Uganda's oil boss feels privileged to be here right now

Saturday February 17 2018

Dr Josephine Wapakabulo

Dr Josephine Wapakabulo out walking with her nephew and niece. PHOTOS | COURTESY 

By CHARLES M. MPAGI
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Dr Josephine Kasalamwa Wapakabulo, 42, is the founding chief executive officer of the Uganda National Oil Company, a first in the continent’s oil industry. The engineer has a PhD in information technology.

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What is your off duty passion?

Travelling, although I don’t get to do it as often as I would want because of my busy schedule. However, I have seven nieces and nephews who keep me busy either driving them to Mbale to see their grandmother or to play tennis.

What would you have been if you had not become who you are today?

A medical doctor. That was my childhood dream and growing up I had toy medical sets and played doctor but I was not very good in chemistry in school and I was afraid of blood. So engineering was a natural second choice.

What signifies your personal style?

Comfort, professional and classic. So simple suits, dresses and items that are easy to wear and allow for quick movement are what I go for because my job is unpredictable.

While in East Africa, where are you most likely to spend your Saturday afternoon?

In my rural home in Mafudu, Mbale (now Sironko district). As a matter of fact, I was there this past Saturday. I love spending time there relaxing on a mat under this big tree in our compound. My late father loved it. I read a book and listen to some of my favourite music. I love Beethoven, just like my father did, in fact Beethoven was his favourite composer.

Do you have a must visit list?

Yes I do. I would like to see more of West Africa. So far I have only been to Gabon but Ghana and Nigeria are on my list since they present an opportunity for me to mix work and pleasure being oil producing countries. I was born in Arusha and I have Mt Kilimanjaro on my to do list since I have climbed Mt Elgon which is in my home area.

What, in your view, is East Africa’s greatest strength?

The people. We have a sense of unity even with our differences. Second, East Africa is unique in that it has the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater (the home of the Olduvai Gorge, site of the oldest human fossils), the River Nile and Mount Kilimanjaro, four of the seven natural wonders of Africa.

What is your best collection?

Music. I listen to all kinds of music but I love my African collection from Mbilia Bel, Pepe Kale, Madilu system to Brenda Fassie. Some of it was influenced by my parents who exposed me to ‘classic’ African music.

What is the most thoughtful gift you have received?

On my 21st birthday, my best friends threw me a surprise party. It was beyond a gift, it was such a special moment.

What is the best gift you have given?

When I completed my PhD studies, my thesis was published as a book, you can still get it on Amazon, so when I got the first hard copy I signed it and gave it to my mother to thank her for all that she had done for me. She still has the book.

What big book have you read recently?

I am reading Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. I was intrigued by all the headlines and I wanted to understand. I haven’t finished reading it and although it is based on a personal account I think it is interesting.

Which is your favourite website?

With a background in information technology, I am a natural information junkie. There are at least 10 websites that I read every morning and it would be hard to pick one as a favourite. My friends and family tease me about it because I love gathering information.

Why do you find oil and gas exciting?

It is a big thing in East Africa, being an exploration frontier. That I get to play a part in all this as the chief executive of Uganda’s National Oil Company is really exciting. Already the sector allows players in the region to work more closely. I feel privileged to be here right now.

What challenges have you encountered in your work?

Balancing my personal and professional life. There is a lot to do at UNOC, and at one time I was the only employee but now we are expanding and I have a great team and board.  

What is your greatest professional achievement to date?

This job. I was told recently at a conference that I am the first founding woman CEO of a national oil company on the continent.

Who influenced you the most in your professional life?

Obviously my parents, but my maternal grandfather and uncles did too being mathematics and science-oriented scholars. I have two mentors: Irene Muloni, the minister for Energy and Mineral Development, who encouraged me to pursue sciences while still in secondary school.

The other is Adam Parr, the former CEO and chairman of Williams Formula One. He was very instrumental in me moving from a young engineer to the executive level.

What would you tell a young person seeking a career in engineering or information technology?

What I have told many others already. That there are two ways to achieve success in this field. You could take a degree path or a vocational skill that is relevant to the sector. Both are really needed in the sector. We need graduates but we also need technically skilled artisans.

How do you unwind after a day’s work?

I go to the gym twice a day.

At 5:30am and at the end of the day. This is followed by a cup of coffee, Uganda Arabica coffee from Mbale. I must emphasise, coffee from Mbale.

What does not miss in your fridge?

Yogurt. It’s usually my breakfast because it is quick and can be mixed with various things.