the procurement of sugar cane and how people lose jobs

The Bugolobi supplier – Photo by Simon Kaheru

OVER the last couple of weeks I have followed first hand how: 1. Procurement sometimes gets easily confounded and; 2. How, as a direct result, a certain cadre of persons will lose their jobs.

Starting about three weeks ago, I noticed that a police guard within my neighbourhood had developed a consistent habit of eating sugarcane at the gate near my home.
Sugar cane was my favourite childhood fruit, back when my siblings and I coined the word ‘sukali kiboko’, as we were learning our vernacular and trying to do so without being laughed at. So we went, one at a time, to our grand mother to get the words for ‘sugar’ and ‘cane’, then put them together.
We got laughed at, then learnt the correct words for bikajjo/bikaijo.
The sight of the police guard ripping away at his sugarcane triggered a nostalgic need to join in, and enquiries revealed that he regularly purchased his supply nearby at Ushs500 per cane.
I dispatched my eleven-year old with Ushs1,000 and he returned with two long sugar cane stems that quickly went into sweet tooth history.
The next day, I sent a domestic worker whose role profile includes ad hoc shopping trips within a certain radius for items valued below a set, safe limit.
I only wanted two sugar cane stems – one for me, and one for the police guard or anybody else interested. She returned and I chewed through my day’s allocation, but the next day I found the store to be empty.
Assuming that the habit had become popular within the household, I sent her on another excursion and made a loose remark about how the two stems from the day before had been so quickly decimated.
“I only bought one,” she said, and left to buy more, with another Ushs1,000.
That gave me time to think about the first Ushs1,000 I had given her and how it had resulted in the confessed singular sugar cane stem but with no change returned.
After a long while I found she had returned and gone on to other duties, unaware that my need for a sugar cane fix made me dangerously irritable. Apologising, she explained that the usual point had no sugar cane on offer, and got angrily sent on her way to accomplish the given task.
She returned with one stem and reported that it cost Ushs800.
I noted the difference in cost, but dealt with the more pressing matter of chewing cane, as I thought things over and decided to bypass her for such purchases.
The next day, I bypassed her and used another emissary who I gave Ushs2,000.
He also returned with one stem – and this one much shorter than usual. I studied it carefully and found the individual segments themselves to be no different from past stems, which meant that someone had taken a knife to either end of the sugar cane.
It is normal for the top-most segment with the leaves and the bottom-most one with roots and soil to get hacked away, but this time the knife operator had literally made enjawulo of sugar cane itself!
To make matters worse, it cost the full Ushs2,000. Mbu.
I was incensed and made it clear how inconceivable it was for the price of sugarcane to have quadrupled within a half kilometre radius over the course of four days.
I felt like telling him the fable of an unscrupulous West African President in the 1980s who would send an aide to the Central Bank Governor with a request for a briefcase of money. By the time the Governor released the cash, the amount in the request had normally been multiplied ten times over, with various other officials starting with the Governor himself and including drivers, bodyguards and messengers, all taking off a small cut before the President received the money he had initially requested.
But I was impatient for my sugar cane fix, so I struck the fellow off my list of trusted sugar cane purchasers and moved on.
I wished I had stayed close to the police guard who had introduced me to the Ushs500-a-stem supplier, but it was obvious that I had now entered another dimension, so I changed tack and the next day went to the Nakawa market myself.
And stupidly, instead of alighting from my vehicle to walk up to the fellow at the bicycle chopping up and selling the sugar canes, I accepted the offer of using the market shopping boys who make themselves available to fools such as myself.
It must have been obvious to him that I was intent on the convenience of sitting in my vehicle and unlikely to leave, with my paraphernalia, in order to cross the road and purchase sugar cane.
I saw a tell-tale look show up in his eyes as he told me, after handing me one chopped up sugar cane stem, that it cost Ushs4,000. I gave him a knowing smile, and he smiled back and I knew he was winning. I paid up and left.
Two days later, I found another fellow on a bicycle in Bugolobi and this time I crossed the road to make my purchase. Ushs3,000.
Slapping myself on the forehead, I went back to the Ushs500-a-stem point and found them fully re-stocked.
There is no turning back.
I now buy sugar cane myself – with no external assistance, all segments intact.
(And at this point, I must thank the patient reader who texted me at the end of the day to say: “Correction: Sugarcane is a grass; NOT a fruit or a vegetable!” Very correct, madame!)

bicycles in Uganda can make you go dizzy

EVERY so often one falls upon a random story that carries no excitement until one exercises the brain a little bit.

