RK:It’s been a long time waiting to have you on #360Mentor. Thank you for being here, Andy
AA: Thanks for having me, Robert.
RK: You told me before that you are from Sheema, right?
AA: No. bushenyi. Ruhinda
RK: So, an incredible story of this Bushenyi boy who then goes to Massachusetts, how does it come about?
AA: About the incredible bit, I am not sure but yes,
RK: But the Bushenyi boy went to Massachusetts?
AA: Yes, that’s accurate
RK: Who is Agaba?
AA: I was born and raised in Bushenyi for the first part of my life. Actually my name Agaba was means ‘to give’ but for me it has a deeper meaning than that. My father was killed two weeks before I was born. You can imagine what it is like for a mum who is about to get a child, I can’t even imagine the mixed emotions that she was going through. The name, for me, means, God gives. God had given me as a son and God took away, he had taken the father. So I was raised by a single mother along with my siblings but I was also raised by a village.
My mum had these dreams to send us to the best schools possible, just like any other parent. And for her, that meant doing everything she couldn’t achieve that dream. Before Nelson Mandela wrote the book Education the Equaliser, my mum and so many other parents already knew that. She sent us to different relatives so she could work and gather up this tuition. I grew up around that kind of lifestyle. From P1 to P7, I actually went to six different schools.
RK: Why did you go to these six different schools?
AA: Every stage I was sent to a relative that could have me at that point. And I will tell you, one of the first persons to raise me was my step mother. From the age of 4 to about 6. While there I got this mega wound that we didn’t know how to take care of.
RK: How did you get the wound?
AA: I was playing with my step-brother who was much older than me. We were pushing each other on a makeshift wheelbarrow called a ‘beringi’ made from the old wheel bearings. In our case, I was about 5, my brother was about 12, we would take turns pushing the beringi downhill and then push it back up for the next person. We were pushing and I was energy-less. I let it go and my brother fell. It was unintentional- purely. He was enraged and on my turn he had me topple over him. So I had this scratch on my knee which should have taken like three days to heal. But you can imagine in the village, hygiene is not the best and you are sleeping in beddings you’re peeing in. The small wound just became severely infected.
Rk: So it became sceptic?
AA: Yes. We were treating it with herbs from the banana plantation and stuff like that. My mother had done a bit of nursing school, she understood that stuff. When she came to visit, she realised it was not good. She had her brother who came and carried me on his back and took me to his home. That started another chapter. While there, I got another wound that came from a boil.
AA: Yes. You asked for it. I stayed with him for like another year and went to a different school. Eventually, my mother picked me up and took me to Mbarara. In Bushenyi I went to three different schools. In Mbarara, I went to two schools; Mbarara Junior and St Aloysius.
RK: How many children were you with your mum?
AA: We were five at the time. There are only three remaining now. But at that moment she started her little businesses to be able to put food on the table and to be able to put us through school. I joined her and we started working together selling chai, mandazi, kasooli…
AA: In Bushenyi, near Ishaka.
RK: You really started business early.
AA: We actually started it together.
RK: Who was the angel investor?
AA: She had a little bit of savings and she topped it up with her women’s saving group. Most of these SACCOs are actually angels. We started working on that project and that was my introduction to the world of business. We grew it from that micro venture that was selling food and doing sort of retail into a pig farm.
RK: You and two other big guys on twitter that I have interviewed; Brian Mulondo and Manuela Mulondo. Brian was selling chapatti. His wife was selling juice, see where they are now. You guys who started early know a thing or two about business that others don’t. I, too, sold bread at one time.
AA: Bread is so fancy.
RK: Let’s not even go there. I was a hawker. Do you know how many doors were slammed in my face?
AA: It’s those rejections that make you, Robert.
RK: So this business starts to make you some money to be in school right?
AA: Yes. If you ask me or my peers, they will tell you I was going to schools which were like three or four times our means. And so going to these schools and studying with richer kids, there were kids I could aspire to be like in so many things. When I could go back home, I didn’t want to go back to where I came from.
RK: You knew early enough what you didn’t want to be ever again?
AA: I think from the time my mum took me and left me at my step mum’s place and I woke up and she was gone, I knew certain things very well. I didn’t want them to happen to me or my children.
RK: Where did you go for high school?
AA: I went to St Joseph’s Vocational (Jovoc), a catholic school, Nyamitanga. That was a fantastic school especially for me. I got to interact with kids from all sorts of backgrounds. The school was very academically rigorous so you always had to be on your toes. But it also had so much freedom and opportunities for entrepreneurship as well.
