KAMPALA – An elderly Japanese man who has dedicated nearly all his adult life to making men’s shirts remains active in the capital of Uganda.
Yuichi Kashiwada, 76, is the president of clothing maker Phoenix, which runs a factory of about 300 workers engaged in converting fibers into yarn, dyeing and sewing to produce men’s shirts, polo shirts and uniforms.
He works almost every day from morning until night, focusing all his attention on the workers once he steps into the factory.
“The production of a shirt is a demanding task,” Kashiwada said. “If there’s a difference of 0.5 mm in the process of making a shirt, the shirt loses its value as a product.”
Currently, clothes made in China are sweeping Africa, and Uganda is no exception. Realizing his company is no match for Chinese products in terms of price, Kashiwada has embraced organic cotton free of chemical fertilizers as the material to produce quality shirts to compete with made-in-China garments.
Kashiwada first came to Uganda in 1965 as the man in charge of a shirt factory and returned to Japan in 1984 after a joint-venture operation that managed the plant was nationalized. But in 2000 he made a successful bid for the factory, which had been put up for auction by the government.
Born in Osaka in 1931, he joined Yamato Shirts, predecessor of the present Yamato International, in 1957. The firm was founded by the late Tomoji Hannya, from whom he said he learned everything about business, people skills and hard work.
Uganda was a British protectorate until it gained its independence in 1962. The Kampala government proposed the establishment of a joint venture to Yamato and they founded clothing maker Ugil in 1964. Yamato dispatched Kashiwada to Uganda in 1965.
He initially struggled to improve the factory’s efficiency as local workers were accustomed to a carefree life. For example, some would fail to report to work on rainy days. He yelled at them to come to work on time, only to meet strong resistance from those who felt humiliated for having been shouted at.
Changing tack, Kashiwada apologized to them at the end of work one day and shook their hands. Gradually, everyone became punctual and the factory’s performance improved. The number of employees rose from 150 to 1,000 several years after his arrival.
But the political situation in Uganda was unstable during this period. Idi Amin overthrew the civilian government in a military coup in 1971 and ruled until the Uganda National Liberation Front drove him out of power in 1979.
Uganda was in chaos during this period. When Kashiwada returned from Nairobi, where he had sought refuge, he found his factory in ruins.
“I thought I would have to totally give up,” he said. He called on the finance minister at the time and received a promise of government funding if he stayed on.
He found out that neighbors had protected his house while he was away.
He reopened his factory but it was subsequently nationalized. He returned to Japan in 1984 and the plant was forced to cease operation in 1993.
However, in 1999, Ugandan President Yuweri Museveni spent six hours with Kashiwada and persuaded him to come back to the factory.
In 2000, he regained the factory by purchasing it at auction for $500,000. He used his own money to take on a renewed challenge just before he turned 70. He named his company Phoenix.
What is most important, he said, is educating employees. He tells them to strictly adhere to the work hours and keep things at the factory tidy and in order.
He refuses to let those coming even a minute after 8 a.m. to enter the factory and deducts pay for a day’s work from their salary.
He said he is going to stay active for the rest of his life.
His company started exporting T-shirts made of organic cotton grown in Uganda to Europe and the United States last year. About 150,000 T-shirts on average are shipped every month, with sales totaling $200,000.
Organic cotton clothes are becoming popular in Europe and the United States as products that are comfortable to wear and friendly to the environment.