By Dr. Ian Clarke
I went to two cocktail events this week, both of which were very special. One was for the launch of the new offices of SafeBoda , the other was for the rebranding of ‘International Health Science University’ into ‘Clarke International University’.
The university now includes a business school, offering general business degrees, which is outside the scope of health sciences, so it was necessary to rebrand. This event had special significance for me personally because I am the founder, but the launch of the Safe Boda offices was significant because of Safe Boda’s unique approach to Uganda.
Most of us have come across Safe Boda – the boda boda guys with the orange jackets, who carry a spare helmet for their passengers, and even offer a hairnet, to wear underneath. Safe Boda has three founders. One is Ugandan, known as Ricky Rapper Thompson, one is Scottish, called Alastair Sussock, while the third Is Belgian, known as Max.
The fact that the three founders are from different countries says something about the cosmopolitan nature of the organization. Ricky Rapper Thompson is often the person who appears at public events because he has such a great story to tell about how Safe Boda came into being.
He lost a relative in a boda boda accident and set out to make a difference by having safe bodas. He was the first boda boda rider to offer tourists motorcycle taxi sightseeing tours around Kampala; his riders were well trained, considerate, neat and clean, and drove carefully, and the tourists were given helmets. His company did well and from that ‘Safe Boda’ was born.
Safe Boda has now become a company which offers much more than safety, but is developing into the Uber of motorcycle taxis, and is set to become a global player. I met Alastair, the Scotsman, who told me they have managed to raise some serious financing for the company. He is the caricature of a Scot – red disheveled hair, strong Scottish accent – the sort of person you would not be surprised to see in a kilt, wielding a sword in ‘Braveheart’. Max is Belgian.
I don’t have a stereotype for Belgians, but one can tell he is European. The first person I met at the event was a very fat jolly traffic policeman, who embraced me warmly and said I would always be his mayor. Then I met the Belgian Ambassador who was probably there on account of his Belgian subject, and there was the Anglo-Ugandan urban economic planner who was bravely trying to do some planning with KCCA (probably a lost cause).
The master of ceremonies was Rujenda, from XFM (my favorite radio station), who is a rather large man in the flesh, and is probably charged extra for his boda rides. The event was not a ‘who’s who’ of Kampala, but had all colours, shapes and sizes of people – a reflection of Kampala itself.
The food was local, consisting of rolexes, roast goat and chicken, plus some salad dish, and a cocktail based on Uganda Waragi. As I ate my rolex I realized that the event embodied so much of what is uniquely Ugandan, but Ugandans themselves fail to appreciate it. ‘Safe Boda’ attracted a significant amount of investment from venture capitalists who see a huge upside for this company on a global level, because if the model is a success in Kampala it can work anywhere in the world.
Several guidebooks have rated Uganda highly as a tourist destination because it offers a distinctive mix of experience, which is different from the usual tourist sites. Those Ugandans who have capitalized on this, such as Amos Wakesa, have done very well in their businesses, and see good prospects for the future. Certainly, if a business is going to capitalize on the motorcycle taxi sector, Kampala is the boda capital of the world. Alastair, Ricky and Max know that if they can make their organization and their app work here it can work anywhere.
Take another example: the humble rolex, which has become a staple food in Kampala. Who would think of serving rolex at a cocktail? But it was delicious. We now get visitors from other countries who have heard about it, and want to experience the taste; we don’t have to slavishly copy other trends in the world, we can set our own.
The government and the private sector are promoting BUBU (Buy Uganda, Build Uganda) at the moment, but so many Ugandans don’t believe in their own products and seem to be addicted to imports.
That evening, eating Ugandan barbequed goat and chicken, with rolex and a UG cocktail, in the balmy evening air, was a distinctive Ugandan experience. Why not let our differences make us special, and like Safe boda, capitalize on them.