leathered up – the Ugandan way in Uganda by Uganda


I AM such a leather enthusiast that I can almost recall every genuine leather product I have owned since I was a child – which explains why I tend to keep shoes for longer than some people keep friends.

One of my most prized purchases is a rawhide-cover notebook with a popular clothing brand name that still sits in my desk drawer and accompanies me on some of my outings.

At the time I bought it, in the 1990s, the only Ugandan leather I could come across was so raw it was either wrapped around live meat walking through fields of grass or in steaming stinking piles at a yard in Kampala ready for export. Technically we couldn’t even call it leather.

When I later got involved in the Jua Kali sector by virtue of my employment at the time I spent months and months sifting through products made of cloth, cowhorn, metal, beads, soapstone and very, very few that were made of leather.

In many cases the leather ones were of the synthetic variety that didn’t seem to be linked to our cows here in Uganda.

But, slowly, we started seeing genuine leather products cropping up more and more, and priced just high enough to make one believe that they were, indeed, made in Uganda.

The leather industry picked up steam quickly after that but I just couldn’t get my hands onto any of it.

Until last year, at the Nairobi International Convention Centre, where I was attending the 20th anniversary of the East African Business Council and walked down a gauntlet of stalls offering wares made in the EAC. This was a much improved arrangement from the Jua Kali exhibitions of old.

Back then we would take up space on yards in places like the UMA Showgrounds and the KCCA field, then have the artisans pitch makeshift tents (and shacks) out of which to display and sell their products.

Here, there was more method and we felt like we were walking through ‘proper’ shops. It was impressive and comfortable, and I kept stopping wherever there were leather products, and collected the flyers and business cards of the artisans that made them. Most were from Kenya, which was good because this was the EAC and I was quite ready to support all my people.

At the end of the alley, right under the hot sun, were two young ladies who looked a little bit familiar and were quite lively in their presentation. Their products stood out more than the rest so I spent a bit more time gathering up their details.

The company or brand name ‘NaRoho’ was in Kiswahili and it was only after many minutes of chatting that I noticed that the products were actually branded ‘NaRoho Uganda’.

The young ladies, to my pleasure, revealed themselves to be Ugandan – but I had to suppress that nationalism for the wider objective for which I had crossed the border – we were East African.

So I waited till I was back home before making contact with one of them – Isabel Agol – and placing orders for things made out of Ugandan leather in Uganda by a Ugandan.

Isabel surprised me even more. Within a couple of months, I was toting around a bespoke leather laptop bag, a leather-bound notebook, and a credit card wallet all priced so affordably I couldn’t believe I had to travel all the way to Nairobi before meeting her.

Here she is working on my brand new, genuine leather steering wheel cover just a couple of weeks ago – made by her right here in Kampala, Uganda!


Once again, she did a fantastic job there!

She’s on my speed dial right now, and is making more leather products for me as I wonder what other precious products made here that I am missing out on.

For now, it’s a better thought than trying to work out why we went all those years watching those steaming, stinking piles of hides and skins in the yards in Kampala being sent to other countries where they underwent processes that resulted in expensive products coming back for us to fail to afford.

we must be nuts for not seeing these nuts


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.

My own ‘trail mix’ made of nuts, soya, chilli and this and that (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

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!

sometimes we don’t deserve these #StaffWoes – domestic or in the office


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Can YOU make the connection above? (Photo by a slightly distraught Simon Kaheru)

I HAD to interrupt my Saturday morning to post this:

I am responsible for a section of Domestic Administration that had me, a long time ago, decreeing that the domestic official in charge of duties involving outdoor dirt should not be assigned any food-related tasks such as sundry shopping.

This, after I had decided that his overall carelessness meant he could not be trusted to always wash and disinfect his hands before heading out to handle even raw food-related materials. He understood this and agreed to the rule.

So this morning I walked over to him as he was cleaning up and asked him to go and buy a saw-blade, handing him a Ushs10,000 note.

“A blade – for the musumenyi,” I said, handing him the money. I thought about reminding him that the one we were using for a gardening project was worn out but felt it unnecessary.

My wife, flanking me, quickly suggested: “With the balance, please buy bread.”

“No,” I interjected quickly, “I bought lots of bread yesterday evening.”

The fellow was standing there for all this, and put down his cleaning materials to take the money from me and go off for the blade as the rest of us took off on an early morning jog round the neighbourhood.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought he was going to do.

We returned, freshened up, and on my way to the garden I went to load up a mug of coffee (grown, roasted and ground in Uganda).

I noticed a Ushs5,000 note on the kitchen counter, on top of a receipt.

Being well aware that the hardware shops nearby NEVER issue printed receipts and that nobody else had sent any other domestic officers on errands since middle and top management had all gone out on the morning jog, my heart sunk right to my considerable belly.

I live on a tight budget, and did not need unnecessary departures by way of random errors.

The receipt, on inspection, declared that someone had procured a loaf of bread during the time we had gone off on our little run. The time lapse suggested that there was little possibility of fighting that “goods once sold” rule.

Still, I rushed over to the fellow who should have been handing me my blade, this time interrupting his car washing duties, and asked: “What did you buy?”

He thought a little bit in silence as these fellows often do, hoping that you just go away with your question. I have never seen that strategy working.

I asked again: “What did you buy?”

After a few more seconds of mental mathematics he responded with: “From ‘Jesus Saves'”

?

That’s the name of a nearby supermarket. I know they don’t sell saw-blades.

“Okay,” I conceded, to save time, “What did you buy at ‘Jesus Saves’?”

“Brown!”

“Brown what?” I asked, controlling my irritation, anger and fear as I tried to work out how to stretch all that bread, since I wasn’t going to use it to cut anything at anytime.

“Bread…”

“But I said ‘blade’. Do you know what a ‘blade’ is?”

He didn’t. And I realised that I should have learnt this about him long ago – I have thirty other stories such as this, all of which I have today decided to compile into a management book.

It doesn’t end there.

I gathered up some savings money and went down to the hardware shop nearby to buy my own damn saw-blade.

On getting there, I found the tools up on display included the largest saw-blades but not the little one I needed for my domestic D-I-Y use.

“Do you have small blades? For the small musumenyi? Smaller than that one?” I asked the fellow manning the shop, pointing at the massive one on display.

He looked up at the big ones I was pointing at, thought a little bit, and then said: “No.”

This could not be. The small blades I wanted were the most common and there was no way this little hardware shop had stocked up for lumberjacks in the city…

“But…surely you have the small ones somewhere?” I pleaded, looking round the shop to find them for myself.

He joined me half-heartedly and then I saw him visibly making a realisation.

“Aaaah!” he went, and then said in a tone of voice that suggested I was to blame for his misunderstanding, “We only have these ones – for metal…” and whipped out a pack of the exact blades I was asking for.

“Aren’t those smaller than these ones?” I asked, somewhat indignantly.

“Yes, but these ones are for metal.”

Silence.

More silence.

My Christian side took charge.

“My friend, just admit you made an error and sell me that blasted blade so I can go and work.”

He apologised. We both smiled. And here I am.

With bread and a blade.

 

 

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).