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I was like a child in a supermarket – Patrick Bitature

By Jeff Mbanga in Kampala
Posted on Friday, 19 June 2015 14:35

Patrick Bitature, the chairman of Simba Group, is a pan-African entrepreneur. “All countries are open for opportunity in Africa, the way I see it.

As a boy, I used to think I’ll own a gold mine. You want to own a gold mine, not a bank

I left a lot of business opportunities here when going to Nigeria [in 2000],” Bitature says of his first venture in Nigeria after MTN Nigeria signed him up as one of its retail dealers.

“When I went to Nigeria, there were so many opportunities I didn’t know where to start,” he continues.

“I was like a child in a supermarket looking at all these sweets and chocolate. But you can’t be greedy and just go for everything.”

Around 2003 Bitature decided to spend more time running his telecoms and property businesses in East Africa so he scaled down his operations in Nigeria and left them in the hands of his partners.

Bitature in Business

1980- Dropped out of university where he was studying business

1986- Launched his first company, Bita & Guma, to sell cars and textiles

1998- Founded Simba Telecom

2007- Became chairman of Umeme, the national electricity utility

As a 13-year-old, he boarded a bus to Kenya to get sugar because he could not stand the loss of dignity that came with his family’s riches-to-rags story.

This was during the poitical upheaval of the early 1970s and his father had just been murdered by officials of the Idi Amin regime.

With that gruesome act, the luxury in which Bitature had been raised vanished.

From his short trip to Kenya, Bitature returned to a hero’s welcome with 15kg of sugar. A trader had been born.

Variety show

A slew of businesses ensued, which ranged from selling women’s clothes and milk, bread and ice cream to running a forex bureau and even a night club.

He also became a wrestling promoter, bringing competitors from the United States to fight in Uganda.

“I have tried everything. People think the journey is easy, but it’s not,” he says.

He seems, however, to have the old entrepreneurial knack of getting out of situations at the right time.

Take, for example, his business of dealing in used cars from Japan around 1978.

“I used to bring cars from Japan. And I had to drive the cars from Mombasa. People did not know where Japan was. There was little communication. Very few people knew how to send money, but I managed to start all that way before anyone had started. Then everybody got wind of Nagoya and Japan. As soon as more people got into it, I jumped out and said let me do something else.”

He then started his regional telecoms drive. Simba Telecom became a dealer for MTN in Uganda and Safaricom in Kenya. It is now the biggest dealer in both countries.

In Uganda, Bitature says that Simba, which deals in airtime and phones, reports a turnover of about $100m a year.

He says the Kenyan operations make about the same amount.

In East Africa, Simba Telecom now records turnover of more than $500m per year.

When asked about his net worth, he says: “That I don’t talk about. I have shares in listed companies in London, Johannesburg and here. The share prices keep changing. All I know is that I have a portfolio of different companies.”

He says Simba Group employs more than 1,700 people.

Going underground

One of the newest companies in that portfolio is Simba Mining, through which Bitature has ventured into gold mining in his village in Ibanda.

“As a young boy, I used to think I will own a gold mine. You want to own a gold mine and not a bank,” he explains with the excitement of a teenager.

He says he ventured into mining because when he was the chairman of the Uganda Investment Authority– from which he stepped down early last year – he used to sell Uganda as a destination for investment in natural resources.

“Me, as a local investor, I have not invested in mining. So how do I sell the country to other people?” he asked.

Simba Mining began its exploration programme in 2013 and has not found commercially exploitable reserves.

Bitature is working with two Chinese firms on the project.

Bitature has substantially invested in his property businesses.

His firms built the office blocks that house the headquarters of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, one of three upstream oil firms in Uganda, and Airtel Uganda, the second-largest telecom firm in the country.

He says he also owns more than 30 apartments in Kenya.

Whereas some of Bitature’s apartment blocks have high-profile residents, other real estate owners have not had as much luck.

Uganda’s property market is depressed at the moment.

A number of real estate businesses are struggling to get clients, and a walk through Kampala reveals empty office spaces and To-let signs all over the place.

“The property market is pretty flat in Uganda at the moment. There are no takers. You must have the capacity and alternative revenues to service loans,” says Bitature, who owns the franchise for Protea Hotels in Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi.

He blames the sluggish oil market and says that this will soon change.

The government argues that the oil sector is worth $150bn.

Bitature says investors should be looking at how to fit into the nascent oil and gas value chain.

Protea, for example, is building a hotel in Hoima, a town at the heart of Uganda’s oil industry.

He predicts that by the middle of next year Uganda’s oil industry will have a different outlook and lure more investors to the country.

“As soon as the elections are over [in early 2016] and when the refinery work starts, then there will be sudden demand for property,” he says.

Power surge

Bitature expects a similar rise in the demand for electricity where business has been bad.

With the government having financed the construction of a series of hydropower plants, expensive thermal power plants such Bitature’s Electro-Maxx were switched off for over a year.

Today the plant produces just 7MW of its 70MW capacity.

The businessman has spread his wealth to other parts of the country.

In the north, when peace returned following the petering out of insurgencies like the Lord’s Resistance Army, local chiefs in the area gave Bitature more than 10,000 acres of land, where he has investing in growing maize.

He says there are about 5,000 out-growers working on the land, and he targets increasing that figure to 20,000.

Bitature has bigger plans too. “We are going to put up a plant there in the next couple of months so that they can process the maize. We also plan to build warehouses for post-harvest management so that there is food security in the region.”

This is a long way for a man who started it all with a bus ride to Nairobi for sugar. ●

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