this year, let’s get the youngsters to save (for) Uganda

this year, let’s get the youngsters to save (for) Uganda

AT some point in December I was gallivanting round my neighbourhood and spotted a pile of curious-looking little boxes in a carpentry workshop.

My first thought was that they were some type of ‘Piggy Bank’ savings box made in a rudimentary but apparently effective manner for the use of little children. I had no clue what gave cause to that being the first option to come to mind, as I had been feeling irritated for months by the specific direction commercial bank advertising here takes.

I have watched this for years, and like any other ordinary Ugandan lacking in astute personal finance skills, have fallen prey. See, we don’t encourage saving money as much as we do spending it in this country.

As late as November 2017 I was catching radio adverts with high tone melodious backdrops to hyper lively voices enticing people to apply for loans to “win” stuff like “free TVs and airtime”.

The concept has always angered me especially because we appear to have a large population of people who are gainfully employed to levels that enable them to sign up for these loans, and yet not insufficiently intelligent to avoid the debt trap.

I have imagined many a time before that commercial banks would be better served by encouraging people to save more money and get them to take loans for things that will enable them to earn the money they need to pay back with interest. But I am no banker and certainly not an economist of the lofty levels that cause banks to make huge profits, so I probably can’t advise them properly.

If life were fair, though, the authority that supervises public advertising – like the Uganda Advertising Authority (it doesn’t exist – we have the private-sector Uganda Advertising Association instead) would monitor and veto all advertising that hoodwinks people in any small measure.

If life were fair there would certainly be no hope for a campaign that gets people to participate in a lottery while becoming indentured for a major portion of their productive future.

This stuff went through my mind swiftly as I walked over to the carpenters with the little boxes to establish what they were for – and I was blown away by the declaration that they were “Savings Boxes”!

The carpenters were surprised at my demand that they explain their motivation for making those particular items. The plain little boxes, made of the cheapest wood possible and clearly put together from off-cuts, cost just Ushs2,000 each.

I bought the entire lot and have gone back thrice since in four weeks.

My mission? To distribute as many of the boxes as possible to all nieces and nephews I come across in the next few weeks, along with a quick tutorial in saving money and a pledge from them that they would spend 2018 filling their allotted boxes with savings. They also get to colour and decorate their boxes so that they are personalised and fun to own.

Their parents are conscripts, and will find themselves having to provide pocket money and other revenue in exchange for work done by the children while avoiding child labour breaches. Weekend outings will not involve money being spent on fast food and sweets, but put into the hands of the children with reminders that they should keep some for insertion into the savings boxes.

My experiences with this approach have been so successful that I don’t directly suffer expenses such as mobile phone and airtime purchases. The children have allowances of their own that they bank daily using a journal system.

It is satisfying to see it in action – as first happened when one rolled out a ledger and ordered for an iPhone online – but also inconvenient when they rack up high numbers and come collecting together!

Nevertheless, while I keep lowering the radio volume when commercial bank adverts start encouraging people to take loans to spend on consumables, I will also be pushing this savings box initiative so these little ones are less likely to enter into the debt traps that many of our lives have become.

The next step in my plan will involve teaching them about interest on savings. By coincidence this week, one of my colleagues at work, Conrad Van Niekerk (a charming fellow of South African origin but Ugandan spirit) told us of the practical lessons his mother – a banker – taught him.

Once, when he had just left home and was setting himself up, he borrowed 600 Rand from her to buy a television, and saved up over a few months to pay her back. When he hit the mark he walked into her bank office proudly and handed her the money in full, beaming with pride at how impressed she would be.

She took it, gave him a warm motherly smile, and then replaced it with the seriousness of a banker, “That should be 623 Rand and twelve cents – but you can keep the 12 cents!”

He paid the interest.

My children have no idea how soon that story is coming their way…but with THEM earning the interest from their savings, rather than having to pay it when they borrow money.

my uber guy is going to parliament


uber-redesign-russellwarwickJUST before Janani Luwum Day I took a short Uber to my last meeting of the day and chose not to plug in my earphones. I do that, sometimes, to listen from somebody fresh and, in this case, certainly more interesting than most people in the meeting I had just been discharged from.

