LISTENING to a podcast the other day I learnt that China has so much of everything that one point in recent history they had more billionaires (United States dollar terms) than the United States with 594 billionaires to America’s 535 billionaires in October last year.
This is not kaboozi relevant for us on its own, so don’t focus too closely on that point. Next, I learnt that the country with the most female billionaires was China – and since this was around Women’s Day I was intrigued and spent a bit more time on that.
Still, though, to focus on just that would be tantamount to gossip, so let’s move along quickly. One of those female billionaires, I learnt, is a lady called Zhou Qunfui.
She became the focus of my thoughts, and not just because her net worth is possibly US$8billion. She was born poor in 1970 and her partially blind single father made bamboo crafts and furniture to raise the family, while doing bicycle repairs. She herself, as a child, helped out by raising animals to earn more money for the family.
She dropped out of school at age 16 and became a migrant worker in Shenzhen, and ended up working in a factory to earn a living while studying accounting. Story fast forward, at age 22 her factory employer shut down and she decided to start her own company making watch lenses.
But while doing so, she noticed that the mobile phone industry was growing pretty fast and soon got into making mobile phone screens instead, creating a touch-screen company called Lens Technology, that started supplying all the big names.
In brief: she started off poor, worked hard, used her experiences to identify opportunities, then employed professionals to take advantage of a fast growing market, producing high-value affordable items that would be demanded in high numbers.
I am not suggesting that any of us here should start a touch screen factory just like that. China has about 1.4billion people, so their mobile phone population is massive enough to get someone to a value of US$8billion.
But Uganda has about 23million mobile phone subscribers (not mobile phones) and an estimated 8million of those use smartphones. But focus on the mobile phones in general.
There is a massive range of opportunities around these mobile phones that we are allowing to go to people elsewhere, and then sending our scarce Uganda shillings there as well.
Where Zhou Qunfui chose to focus on just the screen of the smartphone, we need to find a Ugandan or ten to pick one aspect of the mobile phones being used daily by these 23million subscribers and turn that into their success story.
Most of these mobile phone users, for instance, use phone covers to either protect their devices from dust, dirt or damage, or simply to beautify them. I know young people who have more than one phone cover – sometimes changing them with their outfits.
What is stopping someone from setting up a line of these accessories locally made, using our local materials and designed to fit these mobile phones? Where is our Zhou Qunfui to work out a way of turning so many materials into mobile phone covers – kitengi, barkcloth, light lugabire rubber, ensaansa, some brightly coloured batiks, and so on and so forth.
What about phone covers designed cleverly with the Uganda national colours or symbols like the Crested Crane, done in a manner we would proudly brandish? Or even phone covers designed for specific tribes or districts? I suspect that if some Ugandan Zhou Qunfui got in on this they would be quite successful.
What about other mobile phone accessories that could be churned out in vast numbers to take advantage of these 23million mobile phone subscribers? Mobile phone holders for use in the gym or while jogging? Mobile phone stands for use in propping up the phone so you can watch your videos easily at the coffee table (or, God forbid, office desk)?
Let’s just assume that of the 8million smartphones we have our local Zhou Qunfui could get 800,000 smartphones wrapped with her locally made Ugandan products – how much does each cost? The cheap imported plastic ones on the local market go for about Ushs30,000 (some cost thrice that!); that’s a Ushs2.4billion industry right there.
Continue the mathematics from there, Ugandan Zhou.
Having finished a particularly juicy mango some time in December I dilly dallied with the seed even after using my teeth to scrape off all the flesh.
This wasn’t the usual type of string-filled mangoes that agitate me into bursting through my toothpick and dental floss budget.
The mango I had gormandised was the old-school type we used to find everywhere from Kampala through Kyaggwe to Hoima when I was a child. That big variety that didn’t become soft to tell you it was ripe, but when you bit through the tough skin your teeth found the flesh to be hard yet very pleasantly sweet.
The nostalgic feeling it brought me made me hang on to the seed for a few hours, on a saucer at my window sill as I worked the computer (hands all washed). I kept glancing at it thinking about how much I would happily eat one every hour were it not for the sweetness overkill.
This particular mango had come, with a few others, from a visit to a loved one in Ntinda right here in Kampala. During our afternoon chat we noticed that the tree, which had stood there many years, had finally offered up a respectable number of fruits with almost no effort besides patience.
