Odrek Rwabwogo of Uganda’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development (PACEID) tells Fred Searle what he thinks the country must do to establish itself as a trusted supplier to the UK and Europe

What are Uganda’s main fresh produce exports and markets in Europe?

We make about $50m annually from fruit and vegetable exports and our aim is to increase that to around $200m in the next four to five years. 

A lot of our fruits go to the Netherlands, and from there they are distributed across Europe, but when it comes to pineapples we mainly export to South Africa because European buyers generally prefer the smaller South American ones. We’re trying to find niches for these kinds of products that don’t necessarily meet European specifications.

One of our major targets into Europe is avocado. We have traditionally grown larger, green-skinned varieties, but in the last four to five years Uganda has been encouraged to grow Hass avocados which go for a higher price in Europe.

Other products include matoke bananas, apple bananas, different types of aubergine, chillies, ginger, passion fruit, and so on. Our problem is not what to grow; our issue is achieving the scale that gives you consistency in pricing and standards. But I can tell you we can sell in Europe everything from fruits to vegetables to herbs.

What are Uganda’s transport links like into Europe and how do you plan to improve them?

Because it is a landlocked country, Uganda mainly exports fruits and vegetables to Europe by air, into Liège, Brussels and Amsterdam. There hasn’t been a direct airline route to the UK for the last six or seven years, but now Uganda Airlines is in the final stages of safety inspections to agree landing rights with Britain. We have aircraft that can transport some 20-30 tonnes on each flight, and we hope this will really strengthen that route.

One of our other plans is to ask the French ambassador to reopen a direct route from Entebbe Airport [near the Ugandan capital of Kampala] to France with Air France. This route has not been open since Operation Entebbe in 1976 when an Air France plane was hijacked by a Palestinian group and the passengers were taken hostage at Entebbe before being rescued by the Israel Defense Forces. 

We already have two or three direct flights per week to Istanbul, which is a big market for Ugandan coffee. It is also our source of technology for low-level manufacturing and the processing of fruits and vegetables, the roasting of coffee, the packing of tea, and so on. We are encouraging that route because it’s a little closer to the level of growth in our economy.

Are you concerned that airfreight could become an unsustainable option as retailers in the Netherlands and elsewhere phase out airfreighted produce?

Airfreight has its own issues in a changing world. The carbon footprint for flying vegetables and fruits into Europe is high. We’re very aware of that. But we have limitations on how to reach Europe with produce that is still fresh for the consumer. 

For now, we are going to be using airfreight, but in future we think cargo trains will help solve a lot of our problems. They won’t just lower the unit cost per tonne; they will also allow us to reach the Port of Mombasa, and then the Middle East, Europe and other markets with certain fresh fruits and vegetables.

The railway line between Mombasa and Kampala is being rebuilt and we are beginning a new segment of track from Malaba [on the Kenya-Uganda border] to Kampala with a Turkish construction company. The Turks are taking over from the Chinese, who held the contract for several years.

I understand an important part of your strategy is to start adding value to products in country. Can you tell me more?

When it comes to fresh produce exports, our vision is that it doesn’t matter how weak you are, you must start from somewhere. Adding value to fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, grains and other products in country not only creates jobs for today, but it strengthens the economies of Africa in the longer term, so that they are able to consume more technology from Europe and more luxury goods, because they will have an income. 

We are putting together a small coffee fund for businesses that want to buy, process and export, and we want to do the same for fruits and vegetables. We are creating industrial perks where you have an 80 per cent tax-free incentive if you are producing for export; we give you a 10-year tax holiday; we give you market access to East and Central Africa. 

What are the main challenges facing Uganda as it tries to boost its fruit and vegetable exports?

We need a culture change. When you are used to selling your fruits and vegetables at a market in Kampala, you don’t need much care or standards, you don’t think of packaging, you don’t think of timelines, you don’t think of quality or phytosanitary checks, or of the consumers on the other side. 

Now it takes education, it takes awareness, it takes competition for people to learn to produce for the export market. We are just beginning to enter the money economy. A majority of our people really only have enough to eat and then a little extra to sell, so when you speak of markets, it’s complicated. 

Logistics, transport, packaging, food safety – these are things you change when you have the right attitude. We must all rally to make this change. It’s doable, and in the past year we [PACEID] have created enough noise for many people to realise that the consumption we have in country is driven by the revenues we get from outside. These will go down unless we make significant behavioural and institutional changes to supply those export customers.  

What are the main steps Uganda must take to establish itself as a major supplier to Europe?

I think it requires three things: 1) enter the market with a trade representative and let them help with market research to inform your companies on what they are able to do; 2) mobilise government institutions to work with the private sector to understand the demands of customers on the other side, and to project where we will be in five to 10 years’ time; and 3) keep working on your infrastructure. 

We have built a lot of good tarmac roads across all our borders and from our city centres, but our lakes and rivers really do not have shipment capacity. We need to build vessels and ports on Lake Victoria and Lake Alberta to ensure we can give exporters more options than just road. 

What level would you like to see Uganda reach with its fresh produce exports in the next five years?

In the next two to three years, I want to see no more interceptions of our products in the EU for pests, chemical residues, quality issues and so on, so that we first recover all the money we lose each year from these inefficiencies.

   The second thing I want is for Ugandan fruits and vegetables to become known for quality and delivering on timelines, and for companies involved in exports to expand, attract more capital, produce more, and store for longer. 

Retailing gives a country visibility, so I want Sainsbury’s, Tesco and other large supermarket chains to stock our fruits and vegetables. That’s the only way the attention on our country will grow stronger.