Custodians of integrity

I was the guest speaker at ICSA’s London graduation and membership ceremony on 29 May and it was a great pleasure to be part of such a happy occasion. Not only did it give me a chance to congratulate in person those who have joined or advanced in the profession, including my fellow Africans who had travelled from as far afield as Zambia and Malawi, it also afforded me the opportunity to look back over my own career and reflect on how much the ICSA qualification has helped me.

I graduated in 1984 having completed the ICSA qualification at the London School of Accountancy. When I was invited to speak at this year’s graduation I took a few minutes to reflect on what I have accomplished since that time and asked myself three questions:

  • Am I satisfied today that I acquired enough knowledge and skills by choosing to study ICSA instead of any other course?
  • Is what I learned still relevant today 30 years on?
  • Do I have any regrets?

My answer to question 1.. a resounding ‘Yes’. I am absolutely satisfied that the best thing I did was to gain the ICSA qualification. Not only did it give me the knowledge and skills I needed, it also gave me the tools of trade that helped me make more of the right decisions along the way. When you go out into the real world it helps to have the right tools.

I was born into a reasonably well-off family five, with house help on call, drivers and many privileges that I took for granted. We owned property, farms, buses and cars. We had a house in Uganda and one in Kenya, where we lived for a while.

This life changed when I was 13. We had returned to Uganda, where my dad was brutally murdered by the Idi Amin regime – for no reason. I was shattered, devastated and shocked beyond words. Not only were we robbed of a father and bread winner, everything material we had was taken away overnight. We walked out of the door with just the clothes on our backs. Riches to rags doesn’t begin to describe what we went through.

About a year later we got together as family again in Kampala. My mother had prepared a high tea for the reunion, but tea with no sugar for the first time. On tasting the tea, my youngest brother started crying for daddy to come back for things were now getting really hard. That was the turning point in my life. My mother too began crying hysterically and asking the almighty Lord to take us all. I decided that very minute that I had to go to Nairobi, Kenya on the overnight bus in search of some sugar.

Living without a front door that actually locks, or not having a bathroom door, is a loss of dignity. I realised I had to restore our dignity and family’s self esteem. I filled a suitcase with sugar that I managed to raise from family and friends. When I got back I was severely ticked off by my mother who hadn’t known where I was, but the neighbours heard that we had sugar, so we kept some and sold the rest... and that's how I got started in business.

Jobs are hugely important to society. They allow people to feel useful and build their confidence. Jobs make people productive members of the community. They also make people feel they are worthy citizens. We need young people who have creative ideas or solutions to problems to grab the opportunity, take a risk and set aside or forego the comforts of today to set up businesses that will provide jobs and profit tomorrow.

ICSA gave me a good understanding of the general principles of English law, the all-important basics of financial accounting, business ethics, a clear understanding of company law, marketing skills, risk management and a better command of the English language especially for business. It also improved my understanding of psychology and of human resources. I was almost complete at graduation and felt that all I was lacking was experience. I now have plenty of that too. Hard-earned experience.

Is what I learned still relevant today, 30 years on?

‘Yes’. If anything it is more relevant to organisations today – both public and private – than ever before. The standards and importance of good corporate governance have been raised considerably, especially after the infamous ENRON scandal that brought the reputation of big accounting names into disrepute. Then the recent global financial crisis that has had such a huge impact on us all and sent economies into a tail-spin.

Governance in small and medium enterprises is increasingly important to their very survival and success. Typically hundreds of small business open up every year but the attrition rate is extremely high. Research has shown that an absence of good governance and a lack of the right skills causes more to fail than the lack of capital. Good governance plays a central role in our everyday lives, making the role of ICSA even more consequential.

Do I have any regrets?

Would I have been happier if I had focused just on law and become a lawyer or just on accounting and been an accountant? Or should I have done a degree and an MBA? Absolutely not. I have no regrets. I have never been in a meeting and found myself wanting for knowledge or feeling uncomfortable. I started a business in telecommunications and am now the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Umeme, a power distributor, and among the largest listed companies in Uganda. ICSA is such an empowering and diverse course that it enabled me to develop the confidence to be able to talk about such a wide range of issues.

My message to graduates and members is simple. Be custodians of integrity and transparency in all your dealings. It is not enough to do what's within the law, you have to raise the bar on yourself and others to always do the right thing, legally and morally.

Dr Patrick Bitature is a renowned entrepreneur and Founder, Chairman and CEO of The Simba Group, a conglomerate spanning the telecoms, property, tourism, electronics, power, mining, agro-business and media industries. He was the guest speaker at this year’s graduation and membership ceremony in London

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