Karoli Ssemogerere

Owino Fire: One time too many

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By Karoli Ssemogerere

Posted  Thursday, December 5  2013 at  02:00

Day broke with news of another fire at Kampala’s largest market: St Joseph Balikuddembe and property worth millions of shillings destroyed. In city rolling its eyes off a facedown between police, MPs, political leaders, lawyers and the public in the past week, you would imagine the police would be 100 per cent alert.

But as the fire engines slowly began rolling into the Kampala Fire Station, a few hundred meters from the inferno you could see exhaustion and despair in the eyes of the tired police officers.

Commerce in Uganda has evolved significantly in many ways in the last two decades. A little more than 20 years ago, Pioneer Mall opened its doors a modest lay-about of a few shops at the junction of three streets, Burton, Johnstone Street next to the former DP offices and Kampala Road.

Pioneer Mall modest in size was the forerunner of the concrete shopping format that multiplied retail outlets in the city. They have tribes of names: mixing the choice available with the relative informality of transactions closed. One name is easy to remember- Best Bargaining Center, BBC: Some are arcades; others are plazas. Some of the rich people prefer to use the word complexes, arcades.

This fertile imagination is not a preserve for the downtown property owners. An old hand in business- Mr Katatumba for many years owned Blacklines House. As the times changed he also rebranded his building. From Suites, to House, to Towers. His tenants similarly had to adjust from suites to apartments and finally graduated to buildings even though they occupied or co-owned the exact same physical space.

These establishments thrive on small profit margins and turnover. About 90 per cent of Uganda’s trade is retail. A fact not lost on the big boxes from Kenya and South Africa. Ugandans are hooked on a bargain if they can get one. Beyond the malls where traders are struggling to pay rent but are not short of customers is the proper downtown. Kikuubo the distribution center and Owino the collection of everyone else. Downtown is a lifeline for uptown establishments.
Draperies, Shoe-wear and many household wares start their way to a customer through a downtown source; a used clothes bale or a container off loading in the middle of the night with tons of cheap Chinese goods. Some of the fastest trips take about three hours, from the time a used bale is opened at 7am, laundered to dry and pressed for an uptown shop.

Other merchandise will start off from a container to a consolidator and eventually end on the street with a mobile vendor coercing motorists to buy. For most of the other “stuff” Kampala’s pavements, Sunday markets do the rest encroaching on residential areas and so on for the rest of the shopping public.

It is for these reasons that Owino’s own transformation in the past few years from a hodgepodge of people randomly selling food and merchandise makes Owino that much more important to the metro-economy. It is also for the same reason that Owino and other markets are ground zero in political battles between the haves’ and have-nots. Owino is not just for the poor, a lot of money changes hands in Owino every day and circulates in the economy.

Markets are still regulated by an archaic law from the colonial era. For a long time they mean nothing more than revenue sources for local governments with a lot of leakages that have made many people rich. As time wore on the markets agenda has become more sophisticated.

The modernisation agenda has chipped away at some of the retail space that used to be allocated to Owino like set-ups. Downtown Kisenyi is packed with new concrete complexes that replicate Owino but in a modern format with a permanent roof and spare plumbing. Donors like ADB have financed modern storeyed markets like the new market in Wandegeya.

These new markets, the new Owino included are supposed to reduce the other difficult aspects of urban life, law and order namely: street vendors, hawkers, wheelbarrow pushers and alas street children. None of this has come to pass.

For every inch released by the people migrating up the economic ladder, this new space is rapidly filled by fresh arrivals from the rural areas, school drop-outs and yes the steady expanding generation of Karimojong street children. It is often assumed that these armies of the urban poor represent economic failure, are symptoms of a failed state. Maybe in one sense but not all. These hydra-arms are the final outlets for a large percentage of retail goods. Farmers rely on them too using hawkers to vend items once thought to be a preserve of the market.

It is obvious that Owino cannot be just a random catastrophe. Building up does not necessarily mean you can stem the vendors. Owino like its richer cousins probably cannot pass a fire safety drill. It would be useful in the future for the market leaders to have among them fire marshalls. If KCCA wants to collect license fees, market dues from these people it is important it remembers other aspects of its mandate to ensure that people are properly situated, have sanitary facilities and even if for years will remain open air, can actually fight a fire. The Police has shown this is not their strongest suit at least for now:

Mr Ssemogerere, an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate. kssemoge@gmail.com