A Kenyan friend who is a big wig in corporate Kenya, has a wonderful story about how he started out.
Shortly after he graduated from university in the late 1980s, he got a job as a very junior chap in a Nairobi-based multinational that sells fast-moving consumer goods — like toiletries, cooking oil, beverages — in East Africa.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels had only recently won their bush war and taken power. Around 1992 he was sent to Kampala to open distribution for the multinational’s products. He checked into today’s Sheraton Hotel, and spent days visiting big stores and traders in Kampala. After a week, he returned to Nairobi empty-handed.
However, he had been told that if he wanted to make a breakthrough, he needed to go to the vast backstreet informal business district called “Kikuubo”, a cross between Nairobi’s Eastleigh and Gikomba, where the people who moved things in Uganda were based.
Some months later, he was sent back to Kampala. He checked into a less glamorous hotel near Nakasero Market in downtown Kampala. In the morning, he wore his t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers (not the suit and tie he had donned the last time), and headed to Kikuubo.
After many hours looking and asking around, he landed at the shop of a big player in Kikuubo. At the corner of his shop, was a pile of money from the floor to the ceiling.
They chatted, the chap liked him, and they got down to business. When he told him the volume of products he wanted, my friend nearly fell off his chair. It was several times more than the company had projected for the total Ugandan market.
The big kahuna explained to him that he would sell some of it in Uganda, but he had “my people” in Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Sudan, and further afield into central Africa.
Upon inquiring how, from Kikuubo, he was able to distribute goods so far and wide, the chap just gave him a knowing smile. He understood.
My friend did the deliveries to Kikuubo from Nairobi for many years, and the company was very pleased. Before long, he was a deputy manager. To this day, he still prays to Kikuubo.
The East African Community (EAC) hadn’t been reborn yet, then, and the Uganda of today is very different. The investments in infrastructure and regional integration means the Kikuubo trader today moves his goods through less mysterious routes, and pays a little tax.
But the EAC, the governing structure built to steward these fortunes, is creaking, with the leaders unable to meet and take the decisions that would oil its wheels.
The biggest scandal is the sight at East African borders, with trucks spending days in queues over 20 kilometres long waiting to clear.
The Northern Corridor is strewn with additional weighbridges, where there are more queues to navigate. Behold the dead hand of East African bureaucracy.
The irony is that if my friend had started in this period where, admittedly, there has been some progress to speed up movement of goods in the EAC, he wouldn’t have been as successful. He might not have gone beyond junior marketing officer.
EAC leaders seriously need to clock back in on this East African project.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3