UGANDA, Kampala | Real Muloodi News | Meet one of the most prominent real estate muloodi’s in Kampala, John Sebalamu. Mr John is credited with starting the culture in the early 90s of the ever-proliferating shopping arcades found at the heart of Kampala’s central business district.
The real estate mogul owns several prominent properties in Kampala, including Freedom City the multi-million dollar shopping mall and leisure centre in Najjanankumbi on Entebbe Road, the Capital shopping centre on Nakivubo Road, the Capital House business centre on Dastur Street, the Naiga Chambers marketplace, and several other prominent properties.
John Sebalamu’s Journey to Attaining Wealth was not Smooth
Although the praises around the city are on John Sebalamu, he says it is exaggerated. Sebalamu narrates that things have not always been easy for him.
“I don’t own half of the property they allege I own. I was born and raised in Kasanje, Masaka district. I dropped out in S1 in 1982. Life was hard. I then started peddling matooke on a bicycle. I would buy it from farmers in Kasanje and bring it to Nyendo trading centre,” John Sebalamu reveals.
He did not peddle matooke for long. In those days, paraffin was scarce, so many villagers could not access it. That presented a good business opportunity for him and he started hawking paraffin in Masaka. He would fasten four jerry cans of paraffin to a bicycle and move from one market to another.
He says he made some good money out of the business. His siblings were also doing the same business.
A few years later, they moved to the main market in Masaka town, where they acquired stalls and started selling shoes.
The Power of the Money Pool
Sebalamu pooled resources with his elder brother John Bosco Muwonge who is also now one of the top five richest and most prominent property owners in Kampala.
Pooling money was mainly triggered by the change in the political climate in 1986. The NRM had just taken over from Tito Okello Lutwa’s military government, and the stable political environment was conducive to a more permanent business.
They would buy shoes from traders and sell them in Masaka. This was easy because the roadblocks manned by UNLA soldiers of the previous regime were now gone.
Also, commodities were cheap. By 1988, they had gained popularity as the two hardworking brothers in Masaka.
They were also under the mentorship of their late elder sister Naiga who was in the business of selling second-hand clothes in Masaka. Sebalamu points to Naiga Chambers, one of the buildings named after their late sister.
With a capital of about USh20 million, the two brothers also joined the business of selling second-hand clothes as their late elder sister had advised them. When she died a year later, they took over her business, this too increased their stock.
In 1992, Sebalamu and his other siblings John Bosco Muwonge, Lubega, Segawa, and Christine Nabukeera, who are all currently now renowned property owners, went to Kampala.
Sebalamu had a capital of about USh100 million, a good deal to venture into business in Kampala. The exchange rate for the dollar was also favourable at that time because it was at USh900.
Sebalamu and his brother Muwonge were the first Ugandans to import new clothes from Dubai to Kampala. They would bring the clothes in bales called dozens.
In Dubai, there were traders with so much merchandise that they didn’t have storage space for it, so they would give it to them on credit. They would come back, sell it, and then return to Dubai and pay them. They also hired a shop on a building now called Skylite Arcade next to Buganda bus park.
They inspired many people to join the business seeing they were prospering. Some of these are now tycoons in Kampala because of the same business. From this, Sebalamu was nicknamed “Capital” by fellow traders, who saw him as the person who opened a way for them to prosper in business.
Amassing Wealth from Real Estate
From clothes, he later joined the real estate industry. Upon joining the property business in the late 2000s, Sebalamu found that the prices of property in downtown Kampala had gone high.
However, a couple of years ago, he admired Garden City mall and wished to own a complex like that one day. So, he came up with the idea of a modern shopping and leisure centre out of town. He started looking for land outside the town.
He landed on 3.5 acres of prime land at Najjanankumbi on Entebbe Road, acquired it from Buganda Land Board at US$1 million and started constructing Freedom City.
He expected the project to consume over US$20 million (about USh45 billion). The cost would have been higher if Sebalamu didn’t own a construction firm.
He was his own contractor and also procured his materials — everything from sand to metal panels. He owns a mine, where he got all the sand he used on the project.
Sebalamu decided to make real estate and construction his full-time job. He supervised the construction and monitored every detail of it.
The project covers all the 3.5 acres except for some space behind, which he has reserved for the hotel. The mall itself, which is four storeys, for now, boasts over 8,000 square metres of retail shopping space (the largest of these being a really big supermarket), a banking area (already six major bank branches are operational there), big brand coffee shops, cinema area, a recreation area and health clubs among other key features.
The project is largely funded by banks and Sebalamu’s savings. For now, he is concentrating on this project because it’s big with quite a lot of work. It is still in its early stages.
The Genesis of His Love for Real Estate
Sebalamu developed an interest in Real estate in the mid-1990s.
The Custodian Board, which was entrusted with overseeing the property of departed Asian Ugandans, who had been expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, started returning the buildings to their original owners.
This followed the earlier controversial Expropriated Properties Act of 1982, which President Yoweri Museveni accelerated and implemented.
Many of these people (to whom the property was being returned) had, however, lost interest in these properties and in returning to Uganda. Most of them had new lives in wealthy countries in the West. So, they disposed of them cheaply.
A building downtown costs between US$80,000 and US$200,000 (USh72 million and USh180 million then, which is USh200 million and USh500 million today).
Unfortunately, most people who had leased these buildings from the Custodian Board did not have the money to pay for them. So, Ugandans who had money bought these buildings.
Sebalamu says that wealthy businessmen, like Sudhir Ruparelia and Karim Hirji, acquired several prime properties around town partly because of the rapport and trust they shared with these departed Asian Ugandans.
Starting in 1997, URA became stringent with tax collection imposed on the traders. That’s the time Sebalamu started taking property business in Kampala seriously.
Between 1995 and 1998, he bought more buildings in town and built a couple, including Carlton Hotel and former Container Village, but sold many off.
In 1995, Sebalamu constructed his first building on Ben Kiwanuka Street called Capital House. It was the first of the current shopping arcades you see all over downtown and in other emerging neighbourhoods in Kampala. It was a different style from what everyone built. He had copied the style from Dubai.
Soon, everyone started doing what Sebalamu was doing. All people did was buy old buildings, break them down and create shopping malls similar to the one he had seen in Dubai. Traders took up the space fast, which brought in good returns.
Unfortunately, the cost of buildings from 2000 was too high and rapid expansion was impossible.
He says, “the cost of the buildings had shot up to US$800,000. I built Naiga Chambers and Mini Price on Kampala Road.”
Sebalamu says that if they had known then what he knows now, he would be better placed in the property business than he is today.
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