It is a story you couldn’t make up. Fear, flight; the pain of becoming a refugee overnight. Hard floors, harder times and cold streets far from home; driving taxis, pushing shopping trollies and burning your hands making doughnuts. This is the journey of one of the richest men in Africa who gambled in adversity and won a billion-dollar fortune.
It is hard to connect the man with the story as he bounds through the door in casual white summer gear that matches the sun-drenched heat that grips Uganda on this day. He wears a DKNY cap and an open-necked shirt; in his left ear there is a diamond stud; a touch of sparkling style he acquired just a few years ago, he tells me.
Sudhir Ruparelia – a billionaire comfortable in his own skin. Many who have made it to the big time attempt to air-brush and polish their past; Sudhir – one of the richest men in Africa with a huge mansion overlooking Kampala and a fortune estimated at $1.2 billion – could be forgiven doing just that. It is a measure of this man that he is prepared to talk about his humble past including the night he slept rough on a London street.
It all happened on a visit to a friend on a freezing night on Ilford High Street in the 1970s in Essex near London – a world away from his mansion home and the warm Kampala breezes sweeping his multi-million-dollar flower farm in which the man himself relates the story.
“My colleague and I were going to see a friend in London and found out, when we got there, he had gone to a wedding. In those days you didn’t have cell phones to message people. So, we were stuck there with not enough money to go home. We had one pound fifty between us. We decided to get food so we could stay warm – I bought two hamburgers – and then we wrapped some cardboard around us and bedded down on the street for the night. This was the 1970s, different days, no one said anything to us; all we got was a funny look from the postman in the morning!”
A sign of a billionaire happy in his own skin and comfortable with his humble beginnings. He pushed supermarket trollies in London for a few pounds a week and burned his fingers in search of a buck.
“I went to work in a bakery I worked two nights a week Friday and Sunday night. One of the things, when you are a newcomer, they give you the most difficult job. So, what would happen is these doughnuts are fried and they are dropped. Now you see doughnuts is what you had those days was plain doughnuts, or with jam. You had to pick up the hot doughnuts out of the fat fryer and inject jam into it while it is still hot. By the time you come in the morning your hands are all red with heat and hot oil. It is a part of an experience that I cherish, it may have been hard at the time and difficult but it helped me.”
It helped him build resolve on the way to a billion-dollar fortune making him one of the richest people in Africa. A large chunk of his wealth stretches out before us on shores of Lake Victoria, near Entebbe, just under an hour’s drive from Kampala.
Rosebud is the largest flower grower in Uganda – a 60-hectare farm producing 350,000 rose stems-a-day for export to Europe in a business worth about $15 million-a-year. This year, there are plans to expand by another 10 hectares to produce 500,000 rose stems in a business that appears to bring Sudhir as much pleasure as it does dollars. He says, like most of his successful ventures, it came by accident.
“What happened was about 20 years ago two of my friends came to me and they told me they had acquired a farm that had gone into receivership and they wanted me to join hands with them. So, I told them: ‘Look I’m not really a farmer, I am not in the agricultural business; I am in the service industries, you know, and good at what I am doing. They said, OK, we want you not to be known in the running of the farm, we want you to be a sleeping partner.”
This was at a time when Uganda was trying to tap into the flower business – a trail blazed fairly successfully by neighbours Kenya. Yet, in Uganda,of the 25 farmers who started up 20 years ago, 21 failed.
“Roses are not as robust as maize or beans, you have to know the day temperature and the night temperature. You have to have a lot of understanding,” he says.
Sudhir made sure Rosebud was one of the four survivors by ploughing $15 million into the farm to increase economies of scale, building metal greenhouses – replacing flimsy wood- along with computerized irrigation systems. To this day, the farm costs $675,000-a-month to run, but has the advantage of weather allowing roses to grow all year round.
It was a bed of roses until COVID-19 struck wiping out a huge slice of the Ugandan economy.
“I think COVID brought a lot of fear in everybody and insecurity and it’s like it’s the end of the world,” he says with a rueful smile.
