MAXIMA NSIMENTA: 10 Lessons I Learnt From Ahmed Omar Mandela — Uganda’s Most Successful Self-Made Tycoon


Writer, Maxima (L) shares a pictorial light moment with Uganda’s biggest self-made tycoon, Ahmed Omar Mandela (COURTESY PHOTO)

OPED | Since 2006, I have closely followed the rise and dominance of Cafe Javas — now popularly known and rebranded as CJ’s. From the first time I entered the Cafe Javas at Bombo Road and tasted their Cajun Chicken dish, it was a done deal for me. Not only was the meal utterly delicious, but it was also very well presented and sixteen years later, it still tastes the same! The consistency in good product delivery is a thing of beauty I have always admired and look up to now that I am in business as well.

Being in the product and service delivery industry requires of me to be at the top of my game when it comes to customer experience and customer service generally. Cafe Javas wins at this 125%! So, when one of my mentors (Robert Kabushenga) surprised me with a breakfast meeting with the brains and force behind the Cafe Javas empire, it was entrepreneurship heaven for me!

Other than being star-struck, my mind was going crazy bursting with a million and one questions. Being the seasoned businessman and teacher that he is, Mr. Mandela decided to tell us about his entrepreneurship and business journey. I was with 6 other young successful entrepreneurs and it was a joy to be in their midst as well.

His is a humbling and amazing journey and here are 10 lessons I learnt from the owner of City Tyres, Cafe Javas, City Oil , Mandela Millers and so many awesome super successful businesses here in Uganda:

  1. Appreciate what you have and where you are. “You are successful and you must know that,” Mandela mentioned that when he was our age (mid-30s), he had not accomplished even half of what we have done. We must learn to recognize that we have done well and appreciate how far we have come.
  2. You must know what you do not want. Mandela stressed that there are so many things we want in life and these many wants and needs can easily cloud our judgement. He stressed that in order to prevent this, we must clearly know what we do not want as this will guide and keep our principles and values intact.
  3. The biggest brand you can build is honesty. Your word should be able to define you and what you deliver. Your word is your biggest asset. Do not lie to people. People always trust you the entrepreneur first and then trust your brand. So build honesty and the rest will follow.
  4. Be patient. Mandela mentioned that many young people are dying to get rich fast. In this haste, many avoidable mistakes shall be made and also many important things shall be missed. Always take your time to understand where you are, what the market demands and where you want to go.
  5. Do not rush to buy/build. So, Mandela said that he only moved from an apartment to his family home in 2007. This is someone that has been in business since 1980! He mentioned that his businesses own their premises however as Mandela took a lot of time to own individual property.
  6. Always look to add value in your area of expertise. Mandela started with a hardware shop, added tyre trading, added car oils, added fuel stations, added restaurants to provide food for his clients that visited the fuel stations, and added on a milling company to provide raw materials for the most consumed foods at his restaurants and now countrywide. He stressed that no matter how much value you add, you can never exhaust what you can do in your field.
  7. Organic growth is the best kind of growth. Borrowing money sometimes digs holes you will not easily get out of. Do not rush to borrow money. Plan and use what you can get from your business for growth. And yes, you got that right! Mandela does not believe in borrowing money for the business. He uses his hard-earned cash.
  8. Remain passionate about what you do. Do not spoil what you have by always looking outward. With passion, you will have a better focus to grow what you have and making it thrive.
  9. Invest in people. Invest in your staff. Mandela has a training school for all his staff — especially the customer-facing employees. Before a branch opens, the employees are rigorously trained to serve you to perfection! So definitely there is a need to have a focused training school for all businesses that engage with customers a lot! This was a major lesson for Livara since we interact a lot with customers at our family salons.
  10. Most wealth in Africa today is first-generation wealth. We are building our own fundamentals. So, the question is, how engaged are you in building those core fundamentals for the generations that will come after you?

There’s a very interesting story he told us. Mandela said that when he was a child, his father took him on a trip around Kololo and Nakasero. His father told him that, “My son, if you are stupid, you will rush to buy a $2 million house here. All the rich men of Kampala stay here. But I hope you are not stupid.” All the businessmen that started out with Mandela in the 80s and rushed to buy houses in Kololo are either bankrupt or no longer have thriving businesses today. Mandela’s is the only hardware shop that started in the 1980s and is still standing today.

I am extremely grateful for having had this surprise breakfast with a gentleman who has redefined how to do business in Uganda and now Kenya! Being mentored by Robert Kabushenga, who made this meeting happen, definitely has its advantages. I hope you learn a thing or two from these lessons and share what stood out for you.


About the Author

Maxima Nsimenta is the Founder/Owner at Nyowe Ventures and also CEO of Livara Products. Her interest in Energy and entrepreneurship has scaled her in coaching, and mentorship of young businesswomen.

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