By Kato Mivule | March 2, 2009
Uganda’s Largest Thrift Market was set on fire by suspected arsonists, destroying merchandise worth millions of Uganda Shillings. Owino market deals mainly in second hand clothes and other used merchandise imported largely from Europe and the USA. Many poor people make their living in this market by trading in used items.
The conditions at the market were not conducive as all of the stalls are make-shift timber structures with plastic coverings that made Kampala’s premier shopping center a good friend to fires.
The Government had a Fire Rescue Team that is stationed about 500 meters from the market but the Fire Engines lacked water and as such could not put out the fire. The other nearest Fire Rescue Team is stationed at Entebbe International Airport and had to travel about 30 miles to get to Owino Market. By the time the Fire Rescue Team fro Entebbe arrived, the market was already in ashes.
The most troubling of all the Owino Fire tragedy is that traders at Owino market store their goods in the Make-Shift Wooden Stalls and with the fire burning, most traders lost all their goods and including millions of Uganda shillings in cash that many of the traders for some reason keep locked up in the wooden stalls.
This begs the question why traders at Owino Market do not trust the banking System in Kampala. Why would traders keep millions of paper currency in wooden stalls outside in the open at the mercy of few armed guards?
It is also known many traders had borrowed money from Micro Credit Finance institutions in Kampala yet the same traders would not dare keep money in the Banks or even store it in the same Micro Finance Credit Unions.
However, the good news is that one of the largest Microfinance Credit Union had insured the loans and they simply announced that they were going to forgive the debts of the traders who had borrowed from them. However, that left out many who have just borrowed money from relatives and friends, with no one to help them restart their businesses.
The President of Uganda pledged 1 Billion Uganda Shillings to help the fire victims restart their business with new fresh capital. However, this is where the trouble is going to come… The Market Managers at Owino Market keep records in paper books and most of the books were burnt in the fires.
It is very difficult to legitimately establish who was a trader and who is not. It is going to be very cumbersome to establish who was a Vendor and is not. The Kampala Owino area is full of traders and also folks who do nothing from pick pockets, idlers, and unemployed youth looking for a quick buck.
The situation is made worse because Kampala City Council has no real records of Traders and Vendors at Owino Market. Kampala City Council for the most part outsources its Tax Collection duties to third parties who simply collect taxes from the Traders and issue paper receipts with not legitimate ‘recognition details’ of the Tax paying trader. Tax Collection at Owino Market is not advanced in the form of the computerized Uganda Revenue Authority – URA, Uganda’s main tax collection body.
Astoundingly, almost all the traders and vendors at Owino Market own a Mobile Phone and make numerous calls all day. Most of the traders and vendors are of the ‘Pay As You Go’ Subscriber group. The Telecom sector in Uganda heavily relies on such consumer markets to drive up sales. It is no wonder that when one walks around Owino Market, you will see that the ground is littered with thousands of Telecom used ‘Air Time’ Cards. The Owino traders and Vendors are at least not technologically ‘cut off’ and we cannot for sure state that they are totally suffering from the digital divide.
However, for most of the traders, Technology stops at using the Mobile Phone to call friends and maybe make verbal ordering of goods. The Surrounding area around Owino market is filled with Bank Branches yet one wonders why the traders and vendors stored their money in the wooden stalls and not across the street in the Banks.
I am of opinion that Technology is still seen as an ‘elite thing’ in Uganda. Computers and computerized transactions are not trusted by the majority of poor people who still view such systems as belonging only to the rich and affluent. Kampala City Council has not fully utilized Technology in its efforts to manage the City of Kampala when it comes to collecting city taxes from traders.
Uganda’s Telecom companies are doing a very poor job when it comes to the utilization of the wireless communication infrastructure in the nation. There is no reason why the traders cannot carry out banking transactions over their Mobile Phones. Telecom companies seem to be caught up in only providing ‘Air Time’ Cards without providing any other services that locals can use for business.
The Owino fire showed that traders still don’t trust the banks. However, it is banks that have done a very poor job at reaching out to the traders and vendors at Owino market. Why not reach out with ‘Mobile Banking’? Why not open up Banks late evening so traders can deposit cash during late evening hours? What about ATM machines that can act as ‘deposit’ booth?
Amazingly almost all financial institutions, including Micro Finance Credit Unions in Uganda offer Bank Debit Cards of the Visa brand. This would be an opportunity for Ugandan Financial institutions to offer possibilities for their clients to make payments using Debit Cards.
It would be more feasible for Owino Traders to have a Mobile Payment Terminal installed at one of their stalls that used cloth clients would be able to make payments using their Visa Debit cards. All Thrift Stores and most Farmers Markets in the USA accept Debit Card Payments, Uganda can do the same.
The costs of maintaining such facilities would go to the consumer but at the same time offering security to the trader and creating jobs for the Customer Service sector that would manage the transactions in the Banks and Credit Unions. This would avoid the necessity to keep huge sums of paper money in wooden stall at the danger of thieves and fires. The Telecom sector in Uganda has already laid the wireless infrastructure and enough security to implement such a measure.
The Ministry of Information Technology has a long way to go in educating Ugandans that Computers are not just some fancy toys for the rich but that these computers can help even the least of traders manage their business and keep and maintain records. The days of keeping records in paper books are over, as it is unsafe and unsustainable…
These few things can be done at Owino Market in Kampala…
- Computerize Trader and Vender Records at Owino Market…
- Computerize KCC Tax Collection Efforts in Kampala Markets…
- Computerized Tax collection at Owino Market…
- Mobile Banking, Fully Utilization of ATMs, Visa Debit Card Payments in Owino…
- Invest in Telecom Financial and Business Innovations and solutions…
- Educate locals of the advantages of a Computer…
- KCC fund its own Fire Rescue Team…
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