BACK when I was in an overly-publicised position in the Executive of Government, I was convinced to ‘walk the talk’ and start planting things in the ground as proof that agriculture works.
Not too far away from where I settled then is where Robert Kabushenga has made a well-publicised and genuinely admirable success of his Rugyeyo Farm.
For some reason I cannot recall, I planted cashew nut seeds in a line, hoping to form an avenue of trees, and then forgot about them. They eventually grew into impressive giants and occasionally dropped some nuts that I presume are enjoyed in some form by the people and livestock in residence.
Even though I have a daily habit of snacking on a pack of mixed nuts that include the cashews as honourable members, I honestly forgot about my trees until I was in Arusha for the East African Community Heads of State Summit some days ago.
One morning at breakfast the conversation turned to Tanzania’s cashew nut problem. The evening before that, after checking into my hotel, I had walked to a nearby supermarket and bought up some packs of the stuff for personal consumption and was looking forward to my snacking weeks ahead.
The crop in Tanzania has been a major source of agricultural revenue for years. Towards the end of last year, President John Pombe Magufuli issued strict instructions that none of the 200,000 tonnes of cashews from the season could be bought by private players. Only the army was allowed to buy and process cashews, then store them for export at the “right” price.
Tanzania’s crop reportedly brings in about US$500million a year, making it possibly the top forex earner there.
We talked through the issue and I learnt quite a bit then tightened my tie and hopped over to the East African Business Council offices, with my fellow Board Members, to officially launch the new location.
The Chief Guest was the Rt. Hon. Al-Hajj Kirunda Kivejinja, accompanied by a suitably heavy team of Security and Trade Ministers and Permanent Secretaries.
The most important person in the room, however, turned out to be a young man who had shaken our hands and moved to the back of the room quietly along with all the other unnamed persons holding cameras and file folders.
Shortly into the meeting the young fellow was introduced to us with his raison d’etre, and when EABC Board Chairman Nick Nesbitt stood up to speak he declared, singling me out: “Simon, are we nuts?!”
See, the young fellow, Brian Mutembei, was Chief Executive of a little-known Kenyan firm called Indopower Solutions, and had just the day before signed a contract with the Tanzanian government committing to buy cashew nuts worth US$160,000!
Forget about the value for a minute here.
The issue that Nick was exclaiming about, and that hit me square in the middle of my forehead, was that this young fellow and his team of entrepreneurs had IDENTIFIED AN OPPORTUNITY where the rest of us were simply chewing nuts.
Indeed, we surely had to be nuts! Even throughout the discussion about the cashew nut problem that morning the thought hadn’t occurred that I could put together a few people and offer to buy some of those nuts for sale in Uganda, taking advantage of our EAC status.
And that was the crux of our presence in Arusha that week – how to ensure that phrases like “The EAC integration will be people-based and private-sector led” were turned into reality.
There are thousands of other such opportunities staring us right in the face in this region but, sadly, we simply aren’t taking seeing them, let along taking advantage of them to create wealth from top (entrepreneurs and processors like Mutembei) to bottom (the farmers who grow the crops, for instance).
Where are these opportunities? In the newspapers, on social media platforms, in government office notice boards and meetings, announced at public events though embedded within sometimes boring speeches….and so on and so forth.
But we don’t see them. Instead, we tend to see the sensational, seemingly-exciting and honestly time-wasting flotsam that keeps the majority of us in a state of despair, despondency and doom about the future of this country, region and continent.
We are the wrong type of nuts!