This week it’s about ‘Fred’s Bicycles’, which has further delayed my treatise on the boda-boda mentality that plagues my people and I.

‘Fred’s Bicycles’ was started a few years ago by Jonny Coppel and Tom Freds Bicycle 2Davenport, in London, after Davenport visited Uganda on holiday one year and “…saw the ‘beautiful’ bikes used by farmers in Uganda to ferry cattle…”, at which point “he immediately saw the appeal they might have back home.”

Four years later, the story continues, “the 26-year old strategy consultant and his school friend Jonny Coppel, 25, are selling their own bicycles based on those in Uganda, as well as giving back to the place where it all started.”
I have issues with the “giving back” part of the story because it fits comfortably into the lazy narrative that Europeans have of countries like Uganda, but we will talk about that later in life.

More importantly, this story underscored to me once again the importance of a good education, rather than the instructive one-plus-one-equals-two type of schooling many of us got.

This is not to say that all British young men who visit Uganda are well educated enough to do what Davenport and Coppel did, but the fact that they came over here and identified opportunity out of an item that we actually despise as a sign of poverty and backwardness, means they are well educated.

The two young men also reminded me how much we have around us that we take for granted and yet could be very highly valued elsewhereFreds Bicycle 1 (Their bikes go for £249 each – about Ushs1.1million each).

The bicycles they talk about were not even designed or made in Uganda; from the photos on the website, these are what we used to call Hero bicycles, which eventually gave way to Roadmaster Cycles.

One other website containing a research paper by United States university Professor Jason A. Morris, even states that the Hero Bicycle was “originally built in 1913 for the British military, and it has not changed since”.

This researcher came all the way from the US to Hoima to design a bicycle for Ugandan use to replace the Hero and Roadmaster bicycles. His efforts are available in that research paper but I, personally, know nothing of the results being on the road.

Instead, I know Roadmaster Cycles started assembling bicycles here at some point at a US$6million facility (press reports say) in Nalukolongo in 1993, after seeing the opportunity in a populace that had poor roads then, lots of agricultural activity, and incomes too limited to fund car manufacturing or even assembly.
Surprisingly, to me, their website displays a wide range of products including bicycles for children! And yet, somehow, most monied people are riding mostly second hand bicycles coming in from the same England that Davenport and Coppel are selling their bikes, inspired by Uganda, or bicycles imported from South Africa and further afield.


What about the realisation that on the day I fell upon this story of Uganda’s inspiration, I saw three stories in one newspaper talking about sums of money being earned by Ugandans -Ushs100billion, Ushs15billion and Ushs400million – yet none of these will ever be converted into bicycle manufacture, assembly or anything similar anywhere in the country.

Wait! Wait! What is the most notable bicycle story YOU can think of…? Yes! The one in which Permanent Secretary John Kashaka was convicted over the sham importation of bicycles worth Ushs4billion, right?

You would probably have been less confused about it if the 70,000 bicycles in question there had been ordered direct from the Roadmaster Assembly Plant in Nalukolongo, wouldn’t you?

But according to the Public Procurement and Disposal Authority (PPDA) Investigation Report into the matter, Roadmaster was not even one of the bidders that successfully submitted bids – which list included names such as “Nile Fishing Company Limited and Shinyanga Emporium”.

I swear – go to this link for the full report  and see for yourself!

