A Tale Of Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves - Why Jack Ma Didn't Visit Uganda On His East Afrika Trip

Note: I wrote this in response to Simon Kaheru’s accusatory blog post on what Ugandans are doing to bring billionaires and serious people to Uganda. His point of reference is the recent visit by Asia’s richest man, Jack Ma to Kenya and Rwanda with 38 other Chinese billionaires. This is my open letter — of sorts.

Dear Simon,

There is a modicum of truth in your rally for Ugandans (technocrats and ordinary citizens) to say “things” that will attract investors. However, I strongly disagree with your argument's premise.

You see, when our good Minister of ICT & NG returned from his state visit to China, he was excited after having talked to the mighty “Ali Baba”. He talked to anybody within earshot of how he had met that mythical Internet billionaire of Asia — "Ali Baba"!

Little did he know that he was actually referring to none other than Jack Ma.

Sigh.

While this point may seem sweeping and full of lugezigezi, it preempts the question(s):

Who else did the poor minister wrongly address — in title or name — at the "Big Red Party" in Beijing when he dined with Jack, Ma?

Did he, God forbid, call Jack Ma, "Ali Baba" — the poor woodcutter from the old folktale "Ali Baba and the forty thieves"?

Did he sell the brand Uganda?

Details

If you’re going to invite a billionaire to your country, the last sin you want to commit, frankly speaking, is to misspell or altogether forget their name.

On 20 July 2017, when Jack Ma touched down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, back in Kampala, at the Sheraton hotel, our dear leaders were deeply engaged with the public on course to the digital tomorrow through a melange of supporting policies and strategy. However, just next door, Yeti, errm, Big foot, errm, "Ali Baba", was scouting for ventures and encouraging the young guns to rise to the occasion.

At this event, the good minister neither made a recognition of such a historic development unfolding next door nor (do we know) whether he was aware.

Maybe, and just maybe, he could have called his “friend” (on that note; why do politicians love friend-ing everyone?) to make a quick rendezvous to Entebbe in Uganda and address our jobless youth on how to think about the digital possibilities of tomorrow.

Instead, what we got — and well, we go it over a decade ago — were aggressive Chinese men and women cannibalizing the country’s informal retail sector and bringing it to its knees with dirt cheap and low quality products from the industrial hubs of China. I once read a comment from a successful Chinese retailer citing that he ran away from China because Taobao (owned by "Ali Baba" or let’s just call him, Jack Ma) had cannibalized their retail/classifieds industry because, well, the Internet is eating everything; from commerce, to transport to real estate and sundry. For this, he hated Jack Ma but was now happy with the opportunity the Ugandan market had presented.

Entebbe Uganda
2016: Entebbe, Uganda | iAfrikan

These scenes are not oblivious to Uganda alone of course, but the recent episodes seem to say something else: Uganda is being avoided like pustules of a plague.

In September 2016, Mark Zuckerberg made a highly publicized visit to Nigeria. In a way, it was a validation to Nigeria’s burgeoning technology sector. Like a thief in the night, he made a surprise visit to Nairobi, Kenya. He met dignitaries and technology sector leaders and dined at a local "mama mboga eatery" in a snap of a finger. It was a brief visit.

He then went back to Nigeria to finish some business and appearances.

Moral of the story: what Kenya did to hijack Zuckerberg for a few hours despite his planned visit to Nigeria could in the same vein be what Rwanda did with Jack Ma on his visit to Kenya. Oh by the way, Jack Ma will be visiting Namibia very soon. Don’t ask me how they did it.

Over To You Uganda

It’s very important not to get caught in the cross hairs of attacking the less savvy individuals who happen to be our leaders and the general lack of agency of designated ministries, agencies and departments. Or even attack poor Ugandans for not being PR enough about their country. It’s very easy to get mired in superfluity. That’s why I fault the good sir, Kaheru for not looking through the fine lines.

Yes, we could lend the country a hand or two in capturing images and folk stories about the acacia trees and blankets of the evening sun and abundance of wild fauna. Still, that will not save us. Public relations (PR), whether in industrial amounts or not, is not going to hold us up for long. At least not into the mid or long term.

"Your lack of infrastructure is an opportunity. I heard so much about Kenya and Africa. Forests and animals, you guys are living in paradise! Think about China, the kitchen of the world. It’s very dirty now, the air pollution! Africa must develop but you don’t have to follow the other countries’ model. Africa should be Africa! Use technology to protect environment, protect the animals. It’s easy to build building but its difficult to call the animals back! It’s impossible. Tell me where in this world you can see so many elephants and lions still walking around? Africa! Where can you still smell the real atoms? The real air. Now I understand why so many people come to Africa every year….it’s a business opportunity, so leverage that," said Jack Ma when he was in Kenya.

From the above, we can see the kind of attitude Jack Ma exudes. Without sounding reductionist, everything Jack Ma says is very true. However, in a way, it is Orwellian doublespeak. China is the largest culprit of poaching and biodiversity degradation in Afrika.

Let’s save the geopolitics for another day.

In all fairness, Jack Ma gave powerful speeches in Kenya and Rwanda, but as Afrikans, we risk augmenting into the stereotypes the West has painted of us; of a happy, servile people, who co-exist happily with flora and fauna.

Nothing more!

What we need is to be colleagues. To sit at the table of innovators, creatives, researchers, etc. Then, we can be able to attract capital.

A friend once intimated to me that the majority of the Ugandans he meets abroad seem to be very smart but yet it is quite the opposite for when interfaces with the locals (and elites) in Kampala. Without getting caught up in statistics, it’s equally important for whoever deems themselves smart to work things and invite these important billionaires to come invest in the next big things and raise our stakes on the global stage.

For the record, Mark Zuckerberg did not just wake-up out of the blue to just go jog over the Ikoyi bridge and interface with kids learning how to programme at the Co-creation Hub in Yaba, Lagos. There were invisible forces (some Nigerians working at Facebook) who pushed and prodded and pushed a little bit more until their case was compelling enough for the social network supremo to cross-over.

When you’re convivial and smart and industrious, then you will be noticed. It takes time.

I can guarantee you though, if you ever forget my name (or Jack Ma’s name at that), I am never ever going to register you as a serious person.

Call it petty, but that is how things are run. For the record, technology billionaires are some of the most idiosyncratic people you will ever meet. Now Uganda, you have a lobbyist who struggles to tell a difference between an iPad and an eye-pad, while your noisy neighbors have a lobbyist in a similar position who is a former Googler and can wax esoterically about things of the future without sounding like a flag waving bot.

If you were the billionaire, whose side would you take?

Again, Uganda, over to you.

Cover Image Credit: Jack Ma Portrait Painting Collage By Danor Shtruzman | Wikimedia Commons.

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