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Be Innovative & Spend Less, Wealth Will Look For You, Billionaire Sudhir Advises Youths

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.

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“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.

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.”

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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.

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