Uganda’s textile industry: going round seeing tri-stars until the phoenix rose via fine spinners

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Comments about shorts here prohibited

WHILE doing some laundry the other day I noticed that I own a pair of shorts that had been made in Sri Lanka. Then I remembered that the person behind Uganda’s ‘big-ticket’ AGOA venture, Tri-Star Apparels, is also from Sri Lanka.

That sent me right back on my current AGOA agony, and I started wondering about all those girls who were so publicly employed by Tri-Star Apparels almost twenty years ago.

The story made big news back then, and we saw photographs of hundreds (were they thousands?) of girls going through a recruitment and then training process, after which they were given those coveted jobs.

At some point I even joined delegations paying official visits to the factory in Bugolobi, at a location made famous in the 1980s for hosting our biggest export then – coffee – processed and warehoused there by the mighty Coffee Marketing Board. Twenty years after that, the location was hosting another big export – clothing made by the girls of Tri-Star Apparels.

The newspapers back then wrote stuff like: “Tri-Star Apparels was founded by Deshabandu Kumar Dewapura in 1979 with just 10 machines and 15 employees. Tri-Star is now a global employer boasting dozens of factories in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana that employ 15,000 workers producing 15 million pieces of garment. Its corporate clients include Ralph Lauren (2002 net revenue $2.3 billion), Gap (2002 net revenue, $7.0 billion), Guess (2002 net revenue $0.8 billion) and Limited Brands which owns Victoria’s Secret line of clothing (2002 revenue, $8.4 billion). It recently signed a contract to supply two million pieces of baby and children wear every month to UK-based Grasshopper Holder, one of the largest EU garment suppliers.”

For real, those words appear here.

The news stories also reported that Vellulapai Kananathan was the man behind this venture in Uganda, having partnered with the Sri Lanka-based Tri-Star Apparels.

Kananathan is today, I believe, Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul to Uganda. The rest of the internet reports that the Tri-Star Apparels founder, Kumar Dewapura, passed away in September 2014.

Curiosity further piqued and my mind still on the statistic I saw a couple of weeks ago that said during the whole of 2016 Uganda only exported textiles worth US$9million to the United States under AGOA arrangements, I dug a bit more.

The internet doesn’t easily reveal information about Tri-Star Apparels., normally a trustworthy reporter of financial and business news, has a record of ‘Apparels Tri-Star (Uganda) Ltd.’ whose Key Executive is Mr. Vellupi Kanathan and that “operates as a subsidiary of LAP Green Network.”

The website has no record of the Sri Lankan Tri-Star Apparels, but that didn’t worry me – I simply looked elsewhere and found it…no. Not the Sri Lankan one – apparently there is a Tri-Star Apparels in India that has a Facebook page or wall to which the persons involved post photographs of clothing they sell.

This Tri-Star Apparels claimed to be based in Bangalore, India, and listed a website that is non-functional. Since I couldn’t be bothered to dial the number provided, I went to the rest of the internet only to find them listed elsewhere (same India phone number) with a Director called Mr. Naidu, and a rickety statement in English accompanying a small photo of t-shirts that all put together seemed to spell the word “con”.

I closed those sites and found the “Sri Lanka Directory of Exporters” under the header of the Sri Lanka Export Board, which listed Tri-Star Apparels Pvt. Ltd. with nothing under “Product /Services Range” but contact details that included the website’’.

The same website is listed in a few other places, with the company contact being Ms. Samantha Gunawardena, accompanied by a legend about the work they do.

The listed website is non-functional.

Then, the “Gateway to Sri Lanka”, presented a list of players in the Textile and Garments industry that didn’t mention Tri-Star.

It was frustrating.

Until I hit pay dirt. An organisation called Industrial Restructuring Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. had an online entry from February 2016 detailing how they helped ‘Tri Star Garment Industry’ conduct a restructuring in which they gave up a 20% shareholding and downsides from 8,000 to 4,000 staff.

At this point I felt I should focus more on my Ugandan Tri-Star instead and was happy to discover that there was a recent update made along the way.

