finding opportunity in ebyangwe (loofahs, for the non-Ugandans) without having to bathe

finding opportunity in ebyangwe (loofahs, for the non-Ugandans) without having to bathe

Ebyangwe (Loofahs) in real, vivid colour. (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

On the dashboard of my regular vehicle is a bathing sponge – the type I was raised on, made out of the cucumber-type plant that back in the day was staple in most of our homes.

It’s called a Loofah (Luffa) and originates from somewhere in Asia – in fact, the original name for it is Arabic – ‘luf’. But in Uganda we call it ‘Ekyangwe‘.

The one in my car will join about eight others placed in various spots round my home. I don’t actually use them – the details around which will be best kept private – but started gathering them up recently because of an interesting twist to a trend Kampala dwellers should have certainly noticed by now.

At various roundabouts, road junctions and traffic-heavy spots there are groups of little children vending these loofahs in categories. Some of them (the loofahs, not the roadside children) are as bare as the one in my car, but others have a cloth piping round the edges to make them look nicer.

These children, in the beginning, appeared to be urchins begging for change. But someone somewhere hit upon this interesting idea of conscripting them into a sales team. When I first started noticing them and declined to make the purchase I was being enticed to, they tended to ask for some bottled Rwenzori Water or, in rare cases, money to buy a snack.

But one day my wife and I were taken aback when two of these children, little girls, handed us two loofahs and insisted that we take them both free of charge. I couldn’t understand how this would work in their favour, and quizzed them briefly.

“So that next time when you come you will buy,” said one little girl.

It was nonplussing, should the word exist. Did these little girls have a marketing budget that provided for free sampling? By the way, how come they are so many in number? And they all appear to be the same size and age…?

Actually, wait! This appears to be a rather lucrative and well-organised industry going on here right before our very eyes! Whoever is behind the business is so orderly that they have recruited a sales force, trained them, probably put them in some sort of uniform, and deployed them strategically at points of vantage.

The one problem, besides the possible lack of the relevant licensing for this trade to continue uninterrupted, is the use of children in situations that put them at risk.

The people behind this Loofah trade, though, are more sophisticated than many other businesses I know that have not gone so far as to open branches anywhere!

But that’s not all that this clever entrepreneur, or even one better than them, could do.

It is a very easy plant to cultivate, so making excuses about it not growing would be difficult. The internet presents a myriad of recipes from almost every country in Asia, that involve this plant – including its young fruit, its rind and all!

Besides food it also gets to be used as medicine for a long list of ailments (administered carefully).

Back when we were little children every home in our neighbourhood had one of these vines climbing up trees and little homestead buildings so I imagine we would be at middle income status by now if we had continued this practice with focus.

The first use of the ‘ekyangwe‘ we all know as the Bath sponge, though some of us also used bits to wash dishes through the 80s and 90s, before the imported scrubbers became normal.

In Paraguay, however, they make furniture and house construction materials out of the loofah by combining it with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic – a point I am going to raise with my colleagues at Coca-Cola who do plastic waste recycling.

In Japan it is grown over buildings to shield windows from harsh sunshine, while many other countries use it as a decorative creeper the way we did when my grandmother was still alive, complete with those bright yellow flowers.

In the United States it is also used as a bath sponge.

Note that the ones that the little children sell by Kampala street-sides go for Ushs1,000-2,000 each if they don’t have a piped border, and Ushs2,000-2,500 with the piping. The ones in the US go for US$10 a piece…

The Kampala roadside children don’t have internet access to establish that last fact alone and establish contact with the people who could buy their sponges and put them on Amazon – but YOU do.

Even if you can’t work out how to turn ‘ekyangwe‘ into food or furniture, lazima you can go down to those children and buy up their stock, liberate them from the street, then make a very neat profit selling them on Amazon!

Opportunity is spelt ‘Ekyangwe‘.

a random weekend episode with a wheel spanner in Hoima


Wheel Nut

IF you’re having a mildly bad time on any given day, call my Dad to give you a recount of any ordinary episode in his life upcountry.

Like his Saturday a couple of weekends ago, in Hoima, when he set off for an extremely important family event (we should all have been there but life being what it is, we were not) and had ordered life to ensure respectability all through.

