Haruna Sentongo is one of Uganda’s most outstanding young entrepreneurs. The 34-year-old serial entrepreneur is the founder of Haruna Enterprises U Limited, a Ugandan real estate company that owns several shopping malls, apartment complexes and office buildings across Kampala.
Sentongo’s property portfolio includes the landmark Haruna Towers in Ntinda, northeastern Kampala, and Haruna Towers Wandegeya. His tenants include Uganda’s biggest banks and several bluechip companies.
All in, he boasts a property portfolio valued at several million dollars.
Sentongo recently recounted his entrepreneurial journey to Billionaires.Africa’s Editor-In-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe and explained how he accomplished so much at such a young age.
— You’ve accomplished so much at such a remarkably young age and built a successful property empire encompassing shopping malls, office complexes and apartments. How did you get started as an entrepreneur and when did you get your first big break?
— I was born in Kalungu village, Masaka district on Nov. 30, 1987 to Mr. Segawa Haruna and Mrs. Nakayiza Jalia. My parents then moved to Masaka town where my father was a textile trader. I attended my primary education from Masaka and later relocated to Kampala City from where I studied my “O” level, “A” level and university.
When I was 16 years old, and enjoying my “O”-level vacation, my father gave me Ugx 300,000 to start a business to keep me busy during the holidays. I started selling women bags in a small makeshift stall, and that was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.
I later started wholesaling and saved up my profits. In 2005, I had accumulated reasonable savings and started selling home and office furniture from a store on Ben Kiwanuka Street in Kampala. I kept saving my profits and in 2007, I started trading garments. I would import in very large quantities from China, Thailand and Malaysia, and sell both on retail and wholesale to Ugandans. I was also supplying to South Sudan, Congo and Kenya. I later started buying prime commercial plots of land in different city suburbs around Kampala and in 2011, I incorporated Haruna Enterprises U Limited, through which I started constructing Haruna Towers in Wandegeya. With more capital inflows, I continued buying more land and developing more shopping malls and arcades and in 2014, I concentrated on the low-income suburb of Kisenyi, where I bought large chunks of land and started mass transformation, setting up mega trade markets.
In 2016, after realizing high demand for low cost drinking water among the workers on my construction sites, I decided to start a water and soft beverages processing and manufacturing factory giving birth to Nsangi Beverage company, which manufactures the popular View Water (bottled mineral water) and Salaam Juice. I have now diversified into Skin Care Products (Cash and Roxy beauty-healthcare products) and a range of household consumables, among which include: candles, bathing, laundry and toilet soap and detergents, and confectionaries, through a number of factories based in Nakatema off Nsangi Masaka Road, operated under the subsidiary, View Investments (U) Limited.
I got my first big break way back when I made my first Ugx 1-million profit in the bags business, I got inspired worked harder as it kept on multiplying until today.
— Your company, Haruna Enterprises U is one of the fastest growing real estate companies in Uganda. What inspired your entry into the real estate business?
— After many years of trading in bags and garments and paying a lot of money in rent, I realized that having my own stores to keep my stock of goods was better than renting, hence the decision to invest in real estate. I also wanted to provide stores to other fellow traders at a small fee. Along the way, I have realized that real estate is like no other business. I am currently expanding even more in other sectors but real estate is my primary business.
— I read a story some time ago about Kisenyi slum in Central Division in Kampala, which used to be a hotbed for violent crime and drug abuse. I also read that because of your projects over there, the slum is now a much saner place. Why did you decide to invest in the slums?
— Yes, it is true. Kisenyi used to be the epicenter of crime then. Even though some people still call it a slum, the fact is that it is now a thriving commercial center now.
There was very cheap land back in the day and no one wanted to invest there based on the prevalent circumstances at the time. But to me, the environment looked almost similar to that of Kubiri – another low-income area where I built Haruna Towers. I realized that I could change it for better to match the city standards like I did before at Kubili. So I bought huge chunks of land in Kisenyi and built Segawa Market complex, which has over 320 shops of different sizes and shape. Today, the tenants in those shops sell everything from spare parts for motorcycles to food products. The complex is very well organized and comes with generous parking spaces, and it is now the commercial nerve center of Kisenyi. It has attracted a lot of businesses and enabled me to grow faster. Others have been inspired and are also investing in the area and changing it further.
— Access to financing is always a challenge for many entrepreneurs – more so in Africa than elsewhere. How have you been able to fund the acquisition and development of properties and the growth of your manufacturing business? How did you nature relationships with financiers and potential partners?
— I am now free from bank loans, but it is the bank loans that I used well that enabled me prosper. Also, financial discipline and hard work have helped me to fund and expand my businesses at a very fast rate.
