Erisa Kakyomya Apuuli is a household name in Toro sub-region. He is the proprietor of Rusekere Tea Growers Factory in Kabarole, a $3m project that buys tea leaves from 800 out-growers, employs 450 tea pluckers and 300 staff.
Kakyomya has invested in real estate and owns about a quarter of all the commercial structures in Fort Portal town as well as some in Kampala city.
He also owns sizeable chunks of land in Kabarole, Kyenjojo and Kibale districts. But things have not always been this rosy for the 70-year-old billionaire.
Who is Erisa Kakyomya Apuuli?
He is the managing director of Rusekere Growers Tea Factory Ltd and a former director and chairman of Mpanga and Mabale tea factories in Kabarole. He retired to start his own factory and pursue his childhood dream of engaging in tea growing and production.
Kakyomya is also a major shareholder in Mpanga and Mabale tea factories. He also served as chairman of Uganda Tea Growers Association for 12 years.
During his time as chairman, he rehabilitated farmers’ gardens and increased the number of tea factories and production.
He was born in a polygamous family in Kiburara village in Hakibale sub-county in Kabarole district, where he was the only child from his mother. Although the family was wealthy (the prominent family of the Kirasos), Kakyomya was never interested in pursuing the family wealth, but rather beating his own path.
“I wanted to work and earn through my own sweat. I am glad I have achieved it,” he says contentedly.
Kakyomya went to Kiburara Primary School up to P4, joined Kabarole Primary School up to P6, then Kabarole Junior Secondary for two years.
Since his childhood, he had wanted to become an engineer. In 1958, he enrolled for an electrical engineering course at Uganda Polytechnic Kyambogo (UPK), which has since been incorporated into Kyambogo University.
However, his dream was shattered two weeks later when his father refused to give him tuition.
After dropping out of school, Kakyomya went back to the village in Kiburara and joined a white man called Fergusson, who was carrying out research on trees in the area.
Kakyomya would help to fell the trees and monitor them. He worked with Fergusson for a month and was paid sh180 then. This is what he used to start his first business.
His first business
In August 1958, armed with his sh180 pay, Kakyomya opened a grocery shop in Kiburara trading centre in his sister’s house.
“I was surprised by the way the small shop picked up fast. This was perhaps because I met a need; bridged a gap. I got a good number of customers in the beginning and within two years, the small corner grocery had grown into a fully blown shop,” Kakyomya narrates.
This small shop was not just a means of livelihood for Kakyomya but a training ground in the skill and art of doing business and all aspects of it. The shop taught him how to appreciate small beginnings in business.
“My small shop taught me how to exercise discipline in financial management. I learnt how to save and reinvest the money. You see, the biggest problem with young businessmen and women is that when they see a lot of money in the drawers or bank accounts; they think they have a lot of it,” he cautions.
“A big percentage of it is capital and the profit they have made, which is usually a small portion of it, is what rightfully belongs to them. Because many people do not understand this, they start spending and end up eating into the capital of their business.
“At the end of the day, the business collapses. I learnt this a long time ago, while running that shop.”
In fact, because of applying best practices in financial management even at such an early stage, his father, who also owned a shop in the same area, was so impressed that he let Kakyomya take over the stock of his shop, which was collapsing.
Kakyomya accumulated enough money to buy his first car and a farm near River Muzizi in Kibaale within two years.
Over time, he stocked the farm with dairy cattle from which he drew milk and using his car, distributed it within Kabarole.
Moving into timber trade
In 1966, eight years after he opened up his retail shop, Kakyomya had accumulated enough money to venture into the lucrative timber trade at the time.
He would buy timber from Kisomoro village and Mwenge sub-county, which he sold to traders in Kampala. He made huge returns.
However, Kakyomya did not want to forsake the shop entirely. He wanted someone to run the shop while he dealt in timber. That was the time he married Mary, who was a teacher by profession.
In fact, it was money from the lucrative timber trade that financed their wedding. He also reinvested some of the returns in dairy farming and bought yet another farm at Milongo in Kyenjojo district.
After their wedding, Kakyomya requested his wife to give up her teaching job and concentrate on running the shop, which she accepted.
“Mary sacrificed her profession and joined me in business and we have worked together to this very day,” Kakyomya says with tinge of glee in his voice.
Joining the tea industry
Growing in Kiburara, Kakyomya was always surrounded by lush and expansive tea plantations and factories. From a tender age, he always dreamed of owning one of those ‘big tea gardens’ he saw and perhaps one of the factories.
But that was just a dream. In those days, all those tea plantations and factories were exclusively owned by Europeans. In fact, it was punishable by law for locals to plant tea.
This status quo remained until 1966, when the government, with the help of World Bank, passed a law in Parliament establishing the Uganda Tea Growers Corporation (UTGC).
UTGC, among other things, prepared overall plans for the development of the tea industry and encouraged the formation of associations of tea growers into cooperative societies; was involved in tea processing, inspection and marketing.
