Maria Kiwanuka, widely thought to be one of the richest women in Uganda, embodies a commitment to achieve personal success while avoiding gloating in an era where narcissism has become a byword for the uber-rich.

As it’s popularly acknowledged, an apple does not fall very far from a tree.

Maria’s old-man, an engineer, helped set up the Public Works Department in Uganda that built major projects including Entebbe Airport and array of residential flats before branching out to do private consultancy.

Currently, Maria, formerly a politician who served as Uganda’s Finance minister for four years beginning May 2011 ending in March 2015 plays the role of Senior Advisor to Yoweri Musevini, President of Uganda on matters touching the delicate docket of finance and singularly fixated on the Bretton Woods institutions.  

This a-lister was initially enlisted to study medicine at Makerere University, a regional premier institution but despite the prestige associated with the profession, she opted instead to study commerce.

Always playing the role of a contrarian, Maria while transiting to read for her A-level had the mind of dropping out of class to pursue the less rigorous course of secretary but wisdom prevailed.

“I was tired of school,” she says. “I was always interested in business.”

With the business bug egging her to engage in commerce, Maria moonlighted as a make-up artiste at a beauty parlour in Kampala, the capital while still a university student.

Her first port of call after university was at the Bank of Uganda, referred elsewhere as the Central Bank of Uganda, as a graduate trainee, attached to the commercial banks supervision department before going on furlough and heading to the London Business School (LBS), a prestigious institution.

“It was mama’s chequebook,” she says when asked if she won a scholarship, “and I thought it was going to be a two-year holiday” but London was intense “and very different from Makerere”, Maria reminisces

Towards the end of her master’s degree at LBS, the World Bank held recruitment fair and Maria was one of two scholars picked from the UK to join the lender that year.

One highly visible woman who was an alumnus of Maria at the World Bank was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, formerly also Finance Minister, of her country, Nigeria (2003-2006, 2011-2015) and Managing Director of the World Bank in charge of, Operations (2007-2011.

Ms. Kiwanuka, as she prefers to be called nowadays after marrying  a proverbial alter ego underlines the essence of aligning oneself  with a mate who inherently shares similar traits as oneself as a minimum requirement for eternal happiness and peace within the marriage fold .

Clearly, Mohan, the man who won the heart and mind of Marie, is equally smart in the head having also attended Makerere University where he read law, later on travelling to Switzerland’s   IMDE, Lausanne, a top-shelf global institution where he bagged an MBA.

Mohan is the Chairman and founder of a conglomerate of several of several organisations in Uganda spread in several sectors including media, horticulture, property development, plastics and paper and sits on several boards.

He has over 30 years’ experience at senior positions in various sectors. Between 1975 and 1990, he worked at the Uganda Development Bank and rose through the ranks to Bank Secretary and later to Deputy General Manager. He has been involved with steering Uganda’s financial sector restructuring since 1980.

Mohan holds an LLB from Makerere University and a Diploma in Legal Practice (Law Development Centre, Kampala). He also has an MBA from, Switzerland.

 

’d become then, (she resolutely refuses to discuss her husband or her family throughout the interview) spent almost a decade at the World Bank, working as a policy analyst and advising on bank projects in Africa (including Uganda) and Asia, before deciding to return home.

A music fan, mainly of 70s and 80s music, she set up Radio One with a promise of ‘Great Songs, Great Memories’ because none of the other radios at the time, Capital and Sanyu FM, spoke to people of her generation.

She ran the radio with an iron fist but she was also a good spotter of talent (for instance, Philip Besiimire, CEO of MTN Swaziland, and Richard Kavuma, Editor of the Observer newspaper both started out giving traffic reports on the radio)

She was very hands-on, she admits, and intensely competitive. Whenever there was a problem with the radio mast, she’d drive there and “show solidarity” with the engineers even if she wasn’t really needed.

She still listens to Radio One in her car but Ms Kiwanuka now spends more time in meetings or on planes than listening to her radio.

The meetings are unrelenting, she says, as one of her two mobile phones constantly goes off, never mind that it is a Saturday morning. The next day, she is due to drive to Rwakitura for a meeting with the President, then it is off to some foreign meeting.

