Mbarara News brings exclusive details about the brains behind the best television station in Uganda plus other successful business stories at the media plaza on old kira road in Kampala.
In 1995 while in his senior four vacation, Kin Kiriisa, with the help of one of his brothers, set up a hair salon in Mbarara town.
“I needed something to give me some money,” he said, revealing what some successful people would consider as embarrassing bits about their past.
Then his eyes wander through the window of his fourth floor office on the multi-storied building named Media Plaza in Kamwokya as if he is trying to recall something. “It was a very good experience for a young person like me,” he says.
After the salon opened shop, Kariisa set out to become the best barber in Mbarara by offering superior services to those of his rivals, thanks partly to the fact that he had procured the first electric hair clipper in town.
As word spread about Kariisa’s hair cutting prowess, his business took an upswing and by the end of his vacation, he had accumulated some good pocket money. Twenty one years later, Kariisa, who always spots a neatly styled haircut, has applied some of the principles from his salon business – hard work, perfection and quality – to grow a string of his businesses.
Kariisa is now more known as the chief executive officer of Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) TV, one of the most prominent television stations in the country. But he is also chairman of Kin Group, the umbrella group for his other firms in a wide range of sectors such as construction, ICT, real estate, automobile, oil and gas.
Yet Kariisa’s business curiosity was not shaped in the confines of the four walls that made up his barber shop. A tragic family event in the hilly lands of Ruhaama, Ntungamo, where he was born 39 years ago, set him on course to becoming a successful business person.
“We were cattle keepers but we woke up one morning and thieves had taken all our cows. We were depending on them for milk and fees. My mother had to learn how to make pancakes to make sure that we can get money to buy a few things.
By seven years, I could ride a bicycle, go to the weekly market, sell pancakes and get money. I still remember the feel of the Shs 5 note which was purplish. I would bring that money to my mother. This changed my thinking and the way I look at the world and it forced me to grow. I have never taken life for granted.”
HARD CHILDHOOD, BRILLIANT CHAP
Kariisa’s mother died in 2010, when he was a fairly well established businessman. But his father died in 1978, when he was only two years old, setting him on an unpredictable life journey. For his primary education, he attended seven schools, an average of a school per class.
“I attended a different school [each time] and I used to be number one in class. At home most of the things we were using like plates, cups, basins…I was the one bringing them as prizes for excelling in class,” he said, with a wry smile, as he adjusts his jacket.
This academic brilliance shone through his O-levels at Gombe secondary school in Mpigi, where he says he tasted urban life for the first time.
“In the final UNEB exams, I was not only the best student in the school but I was also the best in mathematics in the whole country in O-level in 1994. I remember some of our teachers were marking exams and I knew my exam marks before they came out so they kept me abreast.”
For A-level, he went to Kibuli Secondary School where he did Physics, Economics and Mathematics (PEM). There, too, he was the best student in Economics in the final A-level exams. He proceeded to Makerere University to do a bachelors degree in statistics, which opened his eyes to the world of computing and ICT. It is at the university where he founded his first firm, Kin Systems.
“I set up Kin Systems because I had learnt some statistical skills and my brother in the US had sent me a computer. I installed some statistical packages. So many finalists would come to my room at university hall for me to do for them questionnaires, statistical analysis, and that is how I made a lot of money.”
Life at university, he said, was not particularly eventful.
“I have always lived a very balanced life,” he says. “Even now I am never too much into anything. I got second upper in my course and I was retained as a teaching assistant. I used to teach computer science at the faculty of computing.”
LEAVING ACADEMIA FOR BUSINESS
At that point, it appeared Kariisa was headed for a career in academia. He was offered a PhD scholarship in Computer Security by the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation (Nuffic).
It came with a healthy stipend of €1600 (about Shs 6 million) per month. Yet having studied for four years and with two papers left to complete the programme, Kariisa felt that getting absorbed into full-time life in academia is not what he desired.
“I realised that my thinking was becoming narrower yet my intention (in doing a PhD) was to get broad knowledge. I said the world needs a bit of everything than too much of small thing. Secondly, wherever you go and your name is preceded with the title “doctor,” some people feel intimidated.
Kin Kariisa in office
Even here people call me chairman, they call me CEO, I tell them just call me Kin. So I quit my fully funded PhD,” he said, without any tinge of regret in his eyes. Luckily for him, the gamble paid off when he began reaping big in business.
WORKING IN STATE HOUSE
Soon, Kariisa caught the attention of President Museveni and became a special presidential assistant on IT.
“We (Kin Systems) used to do a couple of projects with State House and, eventually, one day the PPS then Amelia Kyambadde said “we have a vacuum.” I was already teaching at Makerere and I was still nurturing my companies.
So I had to make a deal with Kyambadde to allow me teach and nurture my companies while I was advising the president on IT. The president I worked with was a very patient person.
He likes working with young people and thinks they can contribute to the development of the country. He joined the struggle when he was a youth and he thinks that when someone is a youths they can make a significant contribution. So he would take my advice seriously than that of older people.”
In all of Kariisa’s numerous businesses, there is no doubt that the jewel in the crown is NBS TV. The station was started by former Jinja East MP Nathan Igeme Nabeta in the early 2000s but later Kariisa bought a controlling stake and it is now under his firm management.
A couple of years ago, he says, the television station had lost direction and failed to attract a sizeable audience. Business was slow and there was talk that it was up for sale. Today, the station has become prominent for its aggressive coverage of current affairs, curving out a niche as the go-to TV for live events.
“At NBS, we do take research very seriously. So we used to do research and ask people; what do you expect of us? What changes do you want? People told us that they are interested in current affairs. They want to know what is happening anytime, anywhere without you giving them your opinions.
They also want more detailed news, the story behind the news events. They are interested in football. We also constantly train our production team thanks to the partnership with KTN, a member of the Standard Group in Kenya. This group has been there for more than 100 years; they are powerful.”
Kariisa has had to deal with numerous challenges that come with running a television outlet. One of them is how to deal with the critical coverage of people who may be friends or business associates.
“Media is very challenging,” he says. “The expectations of the public are enormous. Sometimes, you disappoint your friends. They expect you to behave in a certain way but the business ethics say another thing. It puts you on collision course with people.”
Globally, he admires Al-Jazeera and CNN and wants NBS to scale similar heights.
“I think these TVs are better than us in experience and skills. I did an MBA specialized in running media as a business. Our [NBS TV] plan is to expand in the region. We want to be a TV that is watched by all but it is influential. We should set the agenda and the narrative,” he explains.
When Kariisa is not tending to his businesses, he is playing a round of golf at Kitante Golf Club or, as he says, “attending to his beautiful wife and wonderful children.”
ADVICE TO YOUTH
Kariisa says young people must learn not to depend on other people for survival and work hard for a prosperous future.
“Money today is not important; it is money you have saved for the future. They need to invest to get wealth. This little money should be invested so that one can get a daily or monthly income.
I would love to see a youth population that is productive. I am in office every day before 7 am in the morning. I am the one who opens this entire floor. It is something I have done for the last maybe 15 years. You must be disciplined but also have a life-work balance.”