Mike Bunston OBE

Uganda Memories.

 

In March 1966 I was seconded to Uganda to join Agricultural Enterprises Ltd (The Agricultural Subsidiary of The Uganda Development Corporation).

I was to replace John Seymour-Taylor who was moving to Nairobi to join C J Valentine. At the same time Gerard Ssali was sent to London for a year to be trained by Wilson Smithett and Wm Jas & Henry Thompson. He would then return to Kampala to work with me until I returned to London, when he would take over as Produce Manager.

I had only been there about a week, when Obote overthrew the Kabaka, who eventually fled to London.

The atmosphere in Kampala was tense, to put it mildly and a 7 o’clock curfew was imposed. One of the first things that I had to do was to drive Sam Higgins, my General Manager to Entebbe, where he was catching a light aircraft to go to Kigezi on the Congo Border. He said that if he took his Buganda driver, he would be murdered. One might imagine my feelings having been in Africa only a matter of days. Driving there was just about ok, as I had Sam for company, but on the way back I was on my own and faced a number of road blocks.

Anyway after this baptism of fire, things appeared to settle down.

I stayed in the Speke Hotel for a few weeks, before moving to a company bungalow on Bugalobi.

 

 

AEL had 7 Tea factories at that time, namely:

Salama (Bill Cooksey)

Kiko (Mark Elias)

Mwenge (Rob Bell)  

Ankole (Dan McWilliam)

Bugambe(Norman Howarth

Muzizi (John Pyfinch)

Kigezi (Lew ?

They also had the Instant Tea Factory at Port Bell (Ted Gebbard)

 Life was extremely interesting and exciting for a young man.

Some of the factories were new or undergoing updating, and this gave the opportunity to experiment with new machinery, such as Hot feed Driers, skip fermentation, new fermenting units and a number of other new machines. (Later the Fluid Bed Drier)

There were two major tea machinery companies at that time, Davidson’s in Belfast, with MD Bruce Hallet and Marshalls of Gainsborough, with MD Alan Ridler (His son John was later to become Executive Engineer at AEL)      They were installing the Hot Feed Drier in a number of the factories and I was required to check the quality of the teas, so that fine tuning could be achieved.

Getting around was not easy at that time with road blocks and movement permits required. However we were lucky as there were a number of air strips on the estates ( Kigezi, Ankole, Mwenge, Bugambe and of course the air strip at Fort Portal. These were necessary when so many visits had to be made. I remember spending a number of nights at the Tea Hotel, when Marshalls were trying to get the recently installed Hot Feed Driers to work properly at Kiko.

Likewise the 2 stage driers installed at Mwenge by Davidsons.

All very busy times and at the same time I had to visit Port Bell to taste the daily production from the Instant Tea Factory, most days when I was in Kampala.

My counterpart at The Uganda Company was Roy Pierce, who must have had an equally busy and interesting time.

A great deal of investment had been made by Commonwealth Development Corporation and the World Bank, and this meant that we had many visitors over the period that I was there.

In early 1967 Gerard Ssali returned from London to work with me, but unfortunately not long after his return he managed to write off his car and very nearly himself. Sam Higgins wanted me to delay my departure until he was fully fit, but as my plans were in place and I was required back in London by the middle of the year, they had to make the best of it, and fortunately Ssali made a miraculous recovery and was able to take over on my departure.

We left Kampala by train on the 24 hour trip to Nairobi, seeing spectacular scenery through the Great Rift Valley. We spent 3 weeks in Kenya, visiting a number of the Tea Companies that we represented in London, went down to Mombasa and saw game parks.

In 1970 my firm was asked if they could spare me to go back to Uganda to help AEL. Gerard Ssali had taken a car without permission and had a crash. He was dismissed on the spot, which left them with a problem. I was asked to stay there for 3 months to sort things out and again run the department. Sadly I found things in a mess and it took some time to carry out an inventory, in order to find out where all their tea was. A great deal of which was sitting in warehouses in Mombasa, either unsold or unaccounted for. This had to be disposed of in order to get things back to normal. Gerard Ssali was a highly able man but was more interested in his own affairs rather than doing his job at AEL. I stayed at the Speke Hotel over the period which worked well as I was near the AEL office in Embassy House, where I had to spend long hours.

I returned to London at the end of May and a few months later John Partridge was installed as Produce Manager.

During the time that I was there I was able to drive down to Rwanda to visit Mark Elias, who had left Kiko and was now in charge of Mulindi. A number of other managers followed him to Rwanda, realising the way things were going in Uganda. They included Bill Cooksey, John Pyfinch and others.

I made annual visits to Uganda in 1974, 75 & 76. After that with Amin ruining the country, there was little point in going and by then I was making regular visits to Rwanda where a number of Tea Factories were being built. In1980 The FED set up an office in Kampala and started looking at various tea projects in which to invest ECC money.

They were particularly involved in getting the Out grower factories working again at Igara, Mbale and were looking at building other factories at Mityana,Toro and Ankole.

On my first visit after a few years in 1981 it was very interesting to see the plantations in Toro and driving along the old tea blocks was like driving down tunnels as the tea bushes had grown so high. The rehabilitation of the tea blocks was a comparatively easy operation getting them back to their original tables, but the challenge was getting out the forest trees which had grown up in the tea over the years of abandonment. Within a relatively short time the tea was back in bearing. The main problem was labour as Western Uganda had relied on imported labour, mainly from Rwanda and as the Tea Industry there was by now well established, they were employed locally. Mitchell Cotts used mechanical harvesters (first used in New Guinea) and these, although being used out of necessity worked pretty well.

Over the next few years I saw the tea industry coming back to health, with the Metha’s back at Lugazi and Mukwano buying up tea factories, including Munobwa and Buzira Sagama, as well as planting out many hectares of tea.

My final visit to Uganda was in 2002, when I visited most of the factories in Toro and Ankole. The tea by then was looking good.