Africa’s next frontier: A Nairobi letter to President Museveni


JF-Expert Member
Oct 16, 2014
In Uganda, we are still functioning with an old fashioned mid-20th Century Conference Centre, which is not possible to rig up with all the new clever conference tech



President Kenyatta (R) and President Museveni in Nairobi. PPU photo

By Charles Onyango-Obbo
President Yoweri Museveni attended the just-ended Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD), in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. I would have wished to give him this letter.

It’s for a good reason, one would say, but working in Nairobi has become nearly impossible the last couple of months. Every few days, roads are closed because a Big Chief or a global conference is in town. And with that, an already nightmarish traffic gridlock gets worse.

So why is this resurgence happening in global activity in Nairobi? It’s a long story, but partly to understand it, we need to jump to the central African edge of the East African Community, to Rwanda.

Rwanda has also become a big conference scene, and though small, the things it has done with its relatively new national airline Rwandair, and the massive policy and infrastructure investment it has made to become an attractive international conference venue, it was threatening to eat all of Kenya’s lunch.

With its new Convention Centre, and the big remake of an already well-functioning Kigali for the July African Union meeting, Rwanda with that stroke has become easily the most competitive conference venue between here and Cape Town.

The difference is that Rwanda has had to work hard for it; Nairobi is a more “natural” city to do these things, all it had to do is make it easy. The result is obvious. When I first came to Nairobi some years ago, in the space of a month I would have been to all the top hotels in the city. Today, there are so many new international hotels, I have not been to three quarters of them.

In Uganda, we are still functioning with an old-fashioned mid-20th Century Conference Centre, which is not possible to rig up with all the new clever conference tech. And we are missing out in the conference feast. We should style up, because for Nairobi and Kigali, the conference business is something bigger.

So what is happening? First, as immigration and terrorism become ever bigger global issues, they are impacting how the world meets and discusses. It is important to understand this, because if you do you will figure that it will also lead to a new kind of regional balkanisation.

While, to the annoyance of radical pan-Africanists China, India, Japan, and the US will continue to hold “African conferences” to which all our leaders gather to be told how to develop the continent, increasingly these kinds of events will take place in Africa.

The conference business is therefore not a passing cloud. There is a long-term shift that makes it good investment, because it will be around for a while.

Secondly, while the Internet has reorganised the way the world works and trades in, especially, “digital” goods, these goods still have to be physically transported. That book you ordered from Amazon still has to be sent to your physical address in Kampala.

And that growing trade with China, well, someone still has to carry back the flasks, fake hair, and bad furniture. There is a kind of trade route winding around the continent, and it is being defined by airlines like Emirates, Qatar, Turkish Airlines, in addition to the older ones like British Airways, although the latter hasn’t spread much.

The real trick, though, is how to get people and goods around Africa once they land on the continent. For that, the national airlines of Africa do the donkey work.

Right now the continent has four workhorses – Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, South African Airways, and Rwandair.
If you are coming to a conference in Africa, or flying goods around, the chances that you will use one of these airlines is probably 75 per cent. It’s no accident that Cape Town/Johannesburg, Ethiopia, Nairobi, and Kigali are also the leading conference hubs on the continent.

Conference economics creates the infrastructure – better airport facilities, hotels, etc., - that is good for travel and business. But most critically, as intra-Africa trade grows and more and more countries make it easier for Africans to come in and out, the winners are going to be the countries that make themselves part of the pipeline for that trade.

At a conference in Kigali about three years ago, someone asked Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame about Rwandair, whether it was profitable, and so on. His answer was revealing. From a national point of view, he said, the target for Rwandair was not to be profitable. That was a sectoral goal. Its objective was to, “create enough business for the wider Rwanda economy” – transport businesspeople and tourists, improve the country’s ease of doing business, and its accessibility.

If those bigger activities brought in more economic benefit than it cost to run Rwandair, the airline would have achieved its strategic goals.
There is a new game in Africa. You blink, you miss it.

The author is editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3


JF-Expert Member
Feb 24, 2010
Good article and nice shot from Charles Onyango-Obbo..!! The author concern about Uganda and it's primitive way of living in term of technology also reflect Tanzania's situation today. Tanzania has lost its reputation before international community. The country used to be the hub and oasis of peace and trianquility. The country was home to all African brothers and through our humility, our fellows Africans had second chance to life. Yoweli Museveni, Paul Kagame, Chisano, Raila Odinga, Miguna Miguna, Nelson Mandela/ANC of RSA, Joseph Kabila and the list goes on and on....! Oosh, Naililia Tanzania yangu

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