Dispatch from Uganda: Fixing the Damn Pot Holes

10/04/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Hope Bryant Bestselling business leadership author and philanthropic entrepreneur

Visiting Uganda last week as the keynote speaker for the 5th Annual Financial Literacy Week, hosted by Investors Club, Ltd, I was struck by how utterly beautiful Uganda is.

One of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, selected Uganda, at the base of the River Nile of all places in the world, to have his ashes distributed after he passed. This was his sole request of his family once he visited this magical place. Having been there myself, I now understand.

Known as the Pearl of Africa and a stone's throw from neighboring Kenya, and one of my favorite countries Rwanda, Uganda represents the best of Africa. Uganda is a good example of the future promise of eco-tourism as a main driver of economic growth for the African continent. But tourism alone will not be enough to save the African continent from a subsistence existence.

I actually believe that with the proper support from the international community, Africa can join the now fast growing Asian Tigers, as a driver of global economic recovery and growth in the world. Yes, in the world.

In short, I don't see problems in Africa, although they exist in spades, but rather immense opportunity.

The 90% unbanked population of Africa represent an immense opportunity for someone smart enough to figure out how to meet the African people where they are, and serve them with the dignity they deserve. Mobile Money (cash transferred over the mobile phone network and between providers and users "on account") is but one example of this. In its first four months Mobile Money was responsible for $200 million (U.S.) plus in cash transfers, in Uganda alone. In a flash, a new business sector was created.

32 million strong, Uganda's primary asset is in fact not its beautiful topography, but its beautiful, dignity rich people. Full of life and hope, and desiring only a hand up and not a hand out, they represent the very best of the African "hustle" work ethic (i.e. cell phone charging station businesses, motorcycle taxis, and any matter of entrepreneurial endeavor you can imagine). The also represent enormous, yet unfulfilled promise.

Uganda is growing at 6% GDP in the midst of a global economic crisis, and this is in spite of the fact that the country is only maximizing 25% of it's human capital, physical, geographical, public policy and free market potential. That is what I mean when I say that Uganda needs to fix its damn pot holes. Fixing the pot holes is "code" for building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure needed to drive sustained economic growth.

A land locked country bordered by Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, as well the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, Uganda sits in the midst of a vibrant regional trading block of (mostly) growing African nations in East Africa. That said, its growth is hampered by the symbolic and very real, "pot holes" called (a shortage of efficient) energy, bad roads, the cost of capital and financing for even the best customers (14% to 28%), lack of established business systems and business leadership issues, the lack of new venture support, and a fundamental need for financial literacy empowerment at all levels of society. These folks need to understand "the language of money," now.

These "development pot holes" can and must be fixed, and I met just the group of young leaders for Uganda's future who can do it, but they will need partners and active support from all of us, to make the dream and potential of Uganda real. And this is where the world's opportunity to "do well and do good," and to "do well by doing good," comes in. We can achieve a level of silver rights empowerment, and dignity for all in Uganda, by making free enterprise and capitalism finally work for the poor.

Introducing Martin Muhwezi, founder of Financial Literacy Week, and Patrick Bitature, chairman of the Simba Group of Companies, the 86th largest taxpayer in all of Uganda. Both are young black Ugandans, who have joined together to move their country from civil rights success, to a new silver rights empowerment success today.

Martin has an undying passion for empowering his people with financial literacy, because he believes it is the surest route out of poverty for the average man and women in his beloved country, and because he sees the impact of a culture where "one only chooses to go into business when everything else has failed."

Working for the government, or getting a degree and becoming an engineer or a doctor is what was drilled into the minds of driven young people as the sole symbol of success. But this is not how you build a nation or a sustainable economy, nor create jobs. Entrepreneurship is the way.

In the U.S., from the date of America's founding, business, entrepreneurship, innovation, the "power of the idea" and hard work, all applied against and around making these dreams real, was the first priority. One could argue that the U.S. needs to return to this proud tradition about now.

Patrick, now a proud father of three in Uganda, saw his own father dragged away from his family home and killed at the age of 13 by the brutal dictator Idi Amin, and at 13 years old, he became a man. A man on a mission to insure that this "inhumanity of man to man" never happened again.

Today, the baby-faced, young, black, African, multi-millionaire (read here: honest and tax-paying) is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in all of Africa, running a group of companies involved in everything from telcom to transportation, energy, media, insurance, mobile banking and hospitality.

The Portea Hotel, a four star hotel in the heart of Uganda where I stayed while there, is owned by Patrick. I remember being greeted by a young man in the lobby one morning, saying "I didn't want to make eye contact and disturb your private time, but I just wanted to say welcome." Well, this "young man" was Mr. Patrick Bitature, the owner of this amazing 4-star property. Patrick Bitature is Love Leadership in action.

Employing more than 1,000 Ugandans, Patrick chairs Financial Literacy Week and is an advisor to the president of Uganda on the economy and foreign investment, but most of all Patrick and Martin, and enterprising women such as Olga Morawczynski, the Polish financial literacy project manager for the Grameen Foundation, who came to Uganda to make a difference, represent a growing diversity and "dignity walking" in Uganda.

They also are "making smart sexy" in Uganda, and they represent the future.

John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, former vice chairman, U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, internationally recognized public speaker and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, as the Amazon.com #1 Hottest New Book (for Leadership), on the CEO Reads Top 10 Business Best Seller List, and was published in November, 2009 in digital audio book format on Audible.com, iTunes and other audio book retailers . Love Leadership was listed amongst the Top 25 Business Books for Inc. Magazine/CEO Read for 10 month after its release.