By Denis Jjuuko
Soon after his appointment as Katikkiro on this day in 2013, Owek Charles Peter Mayiga traversed the vast kingdom to see first hand how the majority of Kabaka’s subjects were fairing. Many of the people of Buganda had given up on life, folding their arms and having no qualms about their state of affairs.
This was not going to turn around their fortunes. In private conversations and public speeches, Mayiga talks about poverty as a challenge that needs to be solved. Nothing is as shameful as poverty, he usually says.
Yet as he crisscrossed the kingdom he was now in charge of as Kabaka’s most senior lieutenant, he saw how enthusiastic people were to embrace his projects and support them from the little they had. However, the statistics were not good. Uganda’s Robusta coffee exports were slightly over 500,000 bags of 60kg a year. More than 65% of Robusta coffee from Uganda is grown in Buganda.
He had grown up with a father who grew coffee and his school tuition partly paid by the sales from coffee. How could a region known for coffee not be growing it? Many farmers had given up and selling land to do other stuff considered most lucrative. Young people were happy to spend a day sleeping on their newly acquired boda bodas as they waited for elusive customers.
He knew that after some internal realignment, creating a smaller but efficient government at Mengo, his legacy wouldn’t be entirely in glass paneled buildings like Masengere or even endless perimeter walls on tombs. He knew that the Kabaka as modern as Ronald Muwenda Mutebi is can’t preside over a kingdom of extremely poor people.
His thoughts run back to his childhood, seeing how his father looked after a large family with proceedings mainly from coffee. If it worked then, it must work now. With other kingdom officials and working with the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), he folded his sleeves, wore gumboots and went to work.
The reward has been immense. According to UCDA, in February 2021, Uganda’s Robusta exports stood at 500,685 bags of 60kg each with revenues of US$40.9m. What Uganda used to export annually, it now does in a single month.
“The increment of Robusta exports is on the account of fruition of the newly planted coffee,” says the UCDA Feb 2021 monthly report. Overall, Uganda’s annual coffee export market (March 2020-Feb 2021) amounted to US$511.21m from US$74.9m in 2013, the year Mayiga assumed office. Although Arabica coffee is more valuable, Robusta is the dominant Uganda coffee type. Mayiga’s Emmwanyi Terimba (grow coffee) campaign is largely responsible for these new numbers.
Mayiga didn’t stop at coffee. He reenergized the Kabaka Birthday Run that attracts pre-COVID crowds of upwards of 50,000 people. The proceeds directly go to people. Many women including non-Baganda suffering from fistula simply turned up at Kitovu Hospital in Buddu for free surgeries and treatment. The next target was sickle cell disease, where the kingdom purchased millions of test kits among other stuff. Today, the focus is on HIV/AIDS given that the Kabaka is UNAIDS’ goodwill ambassador on HIV/AIDS.
Working with Habitat for Humanity, a global brand known for building houses for the vulnerable, the kingdom has been able to build houses for the very poor. Five houses are now complete and have been handed over to the poor. Twenty houses are under construction this year alone.
Kampala’s housing deficit isn’t only for the extremely poor. Many of Kampala’s dwellers, as beautiful as you see them on Kampala Road, live in squalor conditions. Decent housing is out of reach for many. The deficit stands at 550,000 and estimated that in 20 years, the national housing shortage will stand at 8 million units. Of these 2.5 million will be in urban centres. Kampala’s shortage will have doubled to one million units by then.
Although it may sound like a drop in the ocean, Mayiga and his team have embarked on an affordable housing estate in Ssentema, on the outskirts of Kampala to change this narrative. A one-bedroom house is going for a jaw dropping Shs58m, previously unheard of in Kampala. More than 100 units have so far been built with many under construction. Similar projects are planned in Mpigi and Masaka.
Before that, he had decided to launch Ekyapa Mu Ngalo, a campaign to turn unregularized tenants on Kabaka’s land into landlords with leasehold titles.
Mayiga’s focus on the poor has also seen him using the stage he has to advocate for human rights and good governance. He is almost a single voice on this. This has attracted all sorts of attacks from many centres. Some see him as too critical of the establishment while others argue that he isn’t critical enough. Unknown to many, that is exactly what Mayiga intended — a kingdom that isn’t in the armpit of any politician.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org