City Growth: The Neglected Economic Powerhouses of Kampala

Cities grow by attracting people and they attract people by creating opportunities that allow these people to thrive. As of 1st July 2020 seven municipalities in Uganda were upgraded into Cities and now these new Cities have to compete with Kampala for the over 32 million people in Uganda by offering a better life than the others. 

Some Cities like Mbarara and Arua have already shown their potential while others like Jinja and Mbale were once big and known for their beauty but now need to innovate more so that they can attract people. This growth can only be a result of intentional innovation and not wishful thinking as is the order of the day in Uganda. For example, the city planners have to identify the potential economic powerhouses and scrutinize their potential both on a macro and micro level and then create policies that favour the more potent sectors. In this article, my main focus will be on a potential economic powerhouse in Kampala that the City seems oblivious about.

I’ve spent some time doing graphics design at the main printing and branding center of Uganda commonly known as Nasser (named after the main street in this piece of real estate). This is one of the many places in Uganda where one can have a live glance at human creativity when humans are put in areas of close proximity. In one room you will see a young man seated in front of a computer drawing a sketch using creative software, then just adjacent to him will be another operating a small printing machine, then another a larger printing set. Just outside that office, will be cutting paper sand styling it. If you move into the corridors of the building you will encounter the sound of spring stamps and the smell of carbon paper and if you drew close enough, you will see ladies with white, green and pink papers clamped together clamping them like sets of machines. Then just a few meters you will observe young men joining these papers to form books, others joining harder paper to form envelopes. When you move behind the buildings, a series of ladies young and cooking and serving all kinds of African cuisine to the rest that are turning paper into useful products. And at the entrances, young men looking-out for potential clients, while others loading packed boxes of finished products onto vehicles for distribution. This is how humans can be creative in cities when placed within the same vicinity.

Cities are formed when a large number of people conduct their business and life within a small piece of real estate. Though density has it’s demons like the quick spread of disease, pollution, traffic jam all which arise due to high pressure on the limited resources available, the advantages of these spaces outweigh them and these include; fostering creativity because of bringing many creative people together, high revenues due to high demand of products, employment as there is need for a lot of services and growth of the culture.

I don’t have the right statistics but if I’m to make a rough estimate, about 96 people work on every floor of an arcade in Nasser. The most active floors are the ground floor, underground, first and second floors which put it to an average of about 384 people per arcade. If I’m to consider the just 20 arcades, then we are talking of about 7,680 people stationed permanently in this small piece of real estate. On average, if all these people have an average of 5 clients per day who are usually middle men like me, that number lifts to 38,400 people in this small piece of real estate per day. This large number of people exchanging goods and services attracts additional services like restaurants to cater for the need of food, telecom retail to offer airtime, internet services and quick mobile money transfer services, cleaning services, security services and transport services to help move these people. These additional services could add another 2000 people making the total 40,400 in one day. I’ve worked at Nasser road and I’ve noticed that on average each and every one of these people will leave with a minimum of 10,000 UGX on a minimum. This means that there is a possibility that about UGX 404 million (US$ 109, 189.2) is made daily on this piece of real estate.

Additionally, Nasser is not the only piece of real estate with a similar setup, but there are many others like Kiyembe, Owino, Container Village, Mini Price, Arua Park, Kiseka, New Park, Old Park etc. If we make a similar assumption as we did at Nasser Road then we are already talking of over UGX 4.04 billion (US$ 1.1 million) in one day from ten areas.  With such large sums of money being made per day (remember that I’m looking at the low level worker not the business owners, the arcade owners etc.), it is easy to conclude that these areas, disorganized as they look make a very large contribution towards the economy. 

However, these places seem neglected as the buildings where a business is conducted are so bad, not well ventilated, have no clean toilets and most of the restaurants are dirty, there are no clear rules in play as people are sold counterfeits and given services of less value than what they paid for because the authorities seem concerned only about the business licensing and the rest to whom it may concern. This has made many of the Ugandan elite and educated people avoid such places only to be mistreated and underpaid by bosses in the clean and uptown offices. This has made their contribution go unnoticed. In fact, innovation hubs in Uganda are set up far away from such areas yet finding common ground to connect with these people can give great results.

These are the main business centers of Uganda by Ugandans and yet are being neglected for foreign owned manufacturing Industries which have a tendency of leaving most of their staff poor as they pay them peanuts for very long hours and carrying all the profit to whence they came from. If Kampala is to harness more from such places, it needs to study these areas and develop a system that can help this small business turn into giants because it is very possible. 

The disorganization in these places is part of the art of doing business within them and there are many good products that they sell. The city authorities together with the business registration bureau need to liaise in creating a practical legal framework in which these businesses can share in the tenders that are sometimes carried off to the Middle East. The tax man should also set up and talk to these people in a language they both can understand. These micro firms in Kampala are comparable to New York and London’s small firms that have turned these cities into the financial capitals of the world. All cities have a different strategy for growth and it is usually found within the city itself not the foreign investor. The mighty New York was once a center of sugar production but now it survives on the stock exchange, branding companies, studios, fashion houses, transport, powerful banking sector which were once small firms but now able pay their staff tens of thousands of dollars. Kampala has all these sectors hidden within its dirty downtown streets and needs to understand that these areas can lead it in the right direction.


1. Ed Gleasor, 2012: The Triumph of the City