Yet, in March 2011, Roadmaster Cycles appeared in press reports alongside John Kashaka as he officiated at the distribution of 5,200 bicycles to Parish Chiefs (LCs). The bicycles, read the report, were worth Ushs669million (each just over Ushs128,000 – about a tenth of the cost of Fred’s Bicycles…) – and were distributed at the Roadmaster premises.
Exactly one year later, Roadmaster Cycles registered a complaint with the PPDA because the company had reportedly submitted the lowest bid of Ushs5.2billion for the supply of 30,000 bicycles, but the tender had gone to the wrongly named (for this purpose) Nile Fishing Company Limited who had won the tender to supply the bikes at Ushs6.4billion…
According to press reports, the Permanent Secretary who had replaced Kashaka, Patrick Mutabwire, said Roadmaster had no basis for complaint; see, under the winning bid: “Each bicycle would be delivered here at about US$85 (about Ushs200,000) yet on the open market they go for Ushs400,000 each…” (yet just a year prior to that, they had cost Ushs128,000 each!)
Bicycles can really make you go dizzy…

shoeless in Kampala while wondering: exactly how do other people afford these shoes?

I am not pessimistic but I find it hard to believe that there are people in the towns I live in who save up money over a period of many months in order to buy themselves a new pair of shoes.
The thought first occurred when a few months ago, having saved up what I thought was enough money to buy a pair of my own, I went over to the Bata shop nearest to me and tried to convert my money into leather cladding. I didn’t expect it to be a complicated affair, since I had easily done it before with relative success a number of times – each a few years apart.
For years, Bata has been my first choice of call because they seemed to be Ugandan, having been here through thick and thin – and even when I discovered that the company was Czechoslovakian in origin I stuck with them.
There was a time when their products were drab and depressing, and the butt of our school-day attacks on one another; in our stupid ignorance, we looked down on anyone who wore the canvass cloth, rubber-soled shoes we called ‘Sekatawa’.
The name arose after a legend that told of how the heroic Issa Sekatawa once ripped up his rare soccer boots during a game and opted for a nearby pair of Bata canvass shoes with which he scored a crucial game-winner.
Rather than pour accolades all over the shoes, silly schoolboys regarded them with scorn because they were cheap and easily attainable in the days when imported products were a sign of affluence and importance.
Safari BootWe regarded Safari boots in similarly low, if not lower, stead and woe betided (for real – you can google it) any young man who turned up at school in these boots.
Early into my adulthood, I bought a couple of imported shoes in Kampala then only bought shoes when I travelled to places that offered them affordably in plentiful variety, until somewhere along the way Bata increased their menu offering of shoes. I deliberately changed policy and began buying shoes only from them (the Czech angle aside).
They seemed to always stock the sturdy type of shoes and boots that my feet felt comfortable in, as opposed to the dainty, pointy-toed styles most coxcombs went for, at sensible prices.
Until a couple of months ago, when I found myself in the third Bata shop in a row, in Kampala, before realising a pattern in my failure to spend money on shoes.
Under intense interrogation, a shop attendant in that shop buckled and revealed that the company “no longer” stocked shoes larger than a regular size 10. Feeling guilty of having feet larger than necessary, I slunk off to a nearby shoe shop and tried to dispose of my earnings there, but failed to find the style of shoes I needed.
Pointing at a pair closest to my preferred style, I asked to try them on and as the attendant retreated to the stock room to find my size I enquired about the cost and was rattled.
Eight Hundred Thousand Shillings?!
“Not the entire shelf,” I attempted to joke, “just this one pair!”
The remaining shop attendant didn’t get it, and the indignation in my voice raised the attention of a lady at the high table who could only have been the imperious shop owner.
“What’s the problem?”
“These shoes are too expensive! Eight Hundred Thousand Shillings?!” I charged.
“Hmmm! People buy them,” she said, and turned back to her business. I left the shop at that pace one does when expecting that bargaining callback but none came my way.
For the next three hours I visited a number of clothing (and shoe) shops in malls and arcades through the city just to confirm that, indeed, people were buying shoes at these prices and by closing time in the evening I was soundly flabbergasted.
I even found shoes going for one and a half million shillings! And the shop attendants were incredulous over my astonishment.
“What was the big deal?” they generally retorted, “People buy them!”
I was licked. The mathematics involved in spending Ushs1million on a pair of shoes required one to earn much more money than I considered to be ’normal’.
And the number of shops comfortably selling shoes at these rates seemed to be much more in number than the people that I expected to be earning such amounts.
I have made many enquiries into the matter and have found very few people willing to confess that they spend so much on shoes in Kampala, so who is buying these shoes? How much do they earn per month, and how much of that do they save up before making their purchases? Do they also invest in things like pre-processing plants in rural Uganda? Is the money spent on shoes the left-overs of their purchases of stocks on the Securities Exchange? How does it work, this economic cycle, and why am I shoeless in all of this?
The investigation continues, but in the time being the people at Bata are losing out in not bringing in shoes in my foot size at prices that people like me can comfortably afford and fit our feet into using our normal monthly earnings.
But everybody else is losing out on a major opportunity to make massive profits turning hides and skins into shoes. The market out there is rich!

