I recently had a look at two of the largest malls in Kampala, Bugolobi Village and Acacia Mall. These two malls in particular are an attempt to bring some glamour and experience of high-end shopping and café life to Uganda, such as is common in major cities in the West and other parts of the world.
A good bit of architecture they are. Acacia Mall looks much like the Westgate Mall of Nairobi. The two malls add to the number of places that the young and restless can hang out at in Kampala. However, they raise certain questions in my mind that these days is sceptical about most things.
Most of their items price out most Ugandans, from coffee to ice cream and other snacks. Granted, there always is the mass market and the high end in every market in an open society. But is Uganda ready yet for this sort of stratified consumerism? Who is the target market for these two luxury malls? It can only be as their clientele a small number of European expatriates and tourists and the small Kampala middle class.
In the late 1990s, as drinking joints, sports bars and cafés started to open in Kampala, it soon became noticeable that as soon as a new one opened, the small and usually same crowd of revellers flocked to the new ones. That was until another one opened and then they all abandoned the most recent one for the new “happening” place.
After some time, both places were struggling: the old bar or club having lost its clientele to the new bar, which in turn lost some of them to the next and so on, and finally all three or four bars were struggling financially.
The message was that there is not enough of a consumer middle class in Kampala to sustain all these places. Might the same thing be about to happen to these mushrooming malls?
Already, more established malls like Garden City and Nakumatt Oasis are starting to be noticeably affected by Bugolobi and Acacia malls, as Ugandans find the two new malls more fashionable.
It appears there are more large supermarkets and shopping malls than Kampala can support.
My view is that some of these malls should have been based in Jinja, Mbarara, Mbale, Gulu or another such towns to perhaps create a contagion effect and force property owners in these towns to raise their standard.
What does Kampala then need?
It seems to me that the much more urgent property need in the city is low cost, quality housing, two bedroom units built as estates with basic amenities like electricity, piped water and paved roads.
As most of us know too well, Kampala is a city built on seven hills and seven slums. The name Kampala gives the impression that those who live in the capital are better off than those in smaller towns. But in truth there are parts of Jinja, Fort Portal, Mbale, Mbarara, Gulu and Arua where residents live in more dignified surroundings than the slum that much of Kampala is these days.
Capitalism might have triumphed over Communism starting in 1990, but after the initial euphoria and the fear of Cold War nuclear war subsided, many have started to come to terms with Capitalism’s numerous shortfalls.
It is creating unacceptable levels of income inequality. A tiny new class or group of super-rich is cropping up around the world, which controls on average 80 per cent of all national wealth.
Then the remaining 99 per cent of the population struggles for a piece of the 20 per cent.
Unfortunately, Africa which more than any other continent needed a more equitable distribution of wealth and a sense of fairness after all the injustices it has suffered for centuries, is blindly embracing the excesses of Capitalism at a time most of the continent is still feudal in its ways.
In Kenya, this artificial consumer lifestyle in the capital Nairobi has long been a mark of that country’s unequal society. Parts of Nairobi have neighbourhoods with property that could blend in well in a European suburb; while at the same time Nairobi is home to Kibera, said to be the largest slum in Africa, a city within a city, full of squalor, dirt and despair.
Africans, who like to claim or imagine themselves the warmest, most humane and God-fearing people on earth, are apparently as cold and indifferent to the suffering of fellow man as any other people.
So to the people and companies putting up these large malls, their point has been taken. But if they can, they should listen to us too. They will do Kampala a greater service by using that same capital and clout with senior government officials to build complexes and estates of quality housing.
Then when we finally have decent housing and the struggling middle class is more confident of itself, it will then, in a natural next step, start to patronise the restaurants at Acacia Mall with French names.