The event was slated to begin at 1000hrs so he was in Hoima town by 0930hrs, but stopped to top up his fuel tank at the biggest fuel station there – a prudent move because the truck he was driving had been in a garage for many months and this was its maiden trip on discharge. As such, a few things were not working fine, including the fuel gauge.

Being a strict Accountant, and even more old school than myself, he kept count of the litres therein and calculated the mileage (not kilometres) mentally all the way but tended to avoid taking unnecessary risks.

As the fueling process came to an end, a fellow nearby pointed out that a tyre needed changing.

He was right.

Changing a tyre, for a man of my father’s age, experience, and intelligence, would take just a few minutes. He taught me how to do this at an early age, hence my predilection for Land Rovers over snazzy, shiny cars, even though there are Landys that fit that bill.

“Fair enough,” said the old man, suspecting correctly that the months of garage admission had probably stripped the car of essential tools.

Confirming that the unauthorised property allocation had taken place, he asked the garage fellows to oblige.

They readily agreed and shortly thereafter another fellow approached the car with the attitude of someone providing the relevant tools.

In one hand he held a car jack, the type that we used to have many years ago and still exists quite obviously in many places here. In the other hand – nothing.

“Good,” said the old man, even throwing in a “Thank you” with a wry smile while asking for the rest of the kit.

“We don’t have other things,” they said.

At this point, we can only imagine the looks being exchanged in silence all round thereafter.

I have no idea what the fellows at the fuel station look like so I can’t work out how sheepish they appeared but I know full well what my father’s facial expression was right there and then – running from irritation through incredulous and to that one where he was straining not to slap someone.

Surely, at a fuel station such as this in the major town of an oil-producing region in a country on the brink of middle-income status, this couldn’t be happening in 2018?!

It was.

Not all was lost, however; as one shamefaced fellow suggested that the old man go over to another fuel station within the town that might likely have the requisite tools.

Time check: 1000hrs.

He was late for his event.

Either way, at this point he needed to actually fix this tyre situation otherwise he would be doing this all over again in the evening at an even more remote point.

He drove over at a respectable speed and presented his problem to a fresh set of fellows at the second fuel station. They understood it well.

One fellow shuttled off and returned a couple of minutes later with a wheel spanner.

The old man took it up happily and reached out for the other pieces of the puzzle. He was not ready for the consistency of the second hand offering – nothing.

He asked where the rest of the tools required for this operation were.

“Haaa…” replied the fellow.

If you don’t know that ‘Haaa’, I’ll try to make it clear: This is where a guy says, “Ha” and keeps the “aaa” part going a bit longer while tilting his head a little bit and keeping his mouth open for a bit longer yet.

In English, it means: “I’m afraid I am speechless at your request and cannot express how screwed you are, at this point in time.”

My old man, holding up the wheel spanner, insisted on the full version. Because he is not aware of candid camera television, he had no false hopes that the comedy would end soon. And his age bracket cannot spontaneously shout out appropriate phrases like: “WTF?!?!”

The wretched fuel station fellow, nevertheless, explained that whereas they had the tool as presented, they were not in possession of a car jack to raise the motor vehicle and allow things to flow smoothly as they should.

On one side, a rather stern non-plussed look was aimed at the fellow wielding a wheel spanner. On the other side, the fellow sent back an innocent look of earnest bewilderment over the vehemence in the face of helpfulness.

A painful exchange ensued, kept barely civil by the 70 years’ experience of similarly frustrating comedy that my old man has accumulated.

Eventually, another chap with more authority showed up and said he had a solution but that it was available from a mechanic based elsewhere but quite close.

“How long will this take?” my old man asked, skeptically.

“He will be here soon…”

My old man protested the ‘soon’, but the chaps insisted it was genuine and that they believed the word to mean “in a short time to come”.

Unconvinced, the old man proposed that he take their tool over to the first fuel station where he was certain there was another piece that would provide a solution to the problem. They did not know the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or any variant of it involving an unidentified mechanic possibly being ‘nearby’ at an undisclosed location.

They counter-insisted that their unidentified mechanic friend at the undisclosed location ‘nearby’ would be there within the indeterminate period of time they defined as ‘soon’ and even offered the old man a seat.