watching corruption: all hail the Chinese!

I DON’T find it easy expressing admiration for countries that are not Ugandan but the Chinese today receive a sounding round of applause for being extremely serious about anything that they approach. 

Generalising to include all Chinese is wrong, of course, but as we say in Ug: “Just allow!”

These guys have caught my attention today because of a chap called Yang Dacai, who has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption.

The applause is not just because a thief has been jailed, it’s the manner in which the story was put into motion and followed through that had me marvelling when the story broke on BBC right there in my car (on the radio).

This despicable fellow came to public light because he was smiling at the scene of an accident in which 36 people died in August last year.

People were enraged and the photograph went down the Social Media tubes at the speed of a tweet. I didn’t see it nor hear of the outrage, mostly because at that time in Uganda we were probably engulfed in some issue or another – perhaps embezzlement charges to do with Kazinda (I can’t even remember his second name as I type this) or Christopher Obey.

But, this fellow’s wrongly implemented smile wasn’t the only issue.

Some people looked at the photographs and then at more photos of the same guy and then started asking, “How come he has so many different watches?” which question turned into, “How come that guy’s different watches are all so expensive?”

The graphic put up on the BBC website tells you how serious this is:

The many watchfaces of Yang Dacai – BBC Photo

Brother Wristwatch, meanwhile, is not a major public figure – he was just the head of some government work safety body in Shanxi Province<— yeah, I had also never heard of this province before.

Got to the part in the story that reads, <<Yang Dacai was accused of taking bribes and “holding a huge amount of property”, state media said. He admitted taking bribes and said he could not explain how his immense family fortune worth 5m yuan ($817,000; £527,195) came about.>>?

US$817,000 = 14 years in prison.

As a percentage of China’s GDP, that’s 0.0000111643%. <—I am serious – I double checked the mathematics six different ways.

Again, US$817,000=14 years in prison.

And the evidence used to begin the investigation was simply that first photograph, followed by a careful perusal of many other photos in which the watches were clearly spotted.

And all this was started by civilians banging kaboozi.

How can you not admire this?

Next? Are you going to go back over the years of newspaper coverage and society shows on TV in Uganda to get people to explain where their cars and houses have come from?

You, yes, YOU!

I thought so.

But another thing – this week Dacai was charged, but he was first fired last year for the inane smiling he did, and after investigations had run a good course, he was also kicked out of the Communist Party.

Applause, applause! It turns out that your political party won’t protect you when you are suspected to be corrupt – they throw you out.

And NO, before you interject with the thought this this was just a lowly member of the Communist Party thrown to the fishes so that China can claim to be serious about corruption, the following are also under probe right now:

Jiang Jiemin, former head of the China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s biggest Oil giant; Bo Xilai, Party Head in Chongqing;

Should I ask again what you are going to do?

I won’t ask, but I’ll tell you what some senior government officials in China did: they stopped wearing wristwatches. And it’s so serious that, “global luxury watch sales have seen double digit falls in demand from China and Hong Kong, two of the top markets…”

THAT story is here:

My hands are hurting from all the applause right now, but the pain inside me from how little we are doing over here is much, much greater.