Who cares? The frustrations of doing business in Uganda

Who cares? The frustrations of doing business in Uganda

In Uganda, private and public organizations don’t take people with innovations seriously. In the process the economy loses billions of shillings in form of entrepreneurial excellence and employment opportunities. 


Bureaucracy, jealousy, pride and general lack of respect for local people has made it impossible for folks with great ideas to secure that much needed business lifeline to get their business going. 


We explore how some people in positions of authority have made it their job to frustrate local Ugandans with good ideas.

There are a number of good and talented brains out there who would change the way businesses is done but these are never given an opportunity.

Many times people with inno­vative ideas are seen as a threat. Many a CEO and heads of departments fear to lose their jobs and livelihood if they let brilliant people closer. Such executives and managers often suffer from a deadly disease of inferiority complex which is of­ten caused by obtaining a senior job based on know who rather than know how. Senior government jobs especially in the ministries, public entities and to some extent big businesses in the private sector are at a high risk of suffering from the disease.

Uganda government is the biggest single business partner for any business in the country. It is easy to influence a decision in any business as long as they need to get business opportunities. The corporate ‘mafia’ has penetrated all the circles. The wife is in the ministry, the husband in the bank and the daughter in the investigation department. You will find the relatives of the executives in deep circles in all businesses – private or public. The problem is big. Dealing with a person without the skills and faculties to handle a senior position they hold is the worst punishment business people have been subjected to. Someone sup­posed to have been a plumber (with due respect to the profession) is in charge of approving your Ugx. 400+ million projects. Such people suffer from indeci­sion and technical limitations. They just cannot comprehend as are lazy readers. And of course, all their thinking is about travelling abroad just to get hold of that small per diem.

For how long can the public portend with this mess? How much does the country lose for having a wrong person in a critical position? How come such positions are never made competitive?

Unfortunately this is the new reality. Enter the game of corporate politics and systematic failure.

A leadership dilemma?

The biggest challenge to business in Uganda is the tendency of senior managers to want to do the day-to-day work. This is not attention to detail. It is micromanaging. In the process, this ob­scures the big picture -- furthering their mandate to think long-term by focusing on technology and the customer.

As a managing director of say Mulago hospital, your work is not to perform operations in the theater and or to of­fer prescription or receive and register patients. There must be processes and proper role allocation based on experi­ence, skill and training. As a manager, your role is to ensure that things are done the right way, patients are treated and that everything is in order.

In Uganda, when most people get into positions of authority, they try to use their positions to let down others instead of creating an environment where everyone can thrive. And thus creativity and innovation are constrained because everyone looks to the boss with fear for their job. If the other person is seen as intelligent, the boss becomes insecure. That would be a reason to terminate their services. A leader is supposed to help people do things not doing the things?

This is causing a lot of problems, in­novative Ugandan’s are frustrated when they propose projects that would benefit the organizations and country as whole. They are never given the audience. It is a painful experience. The so called personal assistants (PAs) are so power­ful that they can find all the reason as to why you should not see the executive director or permanent secretary. Why should public offices not be open to the public for business?

Who knows you?

If you have not been disappointed you probably have not yet tried. One of the local entrepreneurs who spoke to SBR on anonymity explained how his business has hit a snag because executives just don’t have time to listen. After failing to meet government executives, he made a visit to the Private Sector Founda­tion and Uganda Investment Authority. These too, turned cold feet.

Never mind these are top organiza­tions whose mandate is to contribute and foster investment and economic growth of the country. “I was told by the receptionist that the CEO could not see me. Not even his assistant had time to meet me. At Private Sector Founda­tion, after several attempts to see the CEO, I was asked to meet an officer who initially liked my business. He asked for a proposal which I immediately submit­ted. Unfortunately it stopped at that. Two years later, I am yet to hear from them.”

Lessons from elsewhere

Safaricom is arguably one of the best companies in East Africa. Its success is attributed to the open hand approach to receiving and nurturing business ideas from all and sundry. The company has a department responsible for innovations, welcoming ideas from any individual in or outside the country. Anyone who has an idea is free to walk in and meet the head of department for innovations. Such a platform has helped to keep the company as a leader in telecommunica­tions ahead of the competition.

In Europe, it is the children who invent most of the technology we use today. Companies like Nokia give op­portunities to outside knowledge and indeed they have seen their performance improve greatly.

The lack of accountability and good business has made it difficult for people to do business. Take a case of telecom­munication companies. The head of marketing has a private PR firm or bulk SMS business. How can such people do the right thing when they are faced with a conflict of interest situation? On one hand s/he has to evaluate your busi­ness proposal and on the other hand he needs the project to be handled by his private company. The same reason is said to be respon­sible to for poor service delivery. Ap­parently government encourages public servants to operate private businesses so as to augment their revenues. When it comes to awarding a tender should I mind about merit or I should award it to my own firm? What if my firm lacks the capacity to deliver? Who cares whether the contract is not performed?

