I write, joining many out there, to mourn the passing of a great hero of our times.
In a country that glorifies, reveres and then, worships politicians as if they were godsent; in a continent that elevates these same politicians over entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors and sages, it is hard to state with precision that the departed Ugandan industrialist Dr. James Mulwana was easily the most patriotic Ugandan of the passing generation.
In a nation where citizens reserve for thieving civil servants front seat recognition at funerals, church and weddings, relegating innovators, professors, policemen and soldiers to the back seats, James Mulwana will pass on like any other ordinary Ugandan who lived on his own, worked so hard and eventually burnt out because he was not a politician or a rich civil servant who never sought to work ‘smart’ as a quick route to success.
In a nation where, unlike humble- educated Mulwana- the elite perennially commit a huge chunk of the national budget to financing a bloated public administration structure, buy more vehicles than fix the roads and exhaust the annual purse five months to the next budget reading, a few entrepreneurs like James who work their heart out to create jobs in order to leave this country a better place than they found it, will always die off without the political fanfare and heroic medals.
His contribution to this country’s social structural betterment will definitely attract volumes of commentary and books for years to come. Mr. Mulwana’s single effort in the industrialization process prompted some of my most vivid Pan Africanists to pose the question yesterday; ‘Uganda is slowly moving to take off stage, how can a man who has contributed to this process so immensely just abandon ship so easily?’
President Yoweri Museveni was fond of referring to Mulwana every time he delved into his pet subject of Transformation. He often argued that if the nation had ten Mulwanas, ten Mukwanos and others, Uganda would be a first world country. But His wish never came so fast to fulfillment because the nation’s DNA and that of its political managers was one that continued to despise local investors, taxed them out of business and failed to legislate against dumping and couldn’t protect them. Thus, at the passing on of this great hero, our supermarkets were still strewn with honey packs from the United States, eggs from Southern Africa, Chilli and Tomato Source from the West and Middle East, fruit juice from Egypt and United Arab Emirates when our people are stuck with rotting pineapples, mangoes, pepper and eggs. Bee Farmers in Bushenyi, Luweero and West Nile were struggling to compete with better honey packs from the USA on local shelves. To this, Mulwana must have died a bitter man.
But to his relentless effort, from nutrition, to sanitation, education and motoring, James Mulwana’s products were the FULCRUM with him as the EFFORT and us as the LAOD. My kids love his Jessa brand of milk. A friend who runs a supermarket around Kirinya in Bweyogerere tells me this brand sells out in seconds and the demand is overwhelming. Now wonder, I always struggle to feed my kids on milk from my favorite long-horned Nkore cow of the ancient Nile valley whenever Jessa runs out.
In Uganda Batteries, Uganda did not only find some truest sense of economic independence, the jobs created aside, the informal citizens, the artisans in the multiple garages around the country found a job; fixing batteries so that the motoring industry could keep fueling and driving Uganda forward.
In Nice House of Plastics, we got basins, Buckets and plates for not only home use but also to assist in the provision of comfort at school. Of the millions that have gone to school in Uganda since perhaps 1988, no one can claim they never found convenience in using his plastics. If they didn’t, at least his NICE brand of pens came in handy and with it, Uganda has steadily and heavily brought illiteracy rates down, solving the Human Resource bottleneck of the 1970s.
With Uganda’s stability and the resultant growth of the entertainment industry, thousands of small scale entrepreneurs found a source of income from his plastic chairs as events managers and service providers. Anybody from across this nation, who owns at least 100 plastic chairs from Nice House of Plastics is guaranteed of Shs. 100,000 weekly income from a party or a funeral. My mother, a retired primary school teacher far deep in Mbarara makes Shs. 200,000 a week from these plastics. So much did Mulwana value this little business magic that during his annual staff parties, he always asked every worker to take with them the Plastic chair they were seated on back home and make something out of it. Maybe some of them set up saloons, small bars and restaurants and used these plastics. That was the humble Mulwana magic. His ability to make his thoughts resonate with the lives of ordinary Ugandans was and will still be beyond ordinary imagination and possibly place him in the ranks of an African Rockefeller. If young entrepreneurs like me needed a vivid African role model, we found one in Mulwana. He was a combination of resilience, toughness and humility- key values of a typical successful Entrepreneur.
Perhaps these and more could only be best captured by a friend- John Ssempebwa- who immediately penned on his facebook wall, the following words within hours of his death.
“Oh Dr. James Mulwana! Negotiating for the profit-maximizing private sector with tax-thirsty Government is a Herculean task! By design, Government will always eschew Pro-profit proposals that wound Allen Kagina’s collection. I gaudily remember the power crisis in which the private sector proposed tax waivers on generator diesel to mitigate losses arising from power shortage. Off course, URA shunned it, but inexplicably, Mulwana swayed government to grant a tax waiver on generator diesel to manufacturers, discotheques, exporters, name it! In Mulwana, the private sector had a patriotic entrepreneur that altruistically negotiated for all businesses before he negotiated for his own! He had an inimitable, acquiescent but effective approach to negotiating with Government. “Mutabani”, he often beseeched insensitive civil servants, “One day, you will start your own business, prepare a soft landing for yourself, grant us this small request, sir”. And Voila, without referring to his connection in state house, he successfully vouched for the private sector, free of charge! At PSFU, he tabooed all monetary benefits to board members, yet he could easily have passed that resolution. Goodbye Sir, from you, we have learnt more than we learnt from these universities. I am proud to have worked with you for three years.”
In 2007, The Red Pepper, a member of the Uganda Manufacturers Association ( UMA) was a beneficiary of the diesel waiver. Perhaps had it not been James Mulwana’s unselfish effort, we wouldn’t have lived to celebrate our tenth anniversary four years later. Am sure other businesses in our category would have closed shop.
I always tell my fellow young people that one day, when our creator decides to invite us, our legacy should never be measured by how much money we left on our bank accounts but by how much we left our societies and those that look up to us better off. Deep down our hearts, Mulwana left us better off. Our challenge will be how much we leave a better world for our children and their children’s children. Perhaps he had to leave the stage so we understand better the values of honest hard work and the benefit of entrepreneurship. He had to die so we get to start valuing those who seek to harness the world to get us jobs. He had to go so we realize that this country will not industrialize unless the political class wakes from its slumber and protect our local industries from dumping. The struggle starts with you!