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Christopher Columbus Sembuya: Uganda’s indigenous industrialist dies at 86

OBITUARY | Ronald Musoke | Christopher Columbus Sembuya, the remaining founder of Sembule Group of Companies, one of Uganda’s indigenous companies renowned in its prime years for making radio and television sets, “landline” telephones and even street lights passed away quietly in Kampala Hospital on Jan.11.

But, in perhaps a reflection of the times, his demise hardly registered on Kampala’s news circuit. For starters, Uganda has a relatively young population. For every 10 people you see anywhere in the country, eight are most likely to be below 30 years of age.

Many would therefore not know that before the Ugandan market got saturated with Southeast Asian electronic gadgets; Sembuya’s Sembule Electronics Ltd manufactured radio and television sets, telephone sets and other essential electronics at his Nalukolongo industrial complex in Kampala.

For those aged 40 years and above, Sembuya’s electronic products are quite familiar. If it was not the small transistor Makula radio through which they listened to news, they could have watched Uganda Television news or even the television magazine programme Football Made in Germany which was a popular feature in the 1990s on the Sembule television set.

Interestingly, during his requiem mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral at Namirembe in Kampala, there was no representation from the central government. But, many spoke with a certain nostalgia that only those who knew Sembuya in person would understand. Many, who stood up to speak, now in their 60s and 70s, were his work colleagues.

Many spoke about Sembuya’s tenacious spirit while others spoke about his superb work ethic. Others spoke about his unwavering belief in indigenous Ugandans. “Sembuya’s story is a tale of sweat, toil, vision and dedication,” said Edward Mubiru, the former General Manager at Sembule Bank.

He added: “Sembuya never rested until he achieved what he wanted. He always came up with business concepts that he always wanted to transform into top quality products that would satisfy his clients.”

Arthur Isiko, the current Manager of Bank of Africa said up to now, the bank retains a DNA of Sembule Investment Bank which he started in 1984. “We will always remember Sembuya and appreciate his contribution to banking in Uganda.”

For Joseph Mulwanyammuli Ssemwogerere, the former Kattikiro of Buganda Kingdom who was the Managing Director of Sembule Investment Bank, Uganda simply never understood the importance of people like Sembuya.Semwogerere said he was amazed at how Sembuya never stopped believing in the potential of Africa and Africans.

Writing in Daily Monitor of Jan.13, Karoli Ssemogerere, the son of the former Democratic Party President, Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, said had Sembuya been given sufficient economic support or what after his time were acknowledged as essential bailouts, he would have easily delivered an electric car way before its time in Uganda.

“He had the discipline of a thinker and modesty of a capitalist. Sembuya was let down by the vagaries of the bourgeoisie economy, saddled with bank loans but he never lost his spirit. Remembering him as a pioneer manufacturer, bank, social entrepreneur is the best memory we can afford him.”

Born on March 6, 1936, in Nkokonjeru in present day Buikwe District, Sembuya went through formal education starting out in Ngoggwe before ending up at St. Leo’s College, Kyegobe in Kabarole District. Sembuya soon found employment in civil service rising through the ranks including working as Assistant District Commissioner in Madi (Moyo) and Karamoja.

In many interviews with local media, Sembuya said he owed everything to his late father, Yafesi Magulu who cajoled him into quitting civil service work if he wanted to get richer than him. “I was undersecretary then at the Ministry of Finance and they were preparing me to become Permanent Secretary.”

“I resigned from the government job and went to my shop plotting the next move,” he told Daily Monitor in September 2013. Magulu was a successful cocoa farmer in Nkokonjeru in Buikwe District.

Sembule Group of Companies, formed from the initials of two names, Sembuya and his brother’s, Buwule, started out in the 1970s as a small hardware shop in Ndeeba on the western outskirts of Kampala.

As business boomed and the two brothers found success, they soon ventured into manufacturing steel products and in 1974, Sembule Steel Mills was born.  It would embark on manufacturing an array of construction materials such as roofing sheets, welder wire mesh, iron bars, galvanized barbed wire, steel pipes and multiple hardware products.

Soon the brothers would diversify into media when in 1992 they launched Cable Television which later became WBS TV (both are now defunct).  Seven years earlier, in 1985, a small deposit taking private company was established which in 1991 was granted a banking license as Sembule Investment Bank and  became a full commercial bank in 1996.

Sembuya is also credited with establishing an insurance company known as Pan World Insurance Company which later became Lions Assurance, one of the leading insurance companies in Uganda today.

But, as Sembule kept on expanding taking on expensive loans in the process, Sembuya found himself struggling. Some say Sembuya’s woes started as soon as his brother Henry Wilberforce Buwule died in the early 1990s. Others blame the government for not propping him up. After securing loans from several financial institutions the company failed to service them adequately and the lenders sought to auction his property.

In his latter years, Sembuya appealed to government for financial support to rescue his property but with little success. In a June, 2019, interview with local broadcaster, NTV, Stephen Sembuya, his eldest son said Sembuya had written over 200 letters to President Museveni seeking a meeting with him. The Steel Mills was attached and auctioned in 2014, a decision which depressed him.

Sembuya’s widow, Ritah, said he withdrew from public life and over the last 15 years, he had a fairly routine lifestyle of reading newspapers, listening to radio via his Sembule made transistor radio every day until his demise on Jan.11. Sembuya left behind his wife and 12 children. He was buried at his ancestral home in Kikwayi, Nkokonjeru in Buikwe District on Jan.14.

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