About three years ago, NTV (in Uganda, I have reason to believe), published a story titled, “Kenyan textile entrepreneur takes over Tristar Apparel”, that read quite determinedly: “Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company, will be injecting over Ushs108billion over the next three years in a value development of Uganda’s cotton sector.”

That was three years ago so by counting very slowly one would be correct in expecting that we have received Ushs108billion in this country from Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company.

Continued the story, “Fine Spinners has taken over the operations of Tristar Apparel in Uganda. Tristar Apparel was closed down after years of losses despite heavy government subsidies and assured market through the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act initiative.”

Pause for thought there and think to yourself why the Kenyan company was so ready to inject Ushs108billion into a business venture that had failed in spite of subsidies and AGOA.

I couldn’t work it out immediately myself. Especially taking the usual rudimentary action of discovery in 2018 – Googling ‘Fine Spinners Kenya’.

The internet seemed to know more about Fine Spinners Uganda than Kenya, and I learnt about Jaswinder Bedi, described as a “textile technologist” and the man behind Fine Spinners. His personal story aside, I was astounded to read, in The Independent magazine:

“The government of Uganda has leased Phenix Logistics Uganda Ltd, a garment manufacturer based in Kampala, to a Kenyan-based garment manufacturer – Fine Spinners. The deal…at un-disclosed amount of money and a 15-year period is interesting ….Phenix Logistics has been recording losses, with the government injecting in billions of shillings to keep it afloat.”

So… what does Fine Spinners know that nobody else in Uganda appears to know and why don’t we know it after all these years?

I intend to find out for myself one day, rather than read stuff about them off the internet; their website says they are located on Spring Road in Bugolobi, and their phone number is listed there as +256 414 342 716, so I will be dialing it soon.

Their story, on that website, goes: “Our cotton is predominantly grown in the West, where, assisted by leading development partners, we mentor our smallholder farmers in sustainable cotton agriculture.

At harvest, the CMiA (Cotton Made in Africa – see lint bales are transported to the Fine Spinners facilities in Kampala to be blended and spun into yarn. Our knitting and dying processes meet exacting international standards, as do our fabrics, which are subjected to rigorous retailer-specified testing regimes.”

Fine Spinners sources their cotton, says the website, from Kasese’s Western Uganda Cotton Company (WUCC) and NOT from the usual parts we have been hearing about since the days adults like myself were in primary school. This story here is further evidence of those expectations.

Fine Spinners even brought a group of European textile manufacturers to visit the place last year in April and they exclaimed that they were thoroughly impressed by Uganda’s cotton.

Said one of the textile importers: “I import 500,000 T-shirts per year, but now I want to grow it to one million pieces annually next year 2018. When you ask me why, I will tell you it is because Uganda has good cotton with production facilities.”

That was Joern Otto, the vice president for sourcing at Germany’s Bonprix Company – which actually exists, going by the internet. Either way, we should ensure that he actually doubles his purchases as planned.

It appears to be a true story, this one of Fine Spinners and Bonprix and Uganda’s cotton being so great. The Economist wrote a feature about this here:

Ugandan clothes ARE being sold in Germany and the United States IN SPITE of the lobby group SMART (Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association) and their rather silly assertions about how hapless Uganda’s manufacturing future is, and how inert we sometimes are.

In an April 2016 interview, Jas Bedi stated that Fine Spinners was exporting about 50,000 t-shirts a month and was targeting 500,000 going up to 1million t-shirts a month by the end of that year.

He has done so well, going by the media reports, that just one client – Bonprix – is targeting 1million t-shirts from Uganda every month this year.

One of my favourite statements attributed to him goes: “Ugandan cotton itself is so much more superior, so it just gives you a competitive advantage right before you start. It’s handpicked, not machine picked, and because of that it’s a superior cotton. When you start with better cotton, you get a better product.”

What time and resources we wasted on those other guys long gone!
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AFRICAN! you’re a donor to the rich, dressed up in the rags of a beggar!

LAST week I ranted a little about our national AGOA misadventure. The issue still rankles.

When the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) was first announced, Uganda was one of the 38 countries in Africa eligible to export over 6,000 products into the United States both tariff- and quota-free. In the beginning, we could have taken in ANY AMOUNT of those 6,000 products.

