Exclusive interview with Patrick Bitature, Chairman Simba Group
The publisher of the Promota magazine is honoured to have been granted an exclusive interview with Uganda’s most acclaimed executive and entrepreneur, Patrick Bitature.
I believe most people in East Africa know who you are. For our readers in the West, how would you introduce yourself?
I am an entrepreneur with a passion and belief that the private sector is the engine for real growth in our African economies. I am also a family man, who enjoys the simple pleasure of having a meal and conversation with my wife and children.
You have become a successful and inspirational Ugandan businessman. At what age did you start your entrepreneur’s journey?
I started my entrepreneurship journey at the age of 13 years when my dad was killed. As the eldest child, the onus was on me to help my mother take care of my siblings, so I had to look for money-making opportunities to take care of my family. I dabbled in trading goods, micro-finance, and taxi services all while I was still in school. At that point I was hooked on entrepreneurial endeavours and I still really enjoy thinking about potential new businesses. I am now lucky enough to have a large conglomerate of East African based businesses spanning telecoms, electricity generation, hotels, property and media. So I can continue getting enjoyment from looking at new opportunities and spotting trends.
Your flagship company, Simba Telecom, is now one of the most successful indigenous companies in the East African region, partnering with some big players like MTN, Nokia, Safaricom, etc. How did you come up with the idea of starting Simba Telecom? And how have you managed to stay on top in such a competitive environment?
During the 1990s, I realised that mobile telephony was going to be a massive trend in African countries, with mobile phones leapfrogging traditional fixed line communication. I also realised that the key to a good retail business was to be customer centric: to offer excellent customer service and to create a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. These two realisations were the starting point for Simba Telecom.
At the time, Celtel had a monopoly as mobile operator, but they were only offering their services from one location that was not convenient for customers. Their phones were very expensive and people would have to travel out of town to their service point just to buy airtime. I set up a shop in downtown Kampala to sell good quality but more affordable phones, and I always offered a warranty. I would also travel to the Celtel warehouse to buy airtime in bulk to sell to my customers – at no profit to me, just as an extra service for the convenience of our customers. That was the way we started to build a brand of reliability and trust with consumers. Then when MTN wanted to join the market, they approached me to partner with them. I saw they really understood the market – that by reducing prices and increasing access to the mass market, they could dramatically grow the market revenues. Together with MTN, we signed up about 30,000 customers in the first 6 months which was 6 times as many customers as Celtel had managed to sign up in 4 years.
It is now about 12 years on from that first start and Simba Telecom has signed up millions of customers onto the MTN network, has extensive operations KenyaDiaspora: New mortgage frontier. Read more … » and Tanzania, has about 100 shops all over the region, and has a widespread distribution network that delivers airtime to thousands of retailers every day. I think the key to our continued success is flexibility and nimbleness. We are now a large company, but we have kept our entrepreneurial roots alive and try to minimise bureaucracy. We are always looking for the next trend and make sure we jump on early, rather than waiting. One example of this was how a couple of years ago we created an affordable and convenient money transfer service that enabled people to easily send money around the country. This concept was recently further commercialised by MTN, via the Mobile Money product that now transfers billions of shillings among Ugandan mobile phones every day.
Money transfer via the mobile phone is a relatively new phenomenon, with East African countries taking the lead. How can people in the DiasporaDiasporas; Take the plunge. Better prospects back home!. Read more … » benefit from such an innovative service?
M-Pesa in Kenya was the first of the mobile phone based money transfer systems. It has now become incredibly successful and recently enabled the transfer of money from abroad straight onto the mobile phone in Kenya. We are working on ways to enable this sort of capability in Uganda too. What this would mean is that people in the Diaspora can send money from where they live direct to the mobile phones of their friends and family deep in the village.
You are the Chairman of the Ugandan Investment Authority (UIA). Does the UIA consider Ugandans in the Diaspora as potential foreign investors? In your opinion, what are the key ways to encourage increased investment by this group into Uganda?
The UIA is focused on increasing investment in Uganda, both by foreign investors and Ugandans living at home and abroad. Therefore, the Ugandan Diaspora is a key constituency of the UIA and a segment that we would like to see more and more investment coming from.
I believe that many Ugandans are still very connected to the motherland and stay in touch with what is happening culturally, socially and politically. Every year, the Diaspora sends back about $1 billion in foreign remittancesdiaspora remittances up 36pc in September. Read more … ». However, not that many Ugandans are investing formally in business ventures in Uganda. Perhaps this is because at the time they left, Uganda was a poor country where it was difficult to make your fortune. Now, the country has already developed significantly with markets appearing to serve the growing middle classes. However, there are still so many opportunities for new businesses here – we have only tapped into a small part of this country’s potential. I think the key to increasing investment from the Diaspora is really a mind-shift – helping that group realise that Uganda is at a sweet spot point of development that can offer great returns in a depressed global economic climate. And at the same time, that investment will spur further economic growth and job creation and hence help improve the lives of your country-men and women.
