It takes a real billionaire to keep a cool head and stay investing when you wake up on a hot Kampala morning to find out you’re about to lose $5 million inincome. Just another hard day’s night for Ugandan billionaire Sudhir Ruparelia who plans to double his fortune estimated at $1.2 billion, against the turmoil of world economic uncertainty.
In the first few months of 2022, it looked so good for Sudhir Ruparelia’s hot rose business, on 80 hectares of land, near the cool deep waters of Lake Victoria in Entebbe. The future was looking good as the year unfolded. The rose farm paid its workers overtime to live on the farm so it could keep serving the lucrative European markets throughout COVID-19.
As the world economy staggered to recovery the roses of Uganda were selling strongly through the famed flower market, in Amsterdam, where the rules may be tough, but the hard currency contracts are solid and regular.
“This year we had $20 million dollars of contracts signed and everything looked hunky-dory , it was beautiful,” says Ruparelia.
Then war broke out in Ukraine sending the markets into chaos. Most of Ruparelia’s Entebbe reared roses were in the supermarkets of Germany France and Britain where money is tight.
“In the first three months of the war, our partners and buyers came back and said please help us; our consumer demand has gone down by at least 25 per cent ,let’s downsize our orders by 25 per cent… For consumers in Europe, that was the cost of heating and filling up their cars. Exporting every day about half a million roses. Going to have to find new markets for at least 125,000 flowers a day. Four million roses a month to move?”
Ruparelia has cut costs and tried to sell to new supermarkets in Britain, but financially the damage has been done.
“I see a lot of tough times ahead because a lot of countries, over the last two years, have been borrowing money and printing it creating inflation in their own countries, mainly the western world, they have printed money and they can’t even control their own inflation now. Russia and Ukraine war has brought an increase in prices and all these people who printed money are now levying heavy taxes on their population and you are finding consumer demand has gone down tremendously.”
When the European economy sneezes the Ugandan economy can catch a cold.
“Our problem is the fuel which is all imported, but hopefully in a few years’ time, we will have our own fuel. We are all facing huge price rises. If you are a farmer who produces food and transports it to the cities; when you transport to the cities there is a huge cost in transportation,” says Ruparelia.
“Here in Uganda we are back on our feet and we hope in the next 10 to 12 months we will be at pre-2019 levels where the economy is growing at six to seven per cent. At the moment we are about four per cent”
Ruparelia believes that the impending oil boom in Uganda – awaiting investment, infrastructure and expertise – is the key to the country’s prosperity.
“Oil agreements have been signed in Tanzania and the oil corporations are going to invest about $15 billion in the next few years and mobilization has started. By the end of this year, you will see a huge number of people coming into this country to start the operation – so that is a very positive thing for us,” he says.
“The government of Uganda should export about 200,000 barrels a day that will probably get about $3 billion in revenue – so for a country like Uganda that will completely change the dynamics here.”
The oil business is likely to bring prosperity through the multiplier and Ruparelia’s hotel and property empire is almost certain to earn a large slice of the hard currency expected to tumble in.
“For us we are not interested in the direct oil business its controlled by government and corporate. However, we have a big role to play in all the service delivery to the oil industry.
It is going to be a huge, huge, plus for Uganda. Anybody serious in business; Uganda is the place to be right now.”
Through COVID-19 and the economic turmoil of the last decade, Ruparelia keeps his head and keeps on investing.
Ruparelia has $200 million sunk in eight construction projects including a
65,000 square metre hotel extension, an office block of 35,000 square metres A new office development starting this year. He believes entrepreneurs can get between
18 and 25 per cent returns on real estate in Uganda.
“We have invested so much for the last 30 years. This is the time we are going to double and triple our wealth.”
The billionaire of Kampala is also trying to open up a new market in the construction business. His company is building 156 apartments and condominiums in the belief that there is a strong emerging market among middle-class Ugandans and the expatriates expected to follow the oil boom.
“It is incredible, we haven’t even launched yet and already 30 per cent of the apartments are gone,” he says…
On the financial side, Ruparelia, since the last time we spoke in 2021, has regained control of the bank he built – Crane Bank – through a string of drawn-out court cases. Now he is following up with a $340 million lawsuit in London against 15 parties whom, he claims, bought his bank for a song. He has two legal teams working on the case in London.
“We have a very high chance of going through and a very strong argument so my belief is we are on strong ground.”
The billionaire believes the world economy is set for more turmoil this year; a sentiment backed up by an economic outlook statement by Fitch Ratings on June 13.
“Recent lockdowns in China are adding to global manufacturing supply-chain pressures. Energy and food supply disruptions from the Russia-Ukraine war are having a swifter impact on European inflation than expected. Inflation pressures are also building in the services sector, particularly in the US and UK, where tight labour markets are boosting nominal wage growth. Fitch has revised up its inflation forecasts widely and sharply, particularly for Europe in 2H22,” says Fitch Ratings.
“We have lowered our world 2022 GDP growth forecast by 0.6pp since the March GEO to 2.9%. The biggest revision is to China where we now expect growth to fall to 3.7% this year, down from 4.8% in March. We have revised down our growth forecasts for the US by 0.6pp to 2.9% and eurozone by 0.4pp to 2.6%. We have cut our world growth projection for 2023 by 0.1pp to 2.7%. The lockdown in Shanghai will lead China’s GDP to fall in sequential quarterly terms in 2Q22 and with the ‘dynamic-zero’ Covid-19 policy still in place, we do not see a swift bounce back. In the eurozone, inflation will drag on consumers’ real incomes, and German industry is being hit by supply-chain disruptions and the China slowdown.”
Ruparelia believes the struggles of northern hemisphere economies could play into the hand of emerging African economies like Uganda.
“The cost of borrowing is going to go up from the European western point of view. They need to control inflation and the only way they can control inflation is through interest rates. If interest rates are raised in the west it is going to affect the rest of the world. So, we feel, despite all of this there is still a lot of money out in the west and they need to invest somewhere.”
That somewhere could be Uganda, he feels, if the nation can come up with good projects, increased infrastructure and decreased bureaucracy.
“It can take six months to get planning permission here, but, in the UK, it can take up to two years, so it is not all bad here,” he says.
“The usual problem is here you might have electricity buzz one of your transformers, you have You have the authorities other members of parliament, everybody wants to get involved in everything you do. This is the kind of problem we have here and what is also interesting is in Europe and South Africa you can plan your things many years ahead in terms of development. In this part of the world we have management by crisis meaning you wake up in the morning and find what are your immediate problems and you resolve these first. Then you go to your office and do your business.”
What would Ruparelia say to African entrepreneurs who have also lost millions or, maybe, merely sitting amid the ruins of their street corner business?
“Sorry mate, try again, don’t give up.”