business should lead government in east african integration


Entebbe from newvision.co.ug
Photo from http://www.newvision.co.ug

HEADING out to a regional meeting in Arusha last week to discuss the importance of business over politics regardless of how related the two realms are, I sweltered in the warm air of Entebbe International Airport and wondered – as usual – why it was so hot inside the terminal building.

I always refer to this as a ‘phenomenon’ because dictionaries define the word as, variously, “a remarkable person, thing, or event” and “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question”.

You would think that the Departure Lounge of an International Airport in a tropical country would be fitted out with functional air conditioning but the person in charge of this has been unconvinced for a while. I say unconvinced because there are some six-foot high air conditioning machines standing on the floor but they don’t get switched on.

We will return to this shortly – but at another airport.

Normally, by the time you are at the Departure Gates you will have spent time juggling toy cups in the one eatery at the airport, while trying not to buy the grossly overpriced food prepared by people whose interest in the word ‘gourmet’ cannot possibly go beyond how to score it in Scrabble.

It is confounding. The very best airports in the world, the ones that enjoy visitor numbers and positive reviews in the millions and hence boost their economies, deliberately do the opposite of this.

And they do not necessarily use government monies – inviting ten restaurant chains to set up outlets there with sensible, tasty, properly priced food seems to be easy. Plugging in air conditioning machines and fans even more easy.

During our meetings in Arusha, I didn’t broach the topic directly but most of our discussion was around how to integrate business into regional integration and how handy organisations like the East African Business Council could be in doing this.

We said all the right things – including how we would “foster sustained economic growth and prosperity in the region” and “promote the interests of the EAC business community” plus “create new business opportunities” while “enhancing global competitiveness of EAC businesses”…

On our way out through Kilimanjaro Airport I followed the directional signs to the airport restaurant and found myself on the top (first) floor, quite alone. The three tables present seemed to have been procured from someone’s 1980s dining room, so I made myself at home.

Twenty minutes later I discovered there was no interest in me or the potential outflow of cash from my wallet and laptop bag. I didn’t feel disrespected, but asked for help when two cleaners turned up nearby.

One sacrificed her precious time and sent me downstairs using halting speech while her body language sent me further away in a manner I can’t repeat in polite society.

At the cafe downstairs a waitress eventually walked over to us, most likely because we made noises in her direction, and sullenly agreed to take our orders but only if we paid in advance since their electronic systems were in limbo.

We forced her to take our money and sat back to wait for the meals as ordered. Some time later, an Asian couple walked in and took a table behind us. As the gentleman walked past us towards our sullen waitress, she hailed out a jolly: “Hi!”

I was alarmed, and turned back sharply in case she was suffering a medical emergency. My colleague, Jim Mwine Kabeho, was also quite taken aback. Our jaws dropped to the ground as we watched her miraculous transformation.

She engaged the Asian man as if they were long lost friends, offering various suggestions for the couple’s meals (she had told us: “You can have, like, Burgers but with no chips. Potatoes are finished.”) and lighting up the area with a wide smile.

The Asian wife walked up and asked her husband, “What is the woman saying?” in a manner I considered rude but who was I to protest?

Completing our dismal meal was quite an ordeal, as we had to keep asking for condiments that she brought us one by one, slapping them onto the table as if to ward us off in the future.

Eventually we left her station and went to the Departure Gate where, once again, the air conditioning phenomenon returned.

We were sweating within minutes. The two of us had chosen a spot right next to the six-foot high air conditioning units but they were simply not switched on.

Jim gave way after a while and walked past paying passengers fanning themselves with newspapers and baseball caps, till he got to the Security personnel – the only staff in view – to demand that the situation be fixed.

He was prepared for a difficult but heated discussion and stood at full height in case it escalated into a fight.

“Eh?” asked the young security officer, “Yours is not on?”

And that’s when Jim noticed that it was much cooler in that area where they make you take off your belts and shoes and unpack your underwear because the scanner saw something in your suitcase.

The security chap walked across the room and flicked a switch, then returned to give Jim a thumbs-up.

Ten minutes later, the room had cooled down.

Is that what’s missing at Entebbe Airport? Someone to flick a switch so the air conditioning can start running? Where are the switches for the improved restaurant facilities? And the ones to increase the number of sockets so we can plug in devices as we await flights?

Why are these things off, anyway?

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