Sometimes, in our need to grab the moment and milk it for all its worth, a key message gets lost in all the noise.
Recently in Parliament, and no doubt making ample use of his journalistic instincts for news, the MP for Kira Municipality, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda made a startling revelation. In the 2023/24 proposed budget for State House, there is a figure of UGX350 million itemised as wardrobe for the President.
The opposition MP then went on to highlight that every day in the coming financial year, the Ugandan tax payer will be spending almost a million shillings on new clothes for President Yoweri Museveni.
Nganda made references to a ‘Hollywood lifestyle’ but missed the opportunity to ask a more pressing question. Set against the backdrop of the Buy Uganda, Build Uganda (BUBU) government policy, where does Museveni actually buy his clothes?
Flooded by imports of secondhand clothing, if the UGX350 million is supporting the local textiles and garment industry in some practical way, it’s a small price to pay for giving prominence to the ‘Made in Uganda’ label.
By 2021, imports of used clothing had topped UGX900 billion. Nearly three times the figure for 10 years ago and a worrying reflection of how little Ugandans value their wonderful cotton and homegrown creative talents.
For those who have followed Museveni’s fashion-sense down the years, he has never been what you would call a snappy dresser. The solidarity of the Kaunda suits in the late 1980s, gave way to some nice conventional suits and ties during the 1990s when he was the toast of the international donor community. However by the turn of the century, he had firmly embraced military fatigues and shiny boots.
When not in light battle dress, he is most comfortable in loose white or yellow long sleeved cotton shirts. The suits only come out for foreign travel or significant national days.
Five years ago, Museveni told a public function in Arua, “Someone told me this a special day and I had to wear a suit. But I don’t really like these suits. I don’t see why I should market myself for foreign products.”
As a marketer, Museveni is exceptionally good. In the past, before it became an issue of unfair competition, he used to have his favourite branded soft drink placed at his side. Whenever abroad, he never tires of celebrating Uganda’s natural bounty, especially the sweetness and wholesomeness of our fruits.
For the record, his shirts are made by Bugolobi-based, Fine Spinners Uganda Limited. The company prides itself in being vertically integrated knitted apparel unit, from farm to finished product; exactly the kind of operation that exemplifies the best that BUBU can be.
This brings us back to the UGX350 million. One has to ask: which other local companies are so privileged to outfit the President and what is the procurement method used to select them? This is an opportunity plenty would grab at.
But while Museveni leads by example, the industry which according to the National Textile Policy can potentially generate $650 million annually, needs even more than BUBU to have any impact on Uganda’s GDP.
Major weaknesses include the continued export of unprocessed cotton; low spinning and weaving capacity; high cost of finance; high infrastructure costs and weak linkages along the value chain.
The government readily concedes that although there are several challenges to the optimal
growth of the garment and textiles industry, the prospects are still good if there is a comprehensive implementation of missing policy gaps that presently inhibit its growth.
These are listed as improvement of the business environment; technological up-gradation and modernization; strengthening textile sub-sector support institutions; increase the raw materials supply base; enhance human resources development; regional strategy development and strong domestic market development.
There is, however, another snag and one that really has us stitched up. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), has been allowing eligible African countries duty/tariff-free access for 7000 products (including garments) to the US market since 2001. The legislation is now up for review for a possible second extension beyond 2025.
Uganda’s garment and textiles industry does not have the scale to optimally exploit AGOA and the sustained importation of second hand clothing is the leading disincentive for investment in the sub-sector.
But restricting these imports puts us squarely in line for AGOA disqualification, as happened to Rwanda five years ago. The Kigali government decided that developing domestic capacity was a national priority that outweighed the AGOA benefits.
It was a brave decision. The other members of the East African Community at the time, Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda had jointly agreed in June 2016 on a total ban by 2019. However, they all chickened out, leaving Rwanda to face the music and at the end of March 2018, Rwanda was officially suspended from AGOA.
A look at Uganda’s recent performance under AGOA provides some perspective that might help us understand Rwanda’s course of action. According to figures provided by the AGOA secretariat in Washington, during 2022, Uganda exported goods worth $174 million while merchandise imported from the US totaled $166 million.
In this same interlude, only $69,000 worth of textiles and apparel were bought by the Americans, who in turn sold us $1.8 million worth of mostly used clothing. In 2019, the figures were $103,000 and $2.6 million respectively. On the other hand, Uganda’s textiles sales to COMESA and south East Asia are on the rise, reaching $11 million in 2020 according to the United Nations COMTRADE database.
The government says BUBU was developed out of the incessant demand by Uganda’s private sector, especially manufacturers, to expand the domestic market for local products. A core objective is increasing the participation of local firms in domestic trade by mandatory government procurement of locally made goods and services and undertaking measures to persuade the private sector (institutions and individuals) to consume/use local goods and services.
Some factories are already supplying uniforms to government institutions, but the real breakthrough will come with tapping into the mass market. To address the issue of weak linkages along the value chain and steadily build strong domestic market development, the factory owners have to work much closer with our designers.
But making clothes that readily appeal to both local and regional tastes requires some research as well. During these days of intense heat and half a century after independence, it’s odd that men still lovingly imprison themselves in suits and ties. Why not invest in talent and craft new styles that really show thinking out of the box.
Many countries around the world, including the US, South Africa, the UK, Kenya, India, and others, have or had some kind of BUBU. It is especially employed during hard economic times and unfortunately very convenient as a tool for politicizing consumerism. The danger is that what you hope for does not always happen, because people are far more exposed.
For one thing, we should not straightjacket the Ugandan consumer with patriotism as the basis for buying local. It demeans a customer’s freedom of choice which is the very basis of a free market economy. Besides, patriotism cuts both ways; why support a local enterprise that cheats you with poor quality products? Instead, let’s look at price and value for money. The rest then tends to fall in place.