I visited your hotel recently, the Protea Hotel Kampala, and I was very impressed by the luxurious 5 star services. How do you manage to compete with other recognized brands like Serena and Sheraton?
When I was building my hotel it was during the CHOGM craze and there were many hotels being built at the time. However, I wanted to build a sustainable business for the long term – hotels are built as long-term investments, they are not event specific. I realised that there was a sweet spot in the market, for a smaller business hotel that offered top-class services at a price point just below the large incumbents. I also realised that being part of a trusted, regionally recognized chain would help me stand out from the other new hotels coming on the market. I found this in Protea Hotels, and thus decided to develop my hotel under this South African brand, with the additional benefit of securing a Joint Venture agreement with Protea Hospitality to expand the Brand throughout the East African region with my own experienced team of experts.
We focus on anticipating, meeting and exceeding guest expectations, our recent win at the World Luxury Hotel Awards in Bangkok in the Luxury City Hotel category (www.luxuryhotelawards.com) pays testimony to this philosophy. A high percentage of the business at the hotel comes from returning guests. If someone likes what we offer enough to come again, I view that as the best mark of success for my people and, in turn, my businesses.
Who has most inspired you in life?
My dad is still my biggest inspiration in my life. He was a hard worker, honest, kind, generous and trustworthy; values that I hold in high regard to date. In the business world, Warren Buffet inspires me because of his incredible investment abilities but yet still retaining his humbleness and plain lifestyle. Also Richard Branson inspires me for his ability to build consumer brands and appetite for risk.
You are involved in a rejuvenation project of your old school, Nyakasura School, encouraging past pupils to take the lead in restoring this academy to its former glory. Why did you decide to get involved? What is your vision for the school, and what are some of the challenges facing the project?
Yes, I am involved in the revitalization of Nyakasura School, a project that is very near and dear to my heart having completed my A levels there many years ago. At that time, the school was among the best in the country and one can see that from the many notable persons who are past pupils of the school. Unfortunately, since that time the school has been on a steady path to its demise. I used to joke with my children and say, “If you don’t behave yourselves, I’m going to send you to Nyakasura.” But one day I really started to think seriously about the school. It is inexcusable for the school to be in the state that it is currently in and I had to rally the other old students to get involved.
- We want to create a school that produces leaders. It appears to me that education as we know it has failed in the one thing it must do to justify its very existence within society; it has failed to respond to the times. Education is more than acquiring knowledge. It is about attitudes, creativity, independence, confidence, applicable skills, and most importantly it is about leadership.
- Our biggest problem, like that of so many noble endeavours is that of funding. Reaching out to the old students has been a challenge. I thank the many who have contributed and who are supportive but there are many more out there who we must mobilize if we are to be successful in creating a school that will produce the leaders for the future of Uganda.
- If time can prove that we have a good legal framework and pilot it successfully, then it will be easy to duplicate for the benefit of other schools in Uganda. The timing is excellent as Uganda is at the cusp of a new era. We have waited far too long, but fortunately not past the point-of-no-return. As old boys and girls of Nyakasura School, we will redeem ourselves and restore glory to the school that played a vital part in moulding us to become who we are today.
- He attended Namasagali College, in Kamuli District, under the Headmaster Father Damien Grimes.
- He then studied for his A Levels in Nyakasura School in Fort Portal.
- He is an Associate Member of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA), in the United Kingdom.
- Bitature started his business empire with a single company, Simba Telecom, an exclusive distribution arm of MTN. From there he expanded Simba Telecom into new geographies of Kenya and Tanzania.
- He also started Simba Electonics (upscale electronics retail business),
- Simba Distributors,
- Simba Forex,
- Simba Tours & Travel,
- and Dembe FM (a Luganda radio station).
- He started a successful micro-finance business (CMF) which he later sold to Global Trust Bank.
- More recently he built and operates Protea Hotel Kampala, as well as other property development activities.
- Another recent venture is Electro-Maxx, an electricity generation plant in Tororo.
- In addition to his private business interests, Patrick Bitature is also the Chairmain of the Uganda Investment AuthorityDiaspora investment tips. Read more … ».
- He is also the Chairman of Umeme
- and sits on the Boards of the New Vision Group
- and National Insurance Corporation.
- He also sits on the Board of Traidlinks, an Irish NGO focused on improving the productivity of African private sector companies.
- He has a number of Corporate Social Responsibility activities, including but not limited to: donating and installing solar lighting solutions in rural areas,
- leading the rejuvination of Nyakasura School,
- and the founding of Business Against Crime Uganda.