Ever since the collapse of the Asian and Celtic "Tigers," it's a good rule of thumb to stay away from big cat metaphors when describing emerging economies. But with the explosive growth of the Ugandan economy, it's hard not to wonder whether the Ugandan lion is emerging. Fancy hotels and casinos are springing up everywhere, and construction sites dot the skyline. Expats and wealthy Ugandans drive expensive four-by-four vehicles and eat at the finest restaurants. Uganda is also making progress meeting its Millennium Development Goals: the HIV/AIDS rate has dropped from 30 per cent in the 1990s to a low five per cent. In 2010, Uganda's growth was 6.3 per cent, not bad for a country facing a recession weary world.
Kampala has many advantages driving growth. It is resource rich. From a tourism perspective, the country is beautiful and, in comparison to Nairobi or Cape Town, it's quite safe. In some ways the country is well suited to lead Africa in economic development.
But the country continues to be held back by numerous infrastructure problems. Take electricity for instance.
The power is always cutting out at the most random moments. You can be working online or cooking dinner when suddenly -- poof! -- no power. It always sparks a few curses, a scramble for flashlights and a hope that it'll come back on soon. Sometimes it does; sometimes the black out goes on for hours. Less than five per cent of the population has regular access to electricity, so load shedding is frequent. If one neighborhood has power, another neighborhood doesn't. Planning for power outages is just part of the day-to-day when working in Kampala. I keep my laptop plugged in all the time so I have reserve battery power. There are lanterns in every room at my house. Our stove is gas so we can still cook dinner.
Yet my experience is very different than most Ugandans.
The power usually goes out during the middle of the workday, hindering the ability of organizations and businesses to function properly. How can a business run without electricity? Large hotels and malls have backup generators, but most people cannot afford this.
Unreliable electricity goes beyond being a mere hindrance; it can be life threatening. The Jinja Referral Hospital does not have a backup generator. When the power goes out, surgeries are performed by the light of the cellphone. People relying on dialysis or breathing machines are at risk. Over 150 people have died since January due to power outages. The Karajoma subregion of Uganda was only hooked up to the grid last year; even then, the electricity is only on for a few hours during the evening. No wonder Karamoja remains one of the most desperately poor areas of Uganda.
Electricity is the most noticeable of the infrastructure short falls, but there are others. Only four per cent of the roads in Uganda are paved which are often poorly maintained. Dirt roads remain unpassable during heavy rains; this past weekend, 11 people were injured when a vehicle overturned on the Lira-Kitgum road trying to avoid the potholes.
Access to potable water is another concern. Lack of clean water has contributed to a cholera outbreak in Mbale. Cholera and typhoid outbreaks are preventable, yet because of poor infrastructure, people will continue to die.
Uganda has the third largest economy in East Africa, but these failings in basic infrastructure are hampering what could be a much more robust economy. Foreign businesses are wary about investing without reliability. Without investment, the government is forced to charge residents more to cover the costs of inadequate services.
Rising costs and an exploding population are fueling a growing resentment. Riots have broken out several times in the past few years due to anger over inaction on electricity and rising costs of living. The Daily Monitor, Uganda's 'reform' newspaper, has labeled this sense of frustration as "Uganda's national despair". Last year, shopkeepers took to the streets over the power cuts. The opposition group, Activists for Change, led "walk to work" protests over the rising costs of living.
In North America, the occupy movement has shed a light on the growing anger of the 99 per cent towards the so-called one per cent. In Uganda, there is nothing theoretical about this disconnect. The Ugandan lion is creating immense economic wealth for a few, while at the same time creating resentment among the many. Yes, Kampala might be a city of fancy SUVs and expensive restaurants, but the flickering lights serve as a reminder that the rest of the country is still waiting for their fair share of the growth.