My replenishment plan would involve a few more visits, but that wouldn’t keep me in the endless supply of said mangoes that I craved at that point. Mulling over the problem a little longer, I realised that the drying seed on the saucer next to me was the solution right there.
I have planted many mango trees over the last couple of years, planning to establish a constant supply for my domestic consumption as well as some light commerce in years to come.
Our family consumes so many mangoes, in our small set of homes, that if one of us became a supplier then we would have a cheaper source and also run a mini operation wealth creation.
All those trees came from seedlings purchased at a fair sum but topped off with transportation costs then made bigger by the bulk I have to purchase each time.
The internet, always useful for such purposes, told me quite clearly how to convert my drying seed into a seedling – which my seedling suppliers will not be excited to learn. The internet, being mostly written in climates that are not as friendly and blessed as tropical Uganda, included bits in their processes that made me realise how many more trees I would have grown by now if I had started thinking properly much earlier.
I immediately made a resolution to convert as many fruit seeds as I encounter this year into seedlings with as little fuss as possible. At some point last year I discovered the Butternut Squash, a relative of the ordinary pumpkin, and contrived some recipes so bewitching that I started thinking about the Squash in my spare time.
The problem was that each one cost about Ushs5,000 in regular supermarkets. One day I put the seeds aside, after cutting a Squash open, and planted them one by one in small cups of soil. A couple of weeks later they had germinated and I am now trying to grow my own butternut squash in various places instead of spending Ushs5,000 each in a supermarket.
With the fruit project, it has been three months of regularly consuming avocadoes, mangoes and fenne (jackfruit), allowing the seeds to dry out, then planting them in small cans and bottles. I have been largely successful – more with the fenne and avocado than the mangoes, but successful all the same, to a notable extent. Even the chillis, onions and tomatoes have sprouted something.
While I wait for the experts to tell me how fruitful the seedlings will be when they grow, I recall that six years ago I devised a scheme that should have led me to this point much earlier were it not for an insufficient infusion of lugezi gezi amongst my domestic staff.
At that time, I established a garbage separation system so we could collect our organic waste and use it to create compost, while disposing of the plastic, paper and other waste through the garbage collection companies. It worked for only a short while, after which the people tasked with implementation couldn’t be bothered and the Manager (myself) lost focus on the trees because of the forest.
I am returning my focus to the trees henceforth, and resuming garbage separation as part of my mini operation wealth creation project.
My success shall be shown by my fruits, as the Good Book says in Matthew.
JUST before Janani Luwum Day I took a short Uber to my last meeting of the day and chose not to plug in my earphones. I do that, sometimes, to listen from somebody fresh and, in this case, certainly more interesting than most people in the meeting I had just been discharged from.
Public transport operators fit in this category just as bartenders in movies do, and my chap that evening did not disappoint. I can’t recall why he got to musing over who pays for our national holidays and celebrations, but he was quite disturbed.
He wasn’t too bothered by the loss of revenue facing him because of the public holiday, he said. His concern was that somewhere, somehow, the money he spends on taxes was not being utilised properly. Every time he tuned into the news and saw government officials making speeches, he said, in front of crowds under marquees and tents, he felt he was losing money.
He reeled off a few random days in his recent past that had him thinking this, including Tarehe Sita Day.
Besides, he pondered, was he really expected to go to Church the next day to celebrate the late Archbishop Janani Luwum?
I was impressed by his thought process and pleased that I hadn’t plugged those earphones in. We had a brief discussion in which I told him he should take charge of his affairs and deal with his concerns as a good citizen should.
Voicing these concerns was a good beginning. Next, he needed to go straight to the people who determine how his taxes get spent. Luckily I didn’t need to detail for him how he and I actually fund the government; he struck me as being a university graduate with some enterprise that allowed him to also drive an Uber.
Nevertheless, like most of us he didn’t know which government office paid for all these events – but I had a clue and explained the allocation ministry by ministry for the most obvious events. Then I advised him to occasionally visit websites like www.budget.go.ug to see in real-time where the government is spending money and how.
Then, I suggested, he needed to find his Member of Parliament and tell him what he – the tax-paying citizen driving the Uber by which the government collects from fuel, airtime and corporation taxes – preferred for the money to be spent on.
