Uganda’s emerging work culture of cutting off the nose to spite the face

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Drivers on ride-hailing platforms use the app to find customers, then ask to get paid off-app to avoid the fees. Water bills run faster than meters. Even the ‘beef’ in ‘beef samosa’ has gone silent. Kampala is not buildings.

One of Kampala’s poorly kept secrets is the scam that store attendants at Game Store ran, in which they force-fed discounts on items into their payment systems, then split the difference with willing customers.

The store attendants made some money quietly. Customers got desired items at a discount. Everyone was happy except, of course, the business owner. The embers of the Game Store closing-down fire sale are still smouldering but will turn to ash before the month is out.

There are probably bigger forces at play behind the decision by Massmart, the store owner, to up stakes and leave. The failure to open more outlets in almost two decades speaks of a small consumer market in Uganda. The current downturn, which tops a decade of falling real incomes and general economic stagnation, must have contributed. It is also possible that the business was cash-positive but the return on capital underwhelming. It could have been washing its face, but not swimming in cash.

But shrinking stock from long-fingered shop floor workers would have added to the pain. This, unfortunately, has become a national pastime. Like many small business owners, I know only too well the if-you-snooze-you-lose environment.

Almost everyone is out to take advantage of everyone. Look away for a second and a supplier will swap quality product for fakes. The butcher’s scale is almost always leaned on, to your disadvantage. Drivers on ride-hailing platforms use the app to find customers, then ask to get paid off-app to avoid the fees. Water bills run faster than meters. Even the ‘beef’ in ‘beef samosa’ has gone silent. Kampala is not buildings.

Such sleights of hand are not peculiar to us. Most countries have places where things fall off trucks. In some, violence is the preferred lever to pry people’s fingers off their possessions. But we are rising up in this table of ignominy, and doing so proudly.

When sending money to someone it is not uncommon for them to beseech you not to send it to this number but to the other number. When you ask why you are informed that they owe money from the other network, which will be deducted if you make the error of paying them there. People borrow money without the slightest intention of paying it back.

At the micro level, these are frustrating episodes. Like a carpenter who comes to fix something at the house and disappears with a toolbox. Or a mechanic who charges you $100 for a $15 sensor and does not even install it. Both true stories. But they add up to macro levels. A few years ago a South African company set up a hire-purchase franchise in Kampala. Big men and women flocked to Supreme Furnishers and treated themselves to expensive sofa sets with just the minimum deposits and IDs from Nasser Road. When the payment instalments did not come, the company sent people around to see what was going on, only to find that borrowers had almost invariably shifted houses and left no forwarding addresses.

Without national IDs or a postcode system, they were nowhere to be found. The company from down-under went into lockdown oh lockdown, before you could say calm down, calm down.

Put together, this raises operating costs as businesses have to second-guess their employees, or bring in trusted ‘expatriates’ from home countries whose relatives can at least be located and grabbed by the small hairs if they steal from the company.

It also raises interest rates and finance costs as banks cushion themselves from bad borrowers. Even nominally safe asset classes like land become high-risk due to forgeries and all manner of shenanigans. The cost of enforcing contracts rises because the police, regulators and judicial officers all set up ambushes and lie in wait for the highest bidder. Eventually, it makes a country less attractive for investment.  

Some of the Game Store workers will find employment elsewhere. Many will struggle, especially in this economy. Whatever upside from this little trick (and maybe others less visible) cannot cover for the loss of jobs and the destruction of value up the supply chain.

It is unlikely that the owners of Game Store will put up their vineyards for sale or cancel their golf club memberships because a store in a country they can’t find on a map was shut down. But for some of the workers, it is a painful reminder about the foolishness of cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. It still bleeds, even if you can’t smell it.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

Twitter: @Kalinaki