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!
Today on the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index we rank 115 out of 190 countries – up from 116 in 2016 and 135 in 2014. That is progress (though we were at 106 in 2008). But on the Global Entrepreneurship Index 2017, Uganda is 127 out of 138 countries, down from 123 last year.
These statistical tools are quite different from the research that ranks Uganda top entrepreneurial country in the world. The Global Entrepreneurship Index hints at that position by stating somewhere in its report that in sub-Saharan Africa the one thing we excel at is our “startup skills”, where we are at par with South Africa.
In 2015 (again!) Uganda was named “the most entrepreneurial country in the world by approvedindex.co.uk basing on a survey that defined Entrepreneurship as “the percentage of an adult population who own (or co-own) a new business and has paid salaries or wages for at least three (3) months.”
In that survey, China ranked 11, the United Kingdom 33, and the United States 37. The LEAST entrepreneurial countries that year were Suriname, Puerto Rico, ITALY, JAPAN and FRANCE… (Germany was 12th least entrepreneurial, India 15th.)
The survey stated that “developing nations breed far more entrepreneurs than the west. When unemployment is high and the economy is weaker, people are forced to start small businesses to provide for themselves and their families.”
Of course, considering that in Uganda we all, at one point or another, have a second, third or umpteenth venture running at any time ‘t’, we would rank highly in such a survey.
But how many of our ‘businesses’ actually fit the conventional definitions the economists use and understand? I certainly can’t answer that, but the economists have an educated way of working round it using a Prosperity Index that measures many more factors “encapsulating the Economy, Entrepreneurship & Opportunity, Governance, Education, Health, Safety & Security, Personal Freedom and Social Capital as sub-indices.”
Measuring the Ease of Doing Business is important because economies grow better and faster when their private sectors thrive, so whereas we may be top at entrepreneurship, we need to make it easier to DO business so that the enterprises we launch keep running on sustainably and profitably beyond just three (3) months. In this year of #HakunaMchezo, we need to focus on such indicators and respond to them so that the economy swings upwards.
Talking about this last Saturday with one of the key people charged with making our private sector work successfully, I noted that he kept using the word “results” during our conversation. Everything about his office came back to that word, and hearing it so often gave me comfort that Bemanya Twebaze, Registrar General at the Uganda
I had already noted, personally, the changes in that office since he took over.
Back when I was a young newsman the Registrar of Companies was a nightmare venue. It was the ultimate government office. It was a graveyard. Work went there to die; it was tended by sullen gravediggers working in tandem with bodysnatchers vandalising coffin files and desecrating everything.
I discovered quite quickly in those days why many stories circumvented simple details such as who owned what company – getting that information out of the Registry was impossible if you didn’t have petty cash for it, but it was also unethical to engage in corruption to pursue a story most likely about corruption.
Those days are long gone, as the indexes keep stating.
Walking into their headquarters on George Street this week I noticed a truck with loudspeakers mounted on the top of it, all properly branded “URSB” in that bright and jolly way that marks a big difference from its past.
I thought it was for making field announcements by way of noise pollution. I was wrong. I was in the presence of a ground-breaking innovation. This truck had arrived minutes before me, and has been developed by the team at URSB for use in the field to register businesses anywhere in Uganda.
It opens up into a mini-office so that the URSB staff can park it anywhere and register your business, upload the information onto the servers, and print out your Certificate on the spot. #HakunaMchezo. It is fitted with a computer and printer, safes (for the certificates and other valuables), internet access (to reach the server), a generator with lighting (so they can work even into the night) and the loudspeakers are linked to a bluetooth amplifier (less cabling).
Don’t waste time imagining how quickly we will move up the indexes with that one innovation in place, because it should be on the road even as you read this.
That innovation aside, when I got upstairs I found a host of energetic youth circulating around scanners, computers and other electronic gadgets on the brightly lit half of the floor, flanking the second half darkened by immobile cardboard boxes – coffins of paperwork being brought to life by technology.
The EDMS being set up (Photo: Simon Kaheru)
Part of the paperwork that occupied an entire floor (Photo: Simon Kaheru)
“Hello children!” my chaperone, the even more energetic Mercy Kyomugasho-Kainobwisho, chirped as we walked in, to which the children laughed and responded brightly like this is a day-to-day occurrence. Government offices are rarely this way in most countries. More importantly though, this is the Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) being implemented as announced in July last year.
About 500,000 paper files are being made digital so they are accessible by way of computers and mobile phones. The project is on track because there is #HakunaMchezo. No disgruntled staff issuing whistleblower reports about it. No investigations putting a halt to the work. No court orders. Nobody asking for money around it. All staff are on board with it. It is working.
That digitisation will make this information an incredible resource. Imagine how much faster your bank loan applications will run just because they can log on to a system to confirm your records, your Tax Identification Number, your land ownership status, and so on and so forth? Or any of the other transactions that take forever to happen.
And that’s without considering that all this paperwork, before this project, cost you and I a vast amount of money in rent occupying an entire floor of a commercial building in central Kampala. #HakunaMchezo. That money is now going to be put to better use elsewhere.
