Friday, December 10, 2010

Blog block

It's been quite a while since my last completed blog: too much to do, too little time, but at last the block is lifted.

Kampala has been more than usually pleasant over the past 10 days or so. This is almost entirely due to the relative emptiness of the streets since the Ugandan schools reached the end of the teaching year. Better still, the schools will not resume until after the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18th.

I was fortunate enough, recently, to visit Cairo for the Super Return private equity Africa conference. My journey to Cairo, via Nairobi and Khartoum, was long - about 6 hours of flying time, from the source of the Nile (Lake Victoria) to the beginning of the Nile delta and its tiny discharge into the Mediterranean sea. The conference was illuminated by the presence of Bob Geldof, who made a refreshingly personal and frank speech to the assembled investor throng: essentially his journey from the poverty of his childhood and the many influences which ignited his passion for Africa - which most of us will always associate with Michael Buerk's broadcasts from Ethiopia and the Boomtown Rats lead singer's single-minded determination to organise the Live Aid concert at Wembley stadium in London in 1984. That determination burns as bright as ever, but it now encompasses advocacy and, interestingly investment, through the proposed Eight Miles private equity fund (of which he is a sponsor). Only during his speech did I appreciate the significance of "Eight Miles" as a name: it is the distance between the closest points of Europe and Africa.

It was both an inspiring and fitting end to a relentlessly positive conference, in which it was universally agreed that Africa was the market with the greatest potential for economic growth and investment returns, bar none. Speakers vied with each other to talk up their latest deals - from consumer goods to infrastructure, from financial services to mining. Risks are diminishing; markets are growing; and the tired economies of the G8 have little to offer. Don't get me wrong, I am very much in the van of this particular Weltanschauung, but Africa retains an extraordinary ability to surprise. And the sad fact of life is that what happens in one part of this most diverse of continents affects the external view of the entire continent. So it was that the very next day, Laurent Gbagbo overturned the results of the Ivorian electoral commission and, through adroit use of the constitutional court, was declared the duly elected President of Cote d'Ivoire. His rival, Alassane Ouattara, meanwhile claims his internationally recognised election victory, with the result that Cote d'Ivoire is in the unenviable position of having two presidents, two prime ministers and two governments and - sadly - tarnishes Africa's image to the world.
There are times (especially for investors) when the attractions of stability outweigh democratic ideals.

Of course, as we approach Uganda's own election process in February, uncertainty breeds some anxiety, but at least at the moment, other news stories form the main topics of discussion. Yesterday, en route to the office, I was entertained by a radio phone-in show (Radio One's Talkback) where the debate concerned road safety over the festive season. Astonishing though it may seem, the high level of accidents involving taxis (minibuses) was publicly attributed - not to poorly maintained vehicles, to speeding, to inexperienced and poorly trained drivers, to overloading, to poor road conditions, or to weak traffic act enforcement...... but instead to ........ women sitting in the front seats. Yes, women sitting in the front seats. Apparently, women (or more accurately, their thighs) distract drivers' attention from the road, and therefore women should only be permitted to sit in the back seats.
Opinion was fairly evenly divided. Interesting, isn't it?