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{UAH} Allan/Gook/Pojim: East Africa makes good beer but that's about it

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East Africa is awash with "Buy Made in…" Uganda, Rwanda, and so forth, campaigns.

Some say we are having a new era of economic nationalism – and we were in it before Donald Trump started his "America First" campaign.

There is some merit to the buy-made-in-your-country idea. No country should have to import basic things like school uniforms, exercise books, cups, plates, toothpicks, candles, hoes and wheelbarrows.

These things are like cleaning our noses. Everyone should be able to take care of his or hers. Of course, we don't make all these things.

But that is probably all one can say in its favour. Such ideas have a nice ring to them, but they run into very real practical difficulties. When Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni had just come to power in 1986, he cut a fresh and populist figure.

In one of his first press conferences, he was seen drinking his tea from what Ugandans call a "Tumpeco" metal mug (after the company that made it), and denounced past leaders who ate off foreign crockery. He mocked previous rulers for importing beds when the boys in Kawempe, a small-scale industry township, could take care of that.

We lapped it up. The headlines screamed. The fundamental change he and his ruling National Resistance Movement had promised had indeed arrived.

Then the reality of having a State House that lived to some international standard, and the quality of Ugandan products, clashed, and there is no surprise how that ended.

Before long, there were stories of a Museveni State House that rivalled Louis XVI's palace, and plates, forks and spoons bought from exquisite places abroad whose names most Ugandans couldn't spell.

When people set out to make products in the knowledge that they will have a captive market, they make a shoddy job of it. And if you are only going to sell your Ugandan-made blankets in Uganda, why should an investor put money in your enterprise or a bank lend you money?

However, if even you lie to the same people, that you are looking to sell in the DR Congo, South Sudan, and expand to West Africa in the third year, they will quickly whip out the chequebooks.

Having these "Buy" Uganda, Kenya, or Rwanda first pushes is profoundly unEast African. If there is to be a campaign, it should be "Buy East African."

The second problem is that this parochial commerce needs ignorance to succeed. Thirty years ago, it was still possible to get away with it.

In this day and age, where I can go on the Internet and see that I can buy a beautiful and well made Malaysian lamp for $2, instead of spending $5 on a crappy homemade one, it just won't work.

Homemade products succeed most when they are also good.

That is what national beer makers, who tend to be the most successful companies in achieving high "Buy made at home" scores, teach us.

One reason for that (and I know it despite being a teetotaller) is that beer making is a kind of universal language, so there is a basic high standard built into it.

Even when there are lots of foreign offerings, most Kenyans will still drink a Tusker, Rwandans will guzzle a Primus, and Ugandans their Bell or Nile.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3

East Africa makes good beer but that's about it - The East African

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