The extreme poverty Amos Wekesa grew up with pushed him to earn $6 million a year with his tour companies.
The Java House café at The Village mall in Kampala is teeming with customers as smiling waiters serve coffee as hot as the afternoon mercury.
Amos Wekesa, who has run two of Uganda’s most successful tour companies, Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges, for the last 16 years, is here with friends, chilling in military style shorts and a t-shirt with the words ‘I’m So Uganda’ on it. Within minutes of speaking with him, it’s clear he is a walking-talking ambassador of his country.
“I have never boarded a plane in the last 10 years without ‘Uganda’ on my chest,” says the amiable 44-year-old. “I encourage every Ugandan to do the same. No one can talk about Uganda better than Ugandans, and everyone should help spread the message.”
With an annual income of $6 million from his companies, Wekesa says he has been fortunate, but has had to work extremely hard. The day we meet is his first day off in four weeks – he started it by running 10 kilometers and slept through the rest of it before heading to Java House.
The whole café seems to know him – customers and staff stop by his table to shake hands and ask about his most recent mountain expedition or his next trip across the Nile.
Wekesa, born into a family of smugglers in Lwakhakha on the border of Uganda and Kenya, says this is a world away from the life of penury he knew growing up in the 70s. Daily provisions were scarce and from the age of seven, Wekesa would smuggle rations like sugar and coffee from across the border to sell illegally in Uganda, sleeping with his many siblings in thatched houses that leaked. He never went to school until the age of 10, or even wore a pair of shoes until much after.
“The day of a hungry man is an extremely long day. If hunger can’t inspire you, then nothing in life can. And I was hungry for success,” says Wekesa.
Today, he owns properties across Uganda and hopes to build a five-star hotel in Entebbe before he turns 50. He already has two-and-a-half acres of land allotted for this purpose.
Every year, through his companies, he also helps an increasing number of Indians – forced to flee Uganda to the United Kingdom during Idi Amin’s regime – return and re-settle in Uganda.
“Most of them were young and angry when they left in 1972, but are happy to see the changes in the Uganda of today,” says Wekesa, who helps reconnect them with the friends, colleagues and homes their families left behind. By 2022, Wekesa says he aims to “have 5,000 of them returning”.
The tourism industry helped Wekesa find himself. Until age 28, he did odd jobs – starting out as a sweeper earning less than $5 a month – but his experience as a small-time tour guide led him to save $200 to open his first business, Great Lakes Safaris.
“Uganda is the most diverse country in the world. There’s no other that has as many fresh water bodies… and then the great climate and fertile soil.”
Although Wekesa believes tourism in Uganda has “not yet begun”, he sees a lot of hope as the government knows its potential as a good driver of the economy. Forever the optimist, he says tourism has the capacity to generate as much as $12 billion a year.
The father of three is also a lover of sport, having played competitive tennis “until about five years ago”.
“Competence in sport helps you make better judgments in life. You have to fight for your position and that’s what a businessman does. It helps you understand teamwork.”
He encourages his children to play sport but admits they will never understand the hardship of his childhood.
“My mother is still alive,” says Wekesa, “but cries every time she sees me, as when I was a baby, because of the poverty, she had wanted to kill me but stopped herself when she had a dream one night and somebody told her, ‘don’t touch that child’!”
Luckily for Uganda she didn’t.