promoting and buying Ugandan: we need to walk our talk

Ladies and gentlemen, we have to start walking our talk.

The Friday before last, the Uganda Communications Commission hosted us to the Annual Communications Innovation Awards (ACIA) 2014 themed ‘ICT Innovation for National Development’.

I skipped lunch that day, for an unrelated reason, eventually changed into one of my nice Ugandan-made shirts, and made my way to the exhibition preceding the main event. I was full of hope because an innovation I was involved in had been nominated for an award.

A sharp kick of hunger stopped me short at a supermarket where I proceeded to implement this difficult personal policy of buying Ugandan if the item available is of a quality approaching close-to the imported equivalent I needed. My pals laugh at me but I always explain that, for instance, Uganda does not make Land Rovers so my choice of car is left untouched.

This time all I wanted was a small packet of crisps to tide me by till dinner. I was clearly not going to buy the ones in see-through kaveera because while walking through a slum with a well-meaning Pastor some years ago, I found out how those are made. He was showing me round his labour of love slum project when we turned a sharp corner and almost fell over a little boy engaged in some public toilet activity. This, a few metres from a woman, presumably his mother, deep frying crisps in a pan on a sigiri next to a small table with the buveera awaiting to be filled. 

Health and safety issues aside, I generally don’t eat too many crisps but on this day found a brand called Emondi, that stood as proudly on those shelves as the Tropical Heat and Pringles ranges did. I swiped them and drove to the exhibition, and by the time I had arrived had only managed to chew through a couple of handfuls and to this day cannot understand why they were so tasteless in packaging so promising.

Walking through the exhibition, however, lifted my spirits and distracted me from the hunger as I quickly browsed the Ugandan offerings of innovation in ICT and gained hope once again that not all is lost. Sticking with the theme, the keynote speaker was not some imported talent or celebrity, but a Ugandan working at Microsoft in a senior capacity – Ivan Lumala.

I pulled at my Ugandan-made collar a little bit and applauded the fellow for being what he was and representing me wherever he goes. All seemed to flow smoothly – except for some flies in the honey: Ignoring the suggestion at my table that the Serena Kampala had imported waiting staff from Kenya for the night, I applauded lead entertainer Myko Ouma for his fantastic guitar work but stopped short when I realised that his repertoire consisted of Sade, Jonathan Butler, Phil Collins…WHY? 

ImageBut that was not as bad as the performance of a one Eddie Kenzo (pictured being a pain on the stage elsewhere) whose Sitya Loss presented some infants gyrating on-stage in a disturbingly adult manner. As I said, go Ugandan only if the item is of a quality good enough.   

Someone at my table laughed at my murmuring and asked me if the menu was even Ugandan; and I made a resolution there and then to suggest that all government events when I am ever put in charge would promote strictly national offerings!

As-if to goad the ire within us at that point, the award nomination call-ups began and the music played when nominations were called up was…South African. Pan Africa, you say?

Okay, a quick Google search using the phrase ‘buy South African procurement rules’ returns the top result “General Procurement Guidelines -2 from the Republic of South Africa Treasury Department ” which contained the simply written paragraph:

“The government has implemented the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act as the foundation on which all procurement activities are to be based. Its aim is to:   (a) advance development of SMMEs and HDIs; …(d) promote local enterprises in specific provinces, in a particular region, in a specific local authority, or in rural areas; and (e) support the local product.

I don’t expect Eddie Kenzo’s music to ever play at a South African national or government event.

Another quick Google search with the phrase ‘buy Ugandan procurement rules’ got me to the Public Procurement Disposal of Public Assets Act two clicks later where the twelve (12) mentions of “local” referred to ‘Local Government’ except for three occasions in 59B. (Reservation schemes) that read ‘local expertise’,’local communities’ and ‘local organisations’.

Reservation schemes? Read the Act and work it out – but obviously it’s easier for the South Africans to buy and promote local. 

get me a soap manufacturer closer to home, please?!



This bottle (pictured above) is related to one of my life-changing decisions this year.

When I was buying it last year it seemed to make sense to me because: a) it was blue in colour b) it carried the words “For Men”.

But even as I picked it off the shelf of City Joy supermarket in Mbuya, I was ruing the absence of a home-made brand that I could use, and felt bad that the Ushs6,000+ I was spending was mostly going to Turkey rather than to a soap manufacturer right here in Kampala, or perhaps in Hoima or Kotido, who might end up spending some of it to send SMS messages using SMS Media or something close to me.

Which is why I am stepping back a little bit to assess more of what the marketing people have gotten us to do with our money, and find ways of changing that for our benefit.

The only things about my bottle of soap, for instance, that claims to be “For Men” are: a) it is blue in colour b) it carries the words “For Men”.

