Uganda’s textile industry: going round seeing tri-stars until the phoenix rose via fine spinners

Shorts Label.jpg
Comments about shorts here prohibited

WHILE doing some laundry the other day I noticed that I own a pair of shorts that had been made in Sri Lanka. Then I remembered that the person behind Uganda’s ‘big-ticket’ AGOA venture, Tri-Star Apparels, is also from Sri Lanka.

That sent me right back on my current AGOA agony, and I started wondering about all those girls who were so publicly employed by Tri-Star Apparels almost twenty years ago.

The story made big news back then, and we saw photographs of hundreds (were they thousands?) of girls going through a recruitment and then training process, after which they were given those coveted jobs.

At some point I even joined delegations paying official visits to the factory in Bugolobi, at a location made famous in the 1980s for hosting our biggest export then – coffee – processed and warehoused there by the mighty Coffee Marketing Board. Twenty years after that, the location was hosting another big export – clothing made by the girls of Tri-Star Apparels.

The newspapers back then wrote stuff like: “Tri-Star Apparels was founded by Deshabandu Kumar Dewapura in 1979 with just 10 machines and 15 employees. Tri-Star is now a global employer boasting dozens of factories in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana that employ 15,000 workers producing 15 million pieces of garment. Its corporate clients include Ralph Lauren (2002 net revenue $2.3 billion), Gap (2002 net revenue, $7.0 billion), Guess (2002 net revenue $0.8 billion) and Limited Brands which owns Victoria’s Secret line of clothing (2002 revenue, $8.4 billion). It recently signed a contract to supply two million pieces of baby and children wear every month to UK-based Grasshopper Holder, one of the largest EU garment suppliers.”

For real, those words appear here.

The news stories also reported that Vellulapai Kananathan was the man behind this venture in Uganda, having partnered with the Sri Lanka-based Tri-Star Apparels.

Kananathan is today, I believe, Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul to Uganda. The rest of the internet reports that the Tri-Star Apparels founder, Kumar Dewapura, passed away in September 2014.

Curiosity further piqued and my mind still on the statistic I saw a couple of weeks ago that said during the whole of 2016 Uganda only exported textiles worth US$9million to the United States under AGOA arrangements, I dug a bit more.

The internet doesn’t easily reveal information about Tri-Star Apparels., normally a trustworthy reporter of financial and business news, has a record of ‘Apparels Tri-Star (Uganda) Ltd.’ whose Key Executive is Mr. Vellupi Kanathan and that “operates as a subsidiary of LAP Green Network.”

The website has no record of the Sri Lankan Tri-Star Apparels, but that didn’t worry me – I simply looked elsewhere and found it…no. Not the Sri Lankan one – apparently there is a Tri-Star Apparels in India that has a Facebook page or wall to which the persons involved post photographs of clothing they sell.

This Tri-Star Apparels claimed to be based in Bangalore, India, and listed a website that is non-functional. Since I couldn’t be bothered to dial the number provided, I went to the rest of the internet only to find them listed elsewhere (same India phone number) with a Director called Mr. Naidu, and a rickety statement in English accompanying a small photo of t-shirts that all put together seemed to spell the word “con”.

I closed those sites and found the “Sri Lanka Directory of Exporters” under the header of the Sri Lanka Export Board, which listed Tri-Star Apparels Pvt. Ltd. with nothing under “Product /Services Range” but contact details that included the website’’.

The same website is listed in a few other places, with the company contact being Ms. Samantha Gunawardena, accompanied by a legend about the work they do.

The listed website is non-functional.

Then, the “Gateway to Sri Lanka”, presented a list of players in the Textile and Garments industry that didn’t mention Tri-Star.

It was frustrating.

Until I hit pay dirt. An organisation called Industrial Restructuring Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. had an online entry from February 2016 detailing how they helped ‘Tri Star Garment Industry’ conduct a restructuring in which they gave up a 20% shareholding and downsides from 8,000 to 4,000 staff.

At this point I felt I should focus more on my Ugandan Tri-Star instead and was happy to discover that there was a recent update made along the way.

About three years ago, NTV (in Uganda, I have reason to believe), published a story titled, “Kenyan textile entrepreneur takes over Tristar Apparel”, that read quite determinedly: “Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company, will be injecting over Ushs108billion over the next three years in a value development of Uganda’s cotton sector.”

