Remarks for Buy America Expo
By Ambassador Scott DeLisi
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Sheraton Hotel, Kampala, Uganda
Esteemed Guests, Dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, All protocols observed.
Good Afternoon. Let me begin by saying what a thrill it is to be here at the Buy America Expo—the first of its kind in Uganda and a testimony to the ever-growing economic ties between the United States and Uganda. This event wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the American Chamber of Commerce and I’d like to particularly thank President Abhay Agarwal and Vice President Meg Jaquay for their leadership in AmCham. The partnership between the U.S. Embassy and AmCham has never been stronger.
And it is because of that leadership and partnership that we are here today. It was just about a year ago that Captain Agarwal told our Economic Office that Uganda needed a forum to showcase the many American companies and products that are available in Uganda. Today's Buy America Expo is the direct result of that discussion.
I’d also like to recognize and welcome Chip Peters, our Senior Foreign Commercial Service Officer and Carol Kamau who works for the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Both Chip and Carol are based at the U. S. Embassy in Nairobi and we’re happy that you’ve joined us today to learn more about the opportunities available to American companies in Uganda.
But most of all, I’d like to thank all of our exhibitors here today. I was able to visit some of the exhibits this afternoon and what struck me most of all was the sheer diversity of the American business community in Uganda. We have Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Citibank; companies that are recognized all over the world.
But we also have smaller companies started by American entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity in Uganda—companies like Pulse Village Transport that provides transportation solutions for rural communities, including an ambulance that’s pulled by a bicycle. Or Bead for Life, an organization that is processing Ugandan shea nuts into high-quality shea butter products. Or JFL, a company that is exporting Ugandan fruit to the United States to be made into healthy snacks – something Americans should eat a lot more of.
And there are a few surprises as well—I imagine that some of you might be surprised to learn that Game, one of Kampala’s largest retail stores, is owned by Wal-Mart. Or that the Protea Hotel is now part of the Marriott Hotel family.
We have companies representing the IT, agricultural, energy, and health sectors. We have companies like KFC and Crown Bottling whose products nourish or refresh us and companies like AIG, PWC, Re/Max, and Aon that provide services that enrich our lives. It’s a long and impressive list.
The investment that the American private sector makes in Uganda is critical for the future of the country. It’s through this investment that U.S. companies are creating jobs for Ugandan citizens and helping us to move closer to realizing our vision of a peaceful, prosperous, healthy, and democratic Uganda.
And although we have a very impressive collection of U.S. companies in this room today, we’re not going to stop there. Strengthening economic ties between Uganda and the U. S. is one of our top priorities, and we want to see more American companies doing business in Kampala. We want to see more American firms investing in agriculture and energy. We want to see increased trade between Uganda and the United States. And we hope that the next time we hold a “Buy America Expo” we will need a much bigger room to hold all the American companies working in Uganda!
The Buy America Expo couldn’t come at a better time, as it follows on the heels of last month’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where we saw hundreds of American companies taking renewed interest in the economic opportunities available in Africa. As a result of the attention generated by the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, some companies that might have overlooked Uganda as a place to do business are now saying “Let’s take a closer look at what Uganda has to offer.”
Two decades ago, major companies were chided by their shareholders if they didn’t have a “China plan.” One decade ago, companies had to have an “India plan” to be taken seriously. And now, boards are being encouraged to have an “Africa plan.” We agree. We want to see more American companies doing business here and more American products being sold in stores, not just because it’s good for America but because it’s also good for Uganda.
Business is about making choices. And we think that--when given the choice--many Ugandans will choose American-made products. American companies offer products that are high quality and backed by years of innovation and expertise. They may sometimes be more expensive, but the reliability, quality and customer service that come with American products make them the most sensible, the most cost-effective and the most popular choice time and again. Making a cheap product is easy, but making the best product with the best value for the price is a challenge at which American innovators excel.
But a key question remains: how do we encourage more U.S. firms to actually come to the Pearl of Africa? Many American companies might see Uganda as being too far away, too small, or presenting too challenging a business environment. However, although there may be an element of truth in all of those points, the companies here today have shown that these concerns need not be a bar to investment, to growth or to profits.