RK: What were those?
AA:When I was in S1, there was some guy in the dormitory who in the whole school was the seller of cigarettes. He had a leather suitcase and a metallic case for the contraband. This guy was a cigarette seller and he was in S4, while I was in S1. There is this long vacation when they leave, there was a vacuum to fill up. Opportunity arose and I became the new dealer.
RK: You took over the gig, man? You took over the street corner?
AA: Yes, I was the street corner guy. I was running rigorous substances. I was in S2 at the time. I had learnt from the business at home. So I would distribute it to the dealership.
RK: I like the way you put it in formal terms.
AA: There was a guy in mbarara who had the actual agency in British American Tobacco. That was the equivalent to our school.
RK: How did this little school business help you through school?
AA: It did. You had some pocket change that you would use.
RK: What was your turnover like?
AA: Typically, what I bought was called a “bomba” which is a carton of cigarettes.
RK: I haven’t heard that word in a very long time. A bomba was like 24 packets of cigarettes.
AA: Neither have I. It’s you who brings these memories back.
RK: Isn’t it interesting remembering the heights you scaled?
AA: I used to do two bombas; the low end and the high end.
RK: How much were you retailing the cigarettes for?
AA: I don’t remember, it must have been about 50 or 75 shillings which means you had to buy at least two.
RK: A packet used to have about 20, so at 75, you had like 1,500. I assume the risks were also higher?
AA: True. The margins were higher but the business failed.
RK: What happened?
AA: I wanted to be cool too. I became my own customer.
RK: You consumed the stock?
AA: Yes. And then the clients were in the group that I wanted to be accepted in. They were taking on credit and not paying. I already had a background so after like a year, I left my franchise to someone else.
RK: Oh dear, you franchise indeed. You should have sold out to a bigger investor.
AA: I wish it had been a takeover.
RK: Did you stay at St Joseph’s for the rest of your high school?
AA: No, I did not. I was there until S4. Our headmaster was a Reverend Father. Probably one of the leaders that have had an impact on my life. He let us run wild but he also wanted us to self-regulate and do things. I think by S4, I had started to forget where I came from. I wasn’t taking things at heart. This guy was a psychologist at heart, he knew every kid almost. At the end of the year he looked at me and told me; and you Agaba, do not even bother to come back looking for a place.
We knew him and how he worked. I went back to my mum and told her about it and we had to go back to the beginning. We were staying near St Kaggwa Bushenyi and so my mum went to the headmaster to get me a place. At least I had the grades. The headmaster told her: if your son comes from ‘Jovoc’, I know what those guys do, they are never in school. I will give you the place but he will come from home.
RK: Was he worried you would spoil the other kids?
AA: The kids there were worse. This is what he said: you’re literally at the fense of the school, your kid is going to escape. There is no question about that, one day we will catch him. And when we catch him, we shall expel him.” I didn’t like that since I was paying full tuition as every other kid but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My mother was behind me and I also kept my hand in the business.
In my last two terms of S6, I was completely disengaged from the school.
RK: Doing what?
AA: I was doing self study. I would go there in the evening for sports and things like that but I told my mum I know what I want and I will do my best to go to Makerere and that worked.
RK: Where did you end up for university?
AA: The results came in and for the first time in my life, I had topped a class. I was number one in my school and the district.
RK: For someone who was doing self study, you were very determined!
AA: I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t want to be stuck in Bushenyi and Mbarara which are pretty big now but not then. The big ticket then was I had to win a government scholarship. I worked hard but I also prayed hard. In fact, my mother is purely convinced it was St Anthony (whoever that is) who was responsible for my success.
RK: We’re going to find out who he is.
AA: Yeah. So I made it to the ivory tower and God’s providence was for sure.
RK: What did you study there?
AA: Social sciences. I was a political science major and a history minor.
RK: How do you end up in Massachusetts?
AA: Towards my graduation at Makerere I became a born again Christian.
RK: I want to know how a guy who was dealing in cigarettes wound up a born again Christian?
AA: When I was in high school, my brother Alfred was my hero. He was the guy that I looked up to. I thought, at least for me, he would be a great leader in this country. Then one day, he was the one who was dying of AIDS in the small room we all shared.
At the time, there was no medicine. So the only way to prolong life, they used to buy him Ribena or Lucozade.
RK: No! What year was this?