I first built a good relationship and big financial portfolio with my bankers right from the beginning when I traded in bags, furniture and garments, I had good cash flows over the years and whenever I needed funding, I could easily get loans on time. If you demonstrate to the banks that you can be faithful in meeting your obligations to them when they give you loans, they’ll always support you and roll out the red carpet for you if you approach them with a good proposition.
— You are quite young. Has your young age been an asset or a liability in the pursuit of your business?
— My age has really been an asset since I have been welcomed by all in business. Many have treated me with goodwill as a young man trying to come up which has greatly helped me and worked in my favor.
— Have you encountered any unique challenges in Uganda where you run your businesses – currency devaluations, inflation, political uncertainty perhaps?
— I cannot say that I have encountered unique challenges, but the currency devaluations used to negatively affect my loan repayments, making bank loans expensive back then.
Given the fact that most of my properties are initially in slums, I initially had to plead for customers to rent my premises, throwing in generous incentives such as giving many months for free. The COVID-19 pandemic affected business in a major way. Many of my tenants struggled, so I had to waive over six months rent for them last year in order to help them regain business stability given the fact that they were not operating when locked up which caused me losses in billions of Ugandan shillings.
Politically, the business environment in Uganda has been very favorable for business growth due to the good security offered by our government.
Challenges in business are generally common but you have to move forward under any circumstance.
— What does success mean to you?
— Success to me is the achievement of goals set in time and gaining from hard work.
— What’s next for Haruna Sentongo and Haruna Enterprises U? Are you setting your sights on expanding into other countries in East Africa?
— We are planning to expand our real estate interests to Zanzibar and Mombasa very soon.
— Any words of wisdom for young African entrepreneurs that are afraid of starting something?
— i. Start with anything, anywhere. Start from anywhere, don’t wait to get a lot of money to start something. Start with what you have. I myself; started my business journey from a bags’ stall worth Ugx 300,000 (about $84) an amount I got from my father in 2003.
ii. Take risks. Surrendering what you have, however little, with hope of gaining more is called risk. If you have money and fear investing in a profitable venture, you are simply fearing to risk, but you will eventually end up using that money for survival and remain with nothing in the end. Always take risk without being afraid. Where there is no risk, there is no development and all that risk bring is good change. Without taking risk, you cannot move forward.
iii. Age is not important in business. I built my first property; Haruna Towers when i was a first-year student at Makerere University in 2011. Money doesn’t respect age. It respects those that respect it.
iv. Don’t throw money around. In my country Uganda, it has become a norm for many fellow youths who after getting some little money, to start throwing it in the air to prove their wealth. I despise them because they do not respect money. I respect every coin. Never throw money around. Money doesn’t want to be thrown around.
v. Start and set up your business from where you can afford. When I bought my first plot at Wandegeya, many people laughed at me because it was a slum. I did not care about the laughter. But after building it there, it sold my brand, and I am honestly operating on it until today. That property has stood out from the crowd and has since attracted new developers in the area and I do not regret that investment decision at all.
vi. Filthy is wealth. Most of my properties are in slum places outside the Central Business District of Kampala City where no one had put their eyes before. This always allowed me to buy at very cheap rates. These properties have now gained too much value. For example: Nakayiza Market, Segawa Market and Haruna Towers all located in Mengo-Kisenyi and Haruna Towers, Kubiri, Wandegeya suburb. It is just of recent in 2019 that i bought my first corporate plot at the swanky Nakasero from Mr. Drake Lubega, another legendary property mogul.
When I came to buy in these slums, no one wanted to invest this here. I remember I even begged tenants to come and get working space with free months offers at one point, but now there are many properties in the area, flooded with very many tenants.
vii. Know when to walk out of the business. A person should be very realistic in business. At some point, a business my swallow all your investment. This is part of business, but be realistic and know if the business is not working or if it has overgrown. It is always important to find something else to do.” For instance, after trading in bags and garments for some years, I realized that instead of renting stores to keep stock, it was better he invests in real estate. Which decision has heavily paid off.
viii. Financial discipline is key. My current achievements are due to financial discipline. I have really put in a lot. Hard work and the bank loans that I have used well, have helped me be where I am now, despite the high interest rates.
ix. Get loans but use them well. Money is available in banks and ready to be used. After you build a financial portfolio and want to grow bigger, ensure you build a good relationship with your bank. Use the loans for their intended purpose to avoid financial problems. Despite that fact that I do not have any bank loans or bank liability at the moment, it is the loans have helped me expand at a high speed.
x. Put all your faith in God. I am where I am now only because of God. For God has been very faithful to me. I keep running to God in hard situations and always give thanks to HIM for everything. God has always answered my prayers. With God, I don’t need anyone or anything; I actually do not have any plan, God is my superior plan and I got all I have from no one but God.