We did not even come close to doing so – according to very many internet sources. The numbers from 2016 that suggest we only exported US$9million in textiles that year, next door (only terrestrially) to Kenya’s US$394million, make me tag the word “misadventure” to this.

But we did open up that factory in Bugolobi under Tri-Star Apparels and, as I have surely said before, some clothing ‘Made In Uganda’ found its way into the United States and other countries.

My rant last week was about the association called SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association), whose leader Jackie King started a petition to strike Uganda and some other countries off the list because we insist on stopping the second hand clothes trade purportedly to develop our own textile manufacturing industry.

Whereas their spurious claims were annoying in both tone and content, I found it necessary to check a few more things about this ‘industry’ they claim will suffer if countries like Uganda set up textile manufacturing industries of our own, employing Ugandans in their thousands in respectable jobs.

To show you how ridiculous the ecosystem of this second-hand clothing is, one of the SMART petition points was the claim that the second-hand clothing earns charity organisations money so that they can “help Africa”.

In short, they tell the US government, we should not MAKE our own clothes using cotton that we grow, so that we can receive second-hand underwear from them that we pay cash for, which cash will go to organisations that pay for their operations and then send us some “aid”.

Seriously, they send us second-hand underwear because they KNOW we will take it.

I saw this in a Huffington Post article:

Second Hand Underwear Justification.jpg

But read this article as well:

Some charity organisations, you will be amazed to learn, are actually collecting this money to spend in THEIR countries. So a Ugandan buying a second-hand bra is actually funding an American or a Canadian, rather than a hapless fellow Ugandan.

In one article online a Scott Ebenhardt of the ‘National Diabetes Trust’ in North America is quoted saying that the textile division of that non-governmental organisation earns Diabetes Canada US$10million a year.

Diabetes Canada is THEIR national charity, serving 11 million Canadian Diabetes sufferers IN CANADA. It runs a programme called ‘Clothesline’ that “collects gently used clothing, small household items and electronics…” and sells them to hapless Africans targeted by the likes of SMART.

On their Facebook page they proudly state that, “Every year we divert 51million kilogrammes from Canada’s landfills” – Which is 51million kilogrammes of garbage that hapless Africans wear and walk around NOT building textile manufacturing industries.

A large portion of that 51million kilogrammes of second-hand items is clothing and whereas it’s not all used underwear, just imagine how disgusting our economic stunting is.

Mind you, in 2016 we are reported to have spent US$888million (about Ushs3TRILLION) importing textiles – new and old – from other countries.

That figure came out during one of the President’s speeches, where he was urging us to spend more of this money on our own textiles and clothing here in Uganda.

The SMART people don’t want that. They want you spending your money on second-hand underwear so that Canadians with diabetes get treatment.

So as you go out to buy a second-hand piece of clothing instead of one made by a good Ugandan tailor – who are now numerous and easy to find from Kitintale to Yumbe – please remember that YOU are the donor in this case.

Your money is going to fund an NGO in a foreign country, AND your money is funding a second-hand clothing business that is a member of SMART, AND your money is treating Diabetes in Canada or some other disease in the US.

Most importantly, by buying second hand underwear and shoes, you are being a donor because you are sacrificing the opportunity to invest in a textile manufacturing industry here that would have exported hundreds of millions of dollars to the United States under AGOA, and elsewhere.

But you are clearly NOT the clever donor. That one has you believing that you are the recipient of charity – the BEGGAR dressed in smelly rags and smiling in gratitude.

buying second-hand clothing is NOT smart – importing it even less so…

Second-hand shoes on sale in Kampala, February 2018 (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

LAST week I read an article in Kenya’s Business Daily that suggested that the United States was once again conducting a review to determine whether some countries – including Uganda – should continue being allowed to export finished goods over there under a special quota system.

The Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) is an affirmative action programme that, very, VERY sadly, few of us in Uganda have understood or taken to either heart or pocket.

It should have enriched many Ugandans at different levels from the city, through the towns and right into the villages.

But it hasn’t.

