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When Prime Minister Rugunda visited India

Those of you who read the history of East Africa will remember that the first interaction between people from India and Africa goes far back to the late 1890s.

In East Africa, the first wave of Indians came in 1896 to build what was known then as the Uganda Railway which ran from Mombasa to Kisumu. They were brought by the Imperial British East African Company, the franchise contracted by the colonial administration of Britain to build the railway line.

In the history books, those Indian workers were known as coolies or porters. Imperial Britain imported this Indian labour force because there was lack of skilled manpower in the region.

The Indian workers, who numbered close to 30,000, endured hardships including the famous man-eating lions in Tsavo national park. It is reported that dozens of coolies were eaten by lions. They endured diseases, harsh weather, difficult terrain to bring the railway line to Kisumu in 1903.

PM Rugunda disembarks from a boat on the way from Elephanta Caves in Mumbai

After completing the line about 2,000 of the Indian workers chose to stay behind in East Africa, establishing small shops known as duukas in which they sold takataka -- all sorts of things.

It is these railway workers-turned-shopkeepers that started the business and trade relations between India and East Africa, a relationship that continues to grow to date.

Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda has been in India to build on and buttress the historical economic and political ties between the two regions. Dr Rugunda was in the subcontinent as keynote speaker at the 12th Confederation of Indian Industry-EximBank India Africa Conclave, the largest forum that brings together government officials and private sector people between the two regions to talk about deepening economic cooperation.

The trip started in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a densely populated city on India’s west coast. A financial center, Mumbai is India’s largest city. On the Mumbai Harbour waterfront stands the iconic Gateway of India stone arch, built by the British Raj in 1924.

Here, Prime Minister Rugunda met with leaders and captains of industry, including the famous Tata Group executive whom he invited to come to Uganda to invest in value addition ventures in turning iron ore into steel, car assembling and hospitality industry. The Indians are interested in markets, and Rugunda marketed the 150-million-people-strong East African Community as an attraction.

Several other firms in seed processing, solar irrigation and pharmaceutical manufacturing met the prime minister to pitch their interest in Uganda. Accompanying Prime Minister Rugunda in Mumbai was a team of Ugandan businesspeople of Indian origin. Their presence in the room, giving testimony about doing business in the country , buttressed Uganda’s case.

Mumbai is also home to India’s film industry, which many call Bollywood, and also boasts of many tourist attraction facilities. Rugunda wanted to see what is done uniquely here to market their tourism sector. 

One such move was through the preservation of the country’s history and cultural heritage. Hence Rugunda visited an offshore site on Elephanta island which holds ancient cave temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The climb to the caves is not for the faint-hearted, for we had to scale over 100 staircases up the hill to access the caves.

The Mumbai leg ended with a courtesy call on the governor of Maharashtra state, V. Rao, in which Mumbai is found. Again, trade, business and investment were the buzzwords by the two principals.

PM Rugunda with the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee

From Mumbai, Dr Rugunda took a three-hour flight to New Dehli, the political capital of India for the 12th India Africa Business Conclave. Under the theme, “Reinvigorating partnerships, strengthening ties”,  the conclave is the largest and most high-profile annual gathering bringing together businesspeople and government leaders focused on boosting economic relations between India and Africa.

Rugunda said Indians and persons of Indian origin play a key role in the Ugandan economy in the manufacturing, trade and service sectors. Indian businesses employ thousands of Ugandans and are among the largest taxpayers in Uganda.

Records indicate that bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $728 million in 2010–11, with the balance of trade heavily in India’s favour with Ugandan exports to India accounting for only $16.7 million of the total trade. Uganda imports almost 30 per cent of its pharmaceuticals from India while India emerged the second largest source of foreign direct investment for Uganda in 2011.

Establishments such as the Madhvani, Mehta, Mukwano and the Ruparelia group, are among the largest in Uganda, while Indian companies, such as Tata Coffee, Bank of Baroda and Airtel, have a significant presence in the country.

Opening the conclave, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee spoke passionately about India-Africa relations, prescribing the business forum as an opener to a new dawn of reinvigorating and deepening cooperation between the two peoples.

“A new spirit of awakening defines India-Africa partnership,” Mukherjee said. “The India-Africa century has begun; let us accelerate this process.”

For his part, Rugunda outlined the investment opportunities Uganda has to offer , listing agriculture, agroprocessing, ICT, pharmaceuticals and tourism as top priority.

“And when you come to invest in Africa and Uganda in particular, we can guarantee your personal security and that of your investments, “ Rugunda said.

It is estimated that by 2050, the combined GDP of India and Africa will be over $35 trillion. King Mswati III of Swaziland also addressed the gathering, also emphasising a rising Africa full of potential.

Officials from Uganda Investment Authority had set up a stall at which they have further detailed guidance to prospective investors, building on Rugunda’s address. In breakaway groups on the sidelines of the meeting, state minister for investment Evelyn Anite was busy briefing business people who were seeking to bring their investments to Uganda.

With six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa has become attractive to many countries seeking to partake of cake. The question Africa and Africans must ask is whether this drove of investment-hungry businesspeople will bring dividend to the Africans themselves. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch. We must partake of this Africa Rising story.

On a personal note, I suffered the trouble of finding food without curry in Indian restaurants. I generally do not eat curry, but in India, I became like the proverbial lion that was forced to eat grass.

Prime Minister Rugunda left India satisfied with the inroads he and his delegation had made and tasked everyone to follow up to ensure that there are visible practical outcomes.

The author is Communications advisor to the prime minister of Uganda.

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