We couldn’t continue with Air Uganda, says Mahmood

Tuesday June 14 2016

Passengers board an Air Uganda aeroplane before

Passengers board an Air Uganda aeroplane before it closed. FILE PHOTO 

By Nelson Wesonga

Tell us about Mahmood Ahmed.
I am a Ugandan by birth.
I would have been here most of my life had it not been for that fact that my family moved to the UK [United Kingdom] when I was 8–years–old, in 1963.
After 1963, I would come back once a year, for summer holidays.

How did the Aga Khan get to know about you, to appoint you ambassador?
Initially, I was asked to do various things by senior leaders in the Ismaili community because they thought I could help.
The work I was doing came to the attention of His Highness the Aga Khan and he asked if I would work on things directly for him.
I didn’t expect His Highness the Aga Khan to ask me, in 2005, if I would take up the post of diplomatic representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in Uganda. It was quite a shock; I didn’t believe he was asking me to do this because at the time, I was wondering what I could actually do that would be of any value to the country. But he was insistent and said he needed somebody who was new to the country in the sense that I had not been in the country before in any capacity except in my youth. He wanted somebody who also had an emotional contact. And so I agreed to come back and started this role in 2006.

What does Aga Khan Development Network do?
The Aga Khan Development Network is involved in uplifting living conditions and improving quality of life. How do we uplift living conditions? In Uganda we operate in two thematic areas. These are economic development and social development. It was the government’s wish that we help the country to develop the economy. That means building capacity, cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit, catalysing economic activity so that it creates jobs. The jobs create wealth; the people who earn the money are able to spend on education, health, on aspects that give them a quality of life.

Social development is about education, health, civil society strengthening and rural development. These aspects are, historically, our core activities.
Civil society is that whole area of activity that is essentially voluntary. There are a whole series of groupings in society that are fundamental to maintaining quality of life.
So the Aga Khan Development Network, in part of its social development activities, supports these types of organisations. In order to strengthen civil society, it is important to have independent media. So we are involved in the whole area of media.

What are some of AKDN’s successes in Uganda?
Securing land for building the Aga Khan Hospital, I would say, is the biggest success.
Since 2012, we had been trying to find the right parcel of land. Eventually, we were successful in securing the land in Nakawa.

There is a claim you got the land for a song.
Delivery of public goods is usually the work of the government. If we were asked to pay the market price for the land, it would take away resources that we need to develop the land into a hospital. So, our understanding with the government was that it would contribute the land as the government’s effort towards the success of this project and we, the Aga Khan University, which is part of the Aga Khan Development Network, would develop the hospital into a world–class facility.
The other successes have been West Nile Rural Electricification Conmpany Limited, Bujagali Hydro Power Plant, the Kampala Serena Hotel and the establishment of NTV as a leading television station in Uganda. These are on the economic front.
On the social development front, the successes are the establishment of our Strengthening Education Systems in East Africa (SESEA). This is the project through which we have worked with, for example, 800 head teachers of schools around the country and we have worked with them in order to improve their skills as head teachers.

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We are also working in the area of early childhood development education of young children aged zero to eight. What we have done is to cultivate community schools. Tthese are schools not owned by us. We help the villagers to train the young parents in the art of early childhood development, so they become teachers effectively. We have got to a point where we have an early childhood development institute accredited by the ministry of Education and through that institute, we have been able to train teachers over a two–year programme and they receive a certificate at the end of that two–year training. They are then accredited as qualified to teach very young children. What happens in zero to eight years is crucial in terms of the future capacity of the child to be a contributor to society.

What were/are the challenges?
The challenges we faced were around human resources, finding the right level of human skills.

Any disappointments?
The biggest disappointment to me is the closure of Air Uganda. That was an unmitigated calamity, one that, unfortunately, represents a huge lost opportunity. I don’t want to start giving you any form of insight into what went wrong.
All I would say to you is that it went wrong but not because of anything that we did. But we didn’t feel that we could continue with Air Uganda under the circumstances that we faced.
It was felt that haemorrhaging money in Air Uganda was not something that could be justified on those terms. We needed to have much more support all round to make it a success.

You are leaving at a time when President Museveni has been talking about refinancing Bujagali Hydro Power Plant. Has he formally engaged AKDN over Bujagali?
Not that I am aware of. I am in a way sympathetic to what he says. The reality is that the cost of power from Bujagali power is expensive – but it’s not that that is a surprise. The cost of Bujagali was the cost of Bujagali. It was a time when we needed power generation. It was a time when the cost of materials, the cost of money was high. Those costs have come down. If we did Bujagali today, it would be a lot less expensive. If we were to say at that time that ‘Oh no, no this is too expensive, let us find a cheaper way of doing this’, there would have been a compromise on quality and we would be paying the price for that.

Or we would have compromised on the timeframe; we could have delayed Bujagali for, say, two years. Then we would have had to make do with thermal–generated power, which was more expensive than Bujagali.
And it would have been harmful to the environment; we know what thermal does to the environment.
Can we refinance Bujagali? Yes. But I am not sure that the arithmetic has been looked at carefully. I don’t believe refinancing it would automatically result in the reduction on the price instantly because the price at the consumer level is set by a number of components. The cost of generation and the cost of paying back all the loans are there.

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