“I had a Rolex for lunch.”

“Eeeh ..!”

No, this Rolex has nothing to do with the ticking sort from Switzerland. But had you been living on a shoe-string budget as a student at Kampala’s Makerere University, it could have played a big role in keeping you going. A Rolex, you see, is actually a thin omelet rolled inside a Chapatti (yes, that ubiquitous, unleavened flat bread from the Indian sub-continent), provides a good dose of protein, and tastes good too (see recipe at the end of posting!).

Predictably, the Makerere University students spare no time in taking credit for coining this fancier description of rolled Chapatti. Perhaps! It is, however, equally likely that the name for this popular all-time snack, or light meal that is distinctly Ugandan, was derived by the quick roll of Lugandan accent ordering a “roll of eggs” from a push cart.

For the Microfinance Institutions operating in urban or semi-urban areas in Uganda, India, or other Base of the Pyramid economies, these and similar vendors – “Sellers of Food Products”, in MFI parlance – constitute a sizeable target “sector”.

* * *

English is the official language of Uganda, and is very widely spoken. Yet, the dialect of English spoken here has developed a strong local flavor, like almost everywhere in the world. Similarly, certain English words used here have a peculiar meaning widely understood within Uganda, but mystifying to outsiders. The origin of these usages may be obscure, but often curiously reveal interesting. Take the “boda boda”, for example.

The boda-bodas are part of the African bicycle culture. Started in the 1960s and 1970s, they are still spreading from their origin on the Kenyan – Ugandan border to other regions. The name originated at “No-Man’s-Land” between Kenya and Uganda. The opportunity to make a living by ferrying people across the kilometer or so between the two border posts lured a number of enterprising bikers to fasten a padded seat on the back of their bikes, and shout “border, border”, in their local accent, to attract potential customers.

While the boda-boda bicycle is still prevalent at the countries’ borders, in cities in Kenya and Uganda, the bicycles are more and more replaced by motorbikes. Today, all motorbikes in Kampala, for hire or strictly for private use, are referred to as boda-boda as well. Devoid of other forms of public transportation, save the Taxis (more on that below), they have become one of the main, though not necessarily the safest, form of short, inter-city transport in Kampala. Boda-bodas are found virtually everywhere in the city – at every major street crossing, in the downtown office district, outside popular bars and eating establishments – just everywhere.

While the boda-boda bicycle is still prevalent at the countries’ borders, in cities in Kenya and Uganda, the bicycles are more and more replaced by motorbikes. Today, all motorbikes in Kampala, for hire or strictly for private use, are referred to as boda-boda as well. Devoid of other forms of public transportation, save the Taxis (more on that below), they have become one of the main, though not necessarily the safest, form of short, inter-city transport in Kampala. Boda-bodas are found virtually everywhere in the city – at every major street crossing, in the downtown office district, outside popular bars and eating establishments – just everywhere.

While estimates are hard to come by with any degree of precision, there are probably around 100,000 men in Uganda working as motorcycle boda-boda. And, ridingg the not so enviable roads of Kampala for no less than 14-16 hours on average, the “take home” adds up to no more than 20,000 Ugandan schillings on a good day. These entrepreneurs, unsurprisingly, are also among the largest groups of borrowers from the many microfinance institutions in the country.

Riding a boda boda is fun, more so on a good day, of which there are surprisingly many in this equator-straddling city. Yet, for obvious reasons, it is not the prescribed mode of transport to and from my office. Nor is it a Taxi.

A taxi, as even a child in Uganda knows, can only describe a car or a van used like a bus, carrying many persons along a fixed route – within the metro area, out into the suburb, or beyond. In Kampala, they are mostly white, with a dashed blue line across the middle. While the routes are fixed, and you can travel to almost anywhere in the country from the main taxi stand in Kampala – overflowing as it is (see photo) – they don’t necessarily follow a fixed time schedule; instead opting to leave only when all the 16 or so seats are filled.

