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OPINION: Here’s my simple advice for Uganda’s poor millionaires

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The majority of people who live in Kampala today were born outside the city. They migrated to Kampala and established themselves. However, Kampala wasn’t a desert. There were people who were born in Kampala

A few weeks ago, I met somebody I will call Sam for purposes of this article. Sam, who is in his early 30s, had a hardware shop which was doing so well that he had saved enough to buy two plots of land (each 50×100 feet) and also build a house for his family.

As his business blossomed, he started buying more land, which he would sell at a profit. Then one day, he bought land and the sellers were fraudulent and he lost all the money. His hardware business started limping and he eventually closed it. He became unemployed and struggled to feed his wife and three children. One of his friends with whom they studied at university and runs a consultancy business gave him a job that pays him Shs 500,000 per month.

Even with this salary, Sam says, he struggles to pay fees and make ends meet. He feels his life is not cut out for this little salary and wants to go back to business but he doesn’t know how. So, he looked for me to see if I can give him advice on how to start again. He told me he thinks he needs about Shs 10m to start again.

A 50x100ft plot in his neighborhood goes for about Shs 25m to Shs 30m. I told him to sell off one of the plots so that he remains with one, where his house is. On mentioning this, he became uncomfortable in his chair. He struggled for breath, blinked, and swallowed some saliva! He looked at me as if I had said uncharitable things about his mother.

I didn’t even tell him to sell the damn house, rather the compound, which he must obviously be struggling to maintain. He said that will not happen, even his wife wouldn’t allow it. They must remain with a sizeable compound, he said.

Sam, just like a lot of Ugandans, is asset-rich but at the same time poor. It is not uncommon to find somebody with a house with a roof that is about to cave in but sitting on land worth a billion shillings. Why wouldn’t such a person cash in, buy somewhere else and build a much more decent house?

For many, it is because the neighbours might laugh at them or this land is for the children. Yet oftentimes as funeral arrangements are being made, the children are on the side looking for buyers to cash in.

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Why would somebody who built a successful business fear to sell off one plot to start again? Why would somebody with assets worth so much money struggle to feed his family and pay school fees in a relatively good school?

This could be because we have been trained to fear failure. We think of failure every time we want to start something. We look at negatives more than positives. Sam, I think, fears that if he sells off one plot and things don’t work well, then he would be considered a failure in life.

And perhaps he also wants to remain with bragging rights in his community – as a man who lives on a house with a spacious compound. His extended family perhaps looks at him as a guy who came to the city and built a fortune and doesn’t want to lose any of that.

There is no need to sit on an asset that brings you no money when you can use it to make much more and live a comfortable life. I am always reminded by people who claim not to be renting when they are actually very poor. I meet people who won’t sell land to live their lives because they must live something for the children.

Somebody once told me that it makes zero sense to prepare for children. What is important is to prepare the children. If you prepare for them, they will not value any properties you bequeath them. If they are prepared, they will keep your assets and actually make much more.

The majority of people who live in Kampala today were born outside the city. They migrated to Kampala and established themselves. However, Kampala wasn’t a desert. There were people who were born in Kampala. Those who were prepared sold. Those who were prepared still have the assets and even have more; so, his argument posits. So, are you asset-rich and cash-poor? Maybe something needs to give!

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The writer Denis Jjuuko is a communication and visibility consultant.

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