That was three years ago so by counting very slowly one would be correct in expecting that we have received Ushs108billion in this country from Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company.

Continued the story, “Fine Spinners has taken over the operations of Tristar Apparel in Uganda. Tristar Apparel was closed down after years of losses despite heavy government subsidies and assured market through the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act initiative.”

Pause for thought there and think to yourself why the Kenyan company was so ready to inject Ushs108billion into a business venture that had failed in spite of subsidies and AGOA.

I couldn’t work it out immediately myself. Especially taking the usual rudimentary action of discovery in 2018 – Googling ‘Fine Spinners Kenya’.

The internet seemed to know more about Fine Spinners Uganda than Kenya, and I learnt about Jaswinder Bedi, described as a “textile technologist” and the man behind Fine Spinners. His personal story aside, I was astounded to read, in The Independent magazine:

“The government of Uganda has leased Phenix Logistics Uganda Ltd, a garment manufacturer based in Kampala, to a Kenyan-based garment manufacturer – Fine Spinners. The deal…at un-disclosed amount of money and a 15-year period is interesting ….Phenix Logistics has been recording losses, with the government injecting in billions of shillings to keep it afloat.”

So… what does Fine Spinners know that nobody else in Uganda appears to know and why don’t we know it after all these years?

I intend to find out for myself one day, rather than read stuff about them off the internet; their website says they are located on Spring Road in Bugolobi, and their phone number is listed there as +256 414 342 716, so I will be dialing it soon.

Their story, on that website, goes: “Our cotton is predominantly grown in the West, where, assisted by leading development partners, we mentor our smallholder farmers in sustainable cotton agriculture.

At harvest, the CMiA (Cotton Made in Africa – see lint bales are transported to the Fine Spinners facilities in Kampala to be blended and spun into yarn. Our knitting and dying processes meet exacting international standards, as do our fabrics, which are subjected to rigorous retailer-specified testing regimes.”

Fine Spinners sources their cotton, says the website, from Kasese’s Western Uganda Cotton Company (WUCC) and NOT from the usual parts we have been hearing about since the days adults like myself were in primary school. This story here is further evidence of those expectations.

Fine Spinners even brought a group of European textile manufacturers to visit the place last year in April and they exclaimed that they were thoroughly impressed by Uganda’s cotton.

Said one of the textile importers: “I import 500,000 T-shirts per year, but now I want to grow it to one million pieces annually next year 2018. When you ask me why, I will tell you it is because Uganda has good cotton with production facilities.”

That was Joern Otto, the vice president for sourcing at Germany’s Bonprix Company – which actually exists, going by the internet. Either way, we should ensure that he actually doubles his purchases as planned.

It appears to be a true story, this one of Fine Spinners and Bonprix and Uganda’s cotton being so great. The Economist wrote a feature about this here:

Ugandan clothes ARE being sold in Germany and the United States IN SPITE of the lobby group SMART (Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association) and their rather silly assertions about how hapless Uganda’s manufacturing future is, and how inert we sometimes are.

In an April 2016 interview, Jas Bedi stated that Fine Spinners was exporting about 50,000 t-shirts a month and was targeting 500,000 going up to 1million t-shirts a month by the end of that year.

He has done so well, going by the media reports, that just one client – Bonprix – is targeting 1million t-shirts from Uganda every month this year.

One of my favourite statements attributed to him goes: “Ugandan cotton itself is so much more superior, so it just gives you a competitive advantage right before you start. It’s handpicked, not machine picked, and because of that it’s a superior cotton. When you start with better cotton, you get a better product.”

What time and resources we wasted on those other guys long gone!
Shiyaya Coupon Book Advert FINAL.001

buying second-hand clothing is NOT smart – importing it even less so…

Second-hand shoes on sale in Kampala, February 2018 (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

LAST week I read an article in Kenya’s Business Daily that suggested that the United States was once again conducting a review to determine whether some countries – including Uganda – should continue being allowed to export finished goods over there under a special quota system.

The Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) is an affirmative action programme that, very, VERY sadly, few of us in Uganda have understood or taken to either heart or pocket.

It should have enriched many Ugandans at different levels from the city, through the towns and right into the villages.

