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Consider the rolex – The Africa behind the headlines

Consider the rolex – The Africa behind the headlines

By Yotam Goren

The rolex, the slightly spicy egg-filled Ugandan version of the Indian chapati roll, provides a lesson on how local entrepreneurs can successfully adapt a foreign product to local tastes.

We learned about (and enjoyed) the rolex as part of a Harvard Kennedy School student delegation that visited Uganda and Rwanda this summer. Our overarching goal was to confront the new narrative regarding African economic development, commonly known as “Africa Rising”, with the complex reality in the local market.

In all of our meetings with political, commercial and emerging leaders, we found that Ugandans share a tremendous motivation to better their country. However, the strategies of these disparate groups have at times been at odds.

For example, many government officials focus on strengthening agriculture, the leading sector in the country. But some private sector thought-leaders and business owners tend to focus on the potential of manufacturing, as well as on the necessity of promoting entrepreneurship to generate jobs for the burgeoning youth population.

However, there was also important common ground. From the highest echelons of leadership to the local entrepreneur running one of the few Innovation Hubs in Kampala, Ugandans echoed the need for value-added products to complement existing exports.

In his recent paper describing the “10 bottlenecks” hindering Africa’s development presented at the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), President Museveni noted that for Africa to truly rise, the export of unprocessed raw materials cannot be sustained.

The issue of identity and leadership also struck a chord, particularly with younger Ugandans. One emerging leader noted the risk of a society “creating an uninspired youth” in the context of a scarcity of quality employment and highlighted the need for an adjustment of expectations, particularly for students graduating into a challenging job market. This is an especially urgent challenge given Uganda’s soaring population growth rates.

One of the tools that can be used to meet the challenge of the growing youth population and the need for value-added export is the harnessing of the entrepreneurial energy that was so evident in the streets and markets of Kampala and other towns we visited.

There was agreement among many of the Ugandans we met that whether agriculture or information technology, local innovative solutions based on existing technology can sustainably solve regional challenges, generate trade and ultimately create jobs and opportunities.

This brings us back to the rolex as a metaphor for how local innovators need not “reinvent the wheel” but can rather modify it to local needs. The rolex innovators adapted Indian “technology”, the chapati roll and modified the product to fit the local market. Can the model that has served street food vendors serve as an example to other sectors? Can the rolex model be used by Ugandan entrepreneurs who can adapt existing technology solutions in agriculture, water purification and energy to address local and regional gaps?

An intense yet short visit to the region has left us with a strong desire to return to learn more about the truth behind the headlines. Like the rolex, the Uganda chapter of the Africa Rising narrative is wrapped up with complexities, uneven development, challenges and tremendous opportunities. We found a spirit of innovation across the country from the tourism entrepreneurs at Murchison Falls to the café owner in Buganda Road.

As we flew out of the Entebbe airport, we were left contemplating a country that is on the move.  Uganda—like Africa—is going places and we cannot wait to get to know the next iterations of this country’s entrepreneurial output.

The writer is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and serves as a diplomat with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

 

 

 

 

 

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