RK: There were ARVs then
AA: Yes, but they were not accessible to everyone.
RK: So the guy was only surviving on energy drinks alone?
AA: Yeah, and then you would see my mum trying to make ends meet. So in any case, I saw him die. Alfred was the chairman of Uganda National Students Association for example. A very smart guy.
RK: Really? I was one of the founders of that association. What was his other name?
AA: Alfred Mugisha.
RK: I know the prestige you are talking about.
AA: Especially then. I was angry at mum, life, God. By the time I became a believer towards the end of university, those were the kind of things I was dealing with in my life.
RK: So you had all these demons you were dealing with; poverty, survival, being tossed around from one home to another and then looking at your role model helpless.
AA: Yes. Helpless. So when I was in my own walk with God asking, praying, journaling and raining all these complaints; how can a big God let poverty and disease kill people. Even then my awareness for the poor was already just evident. Even the appreciation for business as something that helps people get out of poverty, that creates employment was also evident. Only because that was my experience. I had to hear new voices.
RK: How do you find God?
AA: At Makerere, students used to come to the dorm room. I was in Northcote.
RK: Why are you even talking to me? I am a Lumumbist.
AA: You guys, we had a name for you. So these guys used to come to our dorms from the Main Christian Union from St Francis Chapel. You know when you grow up in a catholic church, you just don’t want to offend God.
Whenever someone was talking about God, I would let them talk. I would remain calm. And for starters, I had a bible but I don’t think I had ever opened it up for reading. But we used to use it for scrabble.
But these kids came and started talking to me about scripture. And I was humble before them and they took me through. I thought that my mother’s relationship with God was sufficient to cover me with her and her grandchildren. But no, I learnt that God wants to have a relationship with each individual. It went on for sometime. I knew I didn’t have a relationship with God but I also had a relationship with Wandegeya.
RK: I know that relationship. It is very close to the throat.
AA: Yes. I got to a point where I heard God tell me “I have knocked on your door many times, this is the last, are you going to open or not?” It was so terrifying.
RK: How did you beat the struggle with Wandegeya?
AA: I was not an addict. That helped. I was not addicted to alcohol. I think the power of God can penetrate whatever stronghold. I cannot say I beat this but I can say it was the grace for sure.
RK: Back to my question, how did you end up in Massachusetts?
AA: When I became a believer, I started making an agreement with God. I told God, I don’t want to go back to these pains. I want to help people. I want to go to America to learn, access capital, opportunities and just be able to do all this.
It became one of those things I knew without knowing that it was going to happen. Once I knew that God was in agreement with my plans, I started to have my plans ready. One time, someone asked me to be a driver for an American guy. It was post Makerere and I was designing websites. Never mind I never really knew how.
RK: You’re the quintessential hustler.
AA: Yes, I am. So, I am driving this guy around for a week and he was a medical doctor. Growing up with our mother, I learnt to get things done. This man also noticed that in me and he started taking interest in me asking me about my dreams. So I told him I want to start a bank for the poor. By providing capital to these people. He asked how I was going to achieve that and I told him I was going to go to America. I didn’t know anyone there.
My foray to the USA was completely independent. When I went there for a hustle for some months, I visited him. While there, he told me about a mission to which he used to be a trustee to the small Bible School. “If you get in, you will find better means of settling in without difficulty.” Everything sounded good except the bible school part. I wanted to study and do business. Nonetheless, that became the way through which I went through the US. It reignited the resilience and patience because it was pretty hard.
RK: Tell me about this bank for the poor
AA: I started Hinga which comes from okunhinga; to dig or cultivate in my language. That is what I knew growing up. It was such a low hanging fruit to harness. If we can support farmer groups and help them.
I also learnt that to be able to launch something, you have to start somewhere. But frankly, I was not sure that would ever amount to anything beyond that. So I started Hinga to support farmers, especially cooperatives to refine their supply chain and lend them money which they will give back to us. They will be happy and we will be happy. At the beginning we had about $10,000 and at that time, we were trying to do the high value crops. If we could get farmers to plant two acres of super value, they would be paid and we could be paid. I had a young man who was a micro finance co-founder who would identify the farmers in Mityana and sell the product to the farmers.
After three seasons, we decided to go into corn where we were lending to cooperatives and they would pay back. Those were the building blocks for us as we interrogated our model. We saw that our model was not giving us the results we wanted. That’s when we decided to pivot to the small and medium enterprises.
RK: I will come back to that, tell me about SEBI Hospital.
