There is something about first impressions.
When you meet Diana Kamuntu, two things instantly strike you about her: that she is tall – very tall – and that she would probably pass off as more movie star than manager.
Half an hour into meeting with the 37-year-old Ugandan entrepreneur and mother of three running a tour company in Kampala, facts emerge that she has been a business woman for the last decade, and that is as an elephant conservationist – who would have thought?
The youngest daughter of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni plays it down.
“In the beginning, I was more on the tourism side but in the last few years, that’s when I went more into conservation, especially of the African elephant,” she says.
“I don’t think we as Ugandans know that much about it and knowing that it’s an issue that affects the whole continent.”
Her company, Age Safaris, is in the building we are in now, in the Luzira suburb of Kampala. By the reception to her offices is a giant carpet with the image of the President, hung on the wall.
How does she blend business with conservation, we ask.
“What I have learned over the years is that business is about people, it’s about the networking. The people you meet, the people you work with, is what makes a business, they become an extended family. For tourism in particular, I think it’s a great industry because it goes right down to the people. It trickles down to the communities, and changes whole communities,” says Kamuntu.
This she admits to learning from her parents.
“I guess for me the greatest thing I learned from my parents is their love for people. It’s what drives them, what keeps them going for work and being in touch with ordinary people. Many times, I have been with my father upcountry and he’ll stop the car to talk to people and ask them how their day is and how their families are. That will always remain with me. The greatest lesson in life is people.”
Her company works with an organization called Restoration Gateway that supports children and the vulnerable in northern Uganda.
But talk still veers to the African tusker.
“Here in Uganda, our African elephant population is steadily growing, it’s about 5,000 now. That’s not enough but it came from about 2,000 in the 1980s – it’s small but at least it’s not declining… During the war, many of the elephants migrated to the Congo but now they are slowly coming back and we are repopulating but in different parts of Africa, it’s mostly poaching, so the efforts are to try and stop that poaching and stop the market for ivory.”
The mountain gorilla, found in these parts, is even more endangered.
“Efforts mostly are about bringing awareness to everyone who visits that there are only about 750 to 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and more than half of them are in Uganda.”
Kamuntu’s travels take her far. Her husband Geoffrey is into the logistics business, and with children aged 12, 10 and eight, she says it’s hard work but certainly not as demanding as the early years when she had to “travel for exhibitions and business development”.
“The children are your priority and at the same time, you want to contribute. It’s a big challenge especially for women. Starting a business is not easy, as investment capital is hard to come by even though there are many microfinance projects targeting women. I think those are the biggest challenges that I’ve seen,” she says.
Kamuntu recounts her own career trajectory. She studied African History at the University of Minnesota in the United States.
“My father always made fun of me saying, ‘you went all the way to the States to study that’,” she laughs.
“Back in Uganda, for a bit I was [cattle] ranching with my father. Everyone knows he loves his cows – it’s our culture, the backbone of who we are. Then I started to venture into business. I would travel to many tourism destinations and see the number of tourists and think ‘you know if Uganda was discovered as a tourist destination, it would sell’. The more I went into it, the more I discovered what a unique country it is.”
Until the age of six, Kamuntu was in exile with the family. Her earliest memories are of winters in Sweden.
“And we spoke fluent Swedish,” she smiles.
“I guess as kids we didn’t know the struggles my mother was going through trying to raise four kids on her own. For us, it was a happy time really, but I guess there was always someone missing – my father, but his presence was always looming. I remember when my sisters and brother would want me to do something, they would say ‘daddy is coming today’, and then I would get up because I never really met him until I was six years old when we came back to Uganda and were reunited… That’s when I really got to know him.
“Both my parents are amazing. I think my father tried to make up for that time lost, so he would spoil us, especially the girls. He was always encouraging us to follow our dreams and dream big. Whatever he felt or you felt as a person was your calling, he would support you.”
Like both her parents, would she ever enter politics?
Kamuntu shakes her head. “I don’t aspire to be in politics… It’s a lot of sacrifice.”
It’s clear her heart is in many other things.
“Ugandans are very creative as a people so that’s our untapped potential,” she says.
It’s only when we meet her sister Natasha Karugire the following day and she mentions that she has cast Kamuntu as the leading lady of the movie, 27 Guns, she is currently filming that we know.
What was it again about first impressions?