Monday, July 21, 2008

The Business Of Uganda

When we arrived here and started our jobs we could not work out why most of the week was taken up shopping, and only at supermarkets.

Granted there are some decent supermarkets in town but you still have to sit in traffic for almost an hour there and an hour back, and spend ages waiting for store staff members to go to the stock room and fetch you whatever gargantuan quantities of the things tourists eat and drink.

It just seemed silly that we didn't get more stuff delivered. At wholesale prices. To our doorstep.

So of late, our quest for moving things wholesale has led to some hilarious moments listening to R's side of the conversation as he tries to tell local distributors and manufacturers that he has some easy business for them.

Hello, is that Company X?
...
Is that Company X?
...
Do you sell Product X?
...
Excellent. Can I speak to your sales department please?
...
The sales department!
...
No, I mean sales. Please can I speak to the manager responsible for selling Product X?
...
Hello. This is R from Red Chilli in Mbuya. I'd like to enquire about buying Product X from you wholesale. How much do you charge per carton?
...
No, don't come now. Just tell me how much you charge and then we will make an order.
...
The price. I want to know the price. How many shillings is it?
...
Okay. If we buy some from you, can you deliver them free of charge?
...
No, don't come now. I do not need any yet. Just tell me if you deliver, when I need some...


And so on.

On the one hand, you could argue this country is crying out from some whipsmart entrepreneur to launch a customer sales training centre - where local sales staff and telephone staff can be skilled in how to turn a quick sale.

Sales techniques can seem to be alien to those in business here. Most of R's time on the phone is explaining to someone that he actually wants to give them some money, if all they could do is just tell him how much their goods cost and how he can get hold of them.

It has been said that the Indians "ran" this place back in the day, and now that many have returned after the Amin-forced exodus, it seems many of the more 'customer-focused' businesses are, indeed, Indian-run.

However that would be doing a dis-service to what we ultimately came here for. A different pace to life, a different attitude...

Ugandans like to do business in person. They seem to resist this remote, developed-world work ethic where everything is conducted by phone or email.

They come by to the office, face to face, bringing samples or visiting our emises, just to suss us out. People trek halfway across town just for a chance meeting to do business from, or to make an application. A price list always has to be brought, never emailed or simply given out over the phone. Sometimes it's typed, but some of our best and most reliable wholesalers come with scraps of handwritten paper. And sometimes it take three members of staff to bring it.

It's not the most efficient way to do business, but there is a warmth and humanity to it that you don't get elsewhere. When you find a good supplier, he's still a good supplier, whatever the telephone manner of his staff was in your initial conversations with the company.

And just as many of them are Ugandan Ugandans as well as Asian Ugandans.

And as for us, R's daily struggles to make himself understood make for an amusing interlude to the day.

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