In discussion with Gulf Africa Review on the sidelines of Titlas’ 6th African Tourism Conference, H.E. Irene Florence Persis Wekiya, Ambassador of the Republic of Uganda to the UAE explores her country’s natural strengths, areas of opportunity and prospective areas of cooperation with the GCC.

Ambassador Wekiya, as Uganda’s representative in the UAE, what are your imperatives?

“I’m here to talk about Uganda, as the pearl of Africa and a country gifted by nature.

“Winston Churchill called Uganda the ‘Pearl of Africa’, because the climate allows everything to grow naturally. We don’t have to use fertilisers to grow the food and even the poorest person can afford to feed themselves and express their hospitality through their food.

“Our land also belongs to us, the people – what is lacking is the capacity to add value to that land. So our policy is to be open to investors, and you can either apply for land from the government, though the government doesn’t have much, or you can find a partner with land and work with them to develop it. I know that the UAE in particular is interested in both food security and organic food.”

“The tourism industry is meanwhile also growing very fast in Uganda – the country was voted the best tourism destination in 2012 by Lonely Planet – and we are receiving tourists from around the world, though not so much at present from this region, which is why we are promoting it.

“The uniqueness of our tourism, not only Uganda, but in Africa, is that you get to touch and be with nature at its best. In Uganda in particular you are going to see animals like mountain gorillas – of which there are only about 700 animals remaining in the world, and of which 450 are in Uganda.

How are relations between Uganda and the GCC, and what other opportunities are there?

“This is very important, though I should say that it is developing, because we are still trying to see how our governments can best work together. On a smaller scale we are working together on the issue of Somalia, but we now need to look more closely at the question of investment.

“Unfortunately Uganda is a land-locked country; but fortunately it is also an access to many other African countries that are land-locked.  You cannot get to Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or South Sudan without passing through Uganda, as all those countries use one port, which is Mombasa. If goods come from anywhere, they come to Mombasa, and then they head inland.

“Here there is an opportunity to invest Uganda as a dry port to supply these other countries. We have an open and conducive environment for investment: the people are hospitable and the government is eager to work with whoever can come seriously to say, ‘I am going to do this kind of work here.’”

How is Uganda’s policy on investment reflected in the country’s broader goals?

“What we are looking for in our vision 2040 is for Uganda to be a developed country in the middle income bracket, with employment for our people and improvement in our economy.

“The economy is rising and our GDP is going up, but we want to see more. The rural areas are not developed, there is little electricity provision, and there is plentiful fresh water from wells, but it is not always necessarily clean – though the government is working hard to remedy all of this.

“From the 1800s, the economy of Uganda was mainly being run by Asians, and this remained the case up until 1971, when the dictator Idi Amin said that all of these communities should leave Uganda. That is when the economy – which was moving very well up until that time – declined.

“However, those that have returned have found their property intact and still registered, because our current government made it a chief priority to hold onto their leases, so that those Indians who have returned have had their leases restarted from where they left off.”

“We have a history of foreign investment. Indeed the richest people in Uganda are not originally from Uganda – they are parties like the Madhvani Group that came to invest in the 1800s.

“Moving forward, we want to build long-term relationships that will safeguard both the investors and the country. And if you register a company in Uganda, it is going to be a Ugandan company.”