Patrick Bitature is the Chairman of Simba Group of Companies and one of the richest people in Africa, but unlike many, his journey started with tragedy. He lost his father during the bloodshed of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda and his family lost everything. But he managed to claw his way to the top despite many more difficulties.
It was supposed to be just another family stroll, but it was fated to be one that would ultimately change his life forever. On that forgettable evening, a 13-year-old Patrick Bitature was taking a casual walk with his parents and siblings. It was supposed to be an evening to cherish and for the most parts, it seemed so – up until tragedy struck.
It was the year 1978 and Uganda was suffering under the tyranny of dictator, Idi Amin Dada, who ruled with an iron fist and inspired fear in the citizenry. The then-dictator had overthrown the country’s government in a coup and having seized power, his government (that’s if we can call it that) was notorious for numerous senseless brutal killings and gruesome murders.
During those times, the lives of both the country’s elite and masses were in grave danger as nobody knew where the ruthless dictator’s wrath was going to strike next – he was basically on a maniacal killing spree; most times, for no reason at all.
And on that gory evening from more than 40 years ago, Idi Amin came at the “Bitatures.” Paul Bitature, the father and breadwinner of the family, was murdered in cold blood right before his wife and kids by forces loyal to the dictator and working on his instructions. From that moment, things went south for the once reasonably well-off family.
Born some 59 years ago – about the same period as when Uganda became an independent nation – Patrick Bitature’s story has always been intimately connected with that of his homeland. A story that has something to do with surviving unspeakable tragedy and making immense progress on the road to recovery.
Fresh from just watching his father get killed at the hands of a tyrant, it couldn’t have gotten any worst for Bitature and the rest of his surviving family. But maybe it did. Before the body of Paul Bitature even got cold, the family had been stripped of all its properties and privileges.
Up until that evening, life had been pretty smooth for young Patrick Bitature. It’s not that he came from an affluent family – both his parents just had decent jobs which could afford them a good house, a ‘shamba’ boy, a nice car with a chauffeur, and trips to Kenya and Tanzania every once in a while. Granted; that was as close to the good life as one could get during those days.
But now that all had been lost with the death of his father, big adjustments had to be made for the family had fallen from grace. Life was hard, it was a struggle. The “Bitatures” now lived in a shanty in one of the suburbs of Kampala. There wasn’t much to eat and the kids were out of school because there wasn’t even enough money to get good food.
Being the eldest of his siblings, Patrick Bitature soon felt the reality sink in. While his younger ones groaned and sulked at the new lack that now felt like the rest of their lives, he knew he had to grow up fast and step up. And that’s what he did after one particularly emotional evening with his mother and younger siblings.
After the demise of his father, Bitature and the rest of his family were cared for to some extent by a certain Father Grimes of Namasagali College; a benevolent mentor and family friend who eventually took the family in and took care of the school fees of Bitature and his siblings for the next few years.
The family sat down together on a mat one evening. They were about to have tea when it occurred to everyone that there was no sugar and for the first time ever, it appeared they would have to make do without sugar – something that had never happened before.
“My mother insisted we just get used to it and drink the tea. Then my youngest brother started crying for daddy,” he once stated. “Then my mother who had 6 children by the age of 30 started crying too. Hysterically. And asking God to come and take us all. Then I felt a big lump in my throat.”
That same evening, Patrick Bitature did something that was both foolish and bold. As a 14-year-old that simply couldn’t stomach the pain of seeing his mother and younger siblings wail every now and then over what life had been before the tragedy, he sneaked out of the shelter that evening and somehow managed to get himself on a bus headed for Nairobi, Kenya. His purpose? To get sugar.
During those times, there was a biting scarcity of sugar in Uganda, and where the commodity was available, it came at a price that only the elite could reasonably afford – no thanks to the economic mire that the country had plunged into under the rule of the tyrant.
Going to neighbouring countries to buy the commodity was something only a handful of merchants did and purely for business. But this young lad was going all the way to get it for his family; that was how much he wanted to console his mother and younger siblings.
When he returned to Uganda the next day, he was carrying a briefcase full of sugar having managed to buy some of it and get some more from concerned people who realised a 14-year-old had travelled all the way to Kenya just for sugar.
Crossing the border was scary but no one suspected a young kid to be smuggling sugar in a school suitcase. And when he arrived home safely, his mother heaved a huge sigh of relief having been worried sick that a similar fate as her husband’s had befallen her little boy.
