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STI minister’s drive has given Uganda revolutionary vehicle by Joachim Buwembo

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Uganda’s minister for Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Dr. Monica Musenero is a woman on a mission. An epidemiologist of renown who rose to international prominence during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa some years back, she returned home in time to be a key national adviser on handling the Covid-19 pandemic. When the worst of Covid was over a year ago, she was appointed STI minister, which is under the presidency.

A scientist par excellence, Dr. Musenero taught had conducted research at Makerere University for 16 years before going international. Her scientific activism as a lecturer was student-like, leading to several radical changes in the examination formats. But now as a top national leader, would the same brand of activism work for the desired transformation?

During the pandemic, the government had been throwing money at Covid medicine researchers, so when Dr. Musenero became the minister for STI, the local artisans, known as Jua Kali in the region, started thronging her doorstep. Whenever the president gave them a nod of appreciation at trade fairs, they rushed to the new STI department seeking funds for their innovations.

Referred for guidance

While the good doctor was always approachable, her questions to the Jua Kali artisans drew blanks. One innovator was pushing his new engine but when asked what would make someone buy it, he had no answer. So she referred him, like many others, to the government automobile maker, Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC) for guidance. The scientists at KMC are from the university and they tried to make the jua kalis understand systematic development of innovation, where the word “prototype” featured prominently. The jua kalis mostly walked away disgruntled. This included the man who couldn’t say what his engine was meant to do. They just wanted the government to give them money for their products.

But the disgruntled jua kalis hadn’t reckoned with Musenero’s persistence. After they ran away and stopped looking for her, Musenero reversed the chase and, like a good African mother, started hunting for the unruly artisans. Turning up at their workshops and even homes, she kept asking for their innovations. Some of them go by names like Ghetto Crew, with their attire, dreadlocks and attitude reflecting rebellion.

Some started going back to KMC for guidance, but with their excitement dimmed almost to zero. Painfully, they are being taken through systematic product development, including defining their vision, proof of concept, prototype, training, feasibility study and quality assurance.

Got government funding

The engine man, called Rogers Mubiru, has finally got government funding, and developed an exciting trike that is not just a strong tricycle in name, but also has triple purposes in that it can cheaply carry one tonne of produce, generate enough electricity for a (farmer’s) household and irrigate several acres with water in a day.

There is excitement in Uganda’s agricultural and industrial circles over the trike. Mubiru is now a champion and inspiration for convincing jua kalis to accept to be trained in systematic product development.

The irony of the new STI approach is that the jua kalis are on the path to becoming more relevant for research than the university community. A couple of months back, during Makerere’s centenary celebrations, top professors dismissed the 100 PhDs awarded during the university’s 72nd graduation ceremony. The dismissive dons argued that the doctoral research topics are chosen by the funders, who are largely foreign, in search of knowledge that is in their interest, not the country’s.

Of course, the government has been funding research, only that it is not to the magnitude of the foreign organisations, especially at PhD level. So the new approach of taking jua kalis through the systematic approach to research for development is likely to be beneficial to the nation. The revolutionary trikes may be too few in a year, but it is a start. It is likely to inspire more jua kalis who have been impatient with Dr Musenero’s questions, and accessing government funding should be enough incentive.

Becoming famous is another and, if one’s product becomes commercially successful, what more can a struggling Jua Kali artisan wish for?

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: buwembo@gmail.com

Strictly Personal

Umeme, grain and coffee: Why Kenya should fear Uganda’s economic gamble, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Uganda, the 1990s shining Africa poster boy for privatisation, is engaging in what could be East Africa’s biggest economic liberalisation reverse gear. Last year, the Uganda government formally announced it would not renew the contract of electricity distributor Umeme in 2025, when its concession expires, and that it will form a state-owned entity to take over its business.

The government’s main criticism of Umeme is its margins are too high, so it has failed to lower electricity costs, and the expensive rates have hobbled Uganda’s industrialisation ambitions. Umeme counters that it is just a distributor, and the high electricity costs are passed on from the power generators.

In two years, the debate will be resolved. Uganda will be in the midst of campaigns ahead of the January 2026 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, weighed down by the wear and tear of 40 years in office, will likely be bidding for a record-shattering ninth term, with his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, among those trying to wrestle the crown from his head. It will be the worst possible timing because incumbents rarely make the most enlightened decisions during heated election campaigns. As the West Africans say, there will likely “be a lot of cry.”

Distribution concession

Umeme was formed in 2004 when the government of Uganda granted the distribution concession to a consortium belonging to Globeleq, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Development Corporation of the UK, which held 56 per cent, and South Africa’s now inept utility corporation Eskom, which had 44 per cent. In 2006 Eskom exited the consortium, and Globeleq became the sole owner of Umeme.

The regional impact could be significant because, among other things, Umeme shares are cross-listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. If it unravels, Kenyan shareholders would be left crying in their bowls, and we could be back to the feud over regional assets that followed the break-up of the first East African Community in 1977.

Too messy to swallow

The renationalisation of Umeme will not be unique. Kenya just tried to renationalise cash-haemorrhaging national carrier Kenya Airways but found it too messy to swallow. The recently elected new government of President William Ruto has decided to throw it back on the block.