Public transport operators fit in this category just as bartenders in movies do, and my chap that evening did not disappoint. I can’t recall why he got to musing over who pays for our national holidays and celebrations, but he was quite disturbed.

He wasn’t too bothered by the loss of revenue facing him because of the public holiday, he said. His concern was that somewhere, somehow, the money he spends on taxes was not being utilised properly. Every time he tuned into the news and saw government officials making speeches, he said, in front of crowds under marquees and tents, he felt he was losing money.

He reeled off a few random days in his recent past that had him thinking this, including Tarehe Sita Day.

Besides, he pondered, was he really expected to go to Church the next day to celebrate the late Archbishop Janani Luwum?

I was impressed by his thought process and pleased that I hadn’t plugged those earphones in. We had a brief discussion in which I told him he should take charge of his affairs and deal with his concerns as a good citizen should.

Voicing these concerns was a good beginning. Next, he needed to go straight to the people who determine how his taxes get spent. Luckily I didn’t need to detail for him how he and I actually fund the government; he struck me as being a university graduate with some enterprise that allowed him to also drive an Uber.

Nevertheless, like most of us he didn’t know which government office paid for all these events – but I had a clue and explained the allocation ministry by ministry for the most obvious events. Then I advised him to occasionally visit websites like www.budget.go.ug to see in real-time where the government is spending money and how.

Then, I suggested, he needed to find his Member of Parliament and tell him what he – the tax-paying citizen driving the Uber by which the government collects from fuel, airtime and corporation taxes – preferred for the money to be spent on.

This was the perfect time to engage in that exercise, I explained, as the national budget for the next financial year was in the process of being finalised. The key was to get to his MP, which detail he wasn’t sure of to start with, prompting a little more discussion of elementary civics. (This subject should be taught right from nursery school in this country.)

By then we had arrived at my destination and I feared it would be too complex for me to go into the nitty gritty of the process without losing my shirt to Uber waiting fees, so I suggested he follow the first step and establish exactly who his Member of Parliament is through www.parliament.go.ug.

I was pleasantly surprised when he emailed me a week later (for real!) to say he had discovered his MP was Paul Kato Lubwama (Independent). I was also saddened that the exercise had come to a seemingly abrupt end because the gentleman’s email address was not listed. His phone number was, though, so I hope my Uber guy invested in the airtime necessary to follow his concerns through to some end and prove that the citizen’s duty was carried out.

Even if he did stop at failing to send an email, this time round, my Uber guy had learnt something new quite at random and worked at it to make a difference to his society and his country.

shiyaya-easter-2017-flyer

things are tight


Things are Tight!
Walking through a number of malls, coffee shops and restaurants at random these three weeks past revealed them to be alarmingly empty most hours. I made it a point to drop in on at least three different popular eating places at lunch time thrice a week and the numbers were just not there.
At one restaurant I dawdled a while over a bottle of water and the free Wi-Fi and observed only two other people having a meal for lunch, and one pizza being carried out by a delivery man.
A most generous assessment would put those three meals plus my bottle of water at just over a hundred thousand shillings in revenue for that hour. During that time, the staff were in place, electricity was powering the lights, fridges and other equipment, and there were certainly other costs running in the background.
The emptiness in these places is strange because we expect the Christmas season to have started off in earnest, what with the children being on vacation. But it should not be surprising that this is happening. The economic forecasts have been telling us this for months, and whereas we have talked about it before, we need to go on talking about it and changing our habits.
Perhaps the absence of patrons means that they have read the signs and reacted wisely by adjusting their spending.
Personally, I am now packing more of my own home made meals and avoiding fuel-based travel whenever possible, besides other measures.
If many more people react this way then the malls, coffee shops and restaurants should be reading the signals and changing their methods as well. This is the time for them to look more closely at their running costs and start switching off lights,
Switching off lights is no small matter. Those small leakages – business or personal – tend to pile up. In these difficult days we all need to keep an eye on the small stuff because we cannot afford to waste anything any more. For businesses, it is now appropriate to run campaigns within the company for all staff to adopt prudent ways of utilising resources, and hope that they take a hint and carry the habits home with them, rather than the office sundries.
Also, the commercial places should start shopping wisely for their supplies, goods and sundries. in one of the hotels I passed through this week I was bemused to find they had laid out butter cubes imported from the Netherlands.
This time I didn’t whip up a froth at the manager to explain that if they had bought their butter from a local source then perhaps the owners of the cows that supplied the milk, plus the processors of the butter, plus the company that supplied it would have enough money to dine at his or her establishment.
Of course we understand that the procurement cycle might mean that they already have full stores, but now is the time to do some window shopping for cheaper stuff sourced locally just in case this dry financial spell runs on for too long.
And, finally, there is a lot of creativity needed now. The global business gurus always argue that times of difficulty call for an increase in marketing activities. This is not obvious to everyone, so it needs a little explaining because it applies both to businesses and individuals:
Right now we are competing for a small amount of money going around. The best way to increase your chances of getting any of it is to be highly visible or squarely in the way of its path. If you’re a business, advertise more, run more activities and events of a visibly creative nature and make your customers offers they cannot refuse.
If you’re just an individual seeking an income, perform harder at work so that you stand out and avoid being dropped when downsizing begins – which is very likely soon! Or network harder with the right people so that should there be any opportunity for you to earn more, you get it.
Things are tight, people, but we can work round them and do more than just survive.

