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‘.

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).

this year, let’s get the youngsters to save (for) Uganda

this year, let’s get the youngsters to save (for) Uganda

AT some point in December I was gallivanting round my neighbourhood and spotted a pile of curious-looking little boxes in a carpentry workshop.

My first thought was that they were some type of ‘Piggy Bank’ savings box made in a rudimentary but apparently effective manner for the use of little children. I had no clue what gave cause to that being the first option to come to mind, as I had been feeling irritated for months by the specific direction commercial bank advertising here takes.

I have watched this for years, and like any other ordinary Ugandan lacking in astute personal finance skills, have fallen prey. See, we don’t encourage saving money as much as we do spending it in this country.

As late as November 2017 I was catching radio adverts with high tone melodious backdrops to hyper lively voices enticing people to apply for loans to “win” stuff like “free TVs and airtime”.

The concept has always angered me especially because we appear to have a large population of people who are gainfully employed to levels that enable them to sign up for these loans, and yet not insufficiently intelligent to avoid the debt trap.

I have imagined many a time before that commercial banks would be better served by encouraging people to save more money and get them to take loans for things that will enable them to earn the money they need to pay back with interest. But I am no banker and certainly not an economist of the lofty levels that cause banks to make huge profits, so I probably can’t advise them properly.

If life were fair, though, the authority that supervises public advertising – like the Uganda Advertising Authority (it doesn’t exist – we have the private-sector Uganda Advertising Association instead) would monitor and veto all advertising that hoodwinks people in any small measure.

If life were fair there would certainly be no hope for a campaign that gets people to participate in a lottery while becoming indentured for a major portion of their productive future.

This stuff went through my mind swiftly as I walked over to the carpenters with the little boxes to establish what they were for – and I was blown away by the declaration that they were “Savings Boxes”!

The carpenters were surprised at my demand that they explain their motivation for making those particular items. The plain little boxes, made of the cheapest wood possible and clearly put together from off-cuts, cost just Ushs2,000 each.

I bought the entire lot and have gone back thrice since in four weeks.

My mission? To distribute as many of the boxes as possible to all nieces and nephews I come across in the next few weeks, along with a quick tutorial in saving money and a pledge from them that they would spend 2018 filling their allotted boxes with savings. They also get to colour and decorate their boxes so that they are personalised and fun to own.

Their parents are conscripts, and will find themselves having to provide pocket money and other revenue in exchange for work done by the children while avoiding child labour breaches. Weekend outings will not involve money being spent on fast food and sweets, but put into the hands of the children with reminders that they should keep some for insertion into the savings boxes.

My experiences with this approach have been so successful that I don’t directly suffer expenses such as mobile phone and airtime purchases. The children have allowances of their own that they bank daily using a journal system.

It is satisfying to see it in action – as first happened when one rolled out a ledger and ordered for an iPhone online – but also inconvenient when they rack up high numbers and come collecting together!

Nevertheless, while I keep lowering the radio volume when commercial bank adverts start encouraging people to take loans to spend on consumables, I will also be pushing this savings box initiative so these little ones are less likely to enter into the debt traps that many of our lives have become.

The next step in my plan will involve teaching them about interest on savings. By coincidence this week, one of my colleagues at work, Conrad Van Niekerk (a charming fellow of South African origin but Ugandan spirit) told us of the practical lessons his mother – a banker – taught him.

Once, when he had just left home and was setting himself up, he borrowed 600 Rand from her to buy a television, and saved up over a few months to pay her back. When he hit the mark he walked into her bank office proudly and handed her the money in full, beaming with pride at how impressed she would be.

She took it, gave him a warm motherly smile, and then replaced it with the seriousness of a banker, “That should be 623 Rand and twelve cents – but you can keep the 12 cents!”

He paid the interest.

My children have no idea how soon that story is coming their way…but with THEM earning the interest from their savings, rather than having to pay it when they borrow money.

save fishermen so we strengthen our brains


Life Jackets From Bibles For Uganda

MANY of you might have missed a feature article this week about efforts to find solutions on Lake Victoria to stop islanders from drowning so much.

Not that they drown often, since once you have drowned you don’t normally get another opportunity, but the problem seems to affect so many of them it had to be addressed in a big way.

So big that the solution mentioned in the article is a recent US$25million (91billion shillings) loan:

“Last October, the African Development Bank approved a US$25million (91billion shillings) loan for the three countries bordering Lake Victoria. The money will provide regular weather reports and alerts to people on the lake (via text messages and radio broadcasts), expand cellular coverage, and build a network of 22 resource centres along the shore,” the article reads.

