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!

business should lead government in east african integration


Entebbe from newvision.co.ug
Photo from http://www.newvision.co.ug

HEADING out to a regional meeting in Arusha last week to discuss the importance of business over politics regardless of how related the two realms are, I sweltered in the warm air of Entebbe International Airport and wondered – as usual – why it was so hot inside the terminal building.

I always refer to this as a ‘phenomenon’ because dictionaries define the word as, variously, “a remarkable person, thing, or event” and “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question”.

You would think that the Departure Lounge of an International Airport in a tropical country would be fitted out with functional air conditioning but the person in charge of this has been unconvinced for a while. I say unconvinced because there are some six-foot high air conditioning machines standing on the floor but they don’t get switched on.

We will return to this shortly – but at another airport.

Normally, by the time you are at the Departure Gates you will have spent time juggling toy cups in the one eatery at the airport, while trying not to buy the grossly overpriced food prepared by people whose interest in the word ‘gourmet’ cannot possibly go beyond how to score it in Scrabble.

It is confounding. The very best airports in the world, the ones that enjoy visitor numbers and positive reviews in the millions and hence boost their economies, deliberately do the opposite of this.

And they do not necessarily use government monies – inviting ten restaurant chains to set up outlets there with sensible, tasty, properly priced food seems to be easy. Plugging in air conditioning machines and fans even more easy.

During our meetings in Arusha, I didn’t broach the topic directly but most of our discussion was around how to integrate business into regional integration and how handy organisations like the East African Business Council could be in doing this.

We said all the right things – including how we would “foster sustained economic growth and prosperity in the region” and “promote the interests of the EAC business community” plus “create new business opportunities” while “enhancing global competitiveness of EAC businesses”…

On our way out through Kilimanjaro Airport I followed the directional signs to the airport restaurant and found myself on the top (first) floor, quite alone. The three tables present seemed to have been procured from someone’s 1980s dining room, so I made myself at home.

Twenty minutes later I discovered there was no interest in me or the potential outflow of cash from my wallet and laptop bag. I didn’t feel disrespected, but asked for help when two cleaners turned up nearby.

One sacrificed her precious time and sent me downstairs using halting speech while her body language sent me further away in a manner I can’t repeat in polite society.

At the cafe downstairs a waitress eventually walked over to us, most likely because we made noises in her direction, and sullenly agreed to take our orders but only if we paid in advance since their electronic systems were in limbo.

We forced her to take our money and sat back to wait for the meals as ordered. Some time later, an Asian couple walked in and took a table behind us. As the gentleman walked past us towards our sullen waitress, she hailed out a jolly: “Hi!”

I was alarmed, and turned back sharply in case she was suffering a medical emergency. My colleague, Jim Mwine Kabeho, was also quite taken aback. Our jaws dropped to the ground as we watched her miraculous transformation.

She engaged the Asian man as if they were long lost friends, offering various suggestions for the couple’s meals (she had told us: “You can have, like, Burgers but with no chips. Potatoes are finished.”) and lighting up the area with a wide smile.

The Asian wife walked up and asked her husband, “What is the woman saying?” in a manner I considered rude but who was I to protest?

Completing our dismal meal was quite an ordeal, as we had to keep asking for condiments that she brought us one by one, slapping them onto the table as if to ward us off in the future.

Eventually we left her station and went to the Departure Gate where, once again, the air conditioning phenomenon returned.

We were sweating within minutes. The two of us had chosen a spot right next to the six-foot high air conditioning units but they were simply not switched on.

Jim gave way after a while and walked past paying passengers fanning themselves with newspapers and baseball caps, till he got to the Security personnel – the only staff in view – to demand that the situation be fixed.

He was prepared for a difficult but heated discussion and stood at full height in case it escalated into a fight.

“Eh?” asked the young security officer, “Yours is not on?”

And that’s when Jim noticed that it was much cooler in that area where they make you take off your belts and shoes and unpack your underwear because the scanner saw something in your suitcase.

The security chap walked across the room and flicked a switch, then returned to give Jim a thumbs-up.

Ten minutes later, the room had cooled down.

Is that what’s missing at Entebbe Airport? Someone to flick a switch so the air conditioning can start running? Where are the switches for the improved restaurant facilities? And the ones to increase the number of sockets so we can plug in devices as we await flights?

Why are these things off, anyway?