What you need to know:
If you want more Ugandans to drink coffee, let the market provide better quality products on the market...
A couple of years ago one of my brothers and I, both unapologetic coffee addicts, chanced upon a roadside café in Ntinda, one of Kampala’s suburbs. A peep inside showed there was a lot going on; the whirring and grinding of coffee beans, and that heavenly aroma that wafted in the air.
There were also artefacts and what we were told was a budding museum. We then chanced upon a quiet unassuming man who, we were told, was the proprietor. We prodded. He revealed that he had made his fortune in business and the café (and museum) were his way of giving back to the community, while providing a farm-to-cup business ecosystem. As we drove away, coffee mugs in hand, we discussed how impressive it was to see businesses that sought to give back, and also do contrarian things, like the museum. Maybe there was hope, after all, for good old Uganda, we agreed.
Imagine then, Dear Reader, the bitter taste in the mouth I felt when it was later reported that the café wasn’t just some socially conscious, fair-trade venture but in fact an edifice of accountability for a tidy Shs9 billion or thereabouts that had been trousered from the treasury to teach Ugandans how to drink coffee! No curriculum has been made public about this “course” so we can’t tell how long it takes, how many semesters it lasts or how early one needs to wake up in order to smell the coffee. But I can tell you that, us as us, we received no instruction when we visited the café.
In fact, since the Shs9b revelation was made, every cup of coffee feels like an exam whose results I will never receive. Am I holding the cup at the right angle? Am I swallowing it properly? Am I supposed to drink it before or after meals? No one taught us!
In fact, until the revelations were made, there was nothing in the public domain to suggest that there was a project to teach Ugandans about coffee or promote its consumption. Your columnist has not seen any newspaper adverts, radio jingles, roadside billboards or television spots to suggest that the Shs9b was put to work. If anything, many hotels, restaurants and particularly government offices, continue to buy imported instant coffee that tastes like brewed saw dust mixed with mud.
Ordinarily one would expect either an apology, a rear-guard effort to get the work done, or that the newly minted billionaires would quietly retreat into their shambas and chew the curd. But no! Emboldened by the ease with which the earlier sum was evaporated, similar schemes designed to separate taxpayers from their money have since been crafted.
This time the booty is meant to be shared with a wider team, for which purposes a consortium of sorts has been created and has already, once again, trousered part of a $10 million prised out of the Consolidated Fund. People in the know say that the end goal is to put “local content” into the controversial plan to give one company a monopoly, or first right of refusal to buy up all the country’s coffee crop. Even if we gave the benefit of the doubt and assumed that these interventions were well-intentioned, they are the wrong approach to creating economic value. The lack of transparency in the selection of punters keeps out more innovative ideas and more competent implementers. There are folks at all levels of government who feel the need to busy themselves with one intervention or the other but sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do. Many small businesses, which are the engines of job creation, suffer from the high cost of doing business, asinine bureaucratic procedures (such as Shs100,000 a year for a virtual post office box), high tax and utility rates, and high costs of reporting and compliance.
Civil servants’ time and taxpayers money is better spent on fixing these bottlenecks rather than trying to engineer market dynamics. I don’t remember when I had my first cup of coffee but I am pretty sure no one urged or taught me how to.
If you want more Ugandans to drink coffee, let the market provide better quality products on the market, as it has already started doing, and let them keep more of the money they make.
Postscript: I recently drove past the café in Ntinda to see if they were accepting new students. It was closed, but the signage suggested that there is now also a hair salon and massage spa on the premises. I guess anyone hurting from the loss of taxpayer money can get a relaxing deep-tissue massage – for a fee, of course.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.
[email protected]; @Kalinaki