Before he had reached the age of 10, Amos Wekesa put all his energy into smuggling goods at Uganda’s border with Kenya in the mountainous area of Mbale. He also tried his hand at making mats from banana fibers to earn a little money to support his family that was surviving on around a dollar a day.
Today, all this is history and Wekesa is now considered one of the most successful tourism ambassadors in Uganda, with an annual income of $4 million. He achieved this by founding Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges Ltd – one of the leading tour companies in Uganda.
“I was born in 1973 in a small village of Wakaka – in the current Manafwa District – to a family that was caught up in abject poverty to the extent that, by the age of nine, I had not gone to school and had been involved in smuggling,” says Wekesa.
“The time we were born was not good for the average Ugandan because everything was in short supply. That is how we got involved in smuggling.”
Wekesa has never forgotten that “the gomesi our mother covered herself with was the same gomesi we also covered ourselves with.”
His life changed when the Salvation Army, which ran a home for less privileged people in the neighboring Tororo District, visited his village looking for two boys from impoverished families. Wekesa was one of the lucky two. He transferred to Tororo in 1983, a district closer to the capital, Kampala.
“At the age of 10, I was taken to nursery school. I remember going for P1 interviews and the head teacher taking me to P2 as I was too old to study with six-year-olds. I liked primary school and wanted to be like every other child,” says Wekesa.
However, when he went to secondary school (Wairaka College for O-levels and St. Peter’s Tororo for A-levels) he did not enjoy studying.
“I liked other activities like sports, drama and was always in leadership positions at all levels. This made me an average [student].”
“Success does not necessarily come because you excel in class but because you have learned something in life,” he says.
In 1996, Wekesa was put on a bus to go to Kampala and look for a tourism school.
“I did a certificate for nine months. In 1997, I went out to look for my first job [and] became a sweeper earning approximately $10 a month.”
Wekesa later became an office messenger at Nile Safaris, earning $20 a month. He then shifted to another tour company, Habari Travels, where he was paid a dollar a day. His last stint at being an employee was with Afric Voyage, for $65 a month. It was during this time that he managed to save $200 in a year and started a briefcase company called Great Lakes Safaris in 2001. Wekesa’s first office was below a staircase in downtown Kampala.
Equipped with a phone and receipts, Wekesa would approach rich people, with Mercedes Benzes and new Coronas, and convince them to hire out their cars.
“I would attend weddings without being invited and market my services as a dealer in posh cars for hire,” he says.
Wekesa would also walk to Parliament and convince MPs to hire out their four-wheel cars to him. He would then go to tour companies and ask them to drive their clients to different tourism sites. Being a driver and having worked as a tour guide, Wekesa had to entertain the tourists while keeping the MPs’ cars in good shape and also making sure the companies were happy with his services.
While doing the tours, and reading books about tourism, his passion for the industry grew.
Off the top of his head, Wekesa can tell you that Uganda is 91,135 square miles, with around 1,056 different species that constitute about 11% of the world’s species of birds. Queen Elizabeth National Park has around 656 species of birds – the highest concentration of birds of any protected area in the world.
“The United States (US) has 784 different species of birds and rakes in $32 billion annually through retail sales only. Uganda’s GDP is only $22.8 billion.”
Wekesa’s change of fortune started in 2001 – the year he bought the first car – after organizing a trip for a woman from the World Bank.
“I gave her a good guide to Queen Elizabeth. She came back happy and said this was the most beautiful country she had ever visited. She told me she would do something for me once she got back to the US.”
“This taught me a good lesson. The sustainability of a business is satisfied clients.”
In the same year, the woman from the World Bank recommended Great Lakes Safaris to a research group from the World Bank.
“I gave the group to one of the best tour guides in Uganda, Martin Okoth. One of the guys was so happy he also promised to do something… I never took him seriously.”
Business then died down and it became so difficult that Wekesa contemplated closing the company.
“Something in me said ‘be resilient’. People advised me to close but I had to cling on. All this time, I would see tourists at the airport and wonder how Uganda could have such tourist attractions and people live in abject poverty. I said ‘I’m going to try to be a solution to this problem’ as my passion for tourism was so high.”
“Later, I got a call from Washington from a guy called Tom Carter, an editor with The Washington Times. He told me he had travelled with me on one of his trips to Uganda and had written about his experiences. The story was published and that is when tourists started flowing in.”
The change in fortunes allowed Wekesa to buy more vehicles and in 2003 he started buying property outside the city. Today, he has an eco-friendly hotel in almost every national park in the country.
Wekesa spends a lot of his time teaching young Ugandans to use tourism as a business. He wants the government to follow his lead.
“We must appreciate the fact that the government is full of people who were around during the hard times in the country. Their mindset is fixed on agriculture. However, I’m now happy the president is talking about tourism.”
He says the government should invest more in marketing tourism. Kenya spends $40 million on marketing every year, Tanzania $12 million, Rwanda $5 million, while Uganda spends just $600,000.
Uganda has the potential to become a favored destination for tourists.
“We have the best diversity of cultures. We have more inland water than any other country, 10 national parks, 12 game reserves, all unique in their own way. Uganda is like Africa compressed. It’s a convergence of all different types of attractions,” he says.
Most of the five-star hotels in East Africa are run by Kenyans, Indians and South Africans. Rwanda is building an $18-million tourism school while Tanzania has the best school in the region.
“Uganda’s government should also develop infrastructures for these tourists to use.”
For those still in doubt, Wekesa has only this to say: “If you want to see the most incredible beauty in the world, come to Uganda.”