We are to blame, most of us, for not paying attention to what’s important and focusing instead on various types of nonsense; and others for not ‘sensitising’ us enough to what the excitement around AGOA meant.

But there are other groups at fault here – and even if the story broke some time last year we don’t appear to have comprehended it well enough. Kudos to Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, for bringing it up with the US Ambassador when they met over some issue a couple of weeks ago.

The US Ambassador diplomatically said the US would continue to “support” Uganda but that we might have “some textile funding withheld”.

Luckily for us, this withholding of funding is not a concern the government is focusing on. See, AGOA (Africa Growth Opportunities Act) is supposed to increase the number of items or goods we export to the US – not to give us any charity.

Now, the situation around textiles is amusingly annoying – but the noises being made in our government circles indicate that there will be no backing down to economic bullies based in other countries.

It came to a head in the middle of last year when a major public hearing was called to determine whether or not Uganda should be allowed to continue exporting to the US under AGOA.

Blame that on some US-based organisation called ‘Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association’ (SMART) that puts together clothes recycling companies there. We can only refer to them using capital letters, so that nobody mistakes them for the lower-case version of the word.

This SMART, headed by one Jackie King, complained that countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda should be struck off the AGOA list because we are restricting mivumba/mitumba/second hand clothing imports from the rest of the world.

Luckily, their petition wasn’t immediately successful, even though Kenya backed down – presumably on the advice of their Washington Lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, lawyer with the firm, Ryberg and Smith, L.L.C. and also President of a US-based non-governmental organisation called African Coalition for Trade (ACT) which represents Kenya and Tanzania but NOT Uganda.

He knows a lot, and figured that Kenyan companies registered $394 million in textile sales under AGOA in 2016. The US Trade Representative office, though, says Uganda only exported US$51million worth of goods to them in 2016 – coffee, tea & spice ($25m), ‘special other’ ($9m), glue & enzymes ($7m), grain, seeds & fruit ($4m), and fish/seafood ($2m).

Maybe our textile exports are that ‘special other’, but if so then that US$9m does not warrant the panic caused by SMART – those are nine houses in Kololo…so would it be smart to NOT tax second-hand clothing in order to build a textile industry here?

SMART, in their petition, claims they recover and process ‘pre-consumer’ by-products from the textile industry and ‘post-consumer’ secondhand textiles – clothes and shoes.

“The items that can be reused as apparel are exported, typically to least developed and developing countries such as those in East Africa, where demand for affordable, quality clothing is especially high…” SMART said.

The same high demand, one would presume, that would support a locally-grown textile industry here that would enable Ugandans to wear brand new clothes made by fellow Ugandans, rather than second-hand, grubby hand-me-downs that other people have sweated and probably died wearing.

It was disturbing to read their arguments, and the flimsiness of their claims that we were imposing “barriers to US trade and investment”.

The “barriers” they referred to were the EAC decision to increase tariffs on imported second-hand clothing in order to encourage more local manufacturing within the region – obviously a sensible move that encourages investment in the EAC rather than elsewhere!

SMART, on the other hand, capitalised on: “while recycled fiber is a useful by-product of the clothing recycling trade, it is the resale of good, usable clothing that renders the overall industry profitable.”

WE want that profitability here, not anywhere else!

And, surprisingly, “through these activities, for-profit textile recyclers create meaningful employment for tens of thousands of people who drive local economies and generate much-needed tax revenue across the United States…” meaning that we East Africans need to buy second hand clothing to keep some Americans in employment.

Mind you, US AGOA imports from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda totaled US$43m in 2016 (official US government numbers), while their exports to the three countries totaled US$281m in 2016…

But SMART says that second-hand underwear et al, “make vital contributions to environmental goals through the recycling of nearly four billion pounds of clothing and other textile waste that otherwise would go to a landfill each year…”, meaning that it should go to landfills HERE instead!

SMART expressed “significant concerns” about our ban because “EAC ministers claim that a ban was needed to boost their domestic textile industries” but it would have “a significant toll on the secondhand clothing industry in the United States…”

Nanti OUR domestic industry surely can’t be the focus when THEIR second-hand clothing business will suffer! Which reminds me – Kenya’s lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, mentioned at some point that the second hand clothing SMART exports is NOT manufactured in the United States…there is a possibility that WE make the clothing, send it there, and then they send it back!

