Three fishes for Uganda: why Africa struggles to industrialise

‘The pearl of Africa’, as Sir Churchill once called Uganda, has yet to enjoy a rapid economic growth. That’s a challenge that Uganda shares with the majority of African countries. Multiple reasons for the African growth inertia have been suggested; unstable political environments, low education levels and insufficient infrastructure are usual suspects. The main reason for the slow industrialisation of Uganda, however, is neither political nor economical, it is cultural. This week in Kampala, Dr. Peter Lating at Makerere University, explained me the Ugandan mindset with a brilliant—and reportedly true—story.  The story deserves to be shared, and it goes like this:


3 ugandan tilapia_industrialisation of uganda

‘A few years ago, the President of the World Bank visited Uganda to get a first-hand look of the country’s economical progress. The Ugandan President used the occasion to invite the World Bank President to explore some of Uganda’s natural wonders. On their way to the Victoria Lake, the foreign guest notices many Ugandans doing absolutely nothing in broad daylight. When he sees a man lying in the fields—sleeping under the shadows of a tree—he asks the Ugandan President if he can talk to the man. The Ugandan President reluctantly agrees to give it a try. The decorated delegation approaches the resting man, and the President of the World Bank asks the first question:

  • Good afternoon Sir. Do you speak English?
  • Yes, I do.
  • What are you doing here?
  • I’m relaxing.
  • What do you do for a living?
  • I’m a fisherman.
  • That’s good. How many fishes do you catch in a day?
  • I catch three.
  • Only three fishes? What do you do with them?
  • My family eats one for lunch. We have another one for dinner, and then I give one to my brother’s family.
  • Why don’t you go catch some more?
  • Why should I?
  • So you can sell them on the market.
  • Why?
  • So you can get money.
  • What for?
  • So you can build a house and send your children to good schools.
  • What for?
  • So they can get good jobs and earn more money.
  • Why would they?
  • So you all can save some money for your retirements and relax when you get older.
  • So, after all this, you tell me that the goal is to relax in the future?
  • Yes.
  • I’m relaxing right now!’

My friend, Dr. Lating, tells the story with great insight and humour. He has heard the story from a general in the army who had accompanied the presidents on that day. Lating believes that ‘there will not be a boom in Africa before this general mindset of the fisherman changes’. True enough, according to all standards the World Bank President would consider him poor, but he doesn’t see himself that way. Three fishes is apparently enough to make the man happy with his life. Who owns the more important interpretation?

That is a difficult and multifaceted question, but I decide to vote for the World Bank. Here are my arguments: The figures in Uganda are well below our definitions of wealth and happiness of life measures. Consider these: About 40% lives on less than $1.25 a day. More than 60% of the 35 million Ugandans do not own a bank account. About 30% are illiterates. Life expectancy averages at 53 years. The external debt has been growing rapidly over the last decade and is a source of concern. Uganda is repeatedly ranked among the most corrupt states in the world. It comes in at the world’s 161st place at UN’s Human Development Index. 80% of the workforce works in agriculture or fishing. A considerable amount of Ugandans never touch money; they live in a barter economy—three fishes for a car repair, and so on. Regardless of this, my stay in Kampala was a pleasure: people are friendly and respectful. I am glad to that most of the mentioned figures are steadily improving—but that fact does not necessarily signify economical growth,  just better statistics.

Kampala Uganda 2-3-2013

I sincerely believe that rapid industrialisation would bring good things to Uganda and Africa at large. Industrialisation brings more and better food, water, security, health, power supply, infrastructure and—most importantly—enlightenment. I took the above picture on a market place in central Kampala. There, thousands of people attempt to sell or exchange goods every single day. One young man stood proudly behind a single bathroom scale he wished to sell. The problem is that the vast majority has no money to buy these commodities.

It is a paradox that you need growth to grow, but industrialisation is a proven recipe. Look to any other continent. Countries in Africa could learn from the successes while preserving its historical culture and outperforming other nations when it comes to environmental care. But this cannot come without a serious shift in the mindset on what is value and how to create it. The Ugandans need exposure to modern knowledge and industrial practice. That means two things: a better education system and more foreign direct investment from multinational companies. Only Jesus could produce a good return on a few fishes.

What is your opinion?

2 thoughts on “Three fishes for Uganda: why Africa struggles to industrialise

  1. I agree with you on this Mr. Netland. Although i can firmly observe that the African problem, particularly the Ugandan problem is really a “mental thing” rather than a “cultural thing”. The notion that ‘someone will do it for me’ is almost in every single mind. Just a few people take the initiative – the rest lay back to celebrate what the few have done.
    If you notice there are parties everywhere……….often parties to celebrate something as “small” as purchase of a car. How does a party to celebrate x, y or z add value to anybody? the least is probably strengthen bonds in a business network and maybe that’s all. What a puzzle!

    • Dear Mr. Mugurusi, I appreciate your comment. As an Ugandan you know much more than me on the matter. Your remark about “mentality rather than culture”, as the key reason for the lagging industrialisation, is interesting. Mentality is most probably a cultural thing though (c.f. Hofstede’s definition: “Culture is the collective programming of the mind”), but it might be a sharper definition than the big elephant of “national culture”. I hope it also shines through that despite the lacking efficiency, I really enjoyed the visit to your Kamapla!

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