Where many fight to get into Cabinet for perks like business-class plane rides, Ms Kiwanuka has had to downgrade from the occasional first-class to the government-regulation business class on foreign trips.

But she is not complaining.

“Uganda has been good to me,” she says, “it’s not been a sacrifice.”

When she speaks about agriculture, she becomes more animated, clearly relieved that the questions about her family and private life – the questions, she says, that are “trying to climb over the wall of her privacy” – are over.

Bringing a business ethic to bureaucrats
Ms Kiwanuka wants to bring a business ethic to government, spending money in productive areas like agriculture, infrastructure, and progressive reforms.

“We have a potential solution [to slowing economic growth] by becoming a bread basket for the region,” she says. “But we must prioritise and invest in the right areas.

“We must work for the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Economic growth is projected to drop to its lowest rate in almost two decades; inflation remains high at 21 per cent and there is an unemployment crisis among the youths. Fixing the economy is going to be much harder than anything Ms Kiwanuka has ever done. And she knows it, pointing out that over the last 10 years the country spent more than it could afford.

Can she achieve more production and less patronage in government? Her second Budget Speech (the first she’s been fully responsible for) is due in two weeks and will offer the best evidence of her efforts.

No free lunch
She is alive to the politics – the government, after all, needs to be re-elected, she says, – but also speaks with frustration about the politicking that has delayed the Youth Venture Capital Fund.

“Once you get politics into business, it dies,” Ms Kiwanuka says ruefully. She is hoping to create “a mindset shift” within government through prioritisation, accountability and enforcement.

“There is no free lunch,” she says. “To enjoy the niceties, you need to grow the purse.”

Once, many years ago, Maria’s father turned down a request by her young brother for some toy, saying he did not have money. Pointing to his father’s chequebook, the young boy contested the claim, saying as long as there remained leaves in the book, there was money.

Ms Kiwanuka now finds herself with one admittedly large chequebook, but even larger bills to pay.

“Do we cut money from education to spend on salaries? Or health? Those are some of the tough questions we need to ask.”

And the end of the interview she gets into her pristine white Mercedes Benz to run errands around town. She does not use her official car for private journeys and she gives her driver time off at the weekend so she can drive herself.

Grabbing a bunch of keys, she drives out to her office, to put in some work ahead of her meeting with the President. If anyone can drive the economy out of its current slump, it will have to be an outsider like Ms Kiwanuka – but only if those on the inside are willing to shift gears and change their mindsets.

 

For all the speculation surrounding who would make President Yoweri Museveni’s latest cabinet, Maria Kiwanuka, the proprietor of Radio One and Akaboozi Kubiri wasn’t in many people’s wildest dreams. But she was appointed Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, replacing Saida Bumba.

However, while her academic qualifications, a Bachelors Degree in Commerce put her in good stead for this position, more importantly than not, Kiwanuka has played a major role in inspiring many people’s lives. Kiwanuka is a successful business woman, who has built her media house from scratch into one of the most powerful and success stories of our time.

Kiwanuka has been the fulcrum of Radio One’s success since 1997 when it was established. It was during a very hostile period of the emergence of FM radios in Uganda. It was not clear how Radio One would have faired against major competitors like CBS FM, Capital FM and Sanyu FM. Well, she clearly had a plan.

Mark Ssali, a prominent Sports journalist was one of the first people to work for Kiwanuka at Radio One. He, therefore speaks of how she inspired him. “The first thing I learnt about her was her awareness of what was happening in the industry she had come into. She was not only focused but very knowledgeable. She did not settle for second best and that is why she went out there hiring people she believed were good,” says Ssali.

Ssali was part of the Sports talk show, The Locker-room, the first of its kind on Ugandan radio, which was a hit. This, Ssali says, was because Kiwanuka came up with so many ideas on how to make the radio’s programming the best around. Such is her brilliance, Ssali adds, and as such thinks he learnt a lot. Kiwanuka’s unrelenting nature to be the best, Ssali says, has made him give his all to improve as a sports journalist.

