Who cares? The frustrations of doing business in Uganda

Uganda has many enterprising people, but few businesses. If anything explains the high poverty levels in many parts of the country, it is not an unwillingness to work hard—most Ugandans still sweat to survive. Nor is it because of a lack of enterprise and optimism: on the permanently traffic-jammed streets of Kampala, the country’s main commercial city, hawkers gingerly ease their way between cars trying to sell almost anything from snacks to books, car parts, carpets, shoes and even toilet paper.

Many Ugandans are far more likely to be self-employed than people in richer parts of the world, for the simple reason that without social safety nets, many of them must hustle or starve. Despite the high rate of new start-ups, the country still fails to produce enough of the productive and profitable small businesses it needs to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Part of this is explained by the climate for the enterprise.

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 are done but these are never given an opportunity. Many times, people with innovative ideas are seen as a threat. Many CEOs 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’s 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 the wrong person in a critical position? How come such positions are never made competitive? Unfortunately, this is a new reality. Enter the game of corporate politics and systematic failure.

The 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 theatre 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 things. This is causing a lot of problems; innovative Ugandans are frustrated when they propose projects that would benefit the organizations and country as a 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 reasons 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 explained how his business 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 the 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 that 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 the 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 Google 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 the 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 for poor service delivery. Apparently, the 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?

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 foreign companies) to ‘confirm’ a few things. This has a lot of benefits to them including travel allowances and kickbacks. 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 the person could change your business by a 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 taxpayer 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 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 a standard chartered bank. They put up the contact number of the MD on all their ATM cards. Even when you go to the ATM, the CEO’s number is there to contact him at any time. This has created confidence in the customers. And indeed, their profits have increased over time. They changed their way of doing business. When you get into the bank, you know you are in a bank. These are small things but very important.

Listen to everyone and make a difference.
Don’t frustrate people. Sometimes just listening to what one has to say is what matters. May God bless our country

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