That’s a lot of money for text messaging and radio broadcasts. While pondering what these 22 resource centres would provide, I realised I had to dig deeper and went to the ADB website where I found the explanation:

The loan is for “a multinational project to establish a safety-of-life communications systems for Lake Victoria (which) lacks any alert or rescue systems…as many as 5,000 people die in the lake each year. The loan will finance the extension of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks and the creation of 22 rescues centres in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, contributing to save lives and stimulate business for the benefit of the economy of the entire Lake Victoria basin.”

Stimulate business?

What struck me right away was the photographs accompanying the article, which depicted fishermen in their boats and NOT wearing life jackets. The first step of safety on the water, one would think, would be to wear those bright orange or yellow life jackets that help keep you afloat should your boat capsize, and also make you visible for the rescue people to find you.

Being an easily terrified coward when it comes to water travel, I pay attention to such things.

Does the US$25million (91billion shillings) ADB loan include the distribution of life jackets to the 200,000-odd fishermen operating on the lake?

Your guess is as good as mine, but there is no mention of them anywhere.

“The project will address that important gap by establishing a Maritime Communication Network (MCN), based on the existing mobile (GSM) enhanced coverage on the lake and signal location detection features. The SOS alerts will be given by SMS or phone call to the Maritime Rescue Communication Centres (MRCC) which will be established in Mwanza, Tanzania; or to two sub centers based in Kisumu (Kenya) and Entebbe (Uganda). These regional centres will then dispatch rescue boats based in one of the 22 Emergency Search and Rescue (SAR) stations distributed around the lake,” the documentation read.

So I went off to find out whether anyone else is providing them – for free or commercially – and found four companies. Having emailed them all, only Lake Cruise Logistics (Google them and buy yours directly, since they are so good at marketing) responded to my queries about whether or not they have available 1,000 life jackets, if they are made in Uganda, and at what cost they are.

They can supply large quantities (such as my 1,000 units) but only if the order is confirmed, and within six weeks. Their life jackets vary in quality, class and price, and could go over Ushs400,000 per jacket.

None of them is made in Uganda, the helpful marketing guy wrote me. All of them are made in China. Then they are imported into Uganda.

You can see my thought process. I could not blame the ADB guys, or the people who formulated this US$25million (91billion shillings) project as being the most necessary for the lives of these fishermen to be saved.

It’s now time for you and I to design a project proposal for the manufacture of life jackets here in Uganda, submit it to the ADB and then pick up a fraction of that US$25million (91billion shillings) loan to employ people and import raw materials for items that will provide a return on the investment and pay back the loan on a commercial basis.

Stimulate business?

We can make money in many ways if we manufacture the life jackets ourselves. Think of the companies that would advertise on these life jackets – starting with the ones who are really going to benefit from the US$25million (91billion shillings) expansion of the GSM Network.

Life jackets have been manufactured in other parts of the world since before 1900. The elements used in their manufacture are simple – plastic, nylon and foam. We already make plastics and foam here by way of chemical processes, and making Nylon should be just as easy, since it has been made elsewhere since the 1930s.

What seems to be difficult here is focusing on the important things and connecting the dots so we spend effort and money on phrases like ‘Stimulate business’.

Stimulate business?

Besides the factory itself, think of the energy firms that will provide electricity to our life jacket manufacturing plant; and to the homes of all the employees working there whose incomes will increase exponentially and enable them to upgrade their housing units. Think of the various other businesses that will pop up to supply the life jacket industry – on Lake Victoria and our other water bodies. Think of the businesses manufacturing foam, plastics and nylon and needles and so on and so forth for the life jacket factory to use…

Even more to the point, the US$25million (91billion shillings) project creating those 22 rescue centres will be even more successful because by the time they get to our drowning fishermen they will find them distressed but still alive and afloat the waters because of our life jackets!

Everybody wins. Plus, we will have more fish to eat and export because fewer fishermen will perish, thus boosting our fish exports and our national nutrition rates.

And, as we all know but sometimes don’t demonstrate, eating fish makes the brain grow stronger!

the economy is leaking at the rate of many foreign-manufactured $100 pens


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Some of the Pens AND Writing Implements (Photo: Simon Kaheru)

The journalist who did a story on the expenditure of the Central Bank of Uganda (BOU) buying Writing Implements as gift items costing about US$100 each, made one of my days this week.

We refer to them as ‘Writing Implements’ rather than just pens because at US$100 each we need to introduce some grandeur into the conversation.

The journalist in question, bless him, will receive from my personal account a box of pens (not ‘Writing Implements’) made in Uganda. That’s a modest gift in monetary terms, but quite meaningful because I value pens quite highly.

Those who have sat close to me during meetings where pens are placed on the table before you walk in must have noticed how quickly I latch onto any available and carry them off with me at the end.