But if we truly want to attract American investment and grow this economy significantly there is one overarching challenge that is cited by virtually every business person I talk to and that is the single greatest deterrent for potential investors.
Now this is the point where I could rhetorically ask "and what is that greatest challenge?" but you already know the answer. Corruption, corruption, corruption. Corruption is routinely leading serious major investors, who have their choice of investment destinations, to turn away from Uganda. And why wouldn't they? Corruption distorts economic activity, reduces competition, eats up profits, erodes trust, and sullies corporate images. Potential investors need only to look at the press to see daily reports of corruption in government ministries and throughout the society at every level. Just as sadly, Uganda has slipped even further in Transparency International’s index on corruption -- the nation now ranks 140th out of 177 countries worldwide. And if that isn't discouraging enough, very few of the people I meet have faith that corruption will be punished and perpetrators held accountable even in the most blatant cases.
Just yesterday, Parliament grilled representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office who were unable to account for over 27 billion shillings from their 2012/2013 budget. Unfortunately, these scandals go much farther and wider than the few people who are punished, and continue to undermine faith in the government.
If we truly hope to fill even bigger rooms with American products in the future and if we really want to fuel economic growth that will create the jobs desperately needed for this very youthful population, we need to change the picture.
Twenty years ago, the government of Uganda saw Slims disease, which we now know as HIV/AIDS, as an existential threat to Uganda's future. Corruption is now Slims. It is also an existential threat to the nation and we must treat it with the same determination, commitment, and energy that we bring to the fight against HIV. We need to change the mindset that accepts theft of public resources or donor funds as an acceptable norm or an inevitable cost of doing business. We need to treat corruption as the pervasive and destructive evil and abuse of power and trust that it is, rather than allowing it to hide behind far less damning terms like "rent seeking".
We need visible and resolved leadership from the government and we need businesswomen and men -- like all of you -- to champion honest, transparent investments, to expose corrupt practices, and to ensure that integrity is at the heart of your transactions.
If we can change the underlying ethos that encourages and accepts the culture of impunity when it comes to corruption, we can make Uganda's tremendous potential a reality. And that’s where you come in. I believe that the American business community, led by AmCham, is now at a point where it can take a much more active role in advocating directly to the government on behalf of the international business community. In fact, I think this is the perfect time for AmCham to take on this role as we seek to build on the momentum created by the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
The time is right. President Museveni is meeting in New York this week with our Under Secretary for Economic Affairs and I know he wants to talk with her about AGOA, about trade, about infrastructure, and about economic growth and investment. He and I have discussed frequently the importance of more American investment, of more U.S. companies coming to set up shop in Uganda and I know that he, and Prime Minister Rugunda, will both be partners willing to help make that happen. And all you have to do is look around this room, to see the many U. S. companies who are already doing well here. You can feel the buzz of new contacts being made, new economic connections being discovered, and new opportunities being explored.
Now, more than ever, we need to encourage the public-private dialogue that can help to energize policy and spark action. Government leaders need to hear your voice and so do I. We need to know the challenges you are facing and how government can help to create a better business environment. We need your thoughts on how we can work together to reduce corruption and on what policy initiatives can help to draw more American companies to Uganda. You are the ones with the knowledge and expertise on doing business in Uganda and you can pave the way for more companies to come here.
I remain committed to working on behalf of American companies already invested in Uganda, as well as with those interested in doing business here. In my two years here I have been an unrelenting advocate on behalf of American companies competing for contracts with the Ugandan government and am pleased to say we have had some notable successes. I want to see more.
I also want to continue to build on our already stronger partnership with our American Chamber here, of which I am so very proud. Thank you again for your fine work.
Thank you once again as well to all of the American companies represented here at the Buy America Expo. We wouldn’t have been able to hold this event without your energy and enthusiasm. All of you play a vital role in strengthening the economic ties between Uganda and the United States and I look forward to working with all of you to find ways to encourage stronger business ties between our two nations.
Together we can help improve the business climate in Uganda and I know that when we combine quality American products like those on display today, with American values, energy, and talent, success is virtually guaranteed.
Thank you very much.