“But how long is this ‘soon’?” he asked, weakening and losing that small but significant battle.

“Ten minutes,” they said, with that confidence that you normally recognise after about ten minutes to be basic bollocks. Basic bollocks designed to shut you up.

It worked.

He took his seat and, in that warm, slow-moving heat, he leaned back.

Big mistake. He woke up thirty five minutes later with a jolt – probably dreaming about tyre-changing tools in the after-life complaining about being separated so illogically.

The rest of the fuel station operations were running as normal in full swing, without the tool he required and any care for his problem and presence.

Aghast, he quickly tracked down the fellow with the wheel spanner he required, and the one who had promised an unidentified mechanic was on his way with a jack.

“Haaa…”

Patience was of paramount importance here.

“The man hasn’t come. It seems he doesn’t have one,” said the chaps, with confidence.

The old man’s temperature rose, not because of the climate around him.

“Enough!” he declared, “I am taking this spanner with me to the other fuel station. I will bring it back when I am done!”

Their ability to resist had been greatly diminished but they stated their reluctance for the record, from a safe distance, and waved him on.

He sped over to the first fuel station, and impressed them with his possession of the part they didn’t have but that was essential for use with the one that they DID possess.

Eager to be done with the entertainment, he supervised the work closely. Ten minutes in, they still hadn’t managed to make a single wheel nut budge.

My old man realised that the pneumatic wheel spanner at the City Tyres bay in Kampala had tightened the nuts so much so that the raw strength and enthusiasm of these particular Banyoro offered little hope.

But they were optimistic, as usual, and called upon their ancestral strength, ingenuity, and experience. You may know that the practice, in such cases, is for the person faced with tight nuts to take up a thick metallic pipe and introduce it into the equation for greater leverage.

They did so, making the wheel spanner set longer and allowing for the solution as follows: rather than using the arm and shoulder muscles to move the wheel nuts the men took to the task by jumping up and down onto the end of the pipe inserted into the wheel spanner.

Twice.

Then the wheel spanner snapped.
Snap

Into two pieces.

The fellow who had been hopping up and down onto the pipe fell to the ground, a short distance away from the piece that had broken off the wheel spanner, and just metres below my old man’s priceless look of disbelief. Nobody laughed.

“Haaaa,” said one fellow close by.

If you don’t know that ‘Haaaa’, I’ll try to make it clear: This one sounds much like ‘Haaa’ but with a slightly longer delivery and less of the head tilting.

In English it means: “This unexpected turn of events is quite unfortunate but I can’t be blamed for it on my own and, therefore, will not offer an apology right away. Nevertheless, suffice to note that we are, at this point in time, screwed.”

Time check: 1300hrs.

Attending the event had become a remote possibility by now. Plus, the tyre was actually flat.

The old man stopped communication with the fellows around him and gave the matter some thought. Five minutes away there was a shop that sold tools. These tools included a wheel spanner.

Fifteen minutes later he was back with a new wheel spanner and a resolve not to accept any further nonsense.

Thirty minutes after that he was handing over the new wheel spanner to the flummoxed fellows at the second fuel station, along with a lecture about their need to be more sensibly equipped to provide the services expected of them.

Time check: 1500hrs.

He got to the event thirty minutes later to find it hadn’t started on time either, by luck and providence. He was just in time for a most crucial part of the ceremony, and didn’t have to explain why he was so damn late.

One thing’s for sure: he will never drive into a fuel station again and assume ANYTHING will go as planned thereafter.

kamwe, kamwe, nigwo muganda…you will never get enough of this


Kamwe, Kamwe from newvision.co.ug
Photo from http://www.newvision.co.ug – thank you!

The day Rita Kenkwanzi called my number was extra busy for many reasons and ordinarily I would have left my phone at home to avoid distractions.

I took her call, having no clue who was on the other end, and she quickly introduced herself then explained that “Ralph” had given her my number. I don’t know many Ralph’s but that situation wasn’t critical. She was calling, she said, to thank me for mentioning her book in a recent article and to give me a personalised copy of ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda…and other lessons from my father‘.

“Thank you, but you can simply autograph the copy I have,” I said, but she insisted her end.