In case you are still wondering, my mode of transportation down the Nakasero Hill (Kampala is built on more than twenty hills) to FINCA’s Regional Hub located at the heart of Kampala, is what is known locally as a “special hire”, i.e., a taxi taking one passenger at a time, on a negotiable route, at a negotiated price. Metered taxis – electronic or even the older ones – are yet to have taken a ride to this end of the universe.

Although the vast majority of these taxis are believed to be owned, like a fleet, by a few affluent “taxi barons” of the country, ownership of single taxis are believed to be on the rise. Armed with financing from the country’s mainstream commercial banks, as well as the Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), a number of former wage-earning drivers are beginning to own and operate their own taxis as well. This, in turn, is enabling the MFIs to move up the value chain, to diversify their loan portfolios, and to enter the arena of SME financing (SMEs, or Small and Medium Size Enterprises are the backbone of economic growth and development, often described as the “missing middle” – their borrowing needs being too small for the mainstream banks, but often larger than what most MFIs cater to).

* * *

The language aside, a few other traces of the life of these countries’ erstwhile colonial rulers seem to have lingered. One such cultural left over is the Royal Ascot, albeit with its own unique East African, and one might add agrarian, twist.

Uganda’s Royal Ascot is held in Munyunyo, a scenic, serene resort town on the edge of Lake Victoria (see picture) and a stone’s throw from Kampala. Not unlike the age old racing in the English county of Berkshire, Munyunyo Royal Ascot is complete with much fanfare, food, entertainment, dancing, and women in attractive attire topped with even more attractive headwear. The royals of the House of Windsor, obviously, are not on call at the Pearl of Africa – but replaced by the who’s-who of Kampala.  Absent too, are the horses – replaced (somewhat mockingly, I could not help think) by goats.

Yes, they goat it here. At the Royal Ascot Goat Race in Munyunyo, ordinary, everyday goats, ten in each race, vie for their place of honor and for the handsome winners’ purse (for their owners) around a 150 meter track. And yes, there is pari-mutuel betting. There were six races in all – each lasting about five minutes or so, with nearly an hour between the races – so the races and the distribution of the prize money and other prizes (the best dressed, the best hat, and so on) were over well before sunset.

The descent of darkness (it’s like clockwork at the equator – sharply at 7pm in Uganda, every single day of the year) was greeted with fireworks, and then the party started, only to last until the wee hours of next morning. This, incidentally, is reputed to be the biggest, the most “in”, happening in Kampala.

See how they run:


Kampala in October

Below are some photos from this past weekend in Kampala. 

In lieu of  a new posting, I’ve updated the “About me” page to share a bit more about my story – and how it brought me to Credit Suisse and now, to Kampala. 

The way to work:

The way we get to work:

36 hours in Kenya

Heading west from Kampala, the first major city you come across is Jinja, Uganda’s second busiest commercial center, and as the site of the much touted “source of the Nile,” and oft visited town straddling the northern coastlines of Lake Victoria.

As you travel further west, smaller cities take on even more rhythmic names, Iganga, for example, or Bugiri and Tororo. North of Tororo is the Mt Elgon National Park, with its majestic peaks towering some 4,300 meters into the sky. Putting that aside, perhaps for another day, we headed west to the border town of Malaba, one of the busiest border crossings between Kenya and Uganda.

By now we have traveled more than 230 kilometers through the thick of the night, over fairly reasonable tarmac, from our new “homes” in Kampala.  At six in the morning, the few souls at the two border posts – of Uganda and Kenya – were surprisingly friendly and cheerful. Thanks to their helping hand with the formalities, we crossed into Kenya in less time and more smiles to store in my memory bank than is the case at most airports around the world.

The trip, proposed by one of FINCA’s newly-hired agricultural specialists, is one of those opportunities to experience rural Africa that I would not let pass.

A Kenyan by birth, John, my host, is trained and educated in Kenya and at two of the major universities in the United States. Even before all his academic accomplishments in agricultural sciences, John gained hands-on experience living and working in the region with a number of farms, small and medium, growing the vital necessities of human sustainability – staple food-grains, mostly corn, to be precise. Agriculture, as one would expect, is virtually the only economic sector in this region.

