By Denis Jjuuko
Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was only one radio station in Uganda — Radio Uganda. Their format was informative even though they also played some little music and drama on some days mainly in the evenings. However, there was a programme that I enjoyed most every late evening. It was called Matalisi. A jovial male voice presented it. Matalisi was what is known today as a commercial break where adverts are played every after a few songs. Back in the day, for 30 minutes, we listened and enjoyed adverts!
Some of the companies that dominated this programme were in the car parts business. General Parts — an importer of automotive spare parts and my favourite — Kyeyune and Brothers. Kyeyune and Brothers was (and probably still is) located in Nakulabye; a stone’s throw from Makerere University’s main campus in Kampala. Kyeyune and Brothers prided themself in making and repairing car exhaust pipes.
If car parts companies dominated the economy (by their way of advertising) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what would happen today? Official figures from Uganda Revenue Authority and Uganda Bureau of Statistics indicate that 31,200 used and new vehicles were imported into the country in the financial year 2015/16 alone. It is important to note that this figure only includes pick up trucks, buses, sports utility vehicles (SUVs), Light Duty Trucks (LDTs), and Medium Duty Trucks (MDTs). The 1980s and 1990s market must have consisted of very few motor vehicles. Despite the small number of vehicles, the automotive value chain still made those who invested in it wealthy enough to be household names.
On average, a motor car has about 30,000 parts including the tiniest screw. Most car makers the world over source these parts from global automotive suppliers. You have probably never heard of these suppliers who sustain the giant car makers that you are more familiar with. Just look for the maker of your car radio or seat belt to have an understanding of what I am talking about. In turn, a lot of these parts suppliers get their raw materials from many countries including Uganda.
The smallest car you see on the road today has more than one ton of steel whose raw material is iron ore that exists in Uganda to a tune of over 260 million tonnes. The biggest competitor to steel on a motor vehicle is plastic material. The raw material for plastics is oil and gas of which Uganda sits on proven deposits of 2.5 billion barrels.
Lead is another mineral that exists in Uganda today, which is an important component of normal car batteries. However, as the world moves away from internal combustion engines to electric cars, one of the key ingredients in lithium ion batteries on which these vehicles run exists in Uganda today. Graphite, according to the Uganda Investment Authority exists in Zeu in Nebbi and Matidi and Acholibur in Kitgum. Lithium itself is available in western and central Uganda.
Cotton is another key component of the car as it is a source of raw materials for automotive textiles including car seats and interior designing. It goes without mentioning that Uganda grows cotton and can even supply more of it to the global automotive value chain. The Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), which oversees cotton production in Uganda, says that the rain-fed crop can be produced in most parts of Uganda. Today, cotton is mainly grown in the north, east and south east of Lake Kyoga, and in the Kasese area in the western part of the country.
Glass is another major component on any car. The raw material (Sillica Sand) for this has been discovered around the shores of Lake Victoria near Ddimo landing site in Bukoto Central constituency, Masaka district. In fact, the Uganda Development Corporation, majority shareholders of Kiira Motors say that an exploration license for this is being secured.
There are many other minerals that exist in Uganda today which are important raw materials for car parts. If once exploited, Uganda can become a big player in the global automotive value chain.
Already, there are companies here in Uganda that make some car parts albeit mainly using imported materials. Uganda’s public transport sector is dominated by the 14-seat vans commonly known as Taxis or Kamunye. These taxis are mainly imported from Japan. These vehicles, which are mainly used to carry cargo in Japan arrive here without passenger seats. Artisans in Kisenyi in Kampala then embark on designing and making seats for them. It is a nascent industry as they are many such vehicles that are imported into the country each year. Although most of the materials used to make these seats are imported, once an automotive industry is supported and thriving, textile industries would take advantage. This would in turn ensure that cotton farmers make more money out of their crop. The textile industries would also employ more people.
There are also already companies that can easily make parts for cars. Roofings Group, for example, can provide the steel needed for motor vehicles. As a matter of fact, Kiira Motors has previously sourced its steel needs from Roofings when making the Kayoola Solar Bus, the Kiira Smack, and the Kiira EV concept vehicles.
Mulwana Group and Mukwano Group among others already make plastics. They simply need to invest in moulds to start making automotive plastics. In order for vehicles to become more fuel efficient and pollute the environment less as regulators are demanding for less emitting vehicles, plastic material is becoming an integral part of any car. Already 50% of car parts are plastic and fibre glass. As the world embraces electric vehicles, there will even be more need for automotive plastic parts. Electric vehicles too need be more efficient so the use of lightweight parts is inevitable.
In fact talking of fibre glass, there are many artisans who are involved in car bumper restorations after accidents and top covers or canopies for pick up trucks and even motorcycles here in Uganda.
Uganda Batteries, part of the Mulwana Group, has been making automotive lead acid batteries since 1967. It recently started making maintenance-free ones. Plascon Paint, formerly Sadolin Paint, as well as Peacock Paints make automotive paint at their respective premises in Kampala. If Uganda starts to make vehicles as expected, entrepreneurs will simply need to think out of the box — to use the famous cliché — and tap into the market.
Creating an enabling environment for the automotive industry to thrive is what Uganda needs to do since many other sectors are expected to grow. Many jobs will be created for young people and the government will be able to attain its dream of being a middle-income economy.