The Uganda National Chamber of Commerce (UNCCI), the umbrella body for the business community in the country, is grappling with several issues that have made it unable to fulfill its mandate. Ahead of the next elections, businessman Andrew Rugasira, the proprietor of Good African Coffee, talked to The Independent about the salient issues and main challenges affecting the body.
Why does UNCCI need new leadership?
Well, Chambers of Commerce were started to foster better dialogue between the public and private sectors so as to create a policy environment that allows businesses to thrive. A lot of the rules and principles of international trade came out of the Chambers of Commerce, which are now constituted under an international global chamber of commerce. The question then is, is the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which was created 83 years ago, accomplishing those objectives? Is it creating an environment where business and government speak together based on data and experience, and where the policies that are implemented are pro-business? Just two years ago Uganda was ranked 139 out 182 countries for ease of doing business. That shows you that the environment is not conducive for private sector development and the Chamber of Commerce is supposed to be at the forefront of creating that environment for business to thrive. Today, the Chamber is not structurally set up to create that environment. The governance of the Chamber is very poor. We have a membership register that is dwindling. We have a Chamber that is not participating in public debate about what should be done for the private sector. We have a Chamber that is not promoting trade and investment, a Chamber that is not serving the interests of its members and the purpose for which it was created.
The Chamber has an elected chairperson who is held accountable by the members. So, why are you saying the Chamber is not delivering on the objectives for which it was set up?
Three things have happened. One, we have had unconstitutional reforms that have entrenched the current leadership in office. This leadership cannot be removed by a board of directors but by an annual general meeting yet the current leadership literally controls those who participate in the annual general meetings. How? A Chamber is a member association so the members should vote their leaders in or out of office. Today, what they do is to invite district delegates to the AGM to elect the president. This is a false interpretation of the articles of association and it does disenfranchise the paid up members. But most importantly, membership of the Chamber has dwindled to such a level that there is no sufficient oversight into its operations.
Are you saying that Chamber membership, which has some of the most influential members in the business community, have allowed the leadership to do what it wishes in silence and you are the lone voice that sees a need for change?
I don’t think the membership reaches even 300 members. Compare that to the American Chamber of Commerce, which has 3 million businesses as members. Their contributions are worth $200 million per year, most of which is spent on advocacy. It is the dwindling of membership and influence that has led to the rise of other smaller sector business associations. UCCI is 83 years old and should be an apex association, at the top representing the various interests of the traders, exporters, manufacturers etc. The Chamber is completely absent.
What is your plan to ensure that all these members’ interests are represented?
The logic of an association is simple: If you represent my interests, I will be part of it. The first thing the Chamber has to do is to represent the interests of the business community. What the business community want to see – and this is after talking to a lot of people who disgruntled or want to be members and don’t see why they should be – is stronger governance and a leadership that is accountable to them. Two, we need to grow the membership register. Three, we need to grow the member services – more networking breakfasts, have interactions with foreign investors, hold trade missions that allow our business people to export, showcase what opportunities we have for investor partnerships and match-making. Four, we need to have better partnerships with the government. The private sector has not been engaging effectively with the government on policy formulation and implementation for the benefit of the private sector. Five, we need to contribute to youth employment by creating opportunities for apprenticeship, business training, skilling and mentoring. We need to link up with the government programmes that support the youth – for example the Youth Livelihood Project and Venture Capital Fund – whose implementation is best executed by the private sector. Six, we need to re-build the brand of the Chamber. If our Chamber is not at the same standing as its East African counterparts such as the Kenyan Chamber of Commerce, then we are not going to be competitive. Seven, we need to operate a sustainable and financially viable business model. Today, the Chamber’s activities are funded by liquidation (sale of assets) and not contributions from members. They have been relying on selling assets in order to be able to fund the Chamber’s operations. This is a critical issue that has to be addressed.
The current President, Olive Kigongo, is well-linked to business and well-connected to the political system and we would imagine she has better contacts to create interface with the business community and the State than you have. What makes you think you will create a better interface than she has?
We need to recognize that the Chamber needs renewal. She has been at the Chamber for 20 years since 1996, and as president for 15 years, since 2001. I think it is important for the Chamber to have renewal. Renewal is not just about an individual, it’s about regeneration; it’s about outlook and what new ideas and innovations one can bring to it. I have extensive export experience in terms of doing business on a global market place. I have local experience in terms of setting up a social enterprise, working with communities – producers right from the grass roots, value addition, manufacturing, processing, distribution, retailing locally, regionally and internationally. I think I can bring some of those lessons, experiences and challenges to help strengthen the infrastructure of entrepreneurship in this country. I have the competences of organizational capabilities. I have also been interfacing with the government to influence policy on behalf of the members. But more importantly is the ability to listen and appreciate the things that members want done and to chase them to ensure that they are implemented. I have the highest respect for the current leadership. I think she has made her contribution. It’s a fact that the Chamber, like any other institution, needs renewal of leadership and of ideas to be able to deliver to the expectation of its members.