At just 37, Hamis Kiggundu is one of East Africa’s most revered young entrepreneurs and real estate moguls. Through his company, Ham Group, he owns a property portfolio in the heart of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, that includes landmark shopping centers, office buildings and hotels.
He is currently building Ham Palm Villas – a private gated community that will accommodate 500 luxury homes in a swanky location in the city. He is also constructing a replica of the White House in Kampala, which upon completion will serve as the headquarters for some of the newer businesses he is developing – an agro-processing company and a string of Web and mobile tech startups. But perhaps his most important project at the moment is the reconstruction of the Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium. In 2017, the Ugandan government entered into a joint venture with Ham Group to effect major renovations at the stadium, involving an improvement to grounds, increasing seating from 30,000 to 35,000 and constructing retail shops inside the outside walls of the facility. The project, costing millions of dollars, is funded by Kiggundu’s company.
Kiggundu was born into privilege – and he admits that much.
Two decades ago, his father provided him with capital to start a trading business. But it is to Ham’s credit that he parlayed that small financial gift from his father into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that directly and indirectly employs more than 5,000 people in the country today.
Hamis Kiggundu recently spoke to Billionaires.Africa’s Editor-In-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe about his journey and his plans.
— Can you tell us about your upbringing in Uganda and how your early years shaped your outlook on business?
— I was born to Mr. Segawa Haruna and Mrs. Nakayiza Jalia on Feb. 10, 1984, and was raised in the small village of Kalungu, Uganda, which is in East Africa. Kalungu village is part of Masaka, which used to be a bigger town, but it’s now a city.
I went to primary school in Masaka and, as a child, I would help my father who was a textile trader in his shop during our school holidays. During the period I was to attend high school, my family relocated to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and from there, I went to Kabojja Secondary School. Later, I attended Makerere University and graduated with a bachelor of laws. By profession, I am a lawyer, but today I’m more of a businessman than a lawyer.
It was during my middle-school holidays in 2005 that my parents gave me some capital to start a business. This gave me the opportunity to test the entrepreneurial waters. I started small, buying garments, furniture, ladies’ bags and other commodities from large importing wholesalers and selling them locally at a profit. As my margins grew, I began to source directly from international markets and became a firsthand importer myself. I imported clothes and commodities from China, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and distributed them wholesale both in Uganda and in neighboring countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Congo and Sudan.
As I accumulated more capital, I upgraded to real estate, mainly buying and selling land and properties at a profit before I incorporated Ham Enterprises (U) Ltd. and progressed to constructing and owning my commercial properties. Yes, I did follow in my father’s footsteps because he is equally a businessman.
— So you started your business journey by trading garments, furniture and ladies‘ bags. Why did you choose to trade in those specific items at the time?
— I chose those specific items because it was those commodities that my parents were dealing in then. Like I said, I started small with reasonable startup capital from my parents – reasonable in the sense that it was not too much for me to simply spend it on my personal needs then as a young man, nor was it too small for me not to start. As my trading business thrived, I opted to venture into a more sophisticated business and real estate was a natural fit for me.
— What was it like building your first commercial property in Kampala, Ham Towers?
— It was exciting. I had some challenges like any other entrepreneur, but as a personal principle, I choose not to reflect on the past challenges. I prefer to focus on the present and the future because challenges and mistakes are only a stepping stone forward as they give me the ability never to make the same mistakes again. So, Ham Towers was the first building in our portfolio and our flagship property. Located just opposite Makerere University, it is an A-class shopping, accommodation and leisure center with offices, restaurants, supermarkets and a serviced apartment.
After Ham Towers, I had mastered the game of commercial real estate. Looking at the mistakes I had made in my first project, I was able to move a bit faster because I knew what to expect when it came to the space of commercial real estate. In 1.5 years, I made progress and managed to erect my next property — Ham Shopping Mall. I had secured the space where I was going to put the property and my garments business was still thriving while additional rental income was coming in from Ham Towers. Because of these, I was able to easily secure financing with the banks because I had reasonable collateral.
— What has your experience been like in regards to raising money from banks and other financial institutions?
— With banks and financiers, it is not about trust or emotions, it is about making business sense. Banks are equally driven by a profit motive just like private companies. If you think your bankers are your friends, then you’re mistaken; those are your business partners. That is why they foreclose immediately as soon as you make a default on your payments. In my opinion, banks are a good source of start-up and expansion capital but never for long-term sustainable progress.
In my view, one can only reasonably benefit from banks if they hold relatively equal or reasonable bargaining positions to negotiate fair interest rates and fair trading terms. However, in Uganda and most African countries, interest rates stand at as high as 25-30 percent. There are very narrow chances of small businesses succeeding and enjoying long-term sustainability with these kinds of rates. With time, I have mastered the art of growing my operational capital internally thus outgrowing the need for exploitative financing from banks for now.
— You are building some ambitious real estate projects like the Ham Palms Villas, where you are building 500 gated luxury homes set on 200 acres; the stadium which you are practically rebuilding, and other projects like the replica of the White House. How are these projects coming along?
