YALI fellow Alex Kawooya, walks through Kalerowa slum where he was born and lived for 11 years in Uganda.

Alex Kawooya

A trip back to his origins in a Kampala slum reminds Kawooya how far he has traveled. Through ambition and education, he now owns businesses in telecommunications and internet service.

The first place Alex Kawooya drives us is the home where he grew up in the Kalerwe area of Kampala, Uganda. It’s not far from a western stereotype of an African slum: narrow dirt footpaths through crumbling mud buildings with patchwork tin roofs, ditches that drains the sewage and trash, people washing clothes in plastic buckets, clothes drying on drooping lines, and kids running around barefoot or slung on their mother’s back.

YALI fellow Alex Kawooya, (center) stops for a photo with childhood friends during his visit to Kalerowa slum where he was born and lived for 11 years in Uganda.

We find his house just after the communal toilet hut. Kawooya stares for a moment, lost in memory, when he hears someone call out his childhood nickname. A man in long dreadlocks sits leaning back on the house, but it takes Kawooya a second to recognize his old neighbor. Twenty years ago, the man used to live next door. They played soccer together over there in the dirt. Here he still sat, as if he grew taller but never budged from the spot.

“I must admit some bit of me was emotional,” Kawooya says.

A child looks out the front window of the house where Alex Kawooya was born and lived until he was 11 years-old in Kalerowa slum in Uganda.

“It’s just unbelievable to see the contrast from where we came from to where we’re headed. Nothing much has changed, and that actually surprised me a bit.”

He moved out of Kalerwe with his family when he was 11. He now owns two successful businesses employing 15 people in telecommunications and internet hardware, setup and service. He studied business and entrepreneurship for six weeks at Notre Dame in the summer of 2016 as a YALI fellow. Now he’s applying for the University’s Engineering, Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s (ESTEEM) Program.

YALI fellow Alex Kawooya, says hello to woman who recognized him during his return visit to Kalerowa slum.

How little has changed in his old neighborhood shocks Kawooya, 32. He hadn’t been back in years. He figured the people he once knew had moved on, moved up – like he had.

Walking back to his Lexus SUV, a woman washing clothes recognizes him, saying his face hasn’t changed since he was a toddler. He crosses over a drainage ditch on a makeshift bridge and asks some boys why they are digging in the ditch bank. They tell him they are looking for salvage metal to sell.

YALI fellow Alex Kawooya crosses a foot bridge in Kalerowa slum where he lived for 11 years.

When the rains came, he says the drainage ditch flooded the neighborhood and cholera outbreaks were common. He recalls being punished for playing soccer in the mud and ruining his good clothes. He greets the tailor who sewed his nursery school uniform in the same tiny room with a single sewing machine.

“It’s something I’d not prepared myself for … it was a moment for me, really,” he said. “I sat back and thought, OK, that’s 20 years ago, I can’t believe it.”

The city of Kampala, Uganda.

We drive through the places that mark his journey. Though his father died when he was young, his mother raised five kids who all attended university. She worked as a government civil servant, moved to a nicer home up the hill, and made certain her kids went to the best schools they could.

Makerere University sits atop one of the city’s seven hills. Kawooya studied IT there for three years. We drive to a reunion on campus playing fields, where classmates compete against other years in football and rugby, grill pork and chicken, drink beer, and complain about getting older. They are doctors, lawyers, businessmen.

Finally, we drive by his new home and up another hill to Cassia Lodge, a posh resort and restaurant overlooking Lake Victoria and the city. The contrasts from start to finish are dizzying.

Alex Kawooya, managing director of Visions Unlimited and director of Rackmount, consults with an employee in his office in Kampala, Uganda.

Kawooya started his first business, Visions Unlimited, while still in college. Like much of Africa, Uganda was changing rapidly in the mid-2000’s with the advent of cellular communication. Whole villages and people who never had a landline suddenly had mobile phones. “There was so much happening in telecom at the time,” he says.

Since he was studying information technology at school, a cousin who had lived in Switzerland suggested they get into the telecom market as it exploded in 2007. Ugandans quickly discovered it was far cheaper to communicate using short message service (SMS) rather than phone calls or regular texts. Visions Unlimited could negotiate better deals on access to the messaging networks for customers or companies interested in large group messaging, such as planning a wedding or conference.

Many Ugandans still carry around two cell phones, one for calls and the other for texting. The business was agile enough to adjust when new services such as WhatsApp transformed the market, so it was cruising along when Kawooya saw his next opportunity.

Customers often inquired about problems with their Internet service or computers, figuring that techies would know about tech. So he started a second company, Rackmount, that sets up and repairs office hardware and software for businesses, government and NGO’s.

YALI group photo.

“You have a business plan, but you must be able to pivot,” he says. “We pivoted with my second business into hardware stuff because we saw an upcoming business and we had to jump in at the right time. That was quite profound in our education at Notre Dame.”

He signed up for YALI “to reach out and not limit myself to just what I was doing.” He has always read about American companies like Apple and Microsoft and wanted to learn for himself about how they worked. At Notre Dame, he appreciated the focus on branding, finances and long-range planning. 

“They gave us a bigger picture,” he says. “It made us sit back and think about this more seriously. Now when I think about my work, I’m really not thinking next month, but where will I be in the next five years.”

Kawooya also appreciates the connections he made in the U.S., other African countries and Uganda. He now has contacts at firms like IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Facebook. He shows me WhatsApp chats going on with both his international cohort from Notre Dame and the 60-plus YALI alumni in Uganda. He is running to replace Zalwango as president of the Uganda alumni chapter.

“We still communicate and talk every day in a group chat,” Kawooya says. “Those relationships are key, both personal and in career. If I want to start a business in another country, the first person I’m going to call for advice is the YALI fellow from there.”

Alex Kawooya, managing director of Visions Unlimited and director of Rackmount, consults with an employee in his office in Kampala, Uganda.

Kawooya disassembles a desktop computer as we speak in his office, a suburban-style house his companies rent. A fine layer of reddish brown dust coats the computer’s interior mechanics and chokes the small cooling fan. “Dust is usually the problem,” he said. “We’ll replace their computer, clean this one up and then sell it to someone else.”

He says his educational journey still has a long way to go, possibly even back to Notre Dame. His world is so much bigger now than the Kalerwe slum or even Kampala, yet his humble origins still provide the driving force.

“It goes back to that trip we had to the place where I grew up,” he said. “I can see the broader picture of – this is where I was, this is where I am now. I want to improve myself personally, do my master’s. I want to expand my business, hire as many people as I can, have many international partnerships. Up until I’m at that point, I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”