Business owner keeps life-long dream alive with steely discipline
Sometimes the currents of the business world take business owners so far away from their original dream that they never get to pursue their passion, even though they grow financially successful. But Andrew Muwanga has always kept his dream alive, no matter how distracted he became by his other businesses.
While starting two businesses linked to the banking industry in Uganda, the 45-year-old business owners from Kampala has been quietly building a top-quality primary school on the side.
Today, his St Marcelino Academy primary school in Matugga on the outskirts of Kampala has 850 learners, a staff complement of 102, and 32 classrooms, and it is well on its way to the goal of 2000 learners that he has set for his dream project.
Andrew says he has always wanted to start his own school, not so much for business reasons as a deep-seated yearning to bring development to Uganda. It is a passion that he shares with his family – both his mother and his wife are teachers.
Although it is entirely possible to build a sustainable private school in Uganda, it is no money-spinning industry, and any such project takes years to break even. Andrew, therefore, decided to take a round-about route to reach his goal.
He studied B Com at Nkumba University in Entebbe, and straight after his studies found work as a sales manager at a company that supplied the local banks with money-handling equipment.
Four years into the job, the company collapsed because of outstanding tax issues. Andrew saw that there was still a major demand for the service in Uganda, and decided to start his own company, which he called Unique Business Systems.
Supplying money-counting machines and ATMs to Uganda’s growing banking system is a very capital-intensive enterprise, and Andrew only had his savings to start the business. His strategy was to start off by servicing of the banks’ existing machines and software by employing young programmers and engineers straight out of college.
It worked, and today Unique Business Systems is a thriving business that not only services existing machines but imports new ones as well.
Andrew spotted another opportunity in the banking industry when he realized that most cheques in Uganda’s banks are imported from Kenya. A year ago he set up Basic-Bye, a niche press that prints cheques for local banks.
It took Andrew several years to turn his two bread-and-butter businesses into the success that they are today, but he never neglected his dream of building his own school.
He started off by buying a six-acre plot in Matugga and bit by bit planted trees and built classrooms. Four years ago, with 16 classrooms ready, Andrew opened the doors of his St Marcelino Academy.
Andrew says although there are many private schools in Uganda, most of them have low standards and are set up in ramshackle buildings. Andrew was determined to break the mould, and lay a solid foundation for a quality institution.
Having proper infrastructure is a major drawcard for parents looking for a good education for their children, and soon the school was bursting at the seams with 680 learners.
Andrew started looking around for expansion finance. Because of his business activities, he knew the banks intimately, but they simply took too long to respond to his application for finance. He also didn’t like the fact that some bank officials expected kickbacks in return for granting a loan, he says.
Business Partners International Uganda, however, was quick to process his application, and within three months construction started on the next set of 16 classes, bringing the total to 32. Finding good teachers is the biggest challenge in establishing a school in Uganda, says Andrew. There are many people with teacher qualifications on their CVs, but few of them are committed enough to build the kind of institution that he wants.
Key to Andrew’s ability to build a school, despite running two other growing companies, is his emphasis on setting up good governance structures staffed by high-quality managers.
St Marcelino Academy is run by a management committee, to which the principal reports. The principal, in turn, is supported by a deputy principal for administration, a deputy principal for academics and a business manager.
Andrew himself follows a highly disciplined routine to ensure that none of his enterprises are neglected. He rises at 4 am every morning and goes for a half an hour jog. Each workday starts with a visit to the school, followed by a morning at Unique Business Systems and the afternoon at Basic-Bye.
He plans to apply the same steely discipline to growing the school by 200 learners each year for the next few years and to scale down his involvement in his other businesses so that he can focus increasingly on his school, turning his life-long dream into his legacy.