It didn’t make sense to me because from my reading of her superb book she was young and very intelligent – surely she should be trying to make as much money off the publication as possible?

We eventually met last weekend and she confirmed my feelings – about the money objective and many other things.

Like its author, ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘ is simple but brilliant, elegantly put together, pointed, positive, unconventional and difficult to get out of one’s head.

When I first started reading the book I got to the second page when I first paused to think about who and how old the author was. I was pleased that she was going to teach me about one of our cultures, and excited that the learning was going to be so eloquently put.

A few more paragraphs in and my mind had began to boggle at how rich this book actually was. I sensed a kindred at her attitude when one publisher she approached with the book asked why her father qualified to be written about.

“Who is he? Is he a politician? Musician? Is he a public figure perhaps?” asked the publisher, who Rita has asked me not to reveal at any point – a pledge I made without elevating it to a promise.

She went ahead until she got it done – which is another reason this book is so meaningful. If more of us out here were like Rita Kenkwanzi this country would reach middle-income status before the promised deadline.

That was one of the reasons I gave her to encourage her to print and sell more copies of ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘.

The other, more serious one, is the reason for the book. She decided, at her father’s 65th birthday celebration, that the man meant so much to her that a speech at the dinner just wouldn’t be enough.

For about three months she combined her literary skill, remarkable energy, curiosity, some money, her old soul and a deep-rooted love of her parents and her culture, and emerged with ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘.

“Friends, we are here,” she writes at the start, “I could have harnessed all my energies to writing a brilliant collection of essays about Nelson Mandela or Kwame Nkrumah but neither of these men took my face in their hands and wiped the traces of soup from the edges of my mouth, before teaching me how to hold my spoon correctly.”

Even stopping there, one would already be a better person.

Rita Kenkwanzi defeated that publisher whose thinking is deep inside an awkward box most of us reside in here in this country; the idea that we only say good things about people we care about when they have died; that we only write or talk about people when they have achieved big things; that our expression of thoughts, ideas and feelings should be verbal rather than written…

I suggested to her that ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘ was the exact opposite of a Funeral Order of Service – it is much more complete; more carefully put together than most; celebrates the life of a person who is living and has therefore read it; and, most of all, it is complete in many ways funerals don’t allow us.

Her father, Christmas Benon Godfrey Kataama, ‘Chris’ for short, is the key focus of her book but Rita introduces us to a large section of her family going back generations. It is a history lesson delivered in a lively fashion by a lively spirit. And she did it so well that there are more people out there following suit!

When I finally sat down with Rita I was taken aback by how consistent she was. ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘ reveals how introverted and yet cheeky she is, which she proved when she told me the Saturday plans I was interrupting.

More: when my pet dogs came frolicking around her she froze in terror – proving the bit in the book when Chris returned home during a lunch hour and she lost valuable time opening the gate for him because the dogs were loose in the compound.

He talked her through it and she let him in, and reading that episode made me warm at the thought of how many fathers raise their daughters in this way – guiding them through their fears, encouraging them to try the impossible, and never giving up on the job.

The more time you spend with her, the more you realise how old this young lady’s soul is. I shook my head when she held up her Polaroid-type instant camera and showed me the last prints she had taken because she “like(s) capturing the moment in the moment…”

Actually, one of the reasons she even read the first article in which I mentioned her book was her old soul and her love of reading. That article was my take on the superb book, ‘The Call Of The Peacock‘ by Mahendra Mehta – and it’s here: https://skaheru.com/2018/07/05/heed-the-call-of-the-peacock/

In that article I mentioned the book, ‘Dream Half Expressed: An Autobiography‘ – written by Mehta’s father, Nanji Kalidas that inspired many to venture out and chase their dreams.

One of those that was inspired by it found a very old copy of the book in his father’s library and has since read it many times over is a mutual friend – Isaac Kayonde – who turns out to be quite close to Rita. Rita herself has been eagerly waiting to get access to it.

When she turned up she had the copy, carefully enclosed in a cellophane wrapper, and presented it to me for my holding and viewing (NOT reading) pleasure. That pleasure will only be exceeded by my one day reading the words in that book.


