WHEN you spend a few days sequestered with hundreds of people talking repeatedly about innovation, technology and education you tend to develop ideas along those lines.
My head was full of them as we emerged from a summit called ‘Innovation Africa’ and prepared to embark on Independence week. Because there was a weekend punctuation between the two, I was reclaimed by the children and eventually found myself inside bookshops that insist on selling toys.
I can understand the business imperative that makes them stock both products, so I have sympathised with them for years in spite of the irritation – I think it is unfair to distract these young ones with toys when we try to immerse them into a world of literary appreciation in order to stimulate their imaginative powers.
But there I was, trying to herd attention away from playing to reading, when I noticed one plaything priced at five million shillings (actually, it was Ushs4,999,000).
I was a little panicked because one of the children was paying more attention to this item than I was comfortable with – and if my bankers and a few other stakeholders had spotted us at that point I would have had to hold difficult conversations.
As I firmly drew her focus away from the thing, my mind was on one of the key statements people kept making at Innovation Africa – “But can’t you guys make this here (Uganda or Africa)?”
On closer inspection, the Ushs5million plaything was a creation of painted plastic or fibreglass, with a few lights here, buttons, and a motor that made it move to and fro.
I know a guy in Kampala who once did a fibreglass fabrication for me, and estimated the total cost here to be less than one million shillings. The lights and wiring involved couldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred thousand, and neither would the paint.
So I figure that if I got an artist and a technician together I could reap handsomely from toys – and the shop attendant confirmed to me that people buy these things, imported from China, quite frequently.
I looked around a bit more at hundreds of other items – all imported – including a little children’s bookshelf painted in lively colours and priced about eight times higher than a locally made one sold in most carpentries in Kampala.
The price of that bookshelf was even confusing because of the cheapness of the materials used to manufacture it – especially compared to the hardwood ones we make locally that are priced so low.
There was also a set of toys made of wooden blocks, each painted with numbers and letters and going for just over one hundred thousand shillings.
Believe it or not, every carpentry workshop in this country generates enough waste (paint inclusive) to be converted into such toys saleable at sensibly profitable amounts to a very willing foreign-toy-purchasing public.
Plus, if we start this with toys then we are doing it at a point where the next generation interacts quite closely, and the true meaning of independence will sink in better in their minds.
What do we need in order to do this?
Independence – and an understanding of the theme of Independence Day Celebrations this year: “Striving towards a prosperous people and Country: the meaning of true Independence.”
Prosperity and Independence – the two go hand in hand, if we strive at them, apparently. Importing toys from China enriches only a few of us here in Uganda, namely those who import those toys – but MANUFACTURING those toys here in Uganda will enrich many, and it IS easy.
As we made our escape from the toy bookshop, my daughter asked me the confounding question, “What is Independence?”