There were mixed reactions a few weeks ago when JENIFER BAMUTURAKI MUSIIME was formally appointed chief executive officer of Uganda Airlines.
On one hand, are critics who find her a controversial presidential appointee with a litany of highly-publicized bad decisions but, on the other hand, her rise is viewed as a fitting fulfillment of a proven go-getter that has defied odds to join a limited list of women CEOs, writes Nicholas Bamulanzeki.
Until a few years ago, she was known as Jenifer B Musiime. A mother of five. I met her for the first time in 2017 during the grand opening of Golden Tulip hotel in Kampala. That night, as the emcee, she was vibrant and carefree.
Since then, however, a lot has changed in her life and career and the Jenifer I met at Uganda Airlines recently is a more cautious and calculative one. She is also popularly known as Jenny by friends and colleagues.
“This job has made me grow and learn so much in a few months. First of all, I changed my name when I joined Uganda Airlines because there was another Jennifer Musiime already holding a high-profile position in the aviation industry. I didn’t want people to confuse us,” she says. “So, I decided to use the family name.”
At her Uganda Airlines office, I found her embedded with tight security and one goes through some protocols to reach her. Nonetheless, she remains charming and affable. She is also cracking and at times gets sentimental once she gets into her element, far from the all-powerful CEO in charge of a multi-billion national entity.
These are attributes she mastered in the hospitality sector where she spent a great deal of her working career.
“I don’t miss the hotel industry that much, though,” she says. “Here is like a life-long calling that I am determined to succeed in.”
JENNY THE CEO
Whereas her appointment by President Museveni stirred debate, it is her unique story of her rise to the top that is most intriguing. In fact, she says she has no idea what people think of her.
“I have more than 25 years’ experience in top-level marketing and management. There may be some who look at my speedy, if 25 years can be called speedy, career progression to CEO and say “affirmative action.” So be it! I was not plucked from politics or patronage. My hard work earned me the position,” she says.
With that, she joins the exclusive but limited club of women CEOs in the country.
“Since my appointment, I have got lots of congratulatory calls and emails from at least a dozen other CEOs and from high-profile government leaders,” she says.
“My appointment as CEO comes at a perilous time for the airline after recent controversies and bad publicity but I now look at that as something in the past. I’m now focused to turn around the airline fortunes after a few years of losses.”
Indeed, Bamuturaki says she is still finding her feet and admits that some of her challenges is that the top-level management world is predominatly male.
"More than half of Uganda's population is female, but that certainly is not reflected in access to education, wealth or power. I am a living example that any woman can achieve their dreams if focused and determined.”
It is safe to say Jenifer was born into a well-to-do family. Her father, George Bamuturaki, was an opposition member of parliament during the Obote II regime and they lived in Bugolobi.
“Life was good, he regularly dropped us at Buganda Road primary school before heading to work,” says Jenifer, the first born of five siblings. “We didn’t lack anything.”
However, hell broke loose one evening in 1985 when her father was shot several times and killed as he went about shopping at Kisementi in Kamwokya.
“I avoided passing there [Kisementi] for years until recently when my daughter persuaded me recently to go shopping there. Back then, nothing prepared us of what would happen because our life turned upside down. I was just 10 years and in primary five,” she recalls.
Soon after, it dawned on the family that they couldn’t afford the Kampala lifestyle anymore. In 1987, her mother made a daring decision to move the family back to the ancestral village in Tooro, about 50km from Kyenjojo town.
“At that time, I had just been promoted to primary seven but I missed the first term of primary seven because my mother couldn’t find schools around,” she says.
“That is when it sunk in that we were orphans of a political murder and this greatly bothered us psychologically.”
When Bamuturaki finally got a school that taught up to primary seven, she realized she was the only child who could wear shoes.
“Some classmates would look at me and say: ‘this is a rich man’s daughter.’ It also bothered me that I could not speak proper Rutooro. This often got me in trouble with schoolmates and affected my interaction,” she recalls.
Matters were not helped when she joined Kyebambe Girls SS for O-level.
