Recently, I was in conversation with an official of one of Kampala’s leading FM radio stations. We were discussing one of my pet and longest-running topics, the difference between the European and the African.
He mentioned with nostalgia in the late 1990s when the South African phone company MTN had just entered the Ugandan market.
The Marketing Manager of MTN Uganda, Erik van Veen, a gregarious, energetic man, was constantly in the news media. Parties, sporting events, awards ceremonies.
Obviously every newspaper and radio station in town wanted a piece of MTN’s advertising budget, at that time its blue-and-yellow corporate colours were becoming the most instantly recognisable colours in Kampala and later around the country.
This radio official narrated what it meant to deal with van Veen. A marketing or management team would visit the MTN head office, present a proposal to van Veen and try and persuade him to adopt it and have MTN advertise with that radio station.
According to this official, van Veen would immediately take to the idea, listen carefully, show enthusiasm, suggest changes to it, ask questions about if it could be better done, and so on.
The radio team would feel that somebody was listening keenly and seemed to immediately understand their point.
After van Veen left and gradually Ugandans came to take up senior management positions in MTN, according to this radio official turned analyst, they started to feel the huge difference.
The new Ugandan managers, like most Ugandan CEOs, General Managers, Marketing Managers and others who carry the title of either manager or director, executive, boss and CEO, were a far cry from van Veen.
Typically, they were hesitant about everything. They lacked the personal confidence and expansive attitude that van Veen had. Even a proposal that was so glaringly obvious in its advantage to MTN, to the radio station and of interest to the Ugandan public would be met with “You see”, “However…”, “Unfortunately, we…”, “But…”
I fully understood and agreed with this radio official. That is the Uganda that has frustrated me all my life since I left university.
I don’t know how many proposals and ideas I have put to marketing managers and CEOs of some of Uganda’s leading companies over the years.
The first reaction is always one of unease, like people not used to taking decisions, people not used to thinking outside the box (or thinking at all).
To every new idea one presents, the Ugandan manager instinctively looks for a reason to explain why it won’t work or why it is a good idea, “but…”. There is always a “but”.
As I mentioned last week, I am an ardent viewer of television news and documentaries, especially Bloomberg TV, the BBC and the documentary channels like National Geographic and Discovery channel.