spice up your life & the economy

One morning this week I arrived early at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel and decided to walk through the lower gate opposite Speke Hotel, just to test their system.

A pleasant faced askari readily unlocked the gate, checked my bag and let me through with a little banter and I wished him a nice day – but only verbally where he probably hoped for more.

I climbed up the staircase with that early morning vim and vigour of a man addressing a mountain trusting in the presence of a large prize at the top – in this case, my first fruitful meeting of the day punctuated by a good hotel breakfast.

A few metres into the climb I stopped, breathless; not because of what you would suspect if you saw my numbers on a weighing scale, but because of the sight that caught my eyes just then.


That staircase has been in existence probably from before my childhood and has always had a strip of garden running down its middle. I can recall the sight of some of the flowers in that garden from way back then

I have taken more to gardening these days for a number of reasons, and last year had a very disappointing experience with a packet of marigolds that sprouted massive stalks that bore absolutely no flowers.

Here, in that Sheraton strip, I saw a bunch of healthy marigolds and wistfully touched one for a few seconds when I realised what was before me and that’s when my breath caught in my throat.

Next to the marigolds were a couple of fennel stalks, and some lettuce, and coriander, and a type of cabbage, and above that some mint…

I was a little confused yet felt a tingle of excitement; some time in December I stayed over at a vineyard in South Africa where they had a spice garden that looked exactly like this! And I spent a couple of evenings there breathing in the air and inspiration to work harder at my own.

And now here I found that my own Sheraton Kampala had implemented the very same! On closer inspection, I noticed that some of the spices and vegetables had been snipped the way my own at home are because I frequently pick bits for use in the kitchen.

As usual, my thoughts were on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook within minutes, and some people declared that this had been going on for a year and was the pet project of the hotel chef (not the despicable fellow of the Matooke Revolution of a while back!)

I doubt that the hotel’s entire spice and vegetable supply comes from this very garden but if it did then how revolutionary that would be! You see, in Uganda we can grow almost anything anywhere, but spend a lot of time whining all over this fertile soil.
Three weeks ago as I drove through Eastern Uganda in the blazing heat and dust I kept noticing a strain of a plant we call omujaaja (a type of mint) all through Busoga, Butaleja, Mbale, Kapchorwa, Soroti and further. It took me a day to pluck up the courage to throw some leaves into a flask in my hotel and it WAS omujaaja or similar! In Soroti they call it emopim and everyone I asked found it quite unimportant.
From the images on the internet and descriptions, this emopim is most probably a variety that is commonly called Catnip, one of six hundred (600) varieties of mint out there.
Catnip in North America
“Aaah! Even the goats don’t like it!” declared one chapI asked on the ground.

I was flummoxed, and could not even begin to explain how there was wealth amid all that dust, considering that simple internet searches put 250grammes of Mint Tea at close to US$20!

Minutes after his goats and emopim comment, the same fellow lamented to me about how hard his life was, and I couldn’t blame him because obviously nobody was telling him about the value of herbs and spices.

Ironically, countries in the harshest climates of the globe grow the bulk of the world’s spices – India, Bangladesh, Turkey and China are top of the list – yet we can do much, much, much better with our soils using little pieces of land.
One research paper I checked put the global spice and seasonings market at US$12billion last year and reckons it will grow to US$16.6billion by 2019!
And even here, in all the urban centres of Kampala, the price of herbs, spices and vegetables is quite dear…yet a lot of them are STILL imported from other lands.
What are we doing?
Whining while standing on top of this soil.
Seriously, unlike the lamentations put forward to me by some young (they claimed) chaps this week, we don’t need to each own massive tracts of land in order to engage in gainful agriculture. Of course it is always better to go large scale and fully commercial, but even a chap in an apartment could cultivate enough herbs and spices in buckets on his verandah to make a nice little income supplying a couple of restaurants.
I’ve started my own experiment at home and strongly believe we won’t be buying coriander after a couple of months. And I will take the savings from that and pile them up to replace another plant…like that, like that as I spice up my life!

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