My collection of pens is mentioned in my Last Will and Testament, though I won’t reveal here who is destined to receive them after I place my last full-stop.

The journalist picked up on an issue raised elsewhere and highlighted a niggling matter that keeps coming up whenever we discuss this economy and how difficult things seem to be.

On one of our online professional discussion forums populated by marketing and merchandising people, the story created a healthy discussion.

Some explained that high value pens of that nature were justified under certain circumstances, others simply declared it a waste of money, and elsewhere there was suspicion of foul play.

My joy with the story was because it was another wake up call to our economists – which is not to say that I am accusing the Bank of Uganda people of being economists.

I went to read the Bank of Uganda Act of 1993 and found it’s description saying, “An Act…for promoting the stability of the currency and a sound financial structure conducive to a balanced and sustained rate of growth of the economy and for other purposes…”

Among other things, that BOU Act says the functions of the bank shall be to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to economic objectives of achieving and maintaining economic stability, including: “act as financial adviser to the Government and manager of public debt”.

The journalist who did this story of BOU and the US$100 pens brought it to the fore on many fronts – my point of focus being the purchase of foreign items as corporate gifts; more importantly, that purchase of foreign-manufactured gifts by a body that should be mindful of how this economy is doing.

One argument on our forums was that the pens were probably Mont Blanc (Yes – I own one of those as well, valued at over US$300 at purchase and given to me as a gift from a foreign Multi-national company some years ago).

Another person even pointed out that the total cost of the Procurement was too low to merit so much chatter – something in the region of Ushs125million.

I chose not to focus on those points.

Again: the purchase of foreign-manufactured gifts by anyone in Uganda will continue to be our downfall. If the BOU people can’t calculate how many jobs can be created or sustained by an order of manufacturing merchandising items at Ushs125million, then we need more Ugandans to do courses in Economics and PAY ATTENTION IN CLASS.

The BOU people know how much money we have in circulation and, probably, where exactly it might be at any given time ’t’. If anyone knows the impact of sending Ushs125million out of the country, it should be them.

Yes – the pens were supplied by a Ugandan-owned firm or company, and money was earned from logistics et al; but surely an economist somewhere can extrapolate (those words studied people use with ease, that people like me borrow every so often when facing a US$100 writing implement) the economic impact of keeping that money in circulation here.

Even if the gifts were going to the highest ranking Central Bank Governors from the richest countries in the world, would they not appreciate a well-made item crafted by the hands of the legendary wood carvers from Bunyoro, using some of our high grade Mivule or Musambiya trees?

That’s just an example – probably not a realistic one. But if the extrapolating economists got that Ushs125million and put it through their intellectual machines, they would find ways of making us DEVELOP an industry producing merchandising items that eventually the countries where US$100 pens are made would buy for THEIR friends using THEIR equivalent of Ushs125million.

That way, the BOU Ushs125million would be used to make Uganda earn many different rounds of Ushs125million coming in from OTHER ECONOMIES.

Afraid of popping a vein in my head at all these thoughts, I went searching for a copy of a Local Content Bill that I have heard about, so I could contribute by sharing it with the BOU people for the next time they have Ushs125million on their massive account slated for the purchase of Writing Implements.

The internet couldn’t find it readily. I tweeted, called and WhatsApped a few people who I felt should have the Local Content Bill 2017 at their fingertips – not one of them responded well enough within the first few hours.

But eventually, I found a helpful Ugandan who works with the Parliament of Uganda (not a Member of Parliament) and the person shared a version of the relevant document.

Actually, the person shared the ‘Motion Seeking Leave of Parliament To Introduce A Private Member’s Bill Entitled “The Local Content Bill, 2017”’.

I applaud the Parliamentarian who is moving this Bill, for noting that “whereas the Government of Uganda formulated the ‘Buy Uganda Build Uganda (BUBU) policy…(it) has not been fully implemented.” and expressing concern that “Uganda currently does not have legislation aimed at promoting Ugandan manufacturers or service providers to compete favorably with international goods and service providers.”

You have to read the rest of it on your own, and then give it the support it needs (coming soon to a blog post near you).

I pondered over why this required a private member rather than a front bencher. A front bencher who was involved in the NRM Manifesto.

The vein in the brain started throbbing again.

I am one of those Ugandans who finds it hard to pay bills and obligations on time because of slow, non-existent or absent payments from clients (government inclusive), besides my own inefficiencies. Still, I surely have a right to be miffed by the procurement of foreign-manufactured gifts by a government body, and thankfully, I can put it in writing using an ordinary pen procured by myself in Uganda, made in Uganda, employing a Ugandan somewhere.