Reading the rest of the text on the back of the bottle and employing the venerable services of Google Search and its cousins Wikipedia et al gave me no indication whatsoever that it would be risky or unsuitable for women, girls or boys to use this product.

“Xtraa Care Body Wash is a combination of effective active ingredients with extracts of Seaweed revives your skin as you shower. It helps to maintain and restore the skin’s natural moisture balance.” reads the top of the paper on the back.

First of all, the damn product’s name is mis-spelt – which irritates me. Then, to my alarm, the grammar is suspect – like you find on those boxes of those shrill sounding toys made in the Far East and sold in supermarkets in Uganda.

“It helps to maintain and restore the skin’s natural moisture balance. A gentle formula to leave you feeling clean and relaxed.”

I haven’t tried bathing with Omo or Nomi or Jireh but I suspect that if I did they would leave me feeling clean and relaxed, as I have noticed over the last thirty-something years tends to happen after I bathe – even when I used to bathe using what we used to call ‘washing soap’.

If the manufacturers of ‘Kisumuluzo’ soap (is it still there?) could write anywhere that it was “a gentle formula to leave you feeling clean and relaxed”, would that be untrue?

Skipping the section of that paper that contained ‘Directions’, because I felt I would have been insulting myself by reading instructions for how to use soap, I went straight to the ingredients:

“Aqua” – this is either actual water or a colour-addition to make the soap light greenish blue in colour, and many sites explain that manufacturers of liquid soap actually mean ‘water’ when they write ‘Aqua’ on the bottle. #ThatIsAll

Sodium Laureth Sulfate” – according to Wikipedia, “an anionic detergent and surfactant found in many personal care products (soaps, shampoos, toothpaste etc.). SLES is an inexpensive and very effective foaming agent… (it is a) surfactant used in many cosmetic products for (its) cleansing and emulsifying properties. (It) behaves similarly to soap.” Basically, it makes the soap foam or bubble up when you mix it with water.

Cocamide DEA” – again, Wikipedia tells us, “It is a viscous liquid and is used as a foaming agent in bath products like shampoos and hand soaps…” It makes the soap foam up or create bubbles when mixed up with water.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine” – same as immediately above. Seriously, it is “used as a foam booster in shampoos” and “to a significant degree has replaced cocamide DEA”, Wikipedia says.

There are thirteen (13) more ingredients and not enough time to google them all for the purpose that brought us here. There is also no indication of the amounts of each and the mixture made.

But let’s note that one of them is “Parfum” which is simply “perfume”. I have even less time left now for this.

Because of the quantities of all the ingredients involved, it is likely that the most expensive thing about this bottle of liquid soap is the combination of the bottle packaging, the label and the glue used to stick the labels on.

If one of these people making soap in garages in Kampala could get their packaging right, they could make us spend Ushs6,000 on 500ml of soap that is “Active” and “For Men”.

Or “For Women”. Or “For Children”. Or “For Married Couples”.

Of course, the same company probably makes other soaps “For Women”, and enough varieties of those that it is not afraid of restricting this particular bottle to only “Men”.

Technically speaking, they are not lying or misleading us when they label the bottle “For Men”, because they haven’t said it’s “Not For Women” or given us any caveats on other genders washing with this soap. 

But does this soap even contain all these ingredients? We have to believe that it does – see, it’s “Mfd by Sera Cosmetics Inc, Turkey. Made in Turkey For RAA Ltd. P.O. BOX No 3355-00506, Nairobi, Kenya.”

A quick internet search of RAA Ltd. wasn’t very useful, as their Facebook Page is only a suggestion page (I think created automatically by Facebook using some web search method) with 9 Likes, and whereas the online Yellow Pages of Kenya lists them it isn’t very revealing.

Does it contain a stamp from the Uganda National Bureau of Standards? No – even though we DO have a standards on toilet soap called “US EAS 186: 2011, Toilet soap – Specification.

So we don’t really know whether it is even genuine soap or not, or whether the mixture of the above chemicals (ingredients) is safe for our use or not? No – we don’t.

Again, therefore, if one of these people making soap in garages in Kampala could get their packaging right, they could make us spend Ushs6,000 on 500ml of soap that is “Active” and “For Men”.

So, stressing my position now: I am looking for a Ugandan soap manufacturer. Any suggestions? Just get me one who has worked out packaging, a good brand name, and the right spellings and grammar on their labelling and marketing materials.

In fact, I can help with the spellings and grammar, and may even overlook it more than I did this Turkish bottle.

Mind you, I bathe A LOT and most of us need to bathe even more than we already do, so the opportunities available here are MASSIVE and we should be serious about this!

walking on tyres – an economic miracle made in Uganda…or sadly not, anymore

Authentic and proudly Ugandan

I own a pair of lugabire (that’s the vernacular name for rubber-tyre sandals or flip-flops).