AA: In 2014/15, two years after starting Hinga, we were a bit jaded. Once I started zeroing down to SMEs, venture debt/ capital, the channel that we should be pursuing, I took a hiatus. I went to graduate school then. By the time I went there, I knew that we had to make the shift to SMEs but I wasn’t brave enough. I met Donal Kaberuka at Harvard. He had just left ADB. This guy just took me in as a brother, a friend, son in ways you cannot imagine. People would line up, send emails, and try to get 30 minutes with Donald Kaberuka. I was just hanging out with the dude.
RK: You were on a first name basis.
AA: Yes. We are always chilling out together. He is the guy who pushed me over the cliff. I was on the edge of this cliff knowing that I needed to jump but sometimes you need that person who will push you. So we made the transition to SMEs. We wanted to fund everything. That could be healthcare, education or anything.
Just around 2018, I was introduced to an entrepreneur, a doctor in Nansana. I thought he was just running a medical clinic that we could fund. When I visited him, he told me what they had been doing before. Then he told me they were the largest medical centre in Nansana which is the most densely populated part of Kampala. He told me they were out to establish a hospital of 100 beds and I was seeing the passion, the tenacity but at the same time, I was seeing them with 6 beds at the time. This was eight years in.
I went back to the US and I was restless. I will tell you, these guys mainly do OB/GYN. When my wife was having our first son, CK. She woke me up at about 5am. I was so irritated. She told me, we need to go to the hospital with bags fully packed. In my mind, we still had four days because that is what the charts were saying.
RK: This’ your child, why were you complainnig?
AA: So we drove to the hospital. We were living in a region with about top 10 hospitals. In the room she was admitted to, I kept seeing people move in and out. I kept seeing doctors dash in and out. After some time, a doctor came and told me they needed to take my wife to an emergency or else the baby would die. After about 45 minutes, a nurse came and broke the news to me that we had a son. But he was to be monitored for about five days. His name is CK. C stands for Cassie which means brave and at that time I was wondering what would have happened if we were in Kampala and we had ended up at the wrong facility with a wrong provider.
RK: You could have lost your son and your wife.
AA: You know what? 81 babies pass away everyday during birth and about 16 women.
By the time I met Stephen, they had delivered about 2000 babies with mere 0% death rates. I had sleepless nights over that. After several months of thinking about it, we decided to have the hospital completed in Nansana.
We now have the facility. It is not yet 100 beds, it is about 40. But the facility is now complete. You can now get OB/GYN, orthopaedics, a neural surgeon, ENT Specialist and others. That opened our eyes from the way we made our investments into that, why can’t we do more here?
We are on a quest to do a few more projects that are similar in Kampala, hopefully we can cover 40% of the population.
Comrade Otoa: You have been passionate about the agriculture story but you have also involved your boys in it, what has been your experience?
AA: If you asked about the competitive advantage for Uganda amongst so many other countries, it is actually agriculture. Look at our exports, they are dominated by agriculture. Forget about tourism for a moment. With agriculture we can dominate not just Africa but the world. Looking at our potential as a country is incredible. The dodo I ate yesterday grew by itself. There are things I have seen that our government has done deliberately and we have seen dividends out of them. Uganda is now the largest export of milk on the continent. Bloomberg was the other day talking about Uganda being the leading exporter of coffee for some years. I see God’s story in agriculture. There is so much we can glean out of agriculture that is life saving, life affirming to our countries.
About the boys, last night I planted two avocado seeds at the back of the house to teach my kids values that come with farming. And this morning they were already excited.
RK: Looking into the future, what are you panning on in Uganda? What opportunity is there?
AA: In the short term, 3-5 years, my focus is on healthcare. Both from a purely startup model where we are doing our own thing to venturing with others who are already doing things.
There are opportunities we are looking at especially that are not on the market like the manufacturing side. What could quickly return whatever capital that we could invest? The typical venture capital model. We are looking at such opportunities and we have to see that our investors are willing to be part of them.
But I think manufacturing provides a lot of opportunities here especially for consumables.
For the long term, we are looking at debt capital that we can take on.
RK: Sitting across Agaba who was in Bushenyi till Makerere, can talk to him
AA: Agaba, just looked to the future, not at the momentary destruction and disappointments. Keep your head up. Keep focused and work hard. Know who you are. Know where you come from and above all put your trust in God.
RK: Agaba, thank you for spending time with us today.
AA: Thank you Sir. I appreciate it.