“It is a sense of fear among everyone that put everyone off guard. It bought a lot of insecurity so what happened was in Uganda, with the authorities here, had a complete lockdown which means nothing moving everybody had to stay home. If you wanted to go to supermarkets you had to walk. All the cars and trucks and everything stopped and likewise the airport closed and cargo flights were not allowed in and then I think the government realised that at least cargo planes should come in. For us, what happened was Europe had a similar scenario a soft lock up where people could still move. What’s fortunate for us is the kind of flowers we sell is sold in supermarkets and supermarkets in Europe they are always open.”
So, it was vital that Rosebud kept shipping roses through the storm in a dangerous new world where one COVID-19 case could have shut the business down.
“Millions of jobs ended, most employers would end up paying two- or-three month’s salary, as was the law, because they cannot sustain themselves. All the cars, all the activity that bring taxes to the government stopped.”
Sudhir moved fast and offered 750 workers a bonus, three square meals a day and a bed for the night on condition they didn’t leave the farm for the weeks of lockdown in Uganda.
“Everybody was scared themselves; the insecurity of jobs, of survival and a lot of people live on week to week or month to month so I think it was equally important for workers to salvage a place which gives them a living, at the same time, as proprietors, we wanted this thing to work. The farm, as you know: the plants are living things that have to be tended they have to be fed eight to six times a day. But also, the plants themselves if you don’t tend it a lot of foliage grows – what you call
parasite leaves – so we had to trim and all that. So, we needed our people to be with us and I think it was a great moment when everyone came together and made sure it worked.”
It meant there was a small disruption of exports – flights were suspended for two weeks -to the world’s biggest flower market in the Netherlands. Three cargo planes fly 120 tonnes of roses every week to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, near Amsterdam, where traders sell 20 million flowers a day. It remains a thriving business despite rough economic times.
Most of Uganda’s roses end up in supermarkets in Britain France and Germany. The country grows the small and durable so- called sweetheart rose. It’s in big demand in Europe – a continent where flowers say everything from happy birthday and happy house warming to: ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Please marry me.’ Sixty-five per cent of the world’s flowers go through the auction near Amsterdam.
“Europe is a very tough game to enter the market and apart from Europe the people we deal with are Dutch. Dutch are very tough and hard people and if you don’t understand you are dumped next day. So, whatever you do you must make sure you create a benefit to them and also the consumers. The hardest people in Europe to deal with are Dutch and we have over the years created a name for Uganda as a flower growing country,” says Sudhir.
“The Dutch have perfected an art of settlement. We have sold flowers directly to some people and lost money. The Dutch have a system, you pay a charge, but in 14 days you get your money.”
Yet the efficiency and toughness of the rigorous Dutch threatened to nip this thriving African flower farm in the bud. The threat to the business was no bigger than a pin head – the egg of a caterpillar. Four of them were found among 12 million roses and the sharp-eyed Dutch inspectors threatened to cut off trade.
“Europe has very stringent sanitary regulations of any insects coming into the country and any other living being that cannot be detected by the eye, but grows during the journey to Europe,” says Sudhir.
“We have to have five different checks to ensure that physically none of these living beings – including caterpillar eggs – were hidden in the flower petals and the leaves. So every flower we export has to be physically checked five times.”
Long lines of workers peering through large magnifying glasses are at the heart of the organization. In the greenhouses, anti-insect lights and molasses trays try to ward off the butterflies and keep them from laying eggs that could be the greatest threat to the business.
A similar catastrophic bolt from the blue proved the catalyst that catapulted Sudhir on a long journey to the other side of the world that was the foundation of his fortune.
On donkey, on foot and across the mighty Nile – an African family story.
It took patience and stamina to follow a railroad on its journey of thousands of miles across East Africa and courage to pilot a canoe across the mighty River Nile – this is how Sudhir Ruparelia’s family found their way to Uganda more than a century ago.