In Uganda, as well, agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, employing more than 80% of the work force. Understandably, FINCA Uganda, since its founding in 1992, has also been very active in this sector. Through its presence in many rural districts across the country, FINCA serves a large number of agri-entrepreneurs with its suite of loan, deposit and insurance products.

Since joining the organization little over a month ago, John is playing a significant role in FINCA’s quest for continuous innovation and enhancement of those financial products and services for this region.

We made it back to border the very next day at six in the evening – a meager 36 hours in the country to learn much of anything. Yet, the thought that FINCA is enabling a son of the soil to bring back his expertise to his native region will linger, as will some of the memories: traveling every minute of the two daylight hours through as much of the area we could cover; meeting people at every corner; the night descending from Mt. Elgon to spent at John’s house in the farm; the meals of corn, produce, fruits and flesh – all grown in the family farm; greeting a newborn at the village hospital, who came to the world exactly 36 hour earlier, as we were entering Kenya.

My camera could capture but only a few:

1.  A rural habitat:

2.  The lookout point

3.  The village mall

4.  The village people

5.  A lonesome chick

6.  Another habitat in the village

7.  Corn aplenty!

8.  Cornfield watched over by a Crowned Crane, the national bird of Uganda, atop an Acacia

9.  A vegetable patch

10.  A street parade

11.  A herd in a hurry

12.  With John Wasawa’s parents

13.  The village hospital

14.  Life at 36 hours

The Road to Kampala

September 15, 2010: It all started as an experiment in my long career in international banking. Back in 2003-2004, Microfinance was yet to enjoy buzz that it enjoys today, and Switzerland – the Mecca for the pinnacle of the world’s wealth pyramid – did not seem like an obvious launching pad for an initiative focused on the “base of that pyramid.”

Take Credit Suisse as an example. At the onset, the leadership in our institution was doubtful, if not outright hostile to the idea; banking regulators all over the West were downright suspicious. We scraped though 2005, the United Nations Year of Microcredit, with a corpus of just $45 million for extending credit to microfinance institutions, who on-lent that money, in micro doses – often as low as $100 – to thousands of micro entrepreneurs in the developing world.

Today, that $45 million has grown to a respectable $1,000 million, or “A billion for the Billion,” as we coined it at Credit Suisse. Thankfully, and never too early – because the need is enormous, this success is not unique to our institution; it has been replicated, even exceed perhaps, by a number of other progressive organizations, some even from the base of the pyramid countries. Riding on tireless efforts at innovation and a Nobel Prize to show off its achievements, Microfinance today has become the choice alternative in Development Finance for many a bankers, presidents, royalty, and celebrities around the world.

Now, that five year old experiment at Credit Suisse has brought me to Kampala, an urban agglomeration with a population of about 1.9 million people, and the capital of the Republic of Uganda. By practically all measures of economic development, this country, along with a host of others in sub-Saharan Africa, can easily be placed at that “base of the pyramid.”

There are, however, signs that Uganda has the ability to make significant economic progress in a reasonable time frame. One of the signs is the country’s prolific microfinance sector – there are over 93 registered microfinance institutions (MFIs) which have stood ground in competition with larger commercial banks in Uganda, Established in 1992, FINCA Uganda is one of the first such MFIs in the country.

The Washington, D.C. based FINCA (Foundation for International Community Assistance), internationally acclaimed for its pioneering concept of “Village Banking,” is a partner of Credit Suisse in its “Microfinance Capacity Building / Global Citizenship Program.” Today, FINCA operates a network of more than 20 MIFs in Latin America, Central & Eastern Europe, Greater Middle East, and five countries in the sub-Saharan Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Uganda.

Uganda is one of FINCA’s most successful programs globally, and as for Kampala, in addition to being the headquarters of FINCA-Uganda’s network of 25 branches and offices across the country, the city is also the Regional Hub of FINCA’s operations in sub-Saharan Africa. Situated on the western slopes of Nakasero Hill, in Kampala’s central business district, this Regional Hub is my host, since just over a week, for the Program.

I look forward to writing more about Kampala, and about FINCA-Uganda in subsequent posts.

Bakulamusiza – greetings from Africa!