SMART even complains about the need for a register of used clothing importers mbu “such a register will likely be used to intimidate any importer who dares to continue importing our goods”.

This from an organisation in a country where we all fill out forms to go visit…

And the arguments go on and on including the complaint that a ban “in order to protect and develop one’s own industry conflicts with the statutory requirement that AGOA beneficiaries work toward developing market-based economies…” The SMART guys need to study more economics….

…as well as some decency and common sense. SMART argued, before the Committee in the US listening to this, that we Africans were “supporting Chinese attempts to dominate” our market and “promoting cheap new clothing from China whose goods compete poorly with better quality used clothing from the US…” I mean…! – yet the same US imported new clothes from China worth US$27billion in 2017 alone. I mean…!

Mind you, in 2016 we are reported to have spent US$888million (about Ushs3TRILLION) importing textiles – new and old – from other countries.

That figure came out during one of the President’s speeches, where he was urging us to spend more of this money on our own textiles and clothing here in Uganda.

The SMART people don’t want that – only smart people do. Choose where you belong, as you go out to buy your next item of clothing. Are you going to be really smart OR that antithesis in capital letters?

aligning our personal objectives with our national ones

THE other day I said, on radio (KFM – where I am invited on Tuesdays to join a panel of serious people), that I was disappointed in a number of “educated and otherwise informed people” because of their reaction to the announcement around the President’s End-of-Year Address.

It was reported that the Uganda Communications Commission had issued guidelines (instructions?) that private media stations would have to air the address live, which caused a social media furore – not that there is any other kind these days in Uganda.

Coming from some quarters, we shouldn’t be surprised by an uproar or flurry of angry messages whenever anything about our political leadership is mentioned – much like most countries face around the world (Google ‘United States of America’).

But in others I had to check whether I was reading the comparison wrong or not.

See, in most “corporate” (which word could in the past easily refer to an entire State) organisations the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) communicates the objectives and goals of the organisation, on behalf of the Board, which in most cases represents the shareholders (citizens, nationals, etc).

In the corporate world the CEO might likely address staff every month or every quarter, depending on how big or busy the corporation might be, which event is a ‘Stop-Everything-And-Pay-Attention’ affair.

It has to be.

This is the one person at whose desk “the buck stops” because this is the person entrusted with leading the management of the affairs of the entire organisation. This person chooses a team to assist him or her to run the organisation; provides guidance and leadership to that team; secures or mobilises resources from the shareholders and investors; then leads the motivation of the workers so they turn their human capital and other factors into value for the shareholders.

Many years ago, I was told by two notably successful Asian-Ugandan businessmen that their fathers had taught them to always pay attention to speeches made by politicians – starting with the President – and daily news reports. The information they gleaned from those two sources, they explained separately, was their core business intelligence.

One of them told me his father had been raised with this knowledge and their family wealth had therefore weathered the Idi Amin Asian expulsion of the 1970s. Many years after I first heard these statements from them I attended an event launch at which one of them was unveiling a massive new investment and on the sidelines he revealed what had shown him that possibility.

“Every time the President makes a speech, I listen for clues…”

Exactly as happens whenever a CEO speaks – shareholders, investors, employees, business partners, suppliers, and other key stakeholders…they all stop and listen.

Especially at crucial points of the business cycle – at the end and start of the financial year, hence the State of the Nation address taking place just before the Budget speech; at the close of the calendar year; and when major business changes are taking place.

Reading the second tier newspaper across the border in Kenya a couple of weeks ago, I caught the headline, “Uhuru bets on four key sectors to boost growth’. The story outlined the “four pillars” the CEO of Kenya is focusing on: ‘Food Security, Affordable Housing, Manufacturing and Affordable Healthcare’.


Stop right now and ask the next ten people you meet whether they can recite Uganda’s strategic priorities – it might be as frustrating as asking fifty people whether or not they know what our National Development Plan (II – not the first one) is.

