Dollar to watt? Uganda should pay for its imports with energy

Thursday August 04 2022

Ugandans may continue carrying money in wallets to buy food in baskets, not money in the baskets to bring food in wallets. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG


One German said that before the war, they used to carry money in the pocket to go buy food in baskets, later they ended up taking money in baskets to bring food in the pocket. Now, the Ukraine-born inflation is driving us all in that direction and countries are devising different solutions.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is digging into the government’s (still) deep pocket to subsidise petroleum products. But departing presidents tend to be generous: in the US they even donate life to death row convicts.

But in Uganda, Comrade Museveni, who still has four years on his contract, is giving us tough love, not candy that causes tooth decay and teenage obesity. He said NO to injecting Uganda’s limited funds in a bad (petroleum) sector that is polluting and ruining the planet, and advised us to go electric.

Earlier in the same cost of living regard, Museveni advised Ugandans to switch from bread (imported wheat) to cassava (which grows casually in Uganda’s soil and can be preserved free of charge by sun drying, besides its having no fixed harvest time – just leave it in the ground as it grows bigger and bigger till you harvest only those tubers you need to eat that day).

At first many thought the president was joking, but soon enough started taking his advice seriously and now cassava is becoming trendy, as class-conscious and enterprising Ugandans innovate ways of preparing it. The easiest and probably healthiest way so far is simply boiling a few slices with a little salt and an onion – it gets ready in a few minutes like an egg – and your breakfast is sorted. If we don’t see bread from cassava in Kampala’s supermarkets soon, I’ll eat my hat, sorry my cassava.

So Ugandans may continue carrying money in wallets to buy food in baskets, not money in the baskets to bring food in wallets. But it takes discipline and creativity. When Museveni first took power in 1986, he attempted to tackle Uganda’s import needs by offering to exchange the country’s agricultural produce for industrial products.


It was working. We even got a fleet of Peugeot pick-up trucks from France in exchange for our coffee. Uganda was finally getting real value for value, but the owners of the dollar system of exchange were not amused. They killed the system and even sabotaged a barter deal with a country that is one of Uganda’s closest allies, and we were back to slavery to the dollar.

The solution — manufacturing key industrial goods, including equipment like vehicles — is ongoing beyond talk and Uganda-designed and built electric buses have been taking to the road since 2019, so the needs-driven creativity of 1986 is back through manufacturing, beyond trade.

As we continue to do our own thinking instead of leaving it to the “3 Bs” — from Bretton, through Brussels to Beijing — we should rethink the currency concept by looking at energy to take the place of money. Because energy is vital for powering human life, industry, transport and homes, Europeans are toning down on the names they were calling Vladmir Putin as winter approaches. No need to belabor that point.

Uganda can plan to use energy to (partially at first) to replace shillings, euros and dollars. Telephone credit and internet data are already an intangible value, measured in minutes and bytes, though still expressed in money. But Uganda doesn’t own these, they are from, and for, developed world companies. What we own is energy in different forms, the most measurable being electricity.

The “good” thing is that we have recklessly cut down the trees that provide firewood and charcoal, used by most of our people for cooking. In a decade, Ugandan peasants will cook with firewood imported or stolen from Congo. But we have huge electricity generating potential and are hardly using half of the installed capacity. So the domestic market can start switching from transacting using shillings and dollars to watts.

The best brains overseas are busy scratching their computers to make digital currencies replace the present-day money. Let us monetise energy, with tangible value unlike crypto things, by turning it into something like what phone time or internet data has become.

We have the computing capacity to figure out how. And the opportunity is here, locally, unless Ugandans learn to eat raw meat, fish and beans very soon.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-Mail:[email protected]