Would affirmative action help Burundi?

Matsiko Kahunga

What you need to know:

  • The only surviving and thriving industry is the Heineken subsidiary, Brarudi, with its famous Mutzig, Primus brands, besides Coke bottling. The PTA Bank, one of the drivers of the region’s economy, was headquartered in Burundi. It is still ‘in exile’.

Narrating his experience of Burundi recently, The East African’s Charles Onyango-Obbo sums it up as a mandaazi economy. 

True, mandaazi (buns) do make a strangely disproportionate percentage of sights on street corners and kiosks, but Burundi has not always been a mandaazi economy.  

I was a student in the country during its old good days nostalgically referred to by Barundi as avant--la--crise (before the crisis). 

The crisis referred to started with the murder of President Melchior Ndadaye after his election in 1993. Since then, the country has been in a cyclical self-destruction. Yet avant--la--crise , the country’s economy was vibrant.

A look back at the pre-crisis Burundi reveals a vibrant economy, with a strong manufacturing sector by regional standards. One of the country’s strong pillars was the textile sector, with COTEBU (Compagnie Textile du Burundi), producing the best cotton fabrics in the region, recognised globally for their quality, as evidenced by the quality certification and medals the company won serially during its heydays. 

Today the company and the textile industry is a shell of itself, a victim of the crisis locally and the general invasion of discarded textiles choking the industry in the region. The young men carrying mandaazi to improvise a living are the outcome of this destruction. 

Right from the cotton farm to the textile stall in Nyakabiga market, thousands of direct and indirect jobs were lost, thus the mandaazi on the streets.

While COTEBU limps on, its contemporary in the Burundi ‘blue-chip’ club of the 80s, Verrudi, was not that lucky. This was a glass works industry, producing glass bottles and drinking glasses among other products. 

The plant supplied bottles and other glass products to the region’s breweries and bottlers. Verrudi did not survive the crisis, but the regional market it supplied is even stronger today than then. 

And the sand that was the raw material for the glass industry still lies idle along the entire shoreline of Lake Tanganyika.

Fruito, a delicious natural fruit juice was another speciality of the country. Today, like COTEBU, it limps on, its market share having been invaded by imported artificial concentrates and flavours. 

The only surviving and thriving industry is the Heineken subsidiary, Brarudi, with its famous Mutzig, Primus brands, besides Coke bottling. The PTA Bank, one of the drivers of the region’s economy, was headquartered in Burundi. It is still ‘in exile’.

The country’s palm oil industry still lies untapped. The entire length of Lake Tanganyika from the north of the country to the southern tip is dotted with villages of oil palm plantations. 

Yet there is only one soap manufacturing company, the bulk of the oil being processed and sold at artisanal level, yet EAC imports cooking oil and other products from Asia.

Joining the EAC, Burundi stands to reap from this newfound brotherhood. The common market, customs union, common currency, all portend well for this potentially rich country. Only if the EAC member states identify areas of affirmative action in favour of Burundi. 

Similar policies and initiatives during the cold-war era saw such countries as Switzerland grow and prosper, because they were purposively positioned as neutral states, protected by international conventions and treaties, thus becoming headquarters of several global bodies and institutions. 

They in turn saw no need for investment and expenditure in defence and security. EAC and the Great Lakes will, therefore, not be reinventing the wheel by adopting similar policies in the case of Burundi.

Mr Kahunga is a partner at Peers Consult Ltd, Kampala.

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