The Independent Team
Maj. Gen. Benon Biraaro is the brain behind the Local Investment for Transformation (LIFT) Uganda. He spoke to The Independent`s Patrick Kagenda.
What is Lift Uganda?
Lift is an acronym for Local Investment for Transformation. I conceived it with friends in 1997. We wanted to see how African people can get out of poverty. We want 20 percent of the Ugandans to bring their shares or equity together to create an equity fund and use that fund to invest and develop this nation.
How can LIFT’s objectives be achieved?
The most important element is using internally generated funds. Ugandans have a lot of money but it’s not organised. Wherever corporate bodies float shares, they have been oversubscribed. LIFT wants to get money contributions from about 20 percent of the population and create a joint capital base to build industries, do manufacturing, power generation, construction, and improve agriculture.
Considering our society, how possible is it to achieve LIFT’s objectives?
Ugandans are trusting. They have trusted me as an individual. Ugandans are forgiving and willing to work together in many ways. But working together in economic matters is where we will need to make a start. In Uganda we accommodate Chinese, Indians, Arabs and whoever comes here. The biggest problem is people think the government is about providing. We need to start moving away from that and refining as we go. Where we find capacity lacking, we will recruit from elsewhere because this is business.
What prompted you to start LIFT?
Working at the African Union gave me a vantage point to look at the rest of Africa. Poverty has come from the ground to the minds. Uganda has troops in Somalia but the rest of the world is not coming to their rescue and every day we are calling for money from other people and it is not coming. I saw that when donors don’t want to give you money, they start bringing issues of accountability and democratisation and I said; €œthis is what happens to every beggar!€ So instead of begging from others let us beg from our people.
Are there any models of this internally generated capital funds approach that you are borrowing from?
Singapore had what we call the NSSF here but they instituted something like LIFT. It was mandatory and they succeeded. The Ismaili Community headed by the Aga Khan uses this principle to mobilise resources, borrow, and lend to each other, and start projects all over the world.
How would you raise the capital?
LIFT puts people in five groups; Platinum who can contribute US$2000(Shs 4m), Gold category US$1000(Shs2), Silver US$500(Shs1m), Bronze US$250(0.5m), and Marble US$50.
Is this a government or a private sector driven venture?
It is a PPP (Private Public Partnership). In case government wants to invest into it we welcome them but it is a private sector lead venture. The only thing will be the equity brought together and then the project starts rolling.
When is Lift Uganda launching?
In October. We are working around the clock to see that we launch around October.
What is the meaning of LIFT’s symbol of the bee?
A single bee cannot mean much, it cannot create a hive. But the unity of many bees, the teamwork, the hard work, the discipline in the bee society, those are the values that we would want our people to have.
Who else are you working with?
We have a board of trustees of very prominent people like Patrick Bitature, Camilla Aliker, Martin Kabenge, Paul Ekochu, James Semakadde, Ibrahim Kibirige; we also have a few generals who include Gen Tumwine, Gen Mugume, and other strong business people in town. They are about 15 people in all. We try to get people with experience and some in the academic circles. We have goodwill from most of those people starting with Bitature who gave us free venues at Protea Hotel and we have been talking with Gordon Wavamuno to get us office space.
Why didn’t you pursue the Singapore system of making the fund mandatory?
The nature of income in this country does not allow us to be mandatory. This is why we are targeting 20 percent of the population. At one point it will be mandatory because all those people who will be employed by us, we are looking at 100,000 people every year, will be contributing.
Aren’t you tapping into the same market with the NSSF?
NSSF is tapping a very small section of 400,000 workers yet we are targeting six million Ugandans. In future, we will also be in a position to access long term funding like the NSSF because the people who are contributing to NSSF are the people contributing to LIFT. While NSSF is mandatory by government, LIFT is voluntary. We must convince people, they must see it working and they must get the dividends. We are also trying to run a lottery with a US$1million prize money every week.
When you go into such a business venture will you retire from military service?
I requested to relinquish the office and I am happy that my bosses at the army leadership have allowed me one and a half years. Poverty is bigger insecurity. If I can get people earning, I will be contributing to national security.