The difference in Uganda is that Umeme is just the shallow end of the pool. There are other moves to renationalise the very lucrative liberalised coffee sector by granting a near-monopoly to a Vinci Coffee Company, owned by controversial and shadowy Italian “foreign investor” Enrica Pinetti, to process and export Uganda’s coffee. That would take Uganda back to the early 1990s when the disastrous Coffee Marketing Board was disbanded.

A similar move is being made to give the Grain Council of Uganda, on paper a non-profit membership organisation, the kind of sway over the country’s grain last seen in the colonial era.

The force behind the Grain Council is the otherwise amiable president’s younger brother, retired Lt-Gen Salim Saleh (Caleb Akandwanaho), a sly operator who is the second most powerful figure in the land. A nationalist and statist, Saleh has led a quiet but effective assault against laissez-faire liberalisation, which he argues has mostly benefited foreigners and left Ugandans with only holes in their pockets. He has taken over a large chunk of the country’s agricultural budget and several “development” functions under the amorphous state-created vehicle Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) that he heads and inserted disciples in key national economic institutions.

Return to old roots

This state of affairs is a dramatic return to old roots. Uganda launched the first of a series of economic liberalisations in the 1990s that were deemed impossible in Africa at the time and anathema in the hyper-nationalist traditions that were entrenched in post-independence Africa.

It was the first country in Africa to radically liberalise its foreign exchange market and still maintains one of the least-interventionist approaches to the money market on the continent. It was also the first in East Africa to pass laws that gave the central bank extensive independence.

It was the first on the continent in the early 1990s to liberalise the fuel market and scrap fuel subsidies. Again, in East Africa, at least, it is the government that meddles least in setting the price of gas at the pump. When fuel prices skyrocketed everywhere following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, it alone was the East African government to flatly refuse to even consider a fuel subsidy and price cap, as all the rest of the EAC states did.

Price of food

Uganda, too, is the country where the price of food is most considered none of the government’s business. When Ugandans read stories and political fights over maize in Kenya, and the government setting the price, to some of them, it sounds like a tale about an alien planet.

The country and economy that Uganda is today are about to change. Some of the changes have to do with the politics of the Museveni succession and how the family and vested interests that have coalesced around the State House view their future security. A lot of it, though, is because of some good things: the rebirth of the EAC; the end of the wars in Uganda and the ushering in of the country’s longest spell of peace; the rebound of a post-KANU Kenya; and the Rwanda post-genocide recovery.

If there are two people in East Africa outside Uganda, who have edged Uganda to the fork in the road where it is today, they are Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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Strictly Personal

In honour of Komla African scribes should lead renaissance, By Elsie Eyakuze

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Somehow the only news we watch on the TV at home is offered by the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation or any one of several Kenyan stations that the person who holds The Power chooses. As a result, I have been on an imposed “news diet” for a few years now.

It is nothing serious, just a touch of burnout with a soupçon of ennui for flavour. There are newspapers, too, but I am a decade past my paper-chasing days and I have noticed the click-bait flavour of headlines and I don’t like it.

In other words, I am growing older, crankier and particular about my news. This led me to believe that I am bored by the business that the industry might indeed be floundering — a position I do not really hold. After all, my job as a journalism-adjacent writer is to support the news and the people and institutions that bring it to us.

Maintain my optimism

I can’t afford to be cynical. I have to maintain my optimism and commitment, even through lazy editing in Tanzanian newspapers, and ulcer-inducing anxiety over Freedom of Expression when it is threatened.

But, yea, you know, it is 2023 — a year that honestly belongs in science fiction, not in real life. Like you, I get most of my news online these days, in small doses, and only when I want it. I have meandered off the path of keeping abreast into the woods of barely knowing what is going on, and it is has been wonderful for my mental health.

And that would have been that, but an energetic young journalist decided to invite me to the launch of the BBC’s Komla Dumor Awards, which took place last week in Dar es Salaam.

Apart from it being the Komla Dumor Award, there was a clear intention to spark some enthusiasm in Tanzanians to apply for the prize.

Observing old journalists encouraging young journalists while enjoying free snacks was just what the doctor ordered.

I watched young master Dingindaba Jonah Buyoya expertly handle a live recording of a show, saw a lot of familiar faces, and got reminded that journalism “is a calling, a vocation.”

Power of a calling

Nothing will kick the stuffing out of your cynicism like understanding the power of a calling, a vocation. There is a largely positive compulsion that drives people into journalism: Most of them are trying to help. They are hopeless romantics with a vision that the work that they do matters, that it can make the world a better place like a Michael Jackson song. So they take their notebooks and their electronics and venture forth to cover stories and bring them back to us in the comfort of our homes and devices.

If you spend any time thinking about it, this is a pretty radical thing to do. And we cannot live this modern life without the people who make it happen. The Komla Dumor Award is about fostering excellent African journalists, and I know exactly why young Tanzanians are hesitant to apply. I was a young Tanzanian once, I know.

They should take heart: If I managed to charm hard-nosed editors in Nairobi into letting me keep this gig, they can certainly conquer Africa, the BBC, and the world news.

We — I — need that from them more than they realise.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email elsieeyakuze@gmail.com

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