This was the perfect time to engage in that exercise, I explained, as the national budget for the next financial year was in the process of being finalised. The key was to get to his MP, which detail he wasn’t sure of to start with, prompting a little more discussion of elementary civics. (This subject should be taught right from nursery school in this country.)
By then we had arrived at my destination and I feared it would be too complex for me to go into the nitty gritty of the process without losing my shirt to Uber waiting fees, so I suggested he follow the first step and establish exactly who his Member of Parliament is through www.parliament.go.ug.
I was pleasantly surprised when he emailed me a week later (for real!) to say he had discovered his MP was Paul Kato Lubwama (Independent). I was also saddened that the exercise had come to a seemingly abrupt end because the gentleman’s email address was not listed. His phone number was, though, so I hope my Uber guy invested in the airtime necessary to follow his concerns through to some end and prove that the citizen’s duty was carried out.
Even if he did stop at failing to send an email, this time round, my Uber guy had learnt something new quite at random and worked at it to make a difference to his society and his country.
I’M scared of running a restaurant, coffee shop or eatery. I’m so scared that I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.
It’s been a dream of mine for a long, long time – owning a profitable enough eatery that I can live off it doing all the other stuff that I enjoy.
Sitting on the terrace at the Taste Budz of the Capital Shoppers City Mall in Ntinda and swatting away numerous houseflies settled it for me.
Even as I chose the location I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I needed somewhere to sit and wait till my next meeting nearby. I was quite certain I wouldn’t be enjoying any food here, so I planned to drink just a pot of spiced black tea with honey (I’m also cheap like that).
So I took up position, slapped open the Macbook Pro and watched the waiting staff watching me through the grimy window. It was a public holiday, and they were mostly chilling – some seated at a table chatting and texting while one of them folded up those little thin serviettes into triangles.
Three others were behind the counter chatting and moving things about for some reason that the person who invested money in this venture might not have included in the Staff Manual or books of accounts.
This is one reason I am afraid of owning such a business. I cannot imagine paying rent, electricity bills, internet costs (there is a paper glued to the window here that says ‘Free WiFi’), food costs, staff salaries and so on and so forth, then having just one customer sit at the tables at 1100hrs on a public holiday.
(In your mind, reader, change tense now because I am doing so here)
A minute in, a chap walks up to me slowly with a worn menu card and generally mumbles something as if unsure whether I am a customer or…(I don’t know what else I could be).
“Do you have black tea? Spiced?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, toying with the menu card.
“Please give me one black tea. Spiced.”
I know that the menu is not impressive but now that there is Free WiFi I feel it would only be fair for me to appear to be spending good money here.
So I ask for it.
He must be intelligent, because he appears surprised and tries to hand it to me but I pretend to be busy with the laptop and gesture to the table so he places it there.
Nothing to report, except that I check for my hand sanitiser and find comfort that it is present before I handle the menu card.
That’s another thing I’m scared of. I cannot imagine owning a restaurant and then getting told my menu cards are fake, with their laminated plastic covering and funny spellings. Then supposing these things are so expensive that restaurant owners can only change them once every twenty years or so? These might be things that non-restaurant owners don’t know and only discover after investing in the business. Then people start talking about your entire family because the menu cards at your restaurant are so old and sticky and worn and dirty and smelly.
I am also scared of being a restaurant owner getting sued for spreading some deadly disease by way of a bacteria infested menu card that I placed in the hands of a customer.
A few minutes later, I gesture to him and ask for the Free WiFi. He puts his hands together as if to rub off some of the bacteria from the menu card he had picked up and says, “I don’t know the code.”
He seems upset by this lack of knowledge – as would I be, if I were him.
“But it says there that you offer Free WiFi.”
“They don’t allow us to know the code.”
I look at him silently for a bit so that we can both spend some time thinking about this situation rather than brainstorming or arguing.
Eventually he figures out a solution.
“Let me call someone to give it to you.”
He returns with the black tea, presumably spiced, and sugar. All in those metallic contraptions that must be the cornerstone of some empire somewhere that convinced Ugandans that this is proper etiquette.
When did we start using these damn things and when will we realise we need to destroy them all? Why do those tea pots NEVER pour out tea properly? How come we all know this but still use them? What were the manufacturers thinking when they made them? Where are they made anyway? <— Five W’s and H. Tick.
“Please give me honey instead?”
“We don’t have honey,” the fellow says, and makes to leave.
