In the 42 days of lockdown, Robert Kabushenga (RK) is taking off time to run a daily mentorship program called #40DayMentor hosted on his Twitter spaces. In this episode he hosts James Wire (JW) to talk on Business & the Internet
RK: Good to talk to you Wire after a long time.
JW: Thank you, Robert. It’s good to be here.
RK: We both grew up in Naguru and then you went to St. Mary’s College Kisubi (SMACK), what happened thereafter?
JW: I went to Makerere College School and that was the best thing that happened to me. The James you see today is because of the experience I had while at Makerere College School (MACOS).
RK: Where did you go thereafter?
JW: I went to Makerere University to study agricultural economics. Our faculty was one of the first to have computers. I was so excited by computers that I once wanted to ditch agricultural economics. Together with Donald, we went to town looking for IT jobs.
RK: Did you find them?
JW: There was a friend called Eng. Terra Kaggwa. He was working in the first ISP called Infomail. Terra was crossing over to a new company called Swift Global and he decided to take a chance on us. He knew we knew nothing but he gave us a chance. We began learning every day. We were still at university. We would walk from Makerere University to IPS building currently Jubilee Insurance on Parliament Avenue. We were not paid but we were hungry to learn. We decided to self-teach. On Fridays, I would sleepover in the office and spend the night reading things off the internet, then I would leave on Saturday morning. I would accumulate the knowledge but did not have the space to practice. Sometimes I would make printouts.
I love following my heart. I continued studying. I delayed my university project. I had contemplated quitting but a cousin advised me to go back and I graduated in 1998.
After about two years, Swift Global started giving us assignments. They would send us to install internet in people’s homes.
I learnt a lot from Terra. Then I got an opportunity to join Starcom as a systems analyst. We were at the top of Sheraton Hotel. We used to work in the cold room. I used to control the emailing lists. It merged with Infomail to form Infocom.
I then went to Afsat technology. My work was mainly systems, servers and things like that. I wrote the first proposal to send out an internet server to interconnect local ISPs.
RK: I remember it was a big debate. They argued it could not work.
JW: The proposal gathered dust. I have always wanted to contribute to my country’s development directly.
RK: You then decided to quit employment?
JW: I was part of ICEC while still at university. In ICEC, we were all interested in business. I remember one time my father came to visit me at university and I asked him if he could get me land that I could use as collateral but the look he gave me was enough. I came to learn that it is better to begin with employment than go straight into self-employment. There are skills you learn when you are working under someone that you may never get when you go directly into self-employment.
After some time, I went into full time self-employment. I had no wife or child at the time. I did it and it was crazy. We set up Vinac solutions which was an open source company through which we trained a lot of people. The telecom guys used to poach my trainees
RK: When did things start getting okay?
JW: I walked out of my job in June 2001. It was in 2003 that things stabilised. One email changed my life. Whenever there is a problem, I quickly think of a solution. Once you have a solution, the money comes. Uganda was having a lot of power cuts at the time. Solar power was very expensive. I went on the internet and searched for a company that could supply affordable solar equipment that would be used when the power was off. I found one called Barefoot and in 2008, we began business in Uganda.
RK: Talk about the thing of business and family
JW: I am a fish monger. Occasionally you will find me smelling fish. When I got my first born, we wanted to use local supplements like mukene but it had a lot of stones. My wife suggested that we should start package mukene. We came up with a product called nutri mukene.
We decided to use supermarkets to sell for us. In 2009, we approached Uchumi. Our target was to sell one packet a day. There are always stumbling blocks. Uchumi and Nakmat closed off suddenly and went with a lot of money. I have found supermarkets to be a very good place and lately online spaces have become so helpful.
Start with your brains. Some people are giggling their way out of poverty on whatsapp status. There is a lot you can achieve with your smart phone today. You don’t need to first think of money, think of that one thing you can do. You have internet access which means you already have access to the market, what are you selling to that market? Us educated people, we have many opportunities but we like to complicate things.
Comrade Otoa: Internet has become very crucial for business; how would you advise business people to get to use internet.
JW: The first thing, many times businesses run to invest in technology because it is the trend. Before you invest in any technology, find out which particular tech is important for your business at the time. Do not put money in a technology that is only applicable a year later.
It helps to fully understand. Get a technical person to help you make a decision whether to invest the money or not.
Certain events happen to help us see the things we were not seeing before. Like covid, the one thing covid has done is to open up the internet for business. From as far back as 2005, we were talking e-learning platforms, private businesses and the public sector were not ready.
A lot is being redefined today globally. Those who are going through the hurdles of their business today will be laughing their way to the bank five years from now.
RK: Is it more about re-aligning the businesses or the mind-set?
JW: Both. Many people were used to the physical. Whenever my children would see me at home, they would ask me why I wasn’t going to work, but now the mind-set has had to change.
Businesses have always changed. Before I used to drive around with the products and deliver. Now with covid, I have someone doing the delivery for me which means I have saved on time which I can now use to do other work.
I do support a lot of entrepreneurs. I have put my effort with SMEs and MMEs, now I ask them to take photos of their businesses and share with me. That way I have been able to do my work through simple tools of smart phones.
Irene Mutuzo: Much as digital technology has improved, there is still a gap on digital literacy and skill, how would you advice the key actors to create spaces and opportunities to be able to teach that their phones can be used for business?
2) Basing on the experiences you have had, how have you navigated change management in institutions?
Dr. Samuel Nsubuga: For me social media made me. I began my consultancy on Facebook. I now run a fully-fledged company. How do we move the youth from the uselessness of the digital space to the usefulness?
Akello Immaculate: I would love to invest in the knowledge economy, what are the things I need to invest in the knowledge economy.
Haruna Jjukko: Do you see technology and medicine working hand in hand?
JW: Technology is already working with medicine. The convergence is there.
China Viola: What key points would you give someone to pick up internet marketing?
JW: I am glad to have had moment to share with the audience.
RK: Thank you for making time.
James responded to these questions through his Twitter feed here.