But it hasn’t.

We are to blame, most of us, for not paying attention to what’s important and focusing instead on various types of nonsense; and others for not ‘sensitising’ us enough to what the excitement around AGOA meant.

But there are other groups at fault here – and even if the story broke some time last year we don’t appear to have comprehended it well enough. Kudos to Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, for bringing it up with the US Ambassador when they met over some issue a couple of weeks ago.

The US Ambassador diplomatically said the US would continue to “support” Uganda but that we might have “some textile funding withheld”.

Luckily for us, this withholding of funding is not a concern the government is focusing on. See, AGOA (Africa Growth Opportunities Act) is supposed to increase the number of items or goods we export to the US – not to give us any charity.

Now, the situation around textiles is amusingly annoying – but the noises being made in our government circles indicate that there will be no backing down to economic bullies based in other countries.

It came to a head in the middle of last year when a major public hearing was called to determine whether or not Uganda should be allowed to continue exporting to the US under AGOA.

Blame that on some US-based organisation called ‘Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association’ (SMART) that puts together clothes recycling companies there. We can only refer to them using capital letters, so that nobody mistakes them for the lower-case version of the word.

This SMART, headed by one Jackie King, complained that countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda should be struck off the AGOA list because we are restricting mivumba/mitumba/second hand clothing imports from the rest of the world.

Luckily, their petition wasn’t immediately successful, even though Kenya backed down – presumably on the advice of their Washington Lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, lawyer with the firm, Ryberg and Smith, L.L.C. and also President of a US-based non-governmental organisation called African Coalition for Trade (ACT) which represents Kenya and Tanzania but NOT Uganda.

He knows a lot, and figured that Kenyan companies registered $394 million in textile sales under AGOA in 2016. The US Trade Representative office, though, says Uganda only exported US$51million worth of goods to them in 2016 – coffee, tea & spice ($25m), ‘special other’ ($9m), glue & enzymes ($7m), grain, seeds & fruit ($4m), and fish/seafood ($2m).

Maybe our textile exports are that ‘special other’, but if so then that US$9m does not warrant the panic caused by SMART – those are nine houses in Kololo…so would it be smart to NOT tax second-hand clothing in order to build a textile industry here?

SMART, in their petition, claims they recover and process ‘pre-consumer’ by-products from the textile industry and ‘post-consumer’ secondhand textiles – clothes and shoes.

“The items that can be reused as apparel are exported, typically to least developed and developing countries such as those in East Africa, where demand for affordable, quality clothing is especially high…” SMART said.

The same high demand, one would presume, that would support a locally-grown textile industry here that would enable Ugandans to wear brand new clothes made by fellow Ugandans, rather than second-hand, grubby hand-me-downs that other people have sweated and probably died wearing.

It was disturbing to read their arguments, and the flimsiness of their claims that we were imposing “barriers to US trade and investment”.

The “barriers” they referred to were the EAC decision to increase tariffs on imported second-hand clothing in order to encourage more local manufacturing within the region – obviously a sensible move that encourages investment in the EAC rather than elsewhere!

SMART, on the other hand, capitalised on: “while recycled fiber is a useful by-product of the clothing recycling trade, it is the resale of good, usable clothing that renders the overall industry profitable.”

WE want that profitability here, not anywhere else!

And, surprisingly, “through these activities, for-profit textile recyclers create meaningful employment for tens of thousands of people who drive local economies and generate much-needed tax revenue across the United States…” meaning that we East Africans need to buy second hand clothing to keep some Americans in employment.

Mind you, US AGOA imports from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda totaled US$43m in 2016 (official US government numbers), while their exports to the three countries totaled US$281m in 2016…

But SMART says that second-hand underwear et al, “make vital contributions to environmental goals through the recycling of nearly four billion pounds of clothing and other textile waste that otherwise would go to a landfill each year…”, meaning that it should go to landfills HERE instead!

SMART expressed “significant concerns” about our ban because “EAC ministers claim that a ban was needed to boost their domestic textile industries” but it would have “a significant toll on the secondhand clothing industry in the United States…”

Nanti OUR domestic industry surely can’t be the focus when THEIR second-hand clothing business will suffer! Which reminds me – Kenya’s lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, mentioned at some point that the second hand clothing SMART exports is NOT manufactured in the United States…there is a possibility that WE make the clothing, send it there, and then they send it back!