— The 500 modern homes under Ham Palm Villas are a means for capital accumulation. The investment we’re making there is gradual and at a controlled pace, yet in the long run, we envisage huge returns on the investment. I can easily sell them gradually once I need financing. The project is like a bank; it secures capital for future investment while providing service to my community or society at the same time.
The White House will house the headquarters for all my companies but will also serve as a tourist attraction. It will equally stand as an illustration of possibilities for my fellow Ugandans and Africans at large. If the Americans have something so grand over there, we too can have it here. Africans should not chase their dreams out there, but rather put in an effort and struggle to implement their desires in Africa. I have always admired the white house as a young man and based on reason, why go to America as a tourist to visit the white house when I hold the means to build a lookalike here at home.
I embarked on the reconstruction of the stadium as corporate social responsibility for community development and equally as an example to other Ugandans and Africans that if I can pull off such a huge project with private funding, so can they. The only way to pull Africa out of poverty to prosperity is for us Africans to accept it as our responsibility and obligation. The stadium project equally makes business sense because it is surrounded by a number of commercial premises such as shops and restaurants which will bring income for us.
— Ham Enterprises also has a property portfolio in the United States and UK. What are some of the flagship properties you own there, and what prompted you to look to the west for your company’s growth?
— I own a commercial property in the UK situated at 375 Moston Ln, Manchester M40 9NB, trading as Ham International UK Ltd. I also own a logistics company trading as Ham International Express Logistics LLC based in Euless, Texas, with a number of trucks throughout the United States. I equally own Hamz Link Ltd, a multimedia platform company based in Edmonton Canada. I invested in the West because business is all about taking risks with courage and determination to move into unfamiliar new economic zones all on a balance of probabilities.
— In your 2018 book, “Success and Failure Based on Reason and Reality,” you argue that Uganda’s educational system is outdated and does not necessarily equip students with the practical tools needed to succeed in life. In your opinion, how can African governments redesign the education system to combat financial illiteracy and prepare students for successful wealth-building, accumulation and stewardship?
— Uganda and other African nations should redesign their educational systems in line with their society’s prevailing realistic circumstances to reflect the challenges of their people, so that graduates have the capacity to forge corresponding solutions to the actual problems in such societies based on reason and reality.
— Your company, Ham Group, is also venturing into large-scale agriculture with the construction of a multimillion-dollar agro-processing facility. Tell us about that business.
— Uganda is an agro-based economy with a very good climate, fertile soils and a young energetic population that survives on imported goods that are always processed from our own agro-produce that we export as raw materials at very low cost compared to the processed imports that we usually buy expensively.
This prompted me to opt for import substitution through setting up agro-processing and value-addition plants as the only way to correct the revenue imbalance given the fact that it is the only realistic way forward towards actual prosperity for our young nation, while at the same time giving Ugandans a chance to become productive and direct participants.
I, therefore, invested in research, and divided Uganda into 10 agro-zones depending on the different agro-products coming from all different parts of Uganda.
I came up with a plan to set up Integrated Agro-Processing Industrial Parks (IAIPs) in each of the 10 agro-zones, with a projected cost of $156 million per industrial park, totaling $1.56 billion for all the 10 IAIPs. However, this kind of funding is currently not available in Uganda.
I, therefore, decided to start with a pilot project of one integrated agro-processing plant in the central region with God’s blessing as a constant factor hoping that the government and other Ugandans will join me along the way for full implementation to cover all the 10 zones in Uganda.
— You recently donated money to the Ugandan government to purchase 150,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to combat COVID-19 in Uganda. What motivates your philanthropy, and what are some of the other charitable projects dearest to your heart?
— Money is only one of the tools of survival. It stands useless if it can’t save people’s lives. After all, no man is an island. I always help where and wherever I can since my individual personal survival is only limited to a very narrow scope of basic needs. I own and fully finance a charity organization operating as Ham Foundation.
Once one is blessed with success it’s only reasonable that they start their struggle towards collective society development rather than individual-centered prosperity because success amidst a poor society only stands as a liability rather than an asset. A poor society can only pull one downwards, never upwards. So, it is best you pull everyone you can for collective welfare based on reality.
— Your group employs more than 7,000 people all in. What are some of your top people management tips for first-time managers?
— Managers must have emotional intelligence and stamina. They must be malleable. Malleable leaders are those who can adapt their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to the changing environment in which they operate. You must be able to adapt to change. This matches with my philosophy of applying reason in any prevailing circumstances.
— Any words for young entrepreneurs who desire to achieve the level of success that you have?
— I advise them to take social responsibility, connect their vision to their personal values. They must have the ability to anticipate change and most importantly they must be courageous enough to abandon their past. In fact, I highly encourage them to find time and read my books, “Success and Failure based on Reason and Reality,” and, “Reason as the World Masterpiece,” with an open mind.
All developments, past, present, and future, discoveries to come, were, are and will always be a direct reflection of the reasoning capacity of the people of such a given time frame.