KAMPALA – Businessman Sudhir Ruparelia has said the lockdown measures instituted by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus should not kill consumption in the country.
Over the last two months, government has instituted several measures, including telling people to stay home, banning private and public transport as well closing borders and international airports.
But in an interview with CivSource Africa, a philanthropy organisation, Mr Ruparelia, who is the chairman of the Ruparelia Group, one of the biggest business conglomerates in East and Central Africa with 28 companies and over 8,000 employees, said while Uganda has done a phenomenal job in terms of containing spread of the virus, extensions of the lockdown can and should have been handled differently and better.
“In the western world, governments are playing a critical supportive role but in Africa the point governments are yet to appreciate is that they need to keep consumption going. If consumption stops all industries stop with it. In Germany if you have a small retail shop and you apply for support, they will send you 40,000 euros to keep the wheel of consumption rolling,” he said.
“If you kill consumption it takes long to pick up. That also means you are collecting less taxes. Let us look at petroleum which is the biggest revenue earner for Uganda as an example. If you stop consumption of petroleum, you are switching off revenue for government. I think that Uganda has done a phenomenal job in terms of containing spread, but my personal view is that these extensions of the lock down can and should have been handled differently and better,” he added.
See full interview below
CivSource Africa asked lawyer and writer Ivan Okuda to chat up Uganda’s wealthiest man on philanthropy and report verbatim. He did. Dr. Sudhir Ruparelia is the chairman of the Ruparelia Group, one of the biggest business conglomerates in East and Central Africa with 28 companies and over 8,000 employees. As the Covid-19 pandemic destabilizes health care systems and plunges economies into uncertainty and anxiety of a global recession, disrupting our normal flow of life, businesses have been hard hit. The Ruparelia Foundation has, despite the upheavals, put its foot forward through philanthropy.
Firstly, please share with us how you are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic
Well, to be honest I must say it is not an easy time. We run 28 companies which employ over 8,000 people. Everyone has problems but this pandemic has brought issues that nobody had contemplated. We are in unchartered territory but we are dealing with issues as they emerge, one day at a time.
In the western world, governments are playing a critical supportive role but in Africa the point governments are yet to appreciate is that they need to keep consumption going. If consumption stops all industries stop with it. In Germany if you have a small retail shop and you apply for support, they will send you 40,000 euros to keep the wheel of consumption rolling.
If you kill consumption it takes long to pick up. That also means you are collecting less taxes. Let us look at petroleum which is the biggest revenue earner for Uganda as an example. If you stop consumption of petroleum, you are switching off revenue for government. I think that Uganda has done a phenomenal job in terms of containing spread, but my personal view is that these extensions of the lock down can and should have been handled differently and better.
Thank you for that perspective. Please tell us about your foundation’s efforts in terms of philanthropy during this difficult time.
When the pandemic was first reported in Uganda and government took measures to lock down, we, the Ruparelia Foundation which was started by the Ruparelia family to support our philanthropy efforts and activities in Uganda, donated food to 5,000 families in 14 different parishes of Kampala.
Immediately we started supporting vulnerable families in the city through these food donations, some politicians started copying us without due regard to safety measures like social distancing so that compelled the president to, in his wisdom, stop these individual food donations, at least in the way they were being done. We then donated two brand new pickups when the president made a call for contributions. We were the first to donate food and shortly after Pastor Robert Kayanja joined. We worked with Cedric Babu to identify and reach out to families in need in the city.
At a time when your businesses like the hotels have ground to a halt, one is intrigued to ask, what informs the spirit to give when business is low? What is your philanthropy philosophy?
Well, I am born as Hindu and Hindu is not a religion but a way of life. Like any other good religion, Hindu teaches us to look after the underprivileged, so it is part of our culture. When I can afford to give, I must give. It is not a question of ‘can you give, or can you not give?’ For us you must give to those in need. So, we give to churches, mosques, temples and my wife is always supporting orphanages. During this pandemic and the lock down, she is always taking all forms of support to orphanages in and around Kampala.
Last year the Ruparelia Foundation built toilets in the ghettos of Kampala as well as classrooms using plastic bottles which the experts say take up to 300 years to disintegrate. That was a successful project and we are assessing the situation to see how many more classrooms and toilets we can build in the ghettos. We support sports, pay fees and offer bursaries to children and students deserving them. So, our philanthropic efforts have not started during Covid-19. The foundation has been making its contribution to this society even before Covid-19 and we shall continue to do so despite the challenges arising from the pandemic.
From where you sit, what is your observation in terms of the good and bad in respect of efforts or attempts at philanthropy during this time?
What is good is that lots of companies and even individuals have come up to contribute to government and support those in need in their communities. That to me is an incredibly positive development and is very encouraging. However, there are individuals who have not given even a shilling, yet they are wealthy and privileged. That is a shame to our society. Incidentally, these same people especially, and I say this with the greatest respect, the Kikubo business community, generously contribute for weddings and funerals but when people are alive and need their support the most, they are not there to give them a shoulder to lean on during their hour of need. In my view, charity must begin from home.
So, my view is that we live in a society where our own people are going to bed hungry, we must go out of our way to support them. That is why we basically made three types of donations: the first was 5,000 boxes of food which could keep the beneficiaries going for two weeks, then two pick ups when the president made a call and thirdly we gave 4,000 boxes of food in collaboration with another company.
What do you make of companies that have been making contributions, they get presidential mention and the next day we read in the newspapers that they are laying off staff or cutting salaries?
Unfortunately laying off people is inevitable but there is or at least there should be a structure of laying off people. If you lay off people without salary and you are donating, that is hypocritical. I do not support that. If you must lay off staff, at least give them some money to enable them to buy food on a monthly basis. That is what we at the Ruparelia Group are looking at. We cannot continue with 8,000 people when there is no business and government is not supporting us; in fact even with these challenges the government is still saying we must pay Value Added Tax and all other types of taxes or else they penalize us. These challenges mean that we cannot continue business as usual. Tough decisions must be made but we must be considerate and ensure that our employees can afford to see the next day. It is the decent, humane and logical thing to do.
So, on the one hand, there is a moral and ethical issue and the on the other hand there is the survival of the business. I think that anyone thinking of philanthropy during this time must balance those two sides of the situation. The other issue is that for us when we donate, we do so as a foundation not the company. I cannot donate as Speke Resort and the next day I am laying off people. That would be obnoxious! That is why we have the foundation through which we get contributions from our companies and friends. That distinction is an important one for any business to make. Let the philanthropy be done by the foundation not the company or business. At least that is our approach and we are happy with it.
Going forward, do you envision that this pandemic has potential to motivate more foundations and individuals to give in future?
I think what is important is that the philanthropy must come from the heart. The mindset of the people must change. No one is saying give whatever you have. No! You can give 4-5% of your income and help society but if you are able to do more, then that is laudable.
Is there chance that this wave of donations will cause government to reflect on what more it can do to motivate people and especially the businesses, to give more to society, with incentives for instance, as one way to achieve that?
There is a provision in the taxation legal regime of Uganda that allows one to give 5% of their gross profits to a licensed charity but I don’t think that it is such a provision that matters. What matters is the heart. If the heart tells you to give, please do it. We are as strong as our weakest link.
By Ivan Okuda