Out of Africa: The fall, rise of Uganda’s Asian community

Jay Shree, a businessman of Asian origin, serves a customer in his store in Kampala, Uganda

Kampala – On August 5, 1972, the president of Uganda Idi Amin dreamt that God was telling him to expel the thousands of Asians – mostly Indians – who formed the economic backbone of the country.

Summoning his henchmen to his bedside, he commanded them to turn his vision into action.

Around 80,000 Asians lived in Uganda at the time. Most of them could trace their roots to Gujarat, an area of India that had enjoyed trade links with East Africa stretching back centuries.

Some were the descendants of labourers who had been shipped in to build railways at the turn of the 20th century, others were the offspring of later migrants who had travelled west in search of opportunity.

Almost all were destined to be stripped of their homes and businesses and unceremoniously booted out of the land of their birth.

The Ugandan economy subsequently tanked, and an increasingly deranged Amin proceeded to exterminate thousands of perceived tribal rivals, turning the once-prosperous country into a bloodbath.

Many were expelled with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Nevertheless, in exile many prospered due to sheer hard work and, when the political climate shifted, returned to Uganda, where they are now once again a mainstay of the economy.

Those exiled scattered as far as Canada, back to India, and to next-door Kenya; some 27,000 sought sanctuary in Britain. Rather than bewailing what they had lost they promptly set about restoring their fortunes, on the assumption that if they had to start from the bottom the only way was up.

Amin was deposed in April 1979, following a flurry of skirmishes with neighbouring Tanzania, and fled first to Libya and later to Saudi Arabia.

President Museveni addresses the nation recently (PHOTO: Courtesy)

In 1986 Uganda’s new president, Yoweri Museveni, suggested the exiles could return, having distanced himself from Amin’s policies.

Cautiously, some took up the invitation. In a short space of time, the trickle turned into a flood.

“In the mid-1980s, the infrastructure was completely broken – government officials would turn up for work, hang a jacket on their chair, then disappear for the rest of the day,” he remembers.

“The opportunities were there waiting to be seized. I started off with a beer shop – within a year, it was the biggest in Kampala.”

Ruparelia later moved into the foreign exchange business, and expanded into banking, insurance, education, hospitality. He is currently considering plans to build both a hospital and a university in Kampala.

“It takes time to get to the top – you don’t have to be in a hurry, just stay the course,” adds Ruparelia, who espouses the sort of muscular Victorian work ethic celebrated by the Scottish author Samuel Smiles.

“I’ve always picked the kind of business that suits my lifestyle, interests and passions so that I enjoy what I am doing.

Business mogul Sudhir Ruparelia

“When starting out on a new venture, I ensure that I have adequate capital for growth. You also need to understand every minute detail of your business, and employ the best people to help deliver your dreams. And I reinvest 90 per cent of my profits into the business and only consume the remainder.”

The younger generation has been swift to follow in their elders’ footsteps. In 2006 at the age of 19 Ali-shah Jivraj, whose wealthy family had returned to Uganda in the 1980s having been forced out by Amin, secured loans from relatives to start an electronics business.

His company, Royal Electronics, has since recorded annual sales in excess of US$15 million.

One of the most prominent returnees, Mohammed Alibhai, has made his home in Kampala since 1992 and devoted himself principally to the property business after spending nearly 20 years in Canada.

“Most of the Ugandan Asians who have returned have done very well indeed,” he says.

“They often started out in retail and then expanded their operations into other fields. We have a very strong work ethic, we put a lot of effort into educating our children and grandchildren, and we bring them into the family business at a young age so they can learn the ropes.

“While coronavirus and the general situation are both having an effect on business in Uganda, the prospects for the future are very good.”

While Uganda is dealing with the coronavirus – not least determining how to safely conduct a presidential election in January – long-term prospects for the economy hold more than a glimmer of hope, especially as oil reserves estimated at 6.5 billion barrels are due to come into production by the end of next year.

Uganda’s Asians make up around one per cent of its population of 4 million while paying 65 per cent of the nation’s income tax – a concrete indicator of their success and the financial influence they wield.

“We have also broadened our operations to include agriculture, real estate, logistics and financial services,” he says.

Karmali’s net worth has been judged to be more than US$700 million.

However, Mukwano is committed to a wide-ranging corporate social responsibility programme that makes substantial contributions to health, educational and sports initiatives.

Over the course of the past half-century, Britain’s Ugandan Asians have distinguished themselves far beyond the fields of commerce. To name but four of the most prominent: Rumi Verji sits in the House of Lords and heads an educational charitable foundation;

Tarique Ghaffur was appointed an assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police; John Sentamu – who was imprisoned and tortured by Amin’s security personnel – rose to become Archbishop of York; and Priti Patel, whose grandparents had emigrated to Uganda from Gujarat and whose parents subsequently settled in England, is the current Home Secretary.

“Our community has made huge strides in Britain, and while many were stripped of their Ugandan assets, most had some funds overseas,” says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who grew up in Kampala and is now one of Britain’s best-known non-fiction authors and newspaper columnists.

“It’s undeniable that most Ugandan Asians succeeded in Britain through hard work; 24-hour convenience stores were almost unknown before they started them.

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“By running their own businesses, Ugandan Asians were able to sidestep any racial bias in the corporate world and concentrate on making a new life for themselves.

“No wonder we’re sometimes called – admiringly – The Jews of East Africa.” ■

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