After emerging from a past full of strife, Uganda is making good use of its current climate of peace and stability. The economy is growing at a rate of nearly six percent, tourism is on the rise, and investors are showing an increased interest in a country whose strategic location makes it a natural hub for trade in the continent. And there are ample opportunities for domestic investment as well, as authorities pursue their goal of transforming Uganda from an agricultural nation into a modern, industrial economy
You have been the Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development since 2015. What has been your biggest milestone so far?
The biggest milestone was stabilising the Ugandan shilling, which was constantly fluctuating when I first got here. There are three things that helped: one, we have seen more direct foreign investment coming into the country; two, we have seen a slight increase in exports, and three, Ugandans living abroad are signalling their confidence in the economy and in the administration by sending remittances. But more fundamentally, tourism is on the rise, even if it is not as fast as we would like. Right now we are almost collecting around $1 billion per annum from tourism, and I think that by the end of this fiscal year we should be able to hit that target quite comfortably.
What is the Ugandan economy looking like these days?
The economy is growing at about 5.8 percent. We had slipped down to almost 4 percent but it has picked up again. The sluggishness was partly due to reasons beyond our control: there were two consecutive drops in oil prices at a time when we have not completely stopped depending on this sector, and we also lost a good portion of the market in Southern Sudan when war erupted there. That used to be a very good destination for products of ours such as sugar, cement, beer and soft drinks. One of the measures we implemented to stimulate the economy was making sure that civil servants were getting paid in time by the end of the month, which used to be a problem in the past. This increased income in their pockets in turn stimulated consumption.
What is the value of the Commonwealth and Uganda’s role in the community, as it relates to economic development for the country?
In the Commonwealth, there is a connection with Britain that was expressed chiefly through colonialism in the past, and now through trade. Britain is one of Uganda’s biggest export destinations for our goods and a very important partner.
One of the goals of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development is to promote regional integration programmes and investments. How is the Ministry working towards that aim, and how can the UK help facilitate deepening regional ties?
I personally want total integration of East Africa, not only in trade but also in politics. I look forward to being one single economy and one single state. I lived under the East African Community and I know its benefits. We had a single currency. I studied in Nairobi, and I would take a train, enter Kenya overnight, arrive in Nairobi, use my shillings to buy things, and walk into university. This no longer happens: now I get asked at customs “what is your identity?” If Britain can help us sort out the issues that are hindering our integration, I would be very happy. I truly want a united East Africa.
What is behind the theme for the 2017-2018 fiscal year’s national budget, “Industrialisation for Job Creation and Shared Prosperity”?
My mission is to industrialise Uganda. We cannot continue being just another agricultural country. We are still growing fast, we are prolific, but the youth coming out of our institutions of learning have only one sector that can absorb them, and that is industry. In agriculture you can have 30-40 people running a farm, but an industry can hire hundreds. The main focus now is to absorb this new labour force; I don’t want to see these graduates loitering on the streets looking for a job. These people are full of energy, ambition, charisma, and I want to put all this to good use through industry, to generate greater prosperity for the country.
What about population issues?
A population is necessary to create a market, but the productivity and quality of that population is key. If they are qualified, they will produce more, they will help the economy grow and they will consume more through their disposable income. So the issue is to develop a qualified and educated population with skills, and find them economic activities to do.
Are Ugandans entrepreneurial people, as is often said?
They are entrepreneurial, but there is a problem stemming from history and the environment. The culture of meeting tight deadlines, for example, is not widely spread in our communities. Nature has given us what we need: there are people who can survive without working much because we have so much water, so much fertile land, and so many minerals. But land is not expandable and the population is increasing: we are heading for 40 million and could double that by 2050. So now people are learning the value of hard work. And politically the country is finally united, speaking as one voice after years of fighting. There are political differences, but there is a cohesiveness here that previously did not exist. With the right administration, and with the private sector as our engine of growth, we can correct the things that went off track in 1971 and which prevented investment for years. Now investment is coming in, and we should be moving very fast within 10 or 20 years.
Is Uganda prepared for big infrastructure projects? What can it offer British investors?
Many of the things we do here are modelled after the British system, so it is a familiar environment, and we welcome any project that is based on a mutually beneficial relationship. Every day we are being contacted by two or three people who want to come to see Uganda for investment purposes, even from other parts of Africa.
As regional ties deepen and investment opportunities grow, how would you describe the moment that Uganda is going through in terms of economic development?
We are in a transitional phase. We have a vision that by 2040 this should be a prosperous, modern, industrialised nation. We are now transitioning to that and we have strategic plans, but we lack technology and certain skills. We still need to train a lot of people, as our youth represent more than half of the population. We need to develop a habit of professional, ethical, hard work.
Why invest in Uganda now?
We are already a success story, but we want even greater successes, and welcome investors in all fields to help us achieve that goal. And to my fellow Ugandans, I say that peace is paramount. Let us continue to express our views frankly and to run this country on a democratic basis. I envision a very well-developed country in the short-term future, one that will serve as a regional hub because of our strategic location: we are right in the centre of the continent. Anyone who wants to penetrate the African economy should consider Uganda as a hub.