I was honoured to be part of, and to moderate high profile panel discussions at the 9th Annual Uganda-UK Trade & Investment Convention (“the Convention”), that was held on 13th September 2019 at the prestigious London Hilton Hotel, on Park Lane, in Mayfair and 14th September at the Troxy in East London 2019.
As a person who was part of the Convention at its onset in September 2011 and from personal experience, knowing how tough it is to organise my compatriots, I must commend Mr Willy Mutenza and his team of volunteers, for their personal sacrifices to consistently steer such a powerful initiative for our country. The Convention has continued to develop and evolve, attracting more quality attendees and by default, enhancing Uganda’s reputation as one of Africa’s most attractive investment destinations.
For me the Convention provides a platform for the UK based Ugandan Diaspora and investors, from all walks of life and professions, who come together once a year, to among others be updated on the economic opportunities back home; network with likeminded entrepreneurs and professionals; seek new business partners; take advantage of public services by Uganda government, that are brought near them (e.g. application for the National ID, dual citizenship etc); and to discuss ways of enacting meaningful economic change for Uganda.
The Convention inspires and mobilises Ugandan talent in the UK
The Convention has been instrumental in inspiring and mobilising the Ugandan talent that is based in the UK and across Europe to contribute towards the economic development of their mother country. Many have returned home and are making a significant contribution to Uganda’s economic space, challenging attitudes and effecting change, one person and institution at a time. I am one of those Ugandans!
In 1999, I left Uganda for the UK to train my mind, sharpen my skills and extend my knowledge. For over a decade, I worked with London’s financial elite building a reputation as one of the top business recovery professionals of African descent in the UK.
After attending the Convention in its maiden year in 2011, I was impressed by the presentations that were made by Dr Maggie Kigozi, the then Executive Director of Uganda Investment Authority. Notwithstanding the challenges that were highlighted by some Ugandan returnees at the time, I was impressed by the economic opportunities in my home country that awaited any interested professional. I was convinced that my aspirations in life would not necessarily be fulfilled through the great professional positions to which I seemed to be pre-occupied with in the UK. I therefore started on the journey to return to Uganda in order to use my skills, knowledge, UK work ethics, savings and international contacts in the service of revitalizing the economic fortunes of my country and its gallant people.
I faced a couple of obstacles when I announced my desire to return home. The most profound one, was the misunderstanding and criticisms of several of my loved ones who didn’t understand that I could refuse to capitalize on the prestige I had supposedly acquired in Britain.
Back in Uganda, I set up a boutique investment consultancy firm which I named Focus on East Africa to link Ugandan investment opportunities to global investors focusing on agribusiness, real estate, healthcare and hospitality sectors. Reluctance from childhood friends was numerous but I have a tough head in many ideals! I spent a lot of money (both my own savings and credit) and energy to establish Focus on East Africa, as a consultancy firm of choice for anyone who wants to invest in Uganda. Unfortunately, the warnings of my beloved ones were verified every day in the field. Finding honest competent Ugandan staff was a challenge as was maintaining financial stability of my company- working capital management was a tough call.
I discovered a less glorious reality than expected and realised that the reputation of Kampala was far from the daily reality of the businesses that operated in this environment. Vanity, emptiness and rivalry reigned in the corridors of powerful institutions. In some sectors (e.g. real estate), while the need was there, aggregate demand was ineffective due to the nascent capital markets and weak nature of the mortgage industry which made availability of long-term financing a dream for many Ugandans.
The project which was initially thought as arduous (as I was forewarned) was becoming insurmountable. So I ended up painfully giving up on my super ambitious project and in 2013 I closed Focus on East Africa. However, I didn’t lose hope and decided to focus on a small aspect of the bigger project. I looked at my experience with Focus on East Africa as a lab experiment which led me to zero down on one sector that would bring much more impact to our people, , i.e. agriculture and “agribusiness”.
Agribusiness as my agenda campaign
Agriculture contributes to both on-farm and off-farm employment and generation of incomes, in every part of rural and urban Uganda, as well as exporting sustainably produced Ugandan food and fibre to consumers around the world. As such, Government of Uganda (hereinafter referred to as “Government”) is responsive to the need to transform the agricultural industry, from being merely a means of attaining food and nutrition self-sufficiency, into a powerful engine of economic growth and prosperity.
The primary production segment of the agricultural industry alone employs more than 65% of the working population, accounts for 24.2% of GDP and 48.93% of export earnings and is the major provider of raw materials for agro-processing industries, as well as the backbone of the country’s food and nutritional security.
The role of the agricultural industry as a way of life is now shifting to a catalyst for broad based economic development and inclusive growth. Critically, this is a transformation that not only delivers sustainable economic returns, but is also able to support environmental sustainability, climate resilience, as well as provide food security and adequate nutrition for Uganda. However, the agriculture sector is confronted with the challenges of debilitated institutions, stuck somewhere between tradition and modernity, and lifeless structures. While Uganda has a comparative advantage in agriculture, over any country on the continent, many of the agri-food industry players are not competitive. A number of factors are responsible for this. This led me to focus attention on agribusiness and eventually in July 2014, together with a number of reputable senior citizens, we established the Uganda Agribusiness Alliance (UAA). I was the founding CEO, a position I have held to-date.
Today, UAA is building an alliance of partners (including corporate bodies, financial institutions, government, agri-food associations, development agencies, research organisations, civil society organisations and other institutions that support growth of the agri-food industry in Uganda), that will facilitate long term viable business propositions in the Ugandan agri-food industry. To this end, UAA:-
- Gives the agri-food industry players a unified voice on issues that impact their industry as well as the success of their organisations.
- Supports the country’s agenda for improving the enabling environment that will allow Ugandan agribusinesses of all sizes to thrive and grow.
- Provides platforms for unparalleled learning, networking and partnerships, enabling agri-food industry players to connect at local, continental and global levels.
- Supports the development of a wide range of expertise in both the public and private sectors, and across all levels of the agricultural value chain, in order to enhance the productivity, efficiency, profitability and hence viability of agri-food enterprises in Uganda.
- Facilitates or aggregates evidence-based analysis that supports decisions for building a globally competitive, innovative and inclusive agri-food industry in Uganda.
As a returnee, I have absolute conviction, that a bright future lies ahead for Uganda’s economic prosperity, and that with their wealth of knowledge, skills, attitude and international contacts, the Ugandan Diaspora will make a substantial contribution towards crafting such a future. There is so much to be done, all talents, expertise and skills are needed. Uganda’s development will have to come by the hands of Ugandan entrepreneurs and professionals- engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, change managers, hospitality professionals, ICT experts etc., who are all, fully conscious and accepting of their pivotal role in the country’s advancement will put their skills as well as talents to the common purpose of creating economic prosperity (both for themselves and others) in our motherland.
The convention will continue to unleash many of us into the Ugandan economy. Those who accept the call, will bask under the sun and will emerge as the heroes of their own stories.