Thoughts on Uganda

July 10, 2008 · Print This Article

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I was in Uganda from June 29-July 6. I was there to visit two non-profit organizations I have been involved with and contributed funds to in the past. It was my first visit to Africa, and definitely will not be my last.

Uganda really is a beautiful country. It has lots of challenges, yet lots of real opportunities. Seeing the extreme poverty that exists there first hand was difficult, yet instructive and very helpful to my understanding of the issue. 89% of Ugandans are currently subsistence farmers, so a great majority of the population lives in rural villages. It was very common to see families of 6 to 8 living in mud and stick one-room shacks with tin or grass roofs with dried dung floors with no running water, toilet, or electricity. The primary school we visited in Mityana in the West had neither windows nor doors and had dirt floors.

Even more difficult is the realization that the difficulty of the living conditions I saw in the rural areas pale in comparison to those in the refugee camps 300 miles to the north in Northern Uganda, centered around Gulu which was the center for the LRA activity, which has significantly calmed since the 90s. I was amazed at the extent to which the children and most adults living in these most difficult conditions maintain such a level of happiness and non-complaint.

It was a bit unnerving to see out front of every bank and gas station an armed security guard with a rifle or shotgun. The traffic is absolutely insane, enhanced by the pavement ending at times. At one point we were passing a car that was passing another truck, and got driven into the shoulder on the other side of the road. That type of experience was common. There are no medians and the highways are all two lanes. There are just three stop lights in Kampala and none elsewhere in the country.

The thousands of Boda Bodas (motorcycles) and Matatus (bus taxis) all over and the pedestrians crossing allover add to the confusion. And not to mention the cows, which are often in the road calmly walking across. Cows and goats tend to be tied up to the side of the roads so they can be used for mowing. Babies run around naked or just wearing shirts, often with no parents in sight, and kids from 3 to 12 wearing bright purple, yellow, green, or blue school uniforms can be seen walking along the side of the roads for miles around 8am and 5pm each day. The kids would often smile and yell out “Muzungu” which means white person when we drove by.

The current Museveni administration has been in power since 1986 and while it seems to be succeeding in providing some basic services, the roads are still very spotty and the electrical grids shut off a few hours per day outside Kampala. Many are calling for him to leave, not because he’s doing a horrible job but because he’s been in power 22 years. They seem to have a good freedom of speech there and an opposition newspaper. People we spoke to were not shy to offer their criticisms. Many people were speaking about Mugabe and his visit to the African Union last week and hoping for his ouster.

The economy is growing. The competition between CelTel, Warid, Uganda Telecom, and MTN for cell phone was intense. All the services sell Airtime Credits rather than monthly subscriptions since most Ugandans do not have a fixed postal address nor a credit card. These four companies advertise literally everywhere, including painting in exchange for compensation thousands and thousands of buildings and homes along the side of all the roads.

Uganda now has GPRS service which allowed me to access my Blackberry email without a problem most of the time even in very rural areas.

They also are deploying 3G service in the major cities. I saw a number of iPhones there among lawyers and professionals. The biggest employer in Uganda is interestingly Coca Cola. There are tremendous opportunities to invest in alternative energy production, especially in regards to biomass. Roey and I had a chance to visit Torero Cement, the largest cement factory in Uganda on Friday as he’s working with them to supply biomass so they can reduce their coal usage. The economy remains a cash economy. I did not find a single store or company that accepted credit cards outside of the airport.

We stayed with an investment banker who runs Daro Capital on Friday night in Kampala. He help a get together of a group of technology execs and professionals on Tuesday night, including a gentleman who is starting an SMS marketing service. I spoke to a number of people to get a sense of the ripeness for email marketing. Rough statistics, but it seems right now about 25pc of Ugandans have email addresses, though most check them via Internet Cafes. Broadband access is only available via Satellite at a cost of USD$1000 per month, so even the professional class and wealthy have only dial up or GPRS access. A T1 is being installed in Uganda in 2009 after which access will go substantially up.

We visited Entebbe and Kampala on Day 1, Mityana on Day 2, Mbale on Day 3 and 4, and Torrero on Day 5, and Mukono on Day 6. We also drove though Jinja and saw the source of the Nile river.

In Mityana, we visited Nourish International Students working at Naama Millennium School, a school funded by Dr. Christopher Kigongo, who now lives in Durham most of the year and was the former Director of Health Education for Uganda. In Mbale, we visited the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities (FDNC) which has a vocational school and special needs school founded by Samuel Watulatsu, who presented at a Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup at our house in Chapel Hill last October.

On the way there I spent a day layover in Dubai. Dubai is one of the 7 emirates in the United Arab Emirates, so it’s the size of a county and has 6-7 cities in it, that have names like “Internet City, Media City, and Sports City.” The amount of construction and cranes there was immense. The Emirate boasts an indoor skiing area, and man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree and one in the share of the world. They have built the largest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, shown in picture 4. It is still being finished. When it is done next year it will be 166 floors and 2100 feet tall.

Bottom line, the experience has caused me to be even more dedicated toward spending the rest of my life working to increase access to education, healthcare, food, and technology and working toward ending warfare and ensuring sustainability. I look forward to going back again soon.

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