By Dr. Ian Clarke
There is something seriously wrong with how we market Uganda. We live in a beautiful country which Winston Churchill dubbed ‘The Pearl of Africa’ but our image globally is poor. I wonder how Rwanda with its totally negative history can far outshine Uganda in terms of its image. Recently some celebrities including Idris Elba, and Kevin Hart visited Rwanda for a baby gorilla naming ceremony. Rwanda has fewer gorillas than Uganda, it is more expensive to get a permit, yet it can attract international celebrities to name a gorilla?
I travelled to the Serengeti to see the migration of the wilder beast and saw for myself that the number of tourists visiting Tanzania makes Uganda look like a backwater. For every sighting of a lion or a leopard there were a minimum of twenty tourist vehicles clustered around. At every park entrance there were fifty to one hundred commercial tourist vehicles clearing the paperwork. Kilimanjaro airport (which I remember as being a sleepy little airport) was packed with tourists while wide bodied jets for international flights waited on the tarmac and small planes flew constantly in and out of the airstrips serving various parts of the Serengeti. The Serengeti is massive, and one can understand why it is hard for Uganda to compete, but Rwanda?
One lady whom I met in the Serengeti told me she was going on to see the gorillas. ‘In Uganda?’ I asked ‘No’, she said ‘Rwanda’. It is not only in tourism that we have fallen behind, another example is in the promotion of our coffee. Rwanda billed itself as having some of the best coffee in the world and established a niche market at high prices. Uganda has also got excellent Arabica, yet the commercial price for Ugandan Arabica is set at 10 cents per pound below the New York Exchange prices compared to Kenya which easily fetches 80 cents above New York price. The reason is quality: even if we can produce excellent quality coffee most of our coffee is mediocre – which is how Ugandan coffee is perceived. There are those who have broken through and are able to sell their Arabica to a niche market for much higher prices, but I know from experience that establishing such a market is a big struggle.
There are two attitudes that serve us badly when it comes to selling in international markets. The first is the widespread attitude that ‘it will do’ without trying to make our goods or service fit with international standards. The quality of Ugandan coffee is innately good, but we make it mediocre by picking the cherry before it is ripe. The coffee market for small farmers is dominated by middlemen who don’t care about the quality so long as they can buy coffee cheaply, so they are prepared to take poor-quality coffee from the farmers. Farmers are desperate for cash, so they sell their coffee prematurely while the big exporters don’t care so long as they get volumes. The net result is that we have no leverage as a country to set high prices because of poor practice.
The other attitude is exceptionalism. We are not exceptional in what we have to offer, but we tend to feel that we are the exception to the rule. PR firms know what sells, what attracts people, what sets one ahead of the competition and if you do not play by these rules you will fail. President Kagame knows how to wage an effective PR campaign by pointing to successful programs, clean streets, and a lack of corruption as the success story of his country. He then encourages marketeers, celebrities, philanthropists and investors to join him because everybody wants to be part of a success.
What do we do in Uganda – we say we don’t need foreigners with their judgement, we don’t need the World Bank, we can do it ourselves. The President challenges foreign governments on the inequity of poor countries selling raw materials without value addition, but the capitalist system will not change because the president of an insignificant African country points out the unfairness of the system.
We can’t force tourists to come, we can’t force international markets to buy roasted coffee. We may not like it, but we have to play the game according to their rules. We have to change the quality of what we are offering to meet global standards and reset perceptions of Uganda, and we must accept that we are not the exception, that the rules of the system will be applied to us. Is it because of widespread corruption that we cannot change or are we happy to live in a bubble?
The author is a prominent entrepreneur