Clearly there is a lot of work to be done on our transport infrastructure.
By Patrick Bitature
During a recent trip to China, I was shocked to find properly paved roads and first class infrastructure deep in the countryside, hundreds of kilometres away from the capital, Beijing.
I rode the high-speed railway out of Beijing, doing more than 300 kilometres per hour and I can attest I have never been on anything like it anywhere in the world. Not in Europe. Not in the States. Nowhere.
I was blown away and wondered why we cannot at least do a tenth of this at home.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when I used the Entebbe Expressway from the airport. I was in Kampala in under an hour. The Entebbe road had become a nightmare.
I was shaken out of my good feeling when I had to make a trip to Tororo the other day. On my way back I spent two and half hours between Mukono and Kampala, about the same time it took me from Tororo up to Mukono.
Clearly there is a lot of work to be done on our transport infrastructure. The full extent we probably don’t appreciate, until like me, you see better.
The problem has its roots in the colonial era, when the British only built enough infrastructure to evacuate our raw materials – coffee, cotton, copper, to the coast and on to their factories. But more recently the lack of new additions to the stock of infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s means we are having to play catch up with a larger population’s needs.
While no new infrastructure was built in those years, the population doubled from seven million at independence to 14 million in 1986 when the NRA marched on Kampala.
In the subsequent years, while the population has continued to balloon – we are now touching 40 million, red tape has put the brakes on our infrastructure development. I have heard it said that it takes an average of seven years from conception to final commissioning of our roads.
Time lost we cannot afford to waste.
It is obvious, but worth restating that infrastructure is what unlocks the potential of a country’s people and land.
Anecdotal evidence abounds.
At the beginning of the NRM administration, when they were rehabilitating roads, once the roads were done, in western Uganda for instance, matooke that would have rotted in the villages found its way to market and suddenly people cemented their floors, roofed their house with iron sheets and built more permanent structures. People’s lives were transformed literally overnight.
Clearly we are in the next stage of development, where in order to insert ourselves more meaningfully in the global value chains, the standard of our infrastructure has to jump many times in order to unlock even more, of our country’s potential.
For us at the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda (PSFU) we hear it over and over again our infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure needs a major overhaul, to speed up the movement of goods and people as a major ingredient of bringing down the cost of doing business in this country.
To illustrate according to World Bank statistics an average middle income country has 88 km of paved road per 1000 square kilometres of land area. The equivalent number for Uganda is 16 km or thereabouts.
There are financing issues involved, but we are heartened by the new potential for Public, Private Partnership (PPP) projects that can help overcome this challenge.
Thankfully, this is not just theory. In China since the 1970s, when the building blocks of the latest economic explosion took place, they have committed at 8.5% of GDP on infrastructure development year on year until very recently.
As measure of how much work and sacrifice we need in this country 8.5% of our $25b GDP is about $2b or sh4trillion annually or four times what we currently commit to roads.
Given that we are still playing catch up from the lost decades, a new sense of urgency needs to be activated in our national projects.
The writer is the chairman of the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda