There was an optimistic buzz in Kampala unlike I have seen in many countries. I spent time with some exciting entrepreneurial incubators – organizations such as FinAfrica and Mara Launchpad that support and fund start-ups, and the Grameen Foundation’s mobile app lab, which builds smart phone applications that address critical healthcare, education and financial needs of the poor. I also had the unique opportunity to meet handfuls of entrepreneurs that are working to leverage technology in order to address the needs of Africa. Throughout my stay, I saw inspiring uses of technology developed to solve real life problems, such as a smartphone app used in remote villages to assess an unborn baby’s health and heartbeat, or the ubiquitous use of cell phones for payment and banking since most of the people do not have access to a bank branch or debit card. This generation of young entrepreneurs has the drive and passion that they believe will put Uganda on the global stage. Many of the local entrepreneurs and investors seemed to look at the progress of Nairobi with admiration and a healthy competitiveness saying, “we can be like that – or better!”
Another very interesting – and surprising – discovery was that many Ugandans expressed extreme discontent with the popular Kony 2012 campaign. The moving and extraordinarily viral YouTube film was created to spread awareness to prioritize the arrest of the Ugandan cult and militia leader, Joseph Kony, by December 2012. Kony’s vast killing sprees and forced service of child soldiers has led to his place on the top of the International Criminal Court’s most wanted list, yet he is still at large in the region. Ugandans informed me that this video greatly misrepresented their country. Ugandans want people to come to their country for business and tourism, and the video made Uganda appear overrun by a guerilla militia group, even though the Ugandan military ran Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) out of the country in 2006. They were upset that most of the video was out of date. Secondly, while the Ugandans I spoke with appreciated the gesture to draw global attention to such a ruthless terrorist and criminal, they were offended by the organization’s strategy. They asked me, “After 9/11, how would Americans react if we all wore Bin Laden 2002 bracelets and put up ‘cool’ looking posters of him as if he was running for president or something?” That definitely drove their point home for me.
The country has certainly come a long way – especially from the murderous dictator days of Idi Amin in the 1970s and the brutal terrorization by the LRA until 2006. Uganda has opened itself up to foreign investment and aid, becoming one of the United States’ closest allies in Africa. However, it still has a long way to go to be globally competitive. The government remains one of the most corrupt in the world. Kampala suffers from frequent blackouts due to the government failing to pay its fuel bills, and Uganda is one of only two African countries where AIDS rates are increasing. Speaking with most anyone in Kampala paints a clear picture of growing discontent with the government. When Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, took power, he stated that “the problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power.” However, he has remained in power since 1986 and conveniently abolished presidential term limits during his tenure. The people may have very little confidence in their government, but they also feel encouraged, empowered and ever connected to the world, stating that it is only a matter of time before Uganda becomes a thriving nation – whether the government gets on board or not.
Click here for more pictures: Uganda Pictures