Why Kampala’s new electric buses won’t ‘glide’ very far

Thursday September 08 2022
Uganda’s Kiira Motors

E-mobility in Uganda is likely to fail since it is unplanned, undeveloped and unmanaged. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG


When Uganda’s politics and economics got whacky in the early 1970s, the commonest immediate goal of Makerere University students was to graduate, sneak into Kenya, and get a job in the education and health sectors. Work permits were then not required within East Africa. This continued for over a decade.

Many Ugandans who got posted in Kenya’s then mushrooming (community supported) “Harambee” schools and hospital Nyayo wards had this habit of travelling to Nairobi once a month after getting their salary, which was many times bigger than what they could earn in Uganda. Theirs were not shopping trips but exploratory; to explore the famed Nairobi city using the Kenya Bus Services (KBS) buses.

KBS was the equivalent of UTC (Uganda Transport Company), whose yellow and green buses had once ferried the public in and around Kampala but gradually ground to a halt following the near collapse of Uganda’s economy.

In a mixture of nostalgia and adventurous discovery, the Ugandans emerging from upcountry Kenya would board KBS buses to all destinations of Nairobi all day, getting to master East Africa’s most advanced city. They missed a working city bus service.

That generation of Ugandan professionals started returning home after the 1986 victory of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, which is still in power today in a modified, civilianised version.

From their different places of retirement, those who are alive can assess how far Kampala’s public transport has evolved in comparison with Nairobi’s, at which they marvelled four decades ago.


More than any other time, the opportune moment for these senior citizens to emerge from their retirement homes in all four corners of Uganda to come and compare Kampala and Nairobi transport systems is now, as their alma mater enters the final months of its year-long centenary celebrations. But the ongoing symposia, lectures and debates being staged at Makerere in celebrating its centenary since its founding as a technical institute in 1922 haven’t been well publicised.

So many of Makerere’s ageing alumni may not be aware of the centenary.

Even the public, including the thousands living, working and reproducing in the slums surrounding the Makerere main campus — actually on university land — are not aware that they are in the middle of the landlord’s great anniversary.

Yet this would have been the most exciting month of the marathon anniversary if Makerere’s managers were interested in showing the institution’s relevance to society. For, true to its initial mission as a technical institute, Makerere should lay claim to the launch of Uganda’s passenger service electric buses conceived, designed and built by young Makerere graduates.

Kampala locals using the 22km Northern Bypass that diverts commercial traffic from Mombasa and Nairobi to most of the Great Lakes from entering Kampala City from Jinja road and links it to southward highways to Congo, Rwanda and northern Tanzania, can now “glide” on it in Uganda’s electric buses that were commissioned on August 28. This is a fruit of a decade of scientific labour by-products of Makerere’s Engineering School.

But if the wazee, whose sons and daughters have been pulling off these engineering feats, made a trip to the Nairobi that fascinated them four decades ago, they would probably find that Kampala’s sporting electric buses pales in significance to Nairobi’s infrastructural development. For Kampala’s road system, if it can be called that, is at best still illogical.

And even if Makerere wants to compete with Tesla in developing e-mobility, there would be no point in doing so, as the space where their products are meant to move is unplanned, undeveloped and unmanaged.

In short, as long as physical planning remains a messed-up sector in Uganda, mobility engineering cannot go very far.

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