Ssali has had many suitors like the former Gateway Television from the UK that was telecasting the English Premier League, Italian Serie ‘A’ and the German Bundesliga between 2007 and 2009. Ssali has become a household sports pundit with wide knowledge of Ugandan and foreign sport.

One could say that the ambitious nature of Kiwanuka left an indelible mark on Ssali. Michael Kigozi, a staff at Radio One opines that one thing he has picked from his boss, is the non-discriminative nature. “She has no stereotypes. She never judges people on the basis of religion, age difference, tribe or skin colour. For her, it is about your performance and to me, that is a good trait in a leader,” Kigozi says.

Kigozi continues that while Kiwanuka is result-oriented, she speaks to her staff with a parent-like approach and is always advising them in case they go wrong. Ismail Dhakaba, who has been working at Radio One since 2009 says that the number one thing Kiwanuka emphasises is the listener or the customer.

She wouldn’t tolerate losing a single listener, which is why she always arms her employees with the best skills to keep the listeners glued to her radio station. But all this has been achieved through making sure that her employees are good time-keepers and can do self-policing to get their work done as required.

“Her approach always makes you feel a sense of ownership to your work and as such, this brings the best out of you and ultimately, the radios succeed,” said Dhakaba. In a nutshell, Kiwanuka has a lot to tell and for someone who has made a number of keynote speeches, expect her experiences, that she will most definitely share with the guests that will attend the Uganda convention UK on 27th August at Troxy -London, will not leave you the same.

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Overview

Prior to her appointment to cabinet, she was the Managing Director of Radio One and its sister station Radio Two known locally as Akaboozi FM, in Uganda, in which her family owns majority shareholding. She also served as a non-Executive board member on the Board of Directors of the Aga Khan Foundation (East Africa), the Nabagereka Development Trust, Nkumba University, Uganda Development Bank and Stanbic Bank Uganda Limited.[3]

Background and education

She was born in Kampala, the capital of Uganda on 12 May 1955.[4] Maria Kiwanuka attended Gayaza High School, a prestigious all-girls boarding high school, located about 26 kilometres (16 mi), by road, northeast of Kampala, graduating in 1973. In 1974 she entered Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest institution of higher education. She graduated in 1977 with the degree of Bachelor of Commerce (BCom). She later pursued further education at the London Business School in the United Kingdom, graduating with the degree of Master of Business Administration (MBA).[5]

Work experience

Beginning around 1980, she worked for more than ten years with the World Bank, as an Economist and Financial Analyst for the East Asian and Southern African regions. Specifically she covered projects in Burma, Malawi, Swaziland and Uganda. After she left the World Bank, she returned to her native Uganda and went into private business. Together with members of her family, she founded businesses in the areas of broadcasting, publishing, real estate and economic consulting. She has served as a financial adviser to the Nabagereka of Buganda since the early 2000s.[6] In a cabinet reshuffle on 1 March 2015 she was dropped from Cabinet and appointed Senior Financial Advisor to the President.[2]

Personal details

Maria Kiwanuka is married to Mohan Kiwanuka, the Managing Director of Oscar Industries Limited. In 2007, four years prior to Maria Kiwanuka’s being appointed Finance Minister, her husband was listed as one of the wealthiest people in Uganda.[7][8]

Maria Kiwanuka is a Ugandan economist, businesswoman and politician who served as Minister of Finance in the Cabinet of Uganda from 27 May 2011 to 1 March 2015.Since 2015 she has been Senior Advisor to the President of Uganda on financial matters, responsible for the Bretton Woods Institutions.

She was born in Kampala, the capital of Uganda on 12 May 1955.Maria Kiwanuka attended Gayaza High School, a prestigious all-girls boarding high school, located northeast of Kampala, graduating in 1973. In 1974 she entered Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest institution of higher education. She graduated in 1977 with the degree of Bachelor of Commerce (BCom).

She later pursued further education at the London Business School in the United Kingdom, graduating with the degree of Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Maria Kiwanuka is married to Mohan Kiwanuka, the Managing Director of Oscar Industries Limited. In 2007, four years prior to Maria Kiwanuka’s being appointed Finance Minister, her husband was listed as one of the wealthiest people in Uganda.

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