Here is one man’s disappointment

Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU) runs a directory – in print and online. However, considering the rate of Internet penetration and the user unfriendliness of a print directory, I proposed to PSFU to have their direc­tory on mobile whereby users could access it anytime on any mobile gadget whether smart phone or not. Being a national wide organization, I proposed a mobile profile that would change cur­rent directory and carrying all business in Uganda. After implementation, the mobile system would easily pick any data changes like names, addresses or business type. With over 16 million Ugandans with mobile phones, it would be easy for every phone holder to look up any business of interest and contact them. There are so many farmers out there who would like to know the near­est NAADS extension offices in their districts but have no way of finding out. The mobile directory I proposed to PSFU would have made it easy. And it does not require a lot of initial capital, as I have already made the investment in the system. All I needed was their buy-in and obtaining their directory details and logistical support.

I talked to the PSFU chairman and all the relevant individuals in vain. This project would have among others brought a positive development and reputation to the entity and the coun­try at large. But it was frustrated. It is painful to be denied the opportunity to showcase your ideas. I’ve tried to talk to everyone including the officer (name withheld) responsible for projects like this one at PSFU to no avail. What causes such behavior?

Uganda Investment Authority is no different. I talked to the receptionist and explained about my mobile project to undertake and therefore I needed to meet the relevant person preferably the ED. Again, I was told I could not meet them but instead asked to write I pro­posal which I submitted. Twelve months later, I have never received feedback.

There are very many Ugandans in the diaspora wanting to come back and invest in the country but are not given the opportunity. People in the diaspora contribute a lot to the development of the economy as such people have been exposed and therefore knowledgeable about what good looks like. Majority have access to cheap financing. I had project that would link Ugandans in the diaspora to the local investment oppor­tunities, but I was blocked. All I needed was their assistance to let the other people know that am doing this business in Uganda and the money would flow. SBR could not obtain comments from UIA on this issue, as the public relations officer could not meet us but preferred to respond to our enquiries via email.

Local vs. foreign investment

There is a mentality that foreign inves­tors are better than local ones. With rampant corruption, most officers prefer to work with ‘foreign’ companies for a number of reasons. They get the op­portunity to travel abroad (to the offices of the foreign companies) to ‘confirm’ a few things. This has a lot of benefits to them including travel allowances and kick backs. For example, there a number of good companies that offer transla­tion services. However, what happens is that Ugandans prefer to go for foreign companies who in most cases outsource the services to the local firms at very low cost which is exploitative. Who is accountable for the costs of the resulting losses to the economy? Where did the value for money auditors go?

The cost of delaying decisions

The cost of blocking projects and inno­vations is about ¾ of the total revenue of the company. You see business is about timing, it’s not so much about good solu­tions and products. It is about timing. If you don’t act now, you risk losing billions. When people fail to adopt new projects and innovations and keeping people with innovative ideas waiting, telling people to write proposals, you are delaying business. What if you just give a person say two to five minutes. If it’s interesting, you may consider investing more time.

The five minutes you give to person could change your business by big margin or else competitor may take over that op­portunity. Businesses succeed as a result of good ideas.

It does not matter whether you are mak­ing profits. You lose something whenever you deny listening to great ideas. For government employees, this cost is cov­ered by the tax payer and that is the most frustrating part. No wonder H.E. Presi­dent Museveni also gets frustrated. The president has been talking about officers who block opportunities -- Bujagali project would have taken two years, but will now take more years. By the time it is complete then, the demand will be five times higher. That is the cost of a delayed decision mak­ing.

Finland decided long ago that since they were behind other countries, they cut all red tape. Thus all decisions are made in parliament, so are most treaties. They had no time to waste in referendum and consultations.Get the information you need, take the decision and when there is a mistake, review and make good.

Are you there?

As a CEO or senior executive, you need to make it easy for people to access your of­fice. These days it is even much easy with social media. Pass on your twitter account to people. It is unfortunate that for most CEOs in Uganda, when you ask them ques­tions on twitter, they don’t answer.

However, people like Richard Branson, when you ask them something on twitter, he answers as long as it concerns his busi­ness or if it makes sense. You should not think of a position as bigger than everything. You must know that if you open a twitter account, you do it for a purpose - to interact and it is not to show how bigger you are. There is always a bigger boat.

Technology makes it so open, that an office becomes a virtual office. Listen to everyone, and get sense out of what they say. You can pick out what you want and ignore the rest.

Take an example of standard chartered bank. They put up the contact number of the MD on all their ATM cards. Even when you go to the ATM, CEO’s number is there to contact him any time. This has created confidence to the customers. And indeed their profits have increased over time. They changed their way of doing business. When you get into bank, you know you are in a bank. These are small things but very impor­tant.

Listen to everyone and make difference.

Don’t frustrate people. Sometimes just lis­tening to what one has to say is what matters.

May God bless our country.