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Meet Allidina Visram

Meet Allidina Visram

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Lets promote masaabaland

In 1903, Visram established his first shop in Kampala which became the centre of trade in the developing capital of Kampala, on what came to be known as Allidina Visram Street. Instead of the shop, he preferred to use the word “Duka” and was therefore referred to as the grandfather of Dukawalahs in Uganda.

He was born in Kera, Kutch, India in 1851. He migrated penniless to Zanzibar in a dhow at a tender age of 12 years. He was an avid trader, educationist and philanthropist. He died but his legacy still lives. His name is Allidina Visram, described as the grandfather of trade in East Africa.

On his arrival at the coast of Zanzibar, his fellow Indian, Sewa Haji Paroo, employed him as a shop attendant – the job he did but not so happily.

Moved by his entrepreneurial dreams, Visram quit the shop keeper job and decided to venture out on his own. He started organizing Arab trade caravans coming into the interior from the coast in search of goods.

Two years after trade caravans business, Visram went into the business of cloves, wax and honey from the interior, exchanging them with cloth, salt and grains.

A few years later, Visram specialized in ivory trade, traversing as far as the Belgian Cong – the current day DR Congo. In this line of trade, Visram became so famous that he was nicknamed the ‘king of ivory’.

While trading in ivory, he secured a contract to provide packed food to the European game hunters looking for ivory and other game trophies.

In 1901, Allidina Visram left Kenya and came to Uganda and immediately got the opportunity of being supplier to the Uganda Railway Project that was constructed by the Indian Coolies.

He convinced British engineers and became the sole supplier of food to the Indian workers on the railway line and opened many stores along the line. He was later on entrusted to pay Indian workers on behave of the British masters.

According to the book, The Rise and Fall of Philanthropy in East Africa by Robert Gregory, Visram made a windfall when the Uganda railway project was started.

“He was the sole supplier of food to the Indian workers on the railway line and he opened many stores along the line. He won the trust of their British engineers that they gave him the contract to pay their Indian workers and at the same time providing funds to the British constructors in Kenya,” the book says.

In 1903, Visram established his first shop in Kampala which became the centre of trade in the developing capital of Kampala, on what came to be known as Allidina Visram Street. Instead of the shop, he preferred to use the word “Duka” and was therefore referred to as the grandfather of Dukawalahs in Uganda.

Allidina Visram Street was renamed Bokassa Street by Idi Amin in 1972 in honour of his friend Jean Badel Bokassa, the Emperor of Central African Republic. This was the same street that Dr. Milton Obote renamed Luwuum Street, in memory of the slain head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Janani Luwum.

It is worth noting that in 1904, Visram ventured into agriculture and shortly became the owner of seven large plantations in Uganda. Through his businesses, he helped local industries by buying native crops, which no one else would touch, at prices which meant a loss for himself. His actions are regarded as having helped to stimulate greater local production across parts of East Africa; and contributed to transition from barter to a cash based economy.

The same year, he saw a booming ivory trade in Mbale. Elephant hunting made the market lucrative in the area. The town was an established centre for ivory patronized by big merchants like Omar Mohidin and Idi bin Shero who had shifted their base from Mumias to Mbale until 1911.

Semei Kakungulu too had started trading in ivory got from the elephants in the Mt Elgon. This attracted the Swahili and Arab traders, who bartered beads and hoes for Ivory.

As the scramble for ivory went on, Allidina Visram moved to Mbale with a different game plan. Instead of joining the ivory trade like his counterparts, he decided to open shops in the upcoming town dealing in fabrics, metallic plates, cups, rice and salt.

Visram became the lifeline of many European residents in Buganda when it came to supplies and cash whenever it was needed. To Europeans, the most important store was that of Allidina Visram. Existence almost depended upon his store. He supplied not only necessities of life but also ready cash in the absence of any bank.

It should also be noted that Visram pioneered modern day banking in Uganda and the entire East Africa. From his base at the East Coast, he received cheques from the railway construction company and paid out money from one of his many stores in the interior. The cheques were charged between 3 to 5 per cent as commission.

Europeans in Uganda would give him cheques that were cashed in Nairobi or Mombasa, where the National Bank of India had already been established. It’s from his transactions that this bank felt the need to open a branch in Uganda.

Like in the rest of the region, Uganda’s currency distribution and management was taken care of by the East African currency board which had centres in the whole protectorate. The main centre in Uganda was Jinja, with branches in Mbale and Kampala, but operating within the premises of the National and Grindlys banks, all from India.

In philanthropy, Visram supported the creation of Mombasa Indian Association and was a founder member of the East African Indian National Congress in 1900 and 1014 respectively. He was also widely known to have contributed towards many schools and hospitals in East Africa and DR. Congo. He is remembered to have contributed towards the construction of the first mosque in Kampala and an Anglican Cathedral.

He died in Mombasa in June 1916 at the age of 65 from a fever he contracted whilst on his trip to Congo.  At the time of his death, he had over 240 shops in East Africa and DR. Congo.