They came across the Indian Ocean in rickety boats; for years they lived in the bush, often in fear of attack by wild animals. For months they slogged on foot through the East African hinterland and finally they took their lives in their hand to cross the River Nile in flimsy canoes. This was the story, from another century and a far-off age, of how Sudhir Ruparelia’s family arrived in Uganda – their home for four generations.
Sudhir is proud of his family’s pioneering past and deep roots in the land of his birth.
“My father’s grandfather and his four brothers came to Mombasa in 1897. They ended up here in Uganda in 1903. My father was born in Uganda in 1932, I was born here in 1956 my son was born here. We are four generations in this part of the world,” he says.
“My forefathers were traders they came from India they started a trading business in Mombasa when they started the railway line there were a lot of camps set up. One of my grand-fathers brothers set up a trading post. They would trade, not only with the workers on the railway. but also, with the people living there you know.”
The British colonial authorities built the 1000-kilometre railway to ease the passage of goods and troops from the port of Mombasa to the hinterland of Kenya and Uganda. Before the trains rolled, the only way was by ox cart.
Construction began in 1896 and the railway company imported more than 30,000 workers from India. Conditions were harsh and it was far from safe; man-eating lions stalked and killed at least 28 Indian and African workers on the Tsavo River. In later stages of the construction there was resistance from the Nandi people.
When the railway reached Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria the Ruparelia men decided to take a risk and push on into the hinterland of Uganda.
“They came with donkeys, they walked, they went across the river Nile in a canoe and they ended up in Kampala,” says Sudhir.
“I don’t know how long it took, but those were the explorers and adventure people.”
The generations settled down in Uganda. Sudhir grew up in Queen Elizabeth National Park, near Kasese in western Uganda, surrounded by wildlife and natural beauty. His father owned a service station in the park and when Sudhir wanted to go school he had to hitch a ride on a passing truck.
“My father was a trader so the thing that a trader did was have a shop and then you know he had three shops one in the game park itself, one outside the game park and one down the road. They had a filling station because without fuel you can even move a truck or a motorcycle, so he was giving a service to the community there.”
Sudhir knew he was destined for business, but in those dim and distant days back in the bush of Uganda, you couldn’t really have accused him of burning high ambition.
“I never had a vision or aspirations, you know. What I wanted in life is I wanted a good family
educate my children in the best private schools – or public schools as they call them in England – this was my aspiration. I started my business, one thing leads to another one and here we are.”
A journey from $25,000 in seed capital to a billion dollars and massive house on the hill overlooking Kampala. The fruit of a journey through days of turmoil and uncertainty, in its own way, every bit as risky as the trek across the hinterland of East Africa by his forebears by foot, donkey and flimsy canoe.
“You had to pick up the hot doughnuts out of the fat fryer and inject jam into it while it is still hot. By the time you come in the morning your hands are all red with heat and hot oil. It is a part of an experience that I cherish, it may have been hard at the time and difficult but it helped me.” – Dr. Sudhir Ruparelia
In 1972, the so-called Ugandan Asians walked the streets of Kampala in fear. Former President Idi Amin, the soldier who came to power in a coup, decided to throw more than 60,000 Ugandan Asians out of the country on the grounds that they were dominating the economy at the expense of the black majority.
“At that time there was fear there was insecurity, you know. In those times anybody who controlled the army or was a soldier could stop anybody and use violence on anybody,” he recalls.
Sudhir, at the tender age of 16, was one of those given three months to get out. His parents flew swiftly for London and left money for their teenage son to follow.
“You know, Africa is one place where you are part of it or Africa is part of you or it is not. And I had not known any other part of the world other than where I grew up. I think in Amin’s time what happened was not only bad for families like us but it was also bad for the Ugandan community. He killed half a million Ugandans there were only a few privileged ones who benefited from his deeds, but the bulk of the people in Uganda were dislodged.”
Sudhir left on the last day, November 5 1972. He arrived in London to spend a night in refugee camp along with thousands of his countrymen. He took a few weeks to find his parents who had gone to the seaside town of Scunthorpe- again, in those days, there was no social media – before heading back to the capital.