“I used to be very tiny and my accent was different from the rest of the girls’. I was bullied by some big girls but I also learnt to be resilient in everything I do,” she says.
This, in many ways, laid strong foundation for Bamuturaki to become strong-willed.
RETURN TO KAMPALA
After O-level, Bamuturaki joined Nabisunsa Girls SS and that’s when her mother pushed her to aspire to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer.
“My love was to become a social worker and I feared becoming a lawyer would expose me to being murdered too,” she says.
At Makerere University, she was offered to study Social Work and Social Administration on government sponsorship. She settled into the course seamlessly and soon after completing, she got a job as a sales representative at Alam group.
“My mother didn’t like my job of selling iron sheets and nails; so, she persuaded me to immediately do a master’s degree in Public Administration and Management. I was still young and some of my colleagues on the course were distinguished public figures such as Dr John Mitala and Wasswa Ziritwawula. Also, there was Jennifer Musisi [former KCCA executive director]."
That’s about time in 2000 when a former classmate at Nabisunsa, who was already working as Botanical Beach hotel general manager, alerted her about an opening for the position of personnel manager at Sheraton hotel.
“I had just finished my master’s exams but didn’t wait to submit my dissertation to start my new job. I was just 25 years at the time,” she says.
“The following year, I got married and started having babies. By the way, I hadn’t fully completed my master’s when I got the Sheraton job to coordinate guest relations. Later, I moved to duty management. I didn’t like the job because I had just started a family yet I was required to work late. in the night.”
Luckily for her, she was shifted to the hotel’s sales department where she rose to become a sales manager and later director sales and marketing.
In 2004, she resigned from Sheraton to take up a new challenge when Benedict Mutyaba’s East African Airlines started operations in Uganda. She went through the interviews, and she emerged best and was offered the job as country manager.
“Mutyaba told me the reason he gave me a chance was because the portfolio from Sheraton would be an added advantage for the airline,” she says.
“It opened my eyes about the aviation industry and I worked there for three years,” she says. “But when I was about to have another baby, I resigned.”
She briefly worked with travel consultants called Itravel but left to join Air Uganda, a new carrier at Entebbe airport, as a consultant.
“I was managing the sales department but when my contract was not renewed, I left. A few weeks later, I was called back to become the director sales and marketing after the airline experienced a drop in sales,” she recalls.
Conspicuously, Cornwell Muleya was the airline CEO and she admits he greatly trained her about top-level management in the aviation industry.
“His swiftly helped me adjust to the demanding nature of the job. Unfortunately, the airline faced numerous challenges in the years that followed, especially with routes, and by 2014 it was apparent that it was going to wind up,” she says.
RETURN TO SHERATON
Working in a results-oriented field of marketing greatly helped her to be spotted by potential employers. In 2014 when the human resource manager of Air Uganda switched to Sheraton hotel, an opportunity appeared yet again for Bamuturaki.
“I didn’t want to go back to hotels. I approached Muleya and he gave me the green light to join Sheraton hotel as Air Uganda was winding up,” she says.
“I became director sales and marketing at Sheraton hotel but around 2015, I was set to have another baby. When I left, my contract was not renewed,” she recalls.
But just like a cat of nine lives, Bamuturaki got an unexpected offer from, Devindra Singh, the general manager of newly-set-up Golden Tulip hotel.
“He did a lot of convincing for me to accept to join them because I had gotten tired of hotels but I loved their setup and level of ambition,” she says.
Indeed, Bamuturaki took up the offer and kick-started the hotel chain’s operations in Uganda.
“It was a huge challenge to convince clientele to a new hotel but I had fun on the job because I ticked all the right boxes in work goals,” she says.
In fact, she introduced incentives for multipurpose events and helped endear the hotel to ordinary folk, especially the working-class.
What stands out on Bamuturaki’s career is that she was always headhunted for her abilities but in 2017 when it was announced that Uganda Airlines would be revived, she seized the opportunity to prove herself by applying for the position of commercial director.
She got subjected to the rigorous competition process before emerging the best but this did not prepare her for the chaos ahead.