Mind you, the idea here is not that we should have kept quiet and taken in everything said by the CEO without criticism and analysis, but maybe, just maybe, criticise and analyse after listening?

He spoke about many things: More sophisticated crime detection methods; illegal fishing; local content (Buy Uganda, Build Uganda); improved lake management; irrigation; innovations in solar power usage; import substitution (we annually import finished products worth US$7billion); the need for value addition to our raw materials within Uganda before exporting; more support for scientists; artisanship parks being built in Kampala…

The list is long and it contains many hints as to where the government will be placing its priorities next year – which should direct where the rest of us should place ours so we all push in the same direction and achieve “A Transformed Ugandan Society from a Peasant to a Modern and Prosperous Country within 30 years” – Uganda Vision 2040 as stated in the National Development Plan II.

In the corporate world, after the CEO has made those speeches and presentations, laying out the plans or strategies, the rest of the leadership translates these plans or strategies into departmental and personal plans and strategies so that over the year all staff focus on achieving the central goals and objectives.

After the speech over the weekend, though, do we remember what Uganda’s – OUR – goals and objectives for 2018 are; what the government that is running OUR affairs intends to do this year?

stop living a life of selfish mediocrity

THIS week I caught an interview on the radio in which an Iranian-born Professor and defender of human rights used a phrase that hit me right in the gut when it landed.

I knew both words in that phrase and have used them before, but the power of the combination of those word  s was stronger than most others I encounter on a normal day.

The interviewee told his life story and explained how he got from being a fairly comfortable young immigrant in Canada to pursuing a life fighting for the rights of people suffering as a result of war crimes.

He was hanging out with his young adult peers doing the cosmopolitan things that such people do, but kept hearing about people back home in Iran being persecuted and worse.

The day he heard that one of his close childhood friends had been arrested, jailed, tortured and then executed for writing a poem that was critical of the government, he made a realisation.

“I was living a life of Selfish Mediocrity,” he told his interviewer.

Selfish Mediocrity.

He was selfishly enjoying a life of mediocrity yet his peers back in Iran were risking their lives to make life right for millions of others.

That was how he quit a life of chilling and made it to a most prestigious law school in the United States and then went into Human Rights Law rather than a large, high-paying law firm and a comfortable future.

He has spent years since working in war zones and facing up to difficult people such as the European warlords in Bosnia.

Selfish Mediocrity.

That’s a phrase that’s been in existence somewhere in my mind but that I couldn’t coin even though it tickles me daily.

Just last week I found myself in Bwaise and Kyebando visiting some projects run by and for youth and women there, and making comparisons that were uncomfortable at some level.

In one of the projects I met a young man who runs a Community Based Organisation and had to ask him at one point in his little, cramped office, why he was doing that particular job with his education tucked away in his mind.

Ronald Kavuma gave me the right answer in the right order – he grew up there and wanted to help change Bwaise, and he needed to earn a living even if the money wasn’t really great.

I applauded him and thanked him after he had shown us round the projects – where they teach Bwaise youth skills like tailoring and craft-making, and collect recyclable waste, and in which they run a savings programme that helps the youth set up their own small businesses besides learning financial skills.

After that we went to Kyebando and met some other hard working young Ugandans walking around in dusty and muddy and sludgy environs.

These young people, most of them with university degrees, were elbow deep into various substances and materials but all focused on imparting skills to their country mates from less fortunate backgrounds.

One group was learning how to make sandals, another how to bake cakes using sand-heated charcoal ovens, and a third how to make oven and stove briquettes out of organic materials and clay.

They all said the same thing about their calling, and they were serious about it. There was no parking lot with nice, sleek cars nearby and the air conditioning was all natural.

This were their day jobs – what they had chosen to do for a living in their most productive and aspirational years.

They presented a challenge for many of us out here who are living a life of mediocrity and not doing much to change the lives of the less fortunate in our society.

And in their settings most of what they consume and utilise is local material, meaning that even their meagre spending goes straight to another Ugandan – whereas the well-heeled in this society continue to consume and utilise mostly imported products and send resources right past those in this community called Uganda that need it, and to other lands.

Selfish Mediocrity. That phrase will be on my mind for a while.