BACK in our primary school days, those of us in urban areas were constantly told to pack a sweater, carry an umbrella, wear gumboots, and often heard proverbs such as, “a stitch in time saves nine” and the Boy Scouts motto, “Be Prepared”.
Last year, on March 15, the date of this year’s national election in Kenya was announced. (It’s obvious where we are headed, eh?).
This gave us, Ugandans, one full year’s notice to prepare for all eventualities from elections over at the neighbour’s.
The last time they held elections – more than five years ago – violence and chaos broke out with effects that spilled over the border and disrupted our lives.
I worked with a multinational corporate organisation then, and needed to get our product exported to international customers on time through Mombasa.
We were jittery then because we had seen operations whittled down for various reasons, including two years in which the Jinja highway to the border was muddy and chaotic because a road construction firm had stopped work midway.
Plus, unstable logistics support from different companies that refused to do simple things such as keep time, update you when things weren’t going to work, or reply requests for information to help you plan.
We were in a bad place, then the Kenyans took up machetes for reasons other than preparing nyama choma!
With many others, traders and exporters alike, we lobbied high and low to establish an alternative route, railway lines, ferries, and roads to Dar es Salaam. We sent teams driving down to calculate what it would cost us to switch from Mombasa to Dar for export, which trip took so long we even forgot about them at one point.
But wait – ‘Applause, Applause!’ – two weeks ago, the governments of Uganda and Tanzania announced that they had reached a deal to take our (Ugandan) goods through Dar es Salaam.
This short term fix is just what we needed at the end of a five-year window during which a long-term, high benefit solution could have been found.
What else are we doing about this, as Uganda? The CEO Magazine, a small but interesting publication, addressed this issue in April last year, gathering views from various players and declaring us to be hopeless.
The only piece of good news was the upgrade of the Kampala-Dar es Salaam Route, bringing down transit times from 29 days to four (4) days only – but only 5% of our outbound cargo goes through there!
I went to Google to find more and on the home page of the Uganda Export Promotion Board – www.ugandaexportsonline.com found a story uploaded on 1st December 2011, as well as, on the list of events for this month: ‘Fruit Logistica – Berlin 2011’.
Still, I called them up (no answer) then emailed them (still waiting). Then I turned to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives website, www.mtic.go.ug, which greeted me with: “Attention!! (in red text): Comesa Summit 2012 kicks off – Friday, 16 November, 2012…”
I didn’t despair, and called their landline which was answered pleasantly on the second ring with, “Tourism, Trade and Industry…”. That made me glance at the website again to confirm that there, it was named ‘Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives…’
Not one to quibble, I addressed a polite gentleman over the Ministry’s plans ‘just in case’. He even more politely asked me to ask the Permanent Secretary (PS), the only official authorized to speak for the ministry.
Thanking him, I sought clarification as to whether a trader would also have to speak with the PS, and was happy to hear that, “…any one of us can help a trader with whatever information they want.”
But the PS was on leave, and though I enjoyed the pleasant politeness of all the phone handlers, nothing of great importance ensued.
I could have called the Private Sector Foundation, Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Uganda Investment Authority and other abbreviations but the exercise was fraught with a sense of doom.
Like seeing the sky turn dark with signs of an impending storm and then walking down a Kampala street trying to check if anyone has an umbrella or raincoat inside their cars.