Except that he wasn’t “her little boy anymore.” Something had changed in Bitature. He was now ready to grab his life by the scruff of the neck and shake it up for everything he could get. It’s like that moment in a superhero comic when some youngster comes into his/her superpowers.
When word got out about what he had done, neighbours came calling – everyone wanted some of the sugar and were willing to pay for it. So, half the sugar was sold at a profit that was four-times what it had cost.
In the weeks that followed, Bitature made many more trips to Kenya to get sugar. A career in business had begun. Although he started with sugar, he soon went into selling shirts and female dresses. He wasn’t making a fortune but at least, the family could afford some things.
But his newfound appetite for business didn’t make him lose sight of his academic goals. He acquired his O-Level certificate from Namasagali College in Kamuli district. Then, he bagged an A-Level qualification from Nyakasura School in Fort Portal, his birthplace, before moving on to Makerere University.
Eight years down the road, Idi Amin Dada was ousted by a combined force led by the Tanzanian army. During the time, inflation had skyrocketed to about 400 percent in Uganda and everything seemed to be scarce.
At the time of Amin’s fall, Bitature was in his freshman year, but even as the tyrant had been toppled, the future looked bleak because of the power struggle that ensued as the jostling for pole position to replace the ousted dictator now took centre stage. Around the same time, Bitature found favour with a well-wisher who offered to sponsor his Accounting studies at the London School of Accountancy.
He returned to Uganda after the completion of his studies and just as it had been we he left for the U.K., there was evidence of mismanagement in every corner and the country’s economy was yet to recover.
The turbulence in the country was evident right from when Bitature touched down in his homeland. He recalls being abducted at Uganda Airlines by some burly men and dragged up to the Nile Mansions (Nile Hotel). He was held for days and interrogated together with other people. His family was worried sick.
“I was then taken Matuga. These people thought I was part of the rebels, I was asked about my travels and where I had been all along,” he says.
It was the intervention of Father Grimes, who organised a search party, that saw him regain his freedom eventually. It was a harrowing ordeal and Bitature was undoubtedly shaken by it, but he was not ready to give up on his home country just yet.
Even after all these trials, Bitature still wanted to build a thriving business in Uganda and except for the fact that he lacked the experience, he would have jumped right into the fray. Instead, he pumped the brakes even when every bone in his body yelled “go!” and became a mentee of city businessman, Karim Hirji.
Learning at the foot of the brilliant businessman, Bitature mastered the ropes; reigniting his affair with the clothing business, selling airtime vouchers and mobile phones, importing used cars from Japan (sometimes driving the car himself all the way from Mombasa to Kampala), going into the business of night clubs, and even brokering wrestling matches with international wrestlers at some point as part of his lunge for the entertainment scene.
Those are just a few of the many businesses he tried out during those years, with some attempts more successful than others. But the cash cow did reveal itself when telecoms giant, MTN, entered Uganda. He wanted to establish a dealership but he lacked the funds and the banks wouldn’t hear any of it because his other businesses weren’t doing so good.
Not deterred by numerous refusals and determined to cash in on the opportunity, he started Simba Telecom in 1998 with some assistance from his wife, Carol. MTN’s entry into Uganda bore Simba Telecom, which, in many ways, became the foundation for the growth of, what is today, a powerful conglomerate.
Simba Telecom is presently the largest seller of MTN airtime in Uganda after they became a franchisee of MTN Uganda. The boy who once travelled from Uganda to Kenya to buy Sugar for his family now has his name on the wall of a company that currently has some 1,700 employees on its payroll and boasts an annual turnover of about USD 100 Mn.
Simba Group of Companies now has subsidiaries in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Some of the companies include; Electromaxx Limited, Kampala Protea Hotel, Simba Telecoms Limited, Simba Mining Limited, Tororo Solar Power Station, Simba Dairy Farm, and a number of others.
Patrick Bitature; one of Uganda’s top five richest men, is also a known philanthropist. His charity organisation; Patrick and Carol Bitature Foundation, focuses on life-saving healthcare initiatives and education.
The multi-millionaire whose net-worth is believed to be well over USD 100 Mn is also an active mentor and supporter of young, aspiring entrepreneurs. He sponsors the Patrick Bitature Entrepreneurship Competition which was initiated by the Makerere University Business School Entrepreneurship Club to nurture young entrepreneurial talent through competition.
Featured Image Courtesy: newvision.co.ug