a round of applause for the budget.go.ug guys at the ministry of finance, Uganda!


PLEASE join me in applauding the technocrats in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development for their performance over the last couple of months – particularly as evidenced by the website budget.go.ug.
Mind you, I am not applauding them simply because of the budget reading the other day – that is just one event in the cycle, as we have discussed before.
That website has been, and continues to be, quite useful to the people who like data and take pleasure in comparing figures and text to do things such as extrapolation, or even just to use the word in conversations such as these.
The technocrats in the ministry who we ordinary members of the general public never get to see or hear about have put together their gallant efforts not just to present the voluminous document that constituted the speeches of the President and Finance Minister on Thursday, and the budget in its entirety, but this – budget.go.ug.
This tool is highly significant in the information age we live in because it practically puts the budget in our hands in a manner we, the educated elite with internet access, can make sensible use of.
You really should go over there to get the details on your own, but consider that it provides budget information going all the way back to 2003!
Unlike many government departments that have websites and rarely use them for even the most basic of functions (provide up to date information), the people that run budget.go.ug have even been interactive and respond to queries and comments that one puts into the relevant sections of the site.
You see, the true test of a functional and useful digital site is in its integration into the other arms or sections of one’s business or operation. If you type a comment into a website comment box and get back an email that contains a phone number, and then call up that phone number with an issue that is handled and you get a call back – the system works!
On budget day itself, I found a problem accessing some data and dialled a mobile phone number that I had acquired in that process, and conducted some sensible human interaction that provided information I could work with and believe – all within a matter of minutes!
Whereas it is very easy every day to issue blank statements such as “Government people don’t work” and “Government is useless”, the facts on the ground are very, very different when one interfaces with budget.go.ug.
Those who didn’t wait for the speech read out on the day of the budget reading or the headlines the day after, and who took intellectual time off to visit this website and keep track of its updates cannot have many complaints.
The site is so detailed in presentation, for instance, that one can check to see exactly how much money was released to a parish or sub-county in one of those remote districts that “we” keep joking and complaining about.
Not only that, the dashboard on the site tells you when the money was disbursed, who is responsible for it, and whether the money has been spent or not! THAT is full transparency and accountability.
Anyone with a complaint about a borehole or health centre, for instance, can go into the tool on that page to first check exactly where the problem might be before organising a demonstration or political rally.
But besides that, if you have a comment or query to make and probably don’t know your local official, you can post the comment right there into the website and have it published right away, for the ministry people to follow up on
(I think and hope).
Plus (this list can go on and on), the website also allows you to create alerts so that when updates are made to budgetary items from previous years or the current one, you get an email into your inbox or an SMS.
And, best of all, budget.go.ug promises that, “The Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development is working to ensure those responsible for the outputs (Commissioners, Directors and Permanent Secretaries) register to receive relevant updates and respond to your feedback.”
All these people, ladies and gentlemen, are Ugandans working for the Government of Uganda, for the good of the people of Uganda! Would that they could be lined up for the next medals being distributed…