A farmer inspects a coffee plantation. PHOTO/FILE  

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The politics of marketing Uganda

What you need to know:

  • While the coffee originates from Ugandan farms, the end-user is European and American; thus effective marketing to this affluent market requires a sophisticated grasp of its cultural tastes.

The Katikkiro (prime minister) of Buganda, Charles Peter Mayiga, last week took a dig at government when he asked aloud how a company that did not own a single coffee plot could be entrusted to market Uganda’s coffee.

Given his prominent status, the centrality of coffee in the Buganda and Ugandan economy, and the suspicions around the questionable decision to award the contract to Vinci Uganda Coffee Company, an Italian firm, Mayiga’s comment received much support among the public.

The track record of the NRM government as far as the sale of State-owned corporations and negotiating contracts with foreign companies and individuals is concerned, has made Ugandans suspicious of any arrangement, especially that involving foreign investors.

Katikkiro Mayiga tapped into a populist sentiment rooted in history and the African agitation for independence starting in the late 1940s.

The traditional view since the 1960s at the dawn of independence has been that of Africa becoming a land of self-sufficient new states.

These new states were to have their own national airlines, export marketing boards, national television and radio public service broadcasters, national telecommunications corporations, and so forth.

Naturally this sentiment around the 1920s Marcus Garvey rallying call for “Africa for the Africans” and the fact that most of the economy was still State-owned led to the creation in 1963 of the Coffee Marketing Board, an agency charged with marketing Uganda’s coffee abroad.

This attitude persists in the recent outcry over the news that Vinci is to be the firm given the contract to market Uganda’s coffee abroad.

It’s an understandable, but factually incorrect assumption.
Starbucks of the United States and Nestlé of Switzerland have shown for decades that the world’s biggest coffee producers and brands can be companies that do not grow a single coffee plant.

The Chinese companies that are building or upgrading the road and bridge infrastructure in Uganda do not know anything about Ugandan culture and most of the supervising engineers live isolated from Ugandan society.

That has not prevented them from doing what Ugandans themselves lack the skill and discipline to do in their own country.

Marketing is a whole different, sophisticated area of the economy and thus far since independence, one that Uganda and most of Africa are a long way from even beginning to grasp.

Marketing over the past 20 years has grown several times more sophisticated, as the economy has shifted to a digital, data-driven, mobile-first world.

Americans and Britons have developed advanced marketing and measuring tools and concepts over the past two decades and this, in part, explains the meteoric rise of the Silicon Valley digital advertising companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and so on.

There has been a shift from the old way of placing TV, radio, outdoor billboard and newspaper adverts and hoping that enough people will see them and respond.

Today, marketing has become more and more a data science, with analysis and analytics at its core. It’s no longer enough to put out a message to the market; marketers are required to measure the return on investment in terms of response, a lift in brand recall by the public, and much more.

A look through Ugandan newspapers from the 1960s to the present in 2022 shows a messaging and packaging that’s simple and unsophisticated.

Finance Minister Matia Kasaija (right) and Ms Enrica Pinetti  who appended her signature for Uganda  Vinci Coffee Company (UVCC), exchange a signed agreement at the Finance ministry headquarters in Kampala on February 10. PHOTO/FILE

What passes for the marketing of coffee in Uganda is the old-fashioned, basic approach -- coffee packs placed on supermarket shelves, the rich aroma and history of the area from which this Robusta or Arabica was grown narrated on the packaging, coffee brands provided as placement and sponsorship on radio or TV talk shows, and proprietors taking phone pictures of packs and posting them on their social media pages.

Of the CEOs, Cabinet ministers, heads of marketing departments in Ugandan companies today, at most only about 15 percent have any real working grasp of the new internet and digital marketing landscape.

Not just in the marketing of coffee, but the marketing of Ugandan tourism, Uganda Airlines, Ugandan towns and Ugandan agricultural produce.

The primary international markets for Uganda’s coffee are North America and Western Europe.
Coffee is an agricultural product, but it is not a necessity in the way, for example, rice, potatoes or tomatoes are as nutrition.

Coffee is not vital to the diet. It is a beverage, a lifestyle product and, therefore, requires a different consumer habit than bread or rice.

So while the coffee originates from Ugandan farms, the end-user is European and American; thus effective marketing to this affluent market requires a sophisticated grasp of its cultural tastes, imagery, idiom and the complex science and art of marketing.

When Uganda Airlines was re-launched a few years ago, it followed the familiar old script of marketing. Cabinet ministers, government officials and a select number of Ugandan music stars and athletes were flown to a few destinations and their positive feedback on the airline, plus billboards in Entebbe and a few posts on social media, was supposed to be a marketing drive by the airline.

Also, the lacklustre performance by the Uganda Tourism Board confirms the problem with assuming that just because government is interested in promoting local tourism and the national parks and historic sites are located in Uganda, means that government is in the best position to market Ugandan tourism.

What Uganda might need is to disband the Uganda Tourism Board, contract a European or American company to handle the marketing, and the country watches as tourism turns into a vibrant part of the economy.

The main problem with the Vinci deal, then, is not that a European company has been awarded this marketing contract but that Ms Pinetti in particular has a lot to explain about the incomplete hospital project she was awarded at Lubowa.

The second problem is that since the privatisation of Uganda’s State-owned corporations began 30 years ago, rather than government sticking to its regulatory role, senior government officials have doubled as interested parties in the divested companies, often using their insider knowledge and political offices to disadvantage rival bidders.

However, putting these political issues aside, Ugandan coffee will not be done any justice if the country relies on Ugandans or a Ugandan-led coffee marketing agency to handle the marketing of the country’s most import foreign exchange earner.

History...Evolution 

Marketing over the past 20 years has grown several times more sophisticated, as the economy has shifted to a digital, data-driven, mobile-first world.

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