,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Ugandans who attended the same schools and sat in the same class as Indians before the expulsion noted that on average, the Indians tended to do well in mathematics.

Whether or not this skill at basic numeracy is a factor in their doing well in retail and wholesale business, is something that requires investigation.

The other thing is that they are predominantly town dwellers, so right from the word go they are conscious of cost of living and the price of everything.

Motorists drive on Kampala Road. 50 years ago, almost all shops here were owned and run by Ugandan Indians and some of the streets were named after their pioneer leaders. PHOTO | NMG

They cannot hope to draw on free food grown in shambas around the home, as it is with most indigenous African families, and so there is no room for complacency.

Indians must constantly think in terms of bills to pay, from rent to utilities.

That gives them a different mindset from the rural Ugandan majority who, even when hungry, can always pluck fruit or vegetables from their garden and have a basic meal for the day.

This can be equated, for example, with the Somali community in Kampala that is also as closely-knit as the Indian community, is mainly of town dwellers, and over the last 25 years, has come to dominate or do well in fuel stations, the early Internet cafes, and supermarkets.

An Indian-Canadian posted on the social media platform Twitter in December 2021: “Uganda has a large and thriving Indian immigrant population...It’s obvious that the cultural ingredients that [seem] to lead to success in liberalised political and economic systems is Indian in nature.”

All these factors, then, added up and over the decades explained this remarkable Indian success story in Uganda and the wider East Africa.

That is the culture the Indians expelled in August 1972 took to the United Kingdom, where they found families starting to fall apart through widespread divorce and an increasingly hedonistic society.

These are the same values Indians who returned to Uganda after 1982 brought back to the war-ravaged country.

Today, ironically, the old hostility toward the Indians is much diminished from what it was in the 1950s and 1960s in Uganda the country most associated with their expulsion, but remains fairly palpable in countries like Kenya.

Background

About 50,000 Asians were forced to leave the country in 1972, on the orders of former military ruler Idi Amin, who accused them of ‘‘milking Uganda’s money’’.

At the time, they owned 90 percent of the country’s businesses and accounted for 90 percent of Ugandan tax revenues.

Since their return to the country in the 1980s and 1990s, Asians from the Indian subcontinent have once again become a pillar of the country’s economy.

One of those who came back is today among the country’s richest people, Sudhir Ruperalia, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, according to Forbes Magazine in 2019.   He spent time in Britain in the 1970s, where he says he worked a series of menial jobs before saving enough money to return to Uganda.

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