CELESTINE KATONGOLE: Uganda’s natural and cultural beauty offers a million investment opportunities

Dr. Celestine Katongole, PhD

Uganda is one of those countries that are endowed with abundant natural resources but unknown to millions from around the world. What some people know about Uganda is largely bad stuff thanks to the media. Those who write about Uganda paint a very different picture from what is actually happening and those who have been here have a different perspective altogether.

More than 100 years ago the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill was here and he was wowed by the sheer beauty prompting to him to describe Uganda as ‘the Pearl of Africa”. And more than 50 years earlier, the first European to see the source of River Nile, John Speke said of some nice spot in Uganda “I spent watching the fish flying at the falls, and felt as if I only wanted a wife and family, garden and yacht, rifle and rod, to make me happy here for life”.

Over the last decade, Uganda has received several accolades in honor of its mouthwatering beauty. And I am confident many more will come. Besides the natural and cultural beauty, Ugandans are very welcoming, happy and hospital people. They embrace diversity and live happily together in peace.

This beauty serves as a backbone of a fast-growing tourism industry in Uganda. And it is true that since the turn of the century a number of people have made a kill from Uganda’s tourism. Many entered the industry as youngsters, with only positive energy and hard work, and they are now billionaires. The sector has grown exponentially, from a mere 200,000 visitors in 2000 to over 1.5 million in 2019. Over the same period tourism surpassed coffee and cotton to become Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner, earning the country over US$1.6billion annually.

Despite these feats, a number of studies show that 90% of the country’s potential is still at embryonic stage or involvement, if you are familiar with destination lifecycle theory. What this means is that there is plenty of opportunity for every type of investor in tourism. The time is now to share these opportunities. The time is ripe because COVID-19 has disrupted the entire tourism supply chain. In natural science, system disruptions create opportunities for emergency of new, smarter and resilient species. As the weak, uncompetitive entrepreneurs bow out of tourism, it’s a new dawn for the more entrepreneurial, innovative and creative investors.

River Nile presents plenty of opportunities, in part because of its beauty but also because the river goes through the Albertine graben. The graben has got a new international airport and is going to be the centre of a vibrant oil industry, with thousands of people with disposable income. The signing of the refinery agreement this week shows how close the oil economy is.

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A foresighted entrepreneur would think of a houseboat at the base of Murchison falls, a river cruise on the Nile going further north or a luxury ecolodge at one of Uganda’s best kept secrets – the Otze -Zoka Forest Reserve. I will leave the houseboat and cruise opportunities for another day and focus on the investment opportunities in Otze – Zoka Forest reserve.

A recent study by the Uganda Tourism Board shows that the reserve boasts unrivalled biodiversity and mountain ecosystem that is transnational, a range of ecosystems and truly riverine environments that are pristine. In this area are physical traces of pre-colonial slave trade and anti-slave trade wars, dictated by both Emin Pasha and Sir Samuel Baker. Early investors could make a kill from offering tourist activities such as chimpanzee tracking (currently under habituation), mountaineering, sport fishing, cultural tourism and community-based tourism.

It is no exaggeration to say that just about every experience the nature and adventure tourists seek is potentially available within Otze – Zoka Forest system and the surrounding area. The investor could offer a Nile safari from Pakwach-Ajai Wildlife Reserve zone to create the historic Nile Adventure Trail thematically to experience historic European Exploration of the River Nile and Anti-slave trade movement connecting the key places across the region by river or road transport.

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Opportunities exist for signature experiences on Otze Mountain and Ilingua Mountain separating Uganda and South Sudan, including the option of a luxury eco-lodge inside the Reserve. The trail to Mt Otze and Ilingua summit could be extended to include a broader network of trails within the reserve for nature walks. Of course, other experiences include conducting elephant safari in Paanjala and West Madi Controlled Hunting Area, birding in the Forest ecosystem including wetland birds along the Nile, sport fishing and live aboard Nile expeditions between Paanjala Landing Site and Laropi, and Emin Pasha Fort Anti-slave Trade historic experience and education.

A high-end eco-lodge can be an ideal investment for special-interest visitors enabling them to immerse into the jungle environment of Otze-Zoka once lived by great explorers like Sir Samuel Baker and Emin Pasha in their Fort at Dufile. It can be a true reward for the visitors seeking nature, quietness and exclusivity. It has been confirmed that in this part of the Nile, Sir Samuel Baker lost his ship and it sunk with lots of valuable stuff, including his personal gun. Initiatives to extract the ship and building a museum to accommodate it are all potential investments. And this seems like a perfect Hollywood movie story about the fight against slave trade on the African continent.

The author, is a Senior Lecturer at Makerere University Business School (MUBs)

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