As a promising businessman in the area, Kakyomya was invited to be part of the process of operationalising the corporation in his area. He saw this as an opportunity to finally achieve his childhood dream of getting into the tea industry.
Kakyomya was tasked with training tea growers on how to embrace the new venture, how to acquire proper planting materials and how to utilise the new cooperative societies. However, his involvement was limited to that.
To be able to do anything, he had to join the cooperative societies like everyone else.
The Act stipulated that: “No person may plant tea on any land unless registered with UTGC as a tea grower and no person may, in areas set out in the second schedule, establish, operate, maintain or extend a tea seed garden or tea nursery unless in possession of a permit issued by the board of the corporation.”
“The Act also required that those who did not have licensed factories be forced out of the trade and be part of the corporation and of course I did not belong to any, so I joined Toro-Mityana-Kaihura Tea Factory as an employee,” Kakyomya said.
He used the money he made from the tea industry to buy land in Fort Portal town where he later constructed numerous buildings.
Things fall apart
Unfortunately, the coming of Idi Amin to power in 1971 marked the beginning of problems for the tea industry in Uganda. Kakyomya, recalls that civil servants started misusing the corporation’s money, which prompted World Bank to withdraw its support from the corporation leading to it eventual collapse.
Towards the end of the war that ousted Amin in 1979, Amin’s soldiers targeted wealthy individuals in the area and Kakyomya too was a victim of this harassment.
“I lost all the property I had worked so hard to achieve — my shop was looted, my timber business went; my dairy farm too was a casualty. I was left with only one lorry, which I had used to transport my milk to the market. It survived by God’s grace,” he narrates ruefully.
Rebuilding his empire
In 1982, after losing virtually everything he had worked for, Kakyomya set out to rebuild his collapsed empire.
Fortunately, he was left with a lorry which he sold at sh2m. He used part of the money to set up a beer depot in Fort Portal which distributed Uganda Breweries Ltd products.
The beer business did so well that Kakyomya decided to get a loan from Barclays Bank to engage in other businesses. He them applied to become an agent of Uganda Batteries Limited, Uganda Hardwares, Uganda General Merchandise, and Uganda Textiles among others in Kabarole.
With the money these franchises brought in, Kakyomya started restocking his ranches.
Rejoining the tea industry
In 1986, after President Museveni came to power and the political atmosphere stabilised, the European Union (EU) took interest in and offered to support the tea industry in Uganda.true
President Museveni specifically negotiated for small holders to be the primary beneficiaries and the EU brought the idea.
With his experience of working with the Toro-Mityana-Kaihura Tea Factory and training farmers and extension services in the 1970s, Kakyomya was hired by the Government as an expert.
He was tasked with ensuring best farming practices through training farmers and increasing their output.
Disaster strikes again!
In 1999, at the peak of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) war in the area, Kakyomya again lost his wealth to rebels. His farm in Muzizi at the border of Kibale and Kyenjojo, which he had worked so hard to restock, was looted. He lost 2,500 head of cattle.
This stressed Kakyomya because he had a bank loan looming over his head.
“I was helped by a Good Samaritan to get back to my feet,” he says. Other unconfirmed sources, however, claim he was the beneficiary of a government compensation scheme, though he will not confirm this.
His troubles never ended there. At the same time, Kakyomya’s petrol station, which had been running for the last 12 years collapsed suddenly.
“I made a loss of sh9m in one week. I jumped out of that business,” he recalls. “It was an uncalculated risk and this is what is killing our businesses. When you realise that a business is not working out, cut your losses and jump out. You may continue making losses and suffer with bank loans,” he says.
It is then that Kakyomya realised that being a jack of trades was affecting his efficiency. So, throughout the 2000s, he decided to sell off all the franchises one at a time and concentrating on pursuing his dream of owning a tea factory.
Secret of success
“I have fallen and stood again. It is my early failures that gave me the strength to face tougher future challenges and forced me to invest in bigger ventures like Rusekere Tea Growers Factory,” Kakyomya says.
The birth of Ruseke Tea Growers Factory
“You cannot to do serious business on a large scale without bank loans. I had to get another loan and, in addition, disposed of some of my property including the buildings in Fort Portal town in a bid to set up a factory,” he says.
The result of his efforts materialised into Rusekere Tea Growers Factory in Kijura Town Council, Kibaale sub-county, Kabarole district which was commissioned by President Yoweri Museveni in January 2011.
“My biggest market is Kenya and I have stores in Mombasa. I only sell 2% of what I produce to the local population because it is not my target market,” he says.
Kakyomya exports 22 tonnes of tea to Mombasa once a week. A tonne comprises 1,000kg and a kilogramme goes for between $2.6 (about Ush6,00) and $7 (about Ush18,000), depending on the grade of the tea.
“I have also installed a second line to increase on my production in order to start exporting to countries like Pakistan, Sudan and Dubai,” he says.
“It is amazing how the tea business, which I only pursued as part-time, has become my permanent work. I have so far invested more than $3m (about sh7.6b) in tea and I monitor it on a daily basis.”