Uganda is a rich country, it's just unoptimized

Over the weekend with friends, I had a memorable road trip to the land of my ancestors. East of Uganda is a beautiful countryside endowed with natural resources, good weather, rich food and incredibly friendly people with diverse rich cultures.

I come from Kumi district which among other things is home to the historical Kumi Hospital or Leprosy center. Am told this hospital which is about 10km from my actual village played a pivotal role in the near eradication of Leprosy in Uganda. Kumi is part of the larger Teso region which is also famous for the Nyero rock paintings.

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The early Iteso had a genius way of codifying their way of life and history by imprinting it inside caves and rocks akin to the way ancient Egyptians did. Obviously this debunks the theory that Africans only transmitted their history to future generations only via Oral tradition.

The east is largely rivers, streams, lakes, mountains, undulating hills, savannah grassland, old rocks and vast farm land much of which has not even been cultivated. It's ironic that this region is also notoriously known for epic famines and long droughts.

There have been disturbing stories written in the papers about tales of locals eating cassava leaves, rats and wild animals just to survive in region that should potentially be the food basket of this country.

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When I was coming back to the city after a very short stay with my parents, papa jokingly offered to give me a whole bag of ground nuts he had harvested from his farm. I shamefully declined the offer wondering how or what I and my wife would do with a whole bag of Gnuts. My relatives offered us at least 5Kgs of fresh sweet Oranges straight from the home orchard. And my good folks were not even done yet. In a good old fashioned Iteso cultural send-off, we were given live chicken to take home.

These experiences reminded me that while the headlines can scream scarcity and death, this country is simultaneously vastly blessed. The cause of these problems are a lot complex and I can't pretend to know all the solutions. But what I am sure of is that this country's resources are unoptimized to borrow an engineering term.

When we talk of optimization in engineering systems, we refer to a system that's efficiently utilizing its resources. In other words, very little is going to waste.

But in Uganda, areas or seasons of plenty are not used to compensate for areas and seasons of scarcity. For instance during harvesting period, a lot goes to waste. People in the villages lack food storage facilities to preserve their harvest. We also lack good transportation systems such as reliable roads, railway, ferries to move food from say in the west or areas around lake Victoria which have plenty of rains throughout the year to more drier areas such as Karamoja. So this is not a problem of lack or poverty, but one of optimization.

My dad at the time of our visit had harvested about 10 bags of ground nuts. He says the price is currently not good. A whole bag of ground nuts goes for only about Ugx 80,000 in Teso. A lot of people are already selling their produce but papa is holding on to his harvest until the prices go up again. Luckily for him, he has some good storage facilities at home.

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On our way, we passed through Tororo - Iganga road. Tororo is famous for not only the iconic Tororo Rock, but also Limestone from which we produce cement, a major raw material for construction.

There is a big boom in the real estate industry in Uganda. Actually it's almost nearing a bubble which might at some point in the future burst. A lot of people are constructing commercial and residential houses. Unfortunately, a lot of people and by this I mean the middle class still don't own their own houses. This raises interesting questions of who exactly is building and how they are accessing their financing.

Just after Tororo though is rain forest that's home to Baboons just around Busia/URA round about. Most Uganda are rather familiar with Mabira rain forest along Jinja - Kampala road which once again is another great natural resource. I couldn't resist stopping by and bonding with these wild animals even though it took a 5 minutes.

Uganda is incredibly rich in wildlife, fauna and flora. When Chinese billionaire Jack Ma came to Kenya and Rwanda earlier this year, he talked about our opportunity with wild life.

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Your lack of infrastructure is an opportunity. I heard so much about Kenya and Africa. Forests and animals, you guys are living in paradise! Think about China, the kitchen of the world. It’s very dirty now, the air pollution! Africa must develop but you don’t have to follow the other countries’ model.
Africa should be Africa! Use technology to protect environment, protect the animals. It’s easy to build building but its difficult to call the animals back! It’s impossible.
Tell me where in this world you can see so many elephants and lions still walking around? Africa! Where can you still smell the real atoms? The real air.
Now I understand why so many people come to Africa every year….it’s a business opportunity, so leverage that. — Jack Ma in Kenya via (@Valanchee)[https://niinye.avalanch.me/heres-why-jack-ma-didn-t-come-to-uganda-ae93429e1efa]

It's true that tourism is still one of the most under exploited exports for most African countries. That's despite the fact that tourism is Uganda's second largest foreign exchange earner. More and more people want to travel to Africa to see rains forest, freshwater lakes, rivers and wild animals in their natural habits. The Bazungu don't have what we have and this is precisely why tourism is our competitive advantage in the global economy. We can use some modern technology to preserve wild life as well as attract visitors to our parks.

Even though the original intent of my journey upcountry was to see my old folks, this time I learnt something remarkable...and that is that we are not poor.

David Okwii

David Okwii is a Systems Engineer who currently works with Africa's Talking, a pan-African company serving millions of API queries for SMS/USSD/Voice, Airtime and Mobile Payments across 6 countries.

Kampala Uganda http://www.davidokwii.com

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