“When I went back to London, I had to find a bedsitter and at that time a bedsitter would cost me – just a room, a self-contained room – six pounds a week. I had to pay it myself and in order to do that I had to survive and the only way was to make sure I found work, so I could pay for myself and my bedsitter. So, any job I could find I took; so, I worked in supermarkets, bakeries, butcheries and also started minicabs which was a taxi business in London which suited me well because I could work any hours I wanted,” he says.
“That time I would earn about 12 pounds something, by the time I had paid my taxes I got about 11 pounds. So, first thing I had to do was make sure I lived within that budget. This was someone who had never worked in his life; so, I had to make sure I paid my rent first, I made sure I had transport money to go to work. I made sure I had money for food. Then Friday, Saturday, Sunday – I was young then – I lived it up. It was good money then. I mean good money means I could go to the pubs to meet friends. It also taught me if you were earning 12 pounds, you live within 12 pounds.”
Sudhir tried to get on and applied to join the Royal Air Force and passed the aptitude test, but because he was under 18 his mother had to sign a consent form.
“My mum refused to sign. She said we have come from a military regime how can you go and join the air force which is part of a military institution?” he says. Another mundane, low paying, job beckoned.
“I ended up working for a company in Ilford that made test tubes. What happens is if you look at a test tube there is a marking on the side where you mark five millilitres, ten millilitres. Specialised test tubes have specialised marking and a machine cannot do it. What they would do is pour hot wax, once the wax is put you do the marking so it doesn’t break the glass. So, I was given the shittiest job, it is quite normal you know, last in the company you get the worst job, then you grow yourself. So, I was working in there for three months – I had to make a living and feed myself. It was tough because I was with hot wax. Your hands; when you get a candle and hot wax hits you know how it burns you.”
“So, I was given the shittiest job, it is quite normal you know, last in the company you get the worst job, then you grow yourself.” – Dr. Sudhir Ruparelia
In these humble days, a chance encounter in London was to provide Sudhir with a wife and partner for life.
“There was one afternoon, my cousin and I were going for a wedding. We didn’t have a car so we used London Transport- a double decker bus; so, we were actually sitting on the upper side on an afternoon in Golders Green. At one of the bus stops we saw these two beautiful girls. I said like oh, there is a nice girl there and he said: ‘I know her. I work with her in a supermarket.’ I said Ok I am coming to work there as well. I saw her and went to work where she was working; she was not a full time worker because she was studying and doing a Friday evening and Saturday job which was quite common in those days. Then what happened was, I think it was the twenty fifth of April 1974, I got my first driving licence so it was an excuse to invite these girls for lunch, saying we are celebrating why don’t you join us? The girl I liked, her friend liked me, she would push her. We went out for lunch and the rest is history.”
Sudhir and Jyotsna – also a refugee from Uganda – married in 1977. Jyotsna qualified as a banker and to this day oversees the finances of the family-owned Ruparelia Group that spans property, insurance, foreign currency trading and flowers.
The training ground of fortune building was in London in the 1980s when Sudhir first dipped his toe into the growing property market. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had a dream of making Britain a home owning democracy and helped by selling off council houses and easing loans. It led to a buoyant market.
“It was something that I could relate to and something that I enjoyed doing. Two of us could get together and save 3000 to 4000 pounds you could buy a rundown house; we could do it up, sell it and make another few thousand pounds profit. It was easier to get loans from banks, they were very accommodating and so that is where I also built my interest and we are quite successful and of course when you do a new project and it pays a divided it gives you much more morale to continue doing,” he says.
“My wife, after school started working at Midland Bank (now HSBC), I was the hustler, hustling with different things. I think we did 15 houses before we became established. Then an opportunity came for me and I decided enough was enough. At that time, we owned three houses in London – we still own those three houses and I just decided to come to Uganda to visit and I stayed.”