But back to ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘, I insisted to Rita that she had to print and sell more copies of the book, so that more Ugandans could enjoy and be influenced by it. She was reluctant – her introverted side in control. Her father is quite the same way, and had tried to reject the book as “Too much” when she first presented it.

We argued the point, over printing and selling more copies, till she agreed – provided the proceeds went to a charity or to funding school libraries in her home district.

She is a determined young lady, so I know that this shall come to pass – just as many more of us will be writing our own books to celebrate our loved ones while they are still with us here on earth.

Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda‘ may have started a revolution that many will thank Chris Kataama for. – because he raised her and enriched her life to inspire this beautiful publication.

go for that matching grant facility, but first read the small print!


You’ve got to focus on the “Matching” part and put in some cash of your own. Photo by Simon Kaheru.

THE first time I heard about the Matching Grant Facility* was at the end of a breathless tirade by one of my Non-Executive Directors who was at risk of a heart attack because a potential investor from Denmark had just pulled out after six months of discussions, negotiations and due diligence.

We had done everything within our powers except win their full confidence – our financials were perfect, our audits were clear, our operations had been streamlined and our processes were documented and simplified.

But the Groom left us standing at the Altar with a bouquet of flowers. Luckily for us, we didn’t have a throng of invited guests seated quietly behind us humming along to the celebratory hymns and remarking on our wedding dress – but we were still warm in the cheek with the feeling of being jilted.

So when this Director fell upon the announcement that we were eligible for the Matching Grant Facility of the CEDP (Competitiveness Enterprise Development Programme) of the Government of Uganda and the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank he almost lost his mind.

We could have easily joined him because of all the abbreviations involved and the nervous tick he developed between his discovery and the time he burst into the office to tell us about it.

We calmed him down after a while and went to the internet to establish how eligible we were and what we could do to qualify and, indeed, there was a lot right down our aisle: Management Training (we needed that); Marketing support (who couldn’t do with more of that, including the giants in this economy?); Record keeping (that was always a sore thorn even as we courted the Danish runaway Groom); Finance (are you kidding me?!). The list was even longer, and included the Acquisition of Quality Certification Systems; Business Plan Preparation; and Production Techniques.

We spent hour upon hour brainstorming before focusing on the “Matching” part of the MGF.

That was the game-changer. We hadn’t spent so much time, effort and even money on the Danish potential investor because we were doing extremely well and wanted to share profits with anyone else. The business was difficult at the time and we were in dire straits.

So this option of a Grant appeared to be a rich potential husband stepping up to take over.

Not at all, the documentation said. This was a business partner seeking to bring in resources to MATCH what we had but for our benefit – purely for our own benefit.

We dropped the idea, as a business, but I have since kept a keen eye on the Facility because I suspected it would generally be successful in some cases and it would be important to either stay or become eligible for enough time to put an enterprise on the shelf to enjoy this relationship.

The path to eligibility is not easy but every religion advises us daily to avoid the easy paths because they lead to ruin – and life proves this in every field we attempt.

From the simple things like ensuring your business is properly registered and maintains clear records and complies with tax and pension requirements, besides all the other statutory regulations out there, we learn that there is value in toeing the line.

The line items that the Matching Grant Facility supports make a radical change to one’s business regardless of how simple they appear on the surface.

Today I work for a company involved in producing and distributing beverages, and one of our main advantages is our strict adherence to quality, processes and structure.

Back then, in my private company and working with friends in the Small, Medium Enterprise struggle, even without applying for the CEDP MGF of the PSFU under the WB* (that arrangement of abbreviations always tickles me!) we benefitted.

See, we studied those documents for so long and so seriously that we began to adhere to some of the requirements because they were obviously important to people who were interested in developing SMEs like we were.

And it paid off in many ways!

At some point we discussed over lively refreshments how much more it would have paid if we HAD gone ahead and applied after making all those changes – but by then our boat had sailed…or, to stick with the analogy, the Priest had gone and the rings had been returned.

There were other businesses that benefitted, and I have watched them carefully ever since.

Close to 300 (284, to be near-exact) Small and Medium Scale Enterprises have benefitted from this fund, with US$2million dished out amongst them, which means US$4million (a rough estimate) has been injected into these businesses in a manner designed to grow private enterprise in Uganda!

