The “Hoima Municipality Welcomes You” signpost stands about four kilometres outside the main town.
It is not tall and proud enough for a signpost welcoming someone to a town that will be the centre of petrodollars for the next 40 years—at the least.
Someone should also cut that tall grass competing with the metallic signpost for recognition; and yes, a fresh coat of paint is needed too. After all, people are being welcomed to Uganda’s “oil city”. This mind, is a whole eight years since the discoveries were made.
A vacant expanse of land lies between the welcoming town council sign and the town centre. A first time visitor can easily think Hoima Town is still a distance away.
The town itself is not different from other municipalities in Uganda. The smooth tarmac road ends just as you enter the town and then you start seeing strands of dusty laterite roads encircling paint thirsty old buildings with rusty iron sheets.
The interconnecting tarmac roads are full of potholes with used polythylene bags and all sorts of garbage strewn all over. The road infrastructure is, in short, horrible.
With a budget of Shs4b from local government, Hoima District Chairperson George Bagonza, says they cannot have all its roads refurbished.
They can only occasionally upgrade the many murram roads.
“This town will be different by the time oil starts coming out,” he said with confidence during an interview at a restaurant in Hoima early this year.
New faces in town
South East of Hoima Town is the Kaiso-Tonya road, a 92 kilometre road that runs up to Lake Albert. It’s not used by many people except those going to the oil field areas—government, oil companies’ workers and those that live along the road in the shanty towns.
But along the erstwhile bumpy, dusty and tiring road are two new businesses, Motorcare and Edgo services strategically located, one after the other, on the right as you drive to Kaiso Tonya.
Motorcare is one of the leading suppliers of transport solutions. It is the authorised distributor of Nissan vehicles and Suzuki motorcycles.
That it chose to have a home near Buseruka, the area earmarked for a refinery, and toward Kaiso Tonya, a home for most of Tullow’s oil wells, shows how Motorcare, is placing itself strategically, speculating what it will tap in the expected transport boom.
Edgo Services, just close to Motorcare, is also looking forward to tapping into the business of offering engineering services in the oil sector.
The hotel business is the busiest in the area. As you are about to enter Hoima Town, KonTiki Hotel signpost is the first you will see. Ms Grace Akiiki, the proprietor, however, says she never constructed the hotel because of the oil discoveries, but rather to tap into the Hoima untapped tourism potential.
That said, the majority of the guests at the hilltop hotel are staff from oil companies. Engineers from Cnooc were checking out the morning of our interview with Ms Akiiki.
“Everyone is investing in hotels, which is good but will lose meaning if they are too many. There are opportunities in the agricultural supply chain, warehouses, service industry, education, but no one is looking at them. Why, because there is little sensitisation and which needs to be addressed urgently,” Ms Akiiki said.
Akiiki is right, there are many hotels in this town. Apart from hers, there are other hotels including Reviera, Hoima Resort, Kolping and EcoGardens.
Protea Group of Hotels Group, recently acquired by the Marriott International-an American hospitality company, is also under construction. It is part of Protea’s $130m (about Shs340b) African expansion drive.
Away from the hotel business, more construction is changing the face of Hoima. Deep inside the town, a towering multi-storied market is almost complete, thanks to African Development Bank.
The market, authorities say, will serve as a one-stop shopping centre and will put an end to the street vending.
Just opposite this though is, according to Hoima Town Clerk Emmanuel Banya, is a very ramshackled taxi park.
“It doesn’t look pleasant for an upcoming oil city but what we have done is to engage the vendors there and a consultancy and we are developing a new design for the taxi park,” he said.
“The few rich people who knew about oil early enough bought land in silence, and now [they] are investing,” Mr Mukuru said, “Those who didn’t but are financially sound, like Sudhir Ruparelia have just come and are making wonders.”
The billionaire has a bank, Crane Bank, being constructed there.
The dust notwithstanding, the town now spots brand shops like Bata, bank branches like Kenya Commercial Bank and a line of medical stores.
Despite the heavy construction going on, Banya notes that there is a lack of planning in the area, adding however, that the municipality has signed a contract with World Bank to come with a structural plan for the area.
The town clerk says the district leadership has set a plan for comprehensive structural planning for an entire municipality and there will be a complete structural plan for the municipality. The municipality is 100 square kilometres.
“It is the biggest in Uganda in terms of the area but in terms of development, it is predominately rural. It is a very good thing to have a big area already carved for planning purposes so that when oil finally booms, we will have lots of ideas and land for development,” Mr Banya says.
Unlike other oil producing countries which had no prior planning for the oil sector, Hoima as a town has been lucky. A Shs360b plan for infrastructure is, for instance, already in advanced stages.
If the political classes implement the plan so far set, and if the district authorities put a conducive environment for the investors flocking the oil city, Hoima stands to retain a lasting glow from the oil sector, years after the last dregs of oil are sucked out of the land.
But if it does not, the high expectations of turning the area into an oil city will not be met. The business initiatives so far implemented will crumble and yes, Hoima will not be different from the several crime infested, poorly planned and struggling towns that oil producing areas turn out to be in most African countries.
According to the 2002 national census, four years before the discovery of oil, the population of Hoima was about 343,600.
In 2010, four years after the discovery, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), estimated the population of the town at 428,500; two years later, in 2012, the mid-year district population was estimated to have increased by about 120,000, at 548,800.
“People are coming here for business,” the district chairperson, Mr George Bagonza, says. “Everyone wants to tap into the oil opportunity and we have people from all the way from Busia. Hoima is fast becoming a cosmopolitan town.”
However, Bunyoro Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister, Blasio Mugasa is not quite as enthusiastic, and worries about the increasing population and cosmopolitan nature of Hoima.
“When one person comes here and they get a job, they will bring two others who will bring others, and the story goes on. Our culture is fast getting eroded. We used to call each other by our respective empaako (cultural pet name) but you cannot do that now because people are now from different cultures,” he said in an earlier interview.
He also hinted that prostitution is starting to pick up with many oil sector workers and business speculators taking time off their busy schedules to tap into the wonders of the pleasure world.
Irene, for instance, came from Lira to make some money from prostitution. “I came here because my friend told me there is real business this side,” she said. “I have been here for two months and we really get customers. I want to bring more of my friends and then I will start managing them.”
That aside, the population increase is putting a strain on resources and yes, commodity prices especially that of food, are up. Whereas one can easily get a plate of food at Shs3,000 in Kampala, it is hard to get it in Hoima Town, where food prices range between Shs5,000 and Shs20,000.
Although the date for first oil keeps shifting, hope and resilience in Hoima is not. For the shrewd businessmen— and women, all roads lead to Hoima.