Sudhir bought four Mercedes home to Kampala to sell in an attempt to stimulate a new business. It didn’t work out and he was back in Uganda sleeping on hard floors. The troubles of his country haunted this return.
“When I came in 1985 June; July the first coup took place at 12.30 in the afternoon soldiers started coming into our country the whole capital everything closed overnight. Within hours looting started; I have never seen anything like that in my life,” he says.
“It was a moment when a town looks like it has been hit by a bomb. People stealing 100 litres, half the things are on the street. Soldiers from the other regime were dead; a few of them were lying in the street. It was really a moment where you don’t think of all those things, but you have to make sure you survive and you don’t get in the way of wrong stray bullets.”
In the aftermath, lingered inertia and frustration.
“It took me a year before I could start my own business because I wanted to see what was going on. After nine months I met a gentleman called Mr Gandesha; he was big property owner he liked me and said: ‘I have a shop for you come and see me tomorrow.’ The next day we agreed the rent he gave me the keys and I started my first business. I opened my first shop. The first business we started was selling salt and after a few times I moved into selling beers. It turned out to be really good for me,” he recalls.
“Within time we got to know a few people who were actually importing directly. One of them approached me and said look I have a truckload why don’t you buy my beer? I said I don’t have all the money that you are asking me, but I can pay you half now and half at four o clock after two days. He said, OK, I am trusting you and he sold me the whole truck – about 250 cases of beer – I paid him his fifty per cent and when he came after two days the money was ready. For him he was very happy that he got his money in time and turn around his business instead of four times a month he was doing about seven times. So, he started selling me beer then his friends started coming to me and I would do the same thing. So, I created a very good reputation- if you give your word you keep it. Within six months I was the number one beer trader in the country!”
It took decades to build the property, trading and financial empire in Uganda to a point where in one year alone he collected $600 million in rent. Along the way, Sudhir had to make a lot of tough decisions including saying no to Libya’s former all powerful leader Muammar Gaddafi – surely one of the few to take this risk.
Gaddafi wanted to buy the jewel in Sudhir’s crown: the five-star 780-room Speke Hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria for $120 million. Sudhir – who is famous for knowing exactly what his assets are worth – wanted at least $165 million. He turned down several entreaties from the Gaddafi camp.
Proof that you can’t always be popular – especially when you have a billion-dollar fortune.
“Not everyone is your well-wisher, or a beneficiary of the business you create. There are always going to be some unsuccessful people who want to see the downfall of others it is their nature and there is sometimes the issue of why should this guy be the one to be successful? Us as a group, we don’t supply anything to government our dealing with the government is very minimal. The only way we do business with them is either they use our hotels for their conference facilities or they rent our offices for office accommodation. So, we are no way dependent entirely on government although the government is the biggest employer and biggest user of services. …We are the biggest taxpayers in the country and we continue doing business, but totally in the private environment,” he says.
Shrewd decisions like the Gaddafi refusal has only helped expand the family empire. In the worst of times for the world economy, Sudhir sees a brighter future in Uganda.
“Africa is still the last frontier. We have all the resources that we need which are at the raw form so the opportunity of adding value and benefitting. Uganda is very fortunate we have oil in the country and the government has finalised agreements with multi-nationals like Total and Synoil so we hope that activities in the oil industry will pick up and 2022 is a time to be here.”
And the billionaires of tomorrow?
“I think there is a lot of opportunities coming here all over the world – there are billionaires coming from the IT business. I am traditional; I am not geared up for the high-tech business. I think in Uganda when the oil coming in they are going to get more than a hundred oil products in all kinds of industries that suit your passion. Pick anyone of those and grow on it and that is where the billionaires will come from.”
Sudhir is indeed a risk taker and hustler in the best and worst of times. More so he will be remembered as an entrepreneur who took adversity head on; gambled and won.
This article was originally/first published on Billionaire Tomorrow website on January 12, 2021. Billionaires Tomorrow is a publication dedicated to the hard work and struggles of wealth creation in Africa from the dreamers to billionaires in the making.