Speaking to the people inside the organisations last month gave me even more accurate figures: “The MGF has to-date re-imbursed 107 activities in Agribusiness with grants of US$627,970; 39 activities under Fisheris with US$192,149; 52 activities under ICT/BPO (Information Communication Technologies/Business Process Outsourcing) with US$657,161; and 101 activities in Tourism worth US$501,872,” wrote one official.

Did you notice the use of the word “re-imburse” there?

That was the last straw that broke our camel’s back when we were considering the MGF in those old days of mine. But now that I know, believe me I am planning to accumulate the necessary funds in advance so I can one day successfully apply for the Matching Grant Facility and spur business forward at a much faster pace than I ever could on my own.

Who says private sector is impossible to manouevre? Only people who don’t read the small print.

*The Matching Grant Facility (MGF) is a component of the Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project (CEDP) , financed by Government of Uganda/ World Bank and implemented by the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda (PSFU).

suffer the little children…or NOT!


Children In Dangerous Situations
Modified from memegenerator.net

SATURDAY afternoon, as I was driving from a brief Daddy-chore, I got to Kintu Road in Kitintale and joined a brief queue of cars on either side whose occupants mostly had the hairs on the backs of their necks standing on horrified ends.

My view was better than that of the people in the cars behind a large truck at the head of the oncoming queue. The three cars ahead of me facing that truck were all small salon vehicles whose occupants were certainly as petrified as I was at what we saw.

Standing in the middle of the road in front of the large truck was a little boy, not more than one year old, dressed in a dark blue shirt and matching pair of shorts. Having been alive for so short a time, he had no idea how close he was to dying at that very point.

Human beings generally believe in the supernatural because of the way that truck driver managed to spot that little boy in the middle of the road and actually stop before flattening him to the tarmac.

All the cars stopped and stayed still until someone, who turned out to be a fairly random man, came from across the road and lifted the little fellow to safety. The women who formed the welcoming committee on the other side of the road received the infant without much fan-fare.

One elderly one called to a younger one who made quarrelsome noises down at him and then, fueled by the various remarks by her neighbours in the collection of houses and rooms nearby, pushed him to the ground with the instruction, in Luganda, that he should “Go back and stay there!”

The poor fellow, not comprehending why this was happening to him, burst into tears, picked himself up, and shuffled with his dust-covered back towards the area his mother had pointed to. One minute ago he was on the flat, hot tarmac dancing a baby jig with all those fantastic vehicles whizzing past while someone played loud music nearby, and the next he was covered in dust and being hit over the head.

The lugezi-gezi kicked in and I had to strike up a conversation, but not with the errant young mother – with the elderly one who I insisted should have known better and had a responsibility to guide the other.

She started by explaining that the child had followed his unknowing mother and then strayed, but I cut her short – at which point she summoned the offending mother.

No – I wasn’t going to arrest her even though she deserved it, I said, as the offending mother also tried to explain that the little one had just followed her…I lost my patience a little bit and explained that it was mostly poultry that walked around and expected their young to follow in a straight line, but that even THEY check occasionally.

It took many more minutes of conversation till they both agreed that children should be treated with a little more care. I was neither convinced that mother would change nor decided that I should go back on a daily basis to check up on the boy’s upbringing.

2018 and children are still being raised to the background tune of “Nja kukuba!”?

Yep – that phrase many people of past generations heard as they pranced around and frolicked: “Nija kuteera!/Nta kupiga!” and so on and so forth!

The offending mother, in this case, confessed to being 22 years of age and agreed that she didn’t know better. She couldn’t look me in the eye, out of what I hoped was shame but feared might be fear – which was why I had asked to speak with her elder friend, neighbour and possibly mother.

She was only raising her child the way she knew children were raised. By not being given too much attention for too long. By not being held by the hand at every step of the way. By not being repeatedly given emotional validation. By not getting any soft treatment when they make mistakes of any nature.

Because life is harsh and hard.

That cycle has to be broken – not by raising children who are spoilt and soft and won’t make a success of themselves in the harsh world. But by teaching them responsibility and the positive values that make us a positive people.

By stopping them from getting into harm’s way when they are young and tender, but teaching them how to survive should hard come to them when they are older.