Keep calm and read on, I am not here boasting about my wardrobe achievements, even though the lugabire are a neat pair. I actually have two pairs – the first being very contrived, with cloth bits and a touch of exotic fine art that elevates them too many levels above the ordinary lugabire that in my childhood I only ever saw beneath the feet of miserable men pushing wheelbarrows.

My authentic pair of lugabire is straightforward, humble, but so decent that I have found myself standing in them at people’s homes over weekends (on informal visits, of course, and strictly with the closest of relatives and friends). I don’t even notice until someone brings it up or I have to make a quick dash in the life-saving direction of a child attempting inadvertent suicide or to a BBQ table. 

The last time someone brought them up in conversation was at my brother’s house, and the person who raised the topic, one Bryo, is a long-time coxcomb fresh (excuse pun, since the vernacular-slang for coxcomb is “mafresho”) from his United States base via his expatriate home, so his view was of even more significance.

“Eh, boss!” he said, with the dramatic pause that we use to give the statement its pidgin strength, “Ng-eh?”

“Yeah!” I replied, half-modest but a little proud that this Nike-, Adidas-, Reebok, Sean-Jean, Hublot-, Armani-and-so-on-and-so-forth wearing fellow had found reason to so clearly pay that lengthy, eloquent three-word phrase of respect for my lugabire.

If you’ve ever seen my feet you will appreciate why I am not one of those must-wear-sandals-at-weekend people. Yet these lugabire bring this out in me because they are comfortable enough to wear and I know the fellows who made them.

I don’t know them in the sense that I can recount their family trees going back any distance; in fact, I don’t even know their names or phone numbers right now. I just know that they are located in Nakawa, just above the place everyone calls “Em-TACK”, on the verandah of a red-brick-tile building with a distinct slant to its front wall up there, that you always see when driving from one traffic jam at the Nakawa-Lugogo lights to the jam at Spear Motors and Stretcher Road junction where the police play their torturous mind-games.

There are about eight men sitting on that verandah up there turning tyres into neat sandals, and they have been doing so for years and years, they say. They were lucky that I was fighting with a mechanic ensconced in that neighbourhood and while retrieving a vehicle from him spent a couple of hours hanging about till they caught my attention. Within ten minutes, I had negotiated two pairs of lugabire out of them at Ushs8,000 each (my wife rarely wears hers but she “likes” them. Mbu.

Anyway, I suspect they think they over-charged me – and I laugh at them (Mbasekeredde, as the late Samson Kisekka would say!) They refused to believe that people like Bryo spend more than US$50 on a pair of sandals.

Still, I activated my lugezi-gezi and advised that they give their sandals a brand name, erect a signpost above their verandah so people could come deliberately to buy their lugabire, and then go down to Capital Shoppers, Game and Shoprite and try to sell them on the shelves there.

Their problem, they said to me, was the supply of tyres. They sometimes have more tyres than they need but mostly they don’t have enough. Their strategy for acquiring these tyres is sitting and waiting for people to dump them there (remember, it’s near a set of jua kali garages).

The conversation returned to me this Monday morning when I saw a photo in The New Vision of a policeman standing above a large heap of rubber tyres SETTING THEM ON FIRE!!!

And not for fun or environmental (I shudder) reasons either:

’The Police in Masaka district have destroyed heaps of used vehicle tyres dumped in Masaka town, saying intelligence reports indicated they would be used in a riot.’

“These tyres were imported from Kampala. We received information that some opposition officials were planning a riot. We do not take risks; we had to take action.” reads a quote attributed to an unnamed source – and it was a good thing that the ‘source’ wasn’t named otherwise (s)he would be the subject of much well-deserved public ridicule.

In the photograph of the Masaka Police boss overseeing the burning of the tyres, there are a couple of youths holding up lugabire, and the story tells of how the youth claimed they had asked the Mayor to grant them the spot for this very purpose.

Would that the District Security Committee had gathered a quick team from the Private Sector Foundation and Enterprise Uganda to quickly mobilise the youth and turn these tyres into a pile of well-labelled lugabire for the likes of you, me or even Bryo to buy!

The political tide in Masaka would have turned somewhat because the issue that ignites the youth to riot would have been sorted out.

In fact, the solution would have put the police in the unique position of arresting any youth found NOT using these tyres to make lugabire and sell them for massive, life-changing profit.  

Unfortunately, everything political in Uganda today is tinged with “opposition” and “riots”; and those hopes of creating a new brand of footwear in Masaka and winning global awards for recycling in an environmental friendly manner while creating wealth and boosting local industry all went up in flames.