“I don’t take sugar with my tea, so please get me honey,” I say with a firmness that normally works with the children and people who expect to be paid in exchange for goods and services. He was clearly neither of the above.
He looks at me as if I am being dense and decides to explain a little further, so as to clear out any doubts and confusion on my part.
“We normally get the honey from upstairs but it is closed. Those people haven’t come yet.”
My confusion deepens because whereas I am vaguely aware that there is an upstairs section to this Mall and perhaps even to this restaurant itself, I see no reason for this detail to be shared with me.
“Then I have to cancel the tea.”
He looks at the teapot, cup and sugar arrangement briefly, then at me. Then he leaves.
He turns back.
“Seriously – please get me honey instead of sugar, or take back the tea. And don’t take long because if it cools and you bring honey I still can’t drink it.”
He leaves and returns two minutes later with a fresh, non-uniformed employee. Not likely the Manager, but clearly higher up the ladder – maybe from upstairs?
She doesn’t have honey in her hands and comes right up to me before I realise that this is the custodian of the Free WiFi code (Taste110). At this point I enter into a moral dilemma – if they don’t bring me the honey I will send back the tea; will I still be entitled to the Free WiFi?
I debate for a few seconds then take the path of the Christian. She understands me quite well, exchanges a look with the waiter, then they walk off together for a few seconds.
She returns with a small piece of paper bearing the Free WiFi code (Taste110). The waiter follows closely behind her and removes the metallic tea pot, sugar bowl, and the cup and saucer.
I am scared of running a restaurant where they do that – spend my investment while not bothering much to get a return on it. I am scared of having employees who allow a customer to sit on the chairs, use the electricity and space, and EVEN the ‘Free WiFi’ without trying too hard to get some money out of his pocket.
These things really scare me. To think that I could be the owner of this place, which is about 200 metres away from the Capital Shopper’s Supermarket that sells honey at about Ushs5,000 a jar, yet have employees withdraw tea and sugar from a paying customer…
I fear to imagine being the owner of that restaurant – what did they do with the tea that had been brewed? How do they recover the cost of heating the pot of water involved?
The fears continue to rise as I log on and start typing out this lengthy review, and somebody else walks in, taking up a seat on the verandah. Within one minute a different waiter walks over in that slow, hesitant way we tend to use when employed in such jobs. He moves faster than my waiter, and seems more awake. They talk a little bit and a menu card is placed in the customer’s hands.
Eventually, the customer asks for a soda and hands over a Ushs50,000 note right away. I can’t be the restaurant owner who doesn’t get feedback from the staff about how people keep looking at the menu but they don’t order.
Or maybe it was just a slow morning with picky, stingy customers?
I still feel a little bad about using the ‘Free WiFi’ so I call this more sprightly looking waiter and ask for a bottle. He brings me my bottle – Dasani – and places it on the table.
I probably wouldn’t have used a glass if it had been placed on the table, but I feel a little slighted that none is offered.
Ripping the kaveera off the top of the bottle makes me gag as it is DEFINITELY SMELLING OF SOMETHING UNHYGIENIC!
I push it away and take another sniff and indeed, I feel like calling up the people at NEMA…or UNBS. A friend comes over to say hi and I ask him to smell the bottle. He is aghast. The waiter appears to notice, and comes over to check (marks given for that). I ask him to smell the bottle as well – “Nothing.”
“THAT smells okay to you?!”
I am at such a low point in my life that I can’t raise a tantrum, so I smile and bid my friend farewell.
And the waiter shocks me with: “I can get you another bottle if you want.”
Courtesy. Politeness. Attentiveness to the needs of a customer. Why is this surprising? Astonishing? Downright shocking?
I would hate to be a restaurant owner where my staff’s courtesy is a surprise. It’s hard being an entrepreneur sometimes…too many times. Especially in the food business – I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.
It’s annoying how much we complain……especially about our government.
I just watched a TED Talk this morning where the speaker said that the average age at which we achieve great things in the world is 35 years old. Now, I’m almost 40, and I have not yet achieved any great thing. That means that there’s someone under 30 who is going to achieve something great in his 20s for me to be able to maintain the average 35 years old. And that is assuming I achieve something great some time soon in my early 40s.
Anyhow, being almost 40, it also means that I am around the age where we are supposed to be in the thick of management of our country and driving development in our country. But instead of being one of the drivers of development, me and my generation spend a lot of time criticising government but without providing even…