BMK: The passing of an astute businessmanBulaimu Muwanga Kibirige – October 2, 1953-September 10, 2021
Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige, the Ugandan businessman and philanthropists, who passed on earlier today in a Nairobi hospital, was among the last of a disappearing breed of Ugandan entrepreneurs, who navigated the chaos of their country’s dark days to build enduring business empires.
Though he came much later and was of much smaller stature, Bulaimu stands in the same hall of fame as Gordon Wavamunno, Karim Hirji, the late James Mulwana and Amirali Karmali. As the intellectual class either fled or cowered under the tyranny of Idi Amin and Milton Obote’s second stint at the helm, these Ugandan entrepreneurs braved the economic and political instability of the seventies and eighties, converting risk into opportunity to establish businesses that would outlive them in the process, employing thousands and stabilizing the supply side of the economy through import substitution.
Popularly known as BMK, Bulaimu was born 68 years ago in Masaka, to an entrepreneurial family that combined coffee growing and trading in agricultural produce between Uganda’s capital and the rural hinterland. He was born in an age of prosperity when the 3C’s Coffee, Cotton and Copper put money into people’s pockets and regardless of where you were, the market rewarded enterprise.
He was ambivalent towards the academically accomplished. While he admired and respected their knowledge, employing many of them, he could never quite understand why a person would give up on a business idea, simply because a feasibility study told him it would not work. Chatting up a group of guests who had gathered for evening at the gardens of his hotel, he told them: “The difference between us the less academically gifted and you is that once we start something, we stick with until we get it to work while you would not even start because your calculations tell you it will not work.”
Dropping out of secondary school, for a while, BMK plied his father’s commodity trade. During breaks he would work at one of the popular eateries, ran by a relative in the southern city of Masaka. His experience from that period, planted the seed that would later germinate into the hotel enterprise that today gas properties in Kampala and Lusaka, Zambia.
Leaving Masaka, he for a while set up camp in Kampala’s Ndeeba suburb where he operated a butchery. Later, he would travel to Nairobi, Hongkong and Japan, importing a variety of merchandise. While most people associate his fortune with his trade in used motorbikes from Japan, a trade that became synonymous with his name during the early nineties, his big break came when he established Uganda’s first plastic sheeting and disposable plastic shopping bags.
After working diligently to fulfill his childhood dream, BMK’s Hotel Africana opened doors to the public in July 1997. Besides expanding it from the initial 90 keys, he in recent years opened a branch in Moroto, in the semi-arid north-east of the country. Last year, he opened Hotel Africana in Lusaka. Known for its exquisite service, Africana is easily the most popular in Uganda’s capital, made famous its impeccable food.
BMK died just 22 days short of his 68th birthday after battling cancer for a long time. But having prepared for his departure, his businesses will live on. He will be remembered as a man whose wealth never got to his head, maintaining an easy demeanor and respect for all that came across his path. He also represents the enduring spirit of indigenous enterprise that at great personal risk, soldiered on to create a semblance of normalcy and hope, against a very bleak horizon.