“That marked my first time to work as a civil servant. In all my life, I had become accustomed to being the only woman in boardroom meetings. I had never really felt how hard it is to work amongst men until I joined Uganda Airlines. Unfortunately, I was rudely reminded that my place is in the kitchen. Before, my entire working DNA was to do things quick and fast and with timelines but at Uganda Airlines, some people didn’t like that, especially directives coming from a woman,” she says.
“I realized I had to style up because this was a survival-of-the-fittest environment. I didn’t understand why things were delaying but it is now as CEO that I understand what was happening behind the scenes. I didn’t know the media can be a tool for witch-hunt and blackmail. I had people following up everywhere I previously worked to find if there is any controversy I left. They found nothing. People would gang up to blackmail you to bring you down. That’s the experience of civil service. When you don’t play their game, you are deemed not to be a team player.”
Bamuturaki admits that the stint as Uganda Airlines commercial director helped her up her game. In a rollercoaster one-year period, she was told to step aside for investigations, reinstated and then elevated to become acting CEO before President Museveni confirmed her appointment a few weeks ago after investigations proved her innocence.
“I had been so naïve and I cannot make again the mistakes I did then. I’ve been made sharper by the experiences I went through. You have to be a woman of steel to make it in civil service and if you don’t have God by your side, you’re doomed. I can assure you that the Jenifer in the corporate world is totally different from the current one. These are two different worlds,” she says.
“In the few months I have been in charge, I’ve been fortunate to have the government solidly behind us. I and my team are meeting often with the ministry of Works and Transport top hierarchy to tell them about our challenges, present our recommendations, and highlight recommendations. The minister [Gen Katumba Wamala] is hands-on. His involvement is heartfelt, especially in professionalism and accountability.”
Looking back, Bamuturaki says Ugandan social media users are passionate people keen to get the best service but at times they are self-defeating when it comes to patriotism.
“We are renowned for being very hospitable but we are also a people that care little about our image. At the moment, Uganda Airlines is trying to compete globally, but which investor would want to work with us under such negativity on social media?” she wonders.
“I really appreciate when wrongs are brought to the fore so that change can happen but it does not serve the purpose if the information is one-sided or not factual. I’m very open to constructive journalism that is solution-based and I am glad that’s what The Observer provides. Aviation is global. We are affected globally with how we portray ourselves.”
JENNY THE PERSON
Bamuturaki openly says she finds herself a boring person because she doesn’t hang out.
“I used to go clubbing at university but it has been years since I last went out to have fun,” she says.
“I spend most of my free time reading books and my bible. One of my favourite books is God is My CEO by Larry Julian and I’m currently reading another book called The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney and Sean Covet. I’m a perfectionist and I hate mediocrity. My critics used to say I’m self-centred but I’m now more relaxed and this book is teaching me how to empower others and work through them.”
On a personal note, she is easily frustrated by people who cannot match her ambition.
“Every second matters in the aviation industry and I tend to get agitated when things don’t go according to plan,” she says.
Intriguingly, Bamuturaki says she is yet to find the perfect balance of work and family.
“It is weird when I’m the leader of mostly men in the boardroom yet when I get home, I have to play the role of a wife. It is not easy to make that daily switch. Juggling between the two roles is quite challenging.”
She concludes by saying her motto is ‘nothing is impossible.’ It is a true testament of the odds she has overcome in life.
Advice for women in top-level offices
Bamuturaki admits that oftentimes, top-ranking people she meets get taken aback when she introduces herself.
“They expect an imposing personality yet find me to be a small, simple person,” she says.
“I’m comfortable without any airs because people always speak their mind around me,” she says.
“So, as women, we are often taken advantage of because we are emotional beings and we fight our battles emotionally. My advice is for women to fight battles with facts because emotions can be used against you. These things of crying do not work.,” she says.
“Some men work with egos and I had to put aside my emotions to stay strong. I’m now more withdrawn. A mentor advised me when I was taking this job that do not defend yourself, focus on the job, be an eagle and not a chicken because an eagle sees from far. That has helped me to be silent. What you don’t talk about may help you in the future.”