SMART even complains about the need for a register of used clothing importers mbu “such a register will likely be used to intimidate any importer who dares to continue importing our goods”.

This from an organisation in a country where we all fill out forms to go visit…

And the arguments go on and on including the complaint that a ban “in order to protect and develop one’s own industry conflicts with the statutory requirement that AGOA beneficiaries work toward developing market-based economies…” The SMART guys need to study more economics….

…as well as some decency and common sense. SMART argued, before the Committee in the US listening to this, that we Africans were “supporting Chinese attempts to dominate” our market and “promoting cheap new clothing from China whose goods compete poorly with better quality used clothing from the US…” I mean…! – yet the same US imported new clothes from China worth US$27billion in 2017 alone. I mean…!

Mind you, in 2016 we are reported to have spent US$888million (about Ushs3TRILLION) importing textiles – new and old – from other countries.

That figure came out during one of the President’s speeches, where he was urging us to spend more of this money on our own textiles and clothing here in Uganda.

The SMART people don’t want that – only smart people do. Choose where you belong, as you go out to buy your next item of clothing. Are you going to be really smart OR that antithesis in capital letters?

how do you like your eggs – stupid or AGOA?

ON Monday morning most of the urban elite that crowd my visual space started their week off with the usual excitability around our national politics, while griping in passing about the rise in fuel prices and the strength of the United States dollar.
I picked up my copy of The New Vision with my mind on a story that I read a couple of weeks ago about a poultry incubator in Iganga that was lying idle and unused for inane reasons presented by adults of severely diminished intellect.
I gauged their intellect from the comments reported in that story – a cutout of which I have kept with me.
One farmer, for instance, said, “There is nothing we can do apart from abandoning it for now.” because the incubator, he said, could only work if it had 500 trays of eggs but “most birds that had been kept in the 23 chicken houses for purposes of supplying the hatchery, died…”
The “multi-million shilling” incubator was donated to the farmers in Iganga three years ago and has NEVER been used.
I went to google for the real cost of an Egg Incubator and found that a

Big Incubator
A Big Incubator – downloaded from some site Google sent me to

48-Egg incubator (forget that idea of 500 trays) costs between US$40-70!

And I even remembered something about poultry and incubators from my past – we used to MAKE OUR OWN INCUBATORS! They were fitted with lightbulbs and other ordinary things that were available even back in Obote II.Small Incubator
Can we get some youths to manufacture them so we address the unemployment issue, even as we convince Iganga farmers to use the bloody things?
I think so – but first, let’s run around politicking.
But then, on the day that story ran in the news and even the day after, there was not much of a hue and cry in my circles about how ridiculous this was.
Jump to this Monday morning where, on Page Two of my newspaper, I found a small article stating that the United States President had signed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) last week, renewing it for another ten (10) years!
The key changes to the Act are found here (, but the full text has not yet been released – not that any of you would read it if it were.
There is a long list of products – 6,000 in total – that countries in sub-Saharan Africa can send to the United States without quotas and tariff free under AGOA.
Uganda is one of 40 countries eligible for the AGOA benefits, and has been on the list from the start in October 2000. We even set up a factory and recruited people who actually made clothing (apparel) that made its way to the United States – and I saw some with my very own eyes in a store over there.
Today, though, as you drive past the Bugolobi factory where this project was established you will see samples of imported tiles positioned to indicate that they are being sold inside there somewhere.
Countries like Ghana get good mention as suppliers of apparel to the United States markets, while we don’t even make our yellow or blue campaign t-shirts here on the ground!
And the irony gets thicker when you consider that the United States dollar is now at its strongest worldwide, and we should therefore be doing our damnest to earn in THAT currency by exporting TO them.
But when did YOU last hear about AGOA, if you didn’t notice that little story on Page Two Monday? Have you seen any follow up story yet, or been invited by anyone hurriedly setting up a project to take advantage of the AGOA extension?
More importantly, though, egg and chicken products form part of the AGOA list, ladies and gentlemen, so…
…should we go to Iganga and retrieve that incubator so we use it to produce eggs that can be exported tariff free to the United States in exchange for that very strong dollar?
It is important that you look at this table: