Mukwano: A life full of enterprise and humility
Ugandan industrial icon and trading mogul Amirali Karmali alias Mukwano, who died on July 10 at the age of 80, was among the last of a handful of Ugandan Asians who braved the country’s tumultuous politics to make a fortune and stamp a legacy that has redefined interracial relationships.
Amirali was the founder of the Mukwano Group of companies, a sprawling enterprise with interests across East Africa.
But for the colour of his skin, many Ugandans did not see the Luganda-speaking Asian entrepreneur who delighted in eating “Kabalagala,” a spicy snack made out of cassava flour and ripe bananas, as any different from them.
That came naturally for him, having been born and raised by Karmali senior on December 25, 1938 in Bukandula, a rural trading outpost in Gomba County, some 60 kilometres southwest of Kampala.
An amiable and outgoing individual, his father got the appellation Mukwano because of his close relationship with then King of Buganda, Kabaka Mutesa 11, who referred to him as a friend of the Baganda—Mukwano wa’Baganda, a moniker than came to identify what would later become one of Uganda’s most recognisable brands.
As Asian British passport holders left Uganda in their thousands in the 1972 expulsion by Iddi Amin, Karmali alongside compatriots like Alam Mazur of Alam Group, Karim Hirji of Dembe Group, Rajni Taylorand the late Dr Ahmed, were too tied to the land of their birth to abandon it.
This group stood out for their tendency to speak the native Luganda dialect, even when they were conversing among themselves, easily neutralising the tensions that previously characterised the relationship between indigenous Ugandans and a people who, despite their legal status, were largely perceived as foreigners.
As Asians returned to reclaim their properties after the fall of Amin, this small group of “stayees” always worried about how the conduct of the returnees would impact the bridges they had built over the social divide during that eight-year interlude.
In his mid-thirties at the time of the expulsion, Mukwano was already on the way to establishing himself as a businessman.
Having started out earlier as a lorry driver he now had a small fleet of trucks, from which he branched out into trading, establishing Mukwano Enterprises, which was known more by its textile store that operated out of Luwum Street.
After the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, and as the country tried to rebuild the economy, Mukwano in the mid-eighties ventured into edible oil and soap manufacturing.
At the time, these two commodities were in short supply and the state often struggled to ensure equity by managing their distribution through strict quotas.
The opening of Mukwano’s factory in 1988 would put an end to that. Building on that success, he quickly expanded into plastics, packaging and real estate.
The transport business he set out with, survives to this today serving the logistics needs of the manufacturing entity.
After a near fatal stroke and bypass surgery in the mid-nineties, the family decided to settle him in the serene highlands of Fort Portal in western Ugandan, where he had spent part of his youth with his eight siblings.
But his instinct for business saw him but into tea estates that had fallen into neglect in the area. This gave rise to Rwenzori Commodities, whose primary product was tea for export. He returned to Kampala at the turn of the millennium and expanded into real estate.
At the time of his death, the business that grew out of a small trucking operation employed over 14,000 people and 110,000 smallholder farmers, who fed the first vertically integrated edible oil manufacturing operation in Uganda.