The strange puzzle of Uganda’s sand and its new railway dream

Wednesday May 16 2018




I was reading the Daily Monitor online the other day, and the story, ‘80-year-old man shoots 30-year-old wife dead,’ got me scratching my head.
After shooting his wife, Samuel Bariluno turned the gun on himself. However, he “survived with grave injuries”, the story said.

It was a tragic story, though I was wondering what business an 80-year-old man had marrying a 30-year-old woman. I was still bewildered when I drifted to the next story, ‘Ugandan firms could lose out on SGR opportunities’.
I decided to read it as part of my “boring, but potentially important story of the day” quota.
‘Local manufacturers risk exclusion from supplying raw materials for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project if their products fail to meet required standards’, it said.

“Out of 19 reinforcement steel manufacturers, only three, including Roofings, Madhvani and Steel and Tube will produce raw materials for the project, after the others dropped out, citing inability to meet the required standards’, it reported. No surprises there.

It then quoted SGR project coordinator Kasingye Kyamugambi, saying in addition to local suppliers not meeting the standards for reinforcement steel, there were also issues with cement and sand! The project would require eight types of cement, it said, but only Hima Cement had reconfigured its plant to “produce one specific type [of cement] for the project”. Mercifully, the story said nothing about sand. Sand, of all things.

So we will end up possibly slightly worse than Kenya, where local manufacturers got only crumbs when its SGR from Mombasa to Nairobi was being built, for these same reasons.
To close, the story quoted Public Procurement and Disposal Authority’s (PPDA) Moses Ojambo, pleading with the “government to empower local manufacturers to boost their capacity instead of resorting to imports”.

But can it? The problems with finding suitable materials for SGR, speak to the difficulties Africa in general has had producing sophisticated industrial goods for this day and age. Virtually all local car manufacturers ended up making vehicles that couldn’t run and broke down at the first pothole.

Local manufacturers have made boots for the military and police that were too stiff to wear, or fell apart after the first parade. They have made uniforms that changed colour to that of a foreign army after the first wash. These are not problems that can be fixed by governments, if only because they are part of the problem.

Take sand. To begin with, the right kind of sand might not be there in Uganda. Indeed, there is actually very little good sand for building stuff in the world, which is why most of the sand that has been used to build all those massive structures in rich Middle East cities like Dubai is imported from Australia.
But if the sand is there in Uganda, we now learn that it takes some expertise to know it is the right one even if you are stepping on it. The problem is a technology and science one.
It all makes the bigger point for our industries that they do not spend on research and development (R&D), not primarily due to lack of State support. Government money, even a lot of it, does not necessarily buy imagination or give rise to creativity.
Some years ago, I visited a “factory” in Denmark that was a world leader in specialised landing beacons for airlifts and helipads in extreme places (the Arctic, mountain tops, etc). Turned out the place was not only small, but was run by about six guys, who put everything together. And they had the world’s big armies and other demanding customers queuing. The biggest advantage they had was that they were very clever.

A Ugandan, who works for the world’s second biggest agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, once asked me to lunch with his bosses. They were then in merger talks with the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology company. I was curious. Each of them had billions of dollars, why did they need to merge, I asked.

“What we are looking for is R&D money,” they told me. “The merger would give us at least $6 billion, which is not even close to what you need to be spending to find ways to feed more than eight billion mouths that the world will soon have”.
Manufacturers need to be pooling resources, and paying clever people in universities to find work on high value cutting-edge products. But they are not very many clever people out there, so the region’s universities need to be working on East African cooperation structures for research to make this worthwhile.

The sand conundrum is the perfect summation of our challenge. There is a lot of it around, but it takes a certain type to fine pebbles that will build a modern railway. Apparently not every Musoke, Okello or Were can do it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site [email protected]