wanted: the Ugandan entrepreneur

I hate this hot weather, even though it hits me every year and I should be accustomed to it. Nobody is helping to make it more bearable – not even people who could be making some money and improving the entire damn country while they’re at it.

Where, for example, are the soda, juice and water companies in all this heat? It is amazing to NOT see them setting up vendors with coolers and ice packs on every street corner. Meanwhile, the fellows who sell sunglasses mid-traffic are taking a break from the sun themselves; and there is absolutely no single discount to be seen on fans or air-conditioners anywhere.

All this struck me one evening last week when my three-year old stripped naked and rejected all offers of nightclothes. I realised we had to go out and buy her much lighter clothing for the season and did so – but only after spending hours searching for appropriately light clothing, because apparently shop owners in Kampala are totally unaware of this annual heat phenomenon.

They know Christmas and ‘Back to School’ but the hot sunny period in between has escaped their attention for the last ten years, yet in 2003, Uganda was named ‘the most entrepreneurial country in the world’. At that time, I suspected that the authors had counted the number of hair salons, airtime kiosks, clothes shops and bufunda in Kampala, divided those among the number of Ugandans as per the last census and viola!

In 2010, the same surveyors released another report, titled “The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor: GEM Uganda 2010”; a 64-page survey led by none other than Waswa Balunywa, Principal of the Makerere University Business School (MUBS), and fore worded by Denmark’s Ambassador to Uganda then, Nathalia Feinberg.

We had dropped to sixth position out of 59 countries surveyed.

It appeared that this Ugandan entrepreneurship was a true story.

The report even distinguished between entrepreneurship motivated by necessity from that motivated by opportunity, and said other things.

But in this heat, I am unconvinced – and the report didn’t help by forgetting to define “entrepreneurship” at any point, which debate could be lengthy, but my side demands that innovation be factored in.

I’m mostly positive thinking but I’ve never understood the foolishness in planning business areas in my part of the world. Anyone who’s played Monopoly notices quickly how the board forms a pattern of logic – properties grouped in estates, four stations equidistant from each other, utilities apart and a fair distance from each other, and Tax, ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ points wisely positioned.

In Uganda, every business street in any town is hotchpotch (aka katogo – a potential entrepreneurial opportunity that few have hit upon thus far). Women array themselves in vegetable markets next to one another selling entula, matooke, avocado and whatnot at the same general prices, with the same level of sombreness, and none ever attempting to look prettier than the next or smile you into buying theirs rather than their competition’s.

As if Biblically, wherever two or three hair salons are opened up on any street, there also will be a third, fourth and fifth. I know a road in Makindye with seven hair salons side-by-side, each with a couple of women weaving hair, a drying machine (maybe just a towel), and a barber cutting men’s hair. None is ever busy. Each of them also sells airtime, drinks and a couple have added biscuits, dry cells and whatnot.

‘Take-away food’ is generally ‘Take-away food’ as if the menu – the recipe for the food as well as that laminated grimy card listing the food names – were issued by a strangely efficient government department.

All these are NOT entrepreneurs.

Call me an ‘entrepreneur’ and I feel innovative, like I could create a solution to a problem and along the way earn money from it for thirty years from many people I don’t know but who will be grateful and say my name in awe – Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/James Mulwana.

The reality of course has me pausing for breath every time I see announcements by banks, bailiffs and the Uganda Revenue Authority, so I maintain a cosy social relationship with many people along my business financial chain.

Most of us are mere businessmen and traders, not entrepreneurs. In the GEM report there’s a photo of two women with baskets of bogoya on their heads walking past the KCCA (Kampala Capital City Authority) offices. Entrepreneurship? Lol!

The entrepreneur is the person who chops up the bogoya, mixes in more fruits, pops them into a fridge at 0500hrs and then turns up at my desk with a price tag of Ushs1,000 when the sun is overhead blinding me as I desperately count out the notes for three packs, and make small talk to ensure he returns the next day without fail!

The entrepreneur is the fellow who gets soda, juice and water companies to provide coolers on every street corner for the months of January and February, with a sign reading, ‘Cooling Stage – sponsored by KCCA’ overhead, and paying Ushs50 to KCCA from every drink sold, and a guarantee that from March to August he will place garbage cans at that spot and label it, ‘Cleaning Stage – powered by KCCA’ for a small fee of Ushs50 per kilogramme of garbage collected there.

Entrepreneurs? Nobody has even opened up a second ice plant besides the one in Luzira. Air Conditioning should be running bigger promotions right now than banks selling unsecured loans…or banks should be selling loans to buy air conditioning units.

Even when the heat caused people to assume a coup was imminent in Uganda, no creative thought ensued. Any insurance companies offering to cover you in case of looting? Airline companies offering tickets to exile? Real estate companies selling land far away from Kampala? Zero.

It’s in the heat of the moment that you identify entrepreneurs. And the field is as dry as a desert.

2 thoughts on “wanted: the Ugandan entrepreneur

  1. The other day i went to Jesa Depot, and found 1 shop selling batteries, plastics and all that was left to show for it was a double door display fridge – that’s all the representation of Jesa Dairy Products in Kampala. None in Nakawa, Bugos, or the entire Ggaba Road! Close at 5 promptly, and half day on Saturdays – Fresh Dairy on the other hand…? Real Ugandan Entreprenuers!


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