A few floors down, the other workflows were in progress with remarkable differences – during the lunch hour, moreover. Finding an electronic ticketing system like the one used by international airlines was surprising. It made for such orderliness that it was disorienting.
I was almost dizzy when I got to the One Stop Shop I found on the first floor of the building. The entire floor is open except for a Board Room, and sectioned off to accommodate all the abbreviations that would intimidate a business starting up: KCCA, UIA, NSSF, URA, NIRA, NEMA, URSB (Kampala Capital City Authority, Uganda Investment Authority, National Social Security Fund, Uganda Revenue Authority, National Identification & Registration Authority, National Environment Management Authority).
(Photo: Simon Kaheru)
(Photo: Simon Kaheru)
(Photo: Simon Kaheru)
(Photo: Simon Kaheru)
There is even a desk area for officers who will help link you up with any local government in Uganda for information your business might need without you loading airtime or fuelling up your car – all the way to Zombo.
With all this, how can we fail to climb higher on the global indexes this year?
Plus, we already have a One Stop Shop similar to this at the Uganda Investment Authority on Twed Plaza, who are yet to take up their desk space at the URSB but will certainly do so before its official launch.
If we continue with #HakunaMchezo then each and every one of the abbreviations above should open a One Stop Shop at their premises. Then, every district should open one up as well – in fact, the Ministry of ICT & National Guidance Minister, Frank Tumwebaze, last year announced that the Post Office buildings would be turned to this purpose. #HakunaMchezo.
For that private sector to thrive it should have fewer obstacles in its way – especially non-essential obstacles such as filling out forms, finding an elusive government officer to place a stamp on the forms once you’ve filled them in, or getting the forms to move from one window to the next relevant one.
The World Bank definition of their index says: “A high ease of doing business ranking means the regulatory environment is more conducive to the starting and operation of a local firm.”
We will certainly climb higher up that list this year, if everyone takes up the #HakunaMchezo the way the URSB has done at all levels with clearly visible results.
THE conversation about street vendors somehow always ends up being political and linked to the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA).
The issue is certainly political in origin, and its management falls squarely under KCCA but those can’t be the only two focus points in dealing with the issue – and it IS a seriously disturbing issue.
Back in the early nineties when Uganda started building straight tarmac highways we heard the President complaining that residents upcountry were only using those roads to dry their cassava and maize, and it was a laughing point. His stress point then was that those roads needed to be used to transport produce to markets, rather than as pre-processing platforms.
The irony is that roads are designed to make connections that improve economics, and we – the educated elite – are clearly failing to make the right connections here, while ’those people’ have made a quick connection to improve their economic situation.
The Street Vendor problem, from the point of view of the elite chap driving home in a nice, air conditioned car having finished grocery shopping in the comfort of a large supermarket, is one of irritation and aesthetics. They make those neat pavements look shabby, and also get in the way, causing anxiety that they or their customers could stumble into the road and get knocked.
The pedestrian walking home might think the same, in addition to being worried that they might step on the wares of the vendors and get asked to pay for the damages. To avoid that risk, the more cautious pedestrian might choose to walk along the main road where there is a risk of getting hit by vehicles, but in that case the vehicle owner would be liable to pay any fines or compensation, since the congestion will make it easy to stop them should an accident occur.
The regular traders are unhappy about all this because they have to pay taxes and license fees where these street vendors don’t, and then their legitimate entranceways for which they pay rent get blocked by the very same street vendors who go ahead to ‘under-cut’ them with lower-priced items, thanks to their decreased overheads.
On the way to my home outside of the city centre, the street vendors even have night-time lighting from the solar powered installations KCCA put in as they re-did our road, so they can work late into the night.
It’s a mess of an affair, and within minutes of any discussion around it there is talk of politics a la, “Nanti those are voters…” and medioconomics a la, “How do you expect them to survive…?”
First of all, the fact that those are voters means that all parts of the government need to get involved in solving this ‘problem’, also because those elite or ‘rich’ people, the pedestrians who aren’t vending, the ‘legitimate’ or licensed traders, and so on and so forth, are also voters.
So yes – the issue is political in nature but only because it involves the management of society, not because we need to please people in order to make them vote a certain way or another.
The management of society involves administration as well as setting and managing (the right) expectations.
Each and every one of these people we casually refer to as ‘street vendors’ is a potential business unit capable of being built into a much larger enterprise. By the time they are engaged in selling whatever they are selling, they have a certain amount of enterprise, a motivation to go for profit, the mathematical skills to calculate it, and the energy to work.
So rather than deploy just the enforcement people from KCCA, what about we deploy business enterprise experts from the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda and Business Uganda Advisory Services to register and help develop these guys? Add to them a couple of business professors from the likes of the Makerere University Business School, and people from the Youth Livelihood Programme to fund their business expansion into places that are compliant with the law, and people from the Uganda Export Promotion Board to make them export.
Ridding the streets of these vendors means get them into a more formal, profitable setting and not into KCCA garbage skips.