On December 24, a friend invited me for a business meeting over lunch at Nyange Resort and Marina at Bwerenga, off Kawuku, along Entebbe road.
Since I had never heard of this resort, I went wondering why someone would spend their Christmas weekend at such an unknown place. The 5.5km journey from Kawuku to this resort did not help the situation. The road is deplorable and the dust unbearable.
But I was treated to beautiful scenery on entering this resort. The cool breeze from Lake Victoria, the beautiful flowers and nice-looking cottages were such a spectacle. Although I met my friend and we concluded our meeting at the restaurant, I was compelled to ask more questions why he had chosen this place.
“This is my second time here but they have excellent cottages, nice food and I enjoy the boat rides which include bird-watching,” he said. “Tell you what, it is owned by a Russian investor and I hear he has big plans.”
This revelation awakened the journalist in me. I have heard of multitudes of investors in Uganda, but not Russians. I asked the hospitable receptionist to get me the contact of the owner. Luckily, the big man was around and was more than willing to talk to me. After out 50-minute interaction, I realized that there is more to this place than relaxation, eating and bird-watching.
A very calm mid-sized man, probably in his mid-sixties, Dr Karen Melik Simonya passionately shared his vision for Nyange, Lake Victoria and, most importantly, strengthening the business relationship between Russia and Uganda.
He told me that after acquiring the 3.5 acres in 2011, on which Nyange sits today, his plan was to construct a modest house and forever enjoy the lake breeze with his family. But a visit by a few Russian colleagues would change his dream.
“They told me that we could establish a resort where people could relax, establish a Russian base but with also an objective of conserving and preserving Lake Victoria,” said Dr Melik, who has lived in Uganda since 1996. He first came to Uganda in 1984 to work at the Soviet embassy and left in 1986.
Dr Melik noted that during his 20-year stay in Uganda, he has toured several islands on Lake Victoria and has realized that there is a lot to appreciate on this beautiful water body by both local and foreign tourists.
“Not many Ugandans know what Lake Victoria is all about,” he passionately said, with eyes beaming.
This is partly why Nyange was established, to open the lake up for guided boat cruises across many of the 2,500 islands on the lake. Opened to the public in July 2016, Nyange resort has 17 employees, all Ugandans, and gets most of its supplies locally. Dr Melik’s hope is that the road leading there can be tarmarked to improve accessibility.
SAVE LAKE VICTORIA
One of the main challenges that Lake Victoria faces is the issue of its preservation. Melik, also the chairman of the Russian-African Foundation for Science, Culture and Economic Development, further says fishing and water transport sectors need urgent intervention.
“Apart from being a resort, we thought this place could be a meeting point to share ideas about transformation and conservation of the lake. We can even sensitize the fishing communities. It’s not a secret that fish varieties are diminishing because of poor fishing methods,” he said.
According to statistics, more than 5,000 people die every year on water bodies in Uganda. Melik believes he knows the reason behind this startling statistic.
“There is no one that thoroughly monitors the situation on the lake.”
By coincidence, we met on a day when at least nine people were reported to have drowned on Lake Victoria and, two days later, another nine perished on Lake Kyoga when respective boats carrying them capsized.
“If government is registering cars, why not do the same with boats? We can’t drive without permits but boat operators have a free license,” he wondered.
Because no one monitors the safety conditions of the boats, the loading capacities or whether boat operators are licensed, the safety of water transport in Uganda predominantly relies on sheer luck.
It is against this background that Melik and colleagues invited specialists from Russia last year to draft a proposal to start a base to act as a resource centre for basic navigation.
Working with the relevant ministries, water police and other stakeholders, Melik said Nyange can become a meeting point where all stakeholders can be trained in civilized ways of water transport.
“We have Russian scientists who can help us…we don’t want to be seen as substituting what the responsible ministry should do, but we want to help,” he said.
To illustrate the gravity of the matter, Melik gave an example of a Chinese boat carrying sand that caught fire recently and the operators could not be rescued on time because there is no call centre for immediate response as is the case with, say, fire brigade. In Uganda, if people get a problem on the water, they call their relatives who then organize speed boats. This, Melik says, reduces chances of survival.
Russian businesses are not common in Uganda or Africa at large but Melik says this is likely to change with the new developments. According to the 2015 statistical abstract by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, between 2010 and 2014, Uganda averaged $6m dollars in exports to Russia while its imports grew from $49m in 2010 to $70m in 2014. On the tourism front, visitors from Russia grew from 733 in 2010 to 5,397 in 2015.
Melik says that late last year, there was a meeting between Russian and Ugandan businessmen and technocrats under the Uganda-Russian intergovernmental commission which ended with a lot of promise.
“After this meeting, we agreed, as businessmen, to form the Russian-Ugandan Business Council to increase on the frequency of meetings because the commission meets once in two years. But the council can meet as many times as they want,” he said.
With 11 cottages (ranging between Shs 300,000 and Shs 500,000 per night) and conference facilities that can accommodate at least 100 people, Nyange was seen as the best place to hold such meetings.
The resort will be used to establish a facilitation centre to provide Russian businessmen with all the necessary information about doing business in Uganda. The same will be done for Ugandans interested in doing business in Russia.
“There are many Russians who can start small and medium enterprises but they just need guidance. We hope to do that at the resource centre,” he said.
He, however, expressed concern about bureaucracy in Uganda that usually “frustrates” investors and forces them to take their money to less-strict countries such as Rwanda. He urged government to make the environment “friendlier”.