A Ugandan in Dubai, #covid19 in Africa, lessons for you

In 2016, I got an opportunity to travel to Dubai for a talk about strategy. For some reason, as an African, I tend to

In 2016, I got an opportunity to travel to Dubai for a talk about strategy. For some reason, as an African, I tend to have an inferiority complex – the feeling that I do not belong at certain tables or levels especially when I travel to do business as a consultant in developed markets. The fact that we tend to get several rejections for business opportunities from fellow Africans in Africa, makes it all worse.

The general feeling that an African operating in a very small market in Uganda lacks the leadership and strategic insights to speak to business leaders and oil moguls in a very big UAE market, more so a vibrant city like Dubai, is not good for our growth. But I look at myself as a special breed. I love to try things. When I search on Google and see an upcoming conference, I will find out the organizers and I will send that cold-cool email. “If the worst thing that could happen to me is no reply to the email, I will try anyway.” Occasionally, a negative reply will come, “thanks for your interest to participate as a Speaker at our conference. However, this time, all our speakers have confirmed.” But 2016 was different. “Dear Mustapha, the conference organizing committee reviewed your brief paper, and I am happy to advise that it was selected.  You shall be given free conference attendance, air ticket, and accommodation while in Dubai for two days, …”

The excitement was short-lived. You must prepare to deserve all this investment being made in air tickets etc. And that is when the reality of being an African hit – self-doubt and all that negative talk stuff suddenly becomes heavy on your head. “what do I tell top business executives some of whom run companies bigger than a typical African country economy?” After some research and consultation with mentors – people who have been there and seen it all, the answer is simple: tell them unique stories…

And off to Dubai, I fly.

It is my habit to have a conversation with people I meet during my travels. I started a conversation with the taxi driver that picked me from the airport. If you have been to Dubai, you know the city thrives on tourism. That is how it was and continues to be positioned. And the Arabs did it. Everything in Dubai and big, spectacular and lit. All public squares are outstanding.  Every month the look and feel of a certain street with change and you could get lost! That is how the city moves fast.

So, I ask this Taxi driver, where do you come from?


Is your country developed like this?

“No, too much corruption there. Streets not safe. Inside taxis not safe. Pakistan has some good buildings too, the city is big, but security is not there. That is the problem. No one can enjoy the city. You are afraid to walk on the street. But Dubai is very safe. Even at night, you move. No one is worried. Even in this taxi, you see that camera. Even if you slapped me, I cannot slap back. Everyone is seeing. However, by the time I drop you at your hotel, security will arrest you. If you’re not lucky, you will be deported and never allowed to come back to Dubai and the entire UAE for life. This city is very safe, that is why I love it here.”

In my mind, I am like Africans are not alone in the dislike business of their own and continent and respective countries. Even some Asians are not proud of their countries!  I decide to change the discussion…

How come Dubai always has great designs and nice-looking buildings? I ask.

“Dubai is in a different league. The Dubai Ruler puts this country and citizens above everything. Very forward-looking leader. When the Ruler travels in any part of the world and finds something very outstanding and special, the Ruler will ask people who made this one? I want you to come and do it in Dubai, tell us your price? And when you accept, they will say, make the best of its kind. You will be given money and opportunities. The leaders want to keep the best closer. They want them to be in Dubai. That is why this city is always expanding and doing special things…”

How come you know so many things and speak well… why are you driving a Taxi?

“I am an Engineer; I am still looking for a job. I need to first get to know people well and get the right connections. At night I volunteer at an Engineering firm. I have been here for two years, without a job I could not survive. This taxi work has helped me understand the city and many people. This is my only way to keep up to date with the diverse Dubai communities and culture. Allah willing next year, I get a full-time job as Engineer. You have to be patient.”

Suddenly the driver stops. It is the Hotel entrance, and off I exit.

I check-in, get into the lift and press 92nd Floor and off I go.

It is a panoramic view… you can see the entire city. In the hotel room, there are fresh fruits, juice and all kinds of drinks. I put my bags in the living room chairs, pick a banana and eat as I move around the self-contained room. I love to travel on the host’s budget because real businesspeople living in Dubai always love showering their guests with ultimate experiences. I am in Burjuman Arjaan by Rotana hotel, and I am all smiles. The place is outstanding. But I must first deserve this place. In five hours, I shall be making talk on “Strategy – Leveraging Technology for Scale.”

On the d-day, I step on that stage and deliver my best presentation. I start with product strategies – understand your market and focus on products/ services that are relevant – have the wide market reach, are scalable, have big contribution and are profitable. I tell a story East African telecom sector and how innovation delivers unprecedented growth. I give an example of Safaricom’s telecom market leadership in Kenya and its innovation machinery by leveraging from mobile value-added services specifically m-pesa and its initial positioning as a platform product.  I enter the Ugandan telecom market and explain how UTL and Celtel lost the first market advantages to MTN Uganda, explaining that technology without the right capabilities mix by having the right people in the right places, as well as effective systems, is not enough. I explain how UTL had the first 2G network in Uganda, a top Engineer as CEO but failed to win due to poor customer service and marketing! I go on to show how MTN was able to introduce mobile money in Uganda and leverage on it to win.

I give other global perspective stories – thanks to my Ebscohost subscription where I have ready access to top research papers, magazines, and publications from top Universities in the world – thereby reading the same resources a typical Harvard or MIT Professor reads.

By the end of my talk, the audience was hooked. I had everyone’s attention in the room. I had made it. To win in diverse audiences, tell authentic stories and case studies that are unique but provide opportunity for people to examine their own unique contexts and apply the lessons to win.

And as they say, as a speaker the best way to evaluate the impact of your talk is not how many people ask for your business card, but how many ask you to talk privately to their team. And that is how I got clients in Dubai. After all, negative self-talk is a lie.

I remembered this story in the wake of the #covid19 epidemic. Most Africans do not trust their fellow African leaders and professionals when it comes to leading through the chaos. And yet, when you travel to some countries, you will find many blacks leading frontline efforts and thriving.

This is worsened by a biased global media machinery which rarely showcases successes by Africans.

Today, the world is facing a pandemic. And many developed countries are registering many casualties as a result of overwhelmed health systems, with high death rates being registered among the elderly and people with underlying health problems like diabetes, hypertension, to mention but two. In Africa, the number of death due to the virus has been lower than anticipated. But reporters, more so Africans, are more worried about how many people are going to die in Africa than the efforts being made by African leaders to avert a catastrophe and giving credit where it is due.

In Uganda, for example, the country’s heroes in the Ministry of Health and all frontline staff – medical professionals, security officers and providers of essential services, under the overall leadership of President Museveni have registered success, as of this writing, in respect to averting a pandemic in the country. To date, only 54 cases registered in Uganda as of today 13th April 2020, out of which four have fully recovered and zero death. This is a story that is worth sharing. Instead, people are writing about how Uganda and Africa, in general, cannot test many people which explains the fewer cases being reported than anticipated. Really!

Copyright Mustapha B Mugisa, 2020. All rights reserved. 

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