uganda needs to stop missing events and meetings…employ some smarter thinking to really bag the benefits

LAST week we had the superb fortune of hosting, as a nation, an ICT summit called the Innovation Africa Digital Summit, themed “Smarter Thinking“.

I had to personally attend it for a number of reasons, chief among which was the fact that when the event was first planned it was set for Abuja, Nigeria in March, and I declined the invitation to spend large amounts travelling to attend it.

That first announcement said the Summit would “represent the future direction of ICT growth and development in Africa…” and went on to promise “an intimate gathering of 350 key decision makers including policy makers, Regulators, Communication Service Providers and Major End Users of ICT from across Africa along with a carefully selected portfolio of International Solution Providers…”

It was an important event by all accounts, but I wasn’t in a position, then, to afford the air ticket to and accommodation in Nigeria, regardless of which hat I used. I made it clear, though, that I could have benefitted but… (dot, dot, dot.) I communicated this and stated how Uganda was a much better venue for such an event, for various reasons.

Believe it or not, the Abuja plan was cancelled after Nigeria decided to do some repair works on their runway that diverted flights to Kaduna city – 160 kilometres away from the Abuja capital. Nigeria offered to escort travellers on guarded buses to avert fears of insecurity but the gesture wasn’t helpful.

The Summit was moved to a new location – Kampala, Uganda! Within a short time a new date was chosen and the venue negotiated to the Speke Resort Munyonyo.

We had no excuses to present any more for not attending – especially after being told which people from which companies in ICT and Development would be attending.

The event happened, officially opened by the Minister of ICT and National Guidance, who elucidated quite well Uganda’s aspirations for the sector and innovation. A number of delegates were markedly impressed by his remarks, and the organisers were happy that he stayed on longer than initially planned, taking a keen interest in the event itself.

And then we went into the meat of things. I began to worry when I noticed, during the coffee breaks, that a number of name tags remained uncollected at the entrance. Name tags are provided at these events so that people can quickly identify each other and start talking business with little delay.

The objective of these expos and summits is just that – putting people together so they can trade: buyers meet sellers; people who need solutions, products and services meet people who supply solutions, products and services.

Inside the official meeting rooms presentations are made introducing or explaining these solutions, products and services, and the people in the room get to ask questions or interact with the providers. The providers take note of the queries and comments so they make changes to suit their (potential) customers, and world trade flows.

The summit last week attracted about 200 delegates (including the Ugandans) with very impressive profiles. Large companies supplying telecom and satellite solutions sent their Board Chairpersons, Managing Directors, Sales Directors and other decision-makers here to meet with other decision makers from across Africa.

When I checked through the uncollected name tags, I noticed that ALL OF THEM were of Ugandans. The people closest to the event had failed to make it over – in spite of free access, proximity, and massive amounts of opportunity.

At one point, I found myself soothing two participants who had flown in from Dubai and were disappointed to have met, from Uganda, a couple of secretaries and junior officers with neither decision-making powers nor technical appreciation of the solutions they were offering.

One of them represented a company with a US$900million sales portfolio, the other US$700million (I googled, to be sure).

They reminded me of a similar event a couple of years ago, again at Munyonyo and called ‘Innovation Africa’, at which I heard similar complaints. At that event there were set Business-to-Business meetings where buyers and sellers were put together for thirty minutes each to do speed-dating.

Most tables were extremely busy except for one that I will not name. It was deeply disappointing.

That event had drawn in cabinet ministers and other senior officials from across Africa. The same event a year before had been held in Rwanda and led to the establishment of a laptop assembly plant there. (Which laptops are now being used by children in Rwanda).

Two of the groups had hoped to hold discussions with high level officials to exploit innovation and manufacturing opportunities here. When we held discussions in the evenings over drinks and during coffee breaks, there was great promise; but when the officialdom started, nobody turned up.

It is confounding.

One of the delegates wrote me a couple of months later to say he had chosen to pursue an opportunity in a southern African country instead of Uganda, because that country had shown serious interest and followed up their discussions.

After the event, the country’s Diplomatic Mission had made contact with the headquarters of the company this delegate hailed from, and sent their Commercial Attache to do more groundwork. Then, at a subsequent event, that country had another different official meet with a representative of the company and took them out to dinner.

To cut a long story short, they bagged the deal.

This delegate outlined to me how Uganda was losing out simply because we appear not to understand how to complete the chain that links marketing and sales, or activity to results.

He had spoken with different officials here during the Innovation Africa event, but his follow up emails had gone unreplied for months. Eventually, he got through to the Ministry on phone but couldn’t get transferred to the person whose card he had.

“You don’t have his mobile? Please call him on his office line,” he got told. Having gotten up at a very inconvenient hour to make the phone call because of the time difference, he was quite irritated and dropped Uganda.

The southern African country he chose speaks a different language from his own, is further to reach by air than Uganda is, and doesn’t have quite the same climate and other attractions that we offer. But he made the decision to channel business there because he had tried quite hard and failed to bring it here.

He was complaining to me because he really felt that we could have done better. He was right.

Well, later this year, in September, Uganda will be hosting another massive gathering of ICT people, at ‘Capacity Africa 2017‘. They were here last year and loved it so much they chose to return instead of rotate to another African country.

If we don’t plan ahead, send the right people, say the right things, follow up with the right intent and seriousness, employing ‘Smarter Thinking’, then we have only ourselves to blame for failing Uganda.