By Alan Kasujja
BBC World Service
For the BBC’s A Richer World, Alan Kasujja returns to his native Uganda to meet the young entrepreneurs aiming to create a “new” Africa – while still dealing with the “old”.
Isaac Oboth, sitting proudly in his Mercedes Benz in Kampala, Uganda, epitomises a new breed of young African entrepreneur.
The 26-year-old is the CEO of his own successful TV production company, having risked it all by quitting university to start Media265 in 2010.
But he has a problem. His Mercedes Benz is stuck. In a big pothole.
“It feels like I’m right in the middle of an old and a new Africa,” Isaac says. “I feel like I’m very much part of the new Africa. But it’s impossible to do business here without still dealing every day with the old Africa.”
Besides potholes, Isaac’s “old Africa” means having to deal with challenges like finding fast, reliable internet access, or getting people to pay you on time.
Isaac’s business career started early. Both his parents had died by the time he was seven, leaving him with his brother Ivan, just a few years his senior.
Then Ivan lost his job. Isaac remembers the day his brother came to school and asked him to start making money.
“It was a pivotal point for me, Ivan was my sole provider,” Isaac recalls. At rock bottom, as Ivan puts it, Isaac turned to rock buns – crumbly, fruity snacks also known as rock cakes.
“This was my very first business venture – making these rock buns and selling them to kids from my school,” Isaac says. “I was 16 at the time and I’d make 400-500 every night.”
From rock buns Isaac turned to selling DVD photo albums, then pork and beer at rugby games, before eventually finding his niche in video production.
“If you asked me if I’m a profit-maker or a film-maker, I’d say I’m a profit-making-film-maker,” he says. “The new Africa is made up of people like me – young businessmen that have started businesses from nothing and are paving a way with no template.”
It’s a different mentality to the East Africa of my youth – one that still exists alongside this buzzing entrepreneurial spirit.
Before travelling to Kampala, I’d stopped in Maseno, a small Kenyan village where I’d spent my first 12 years – after my family had fled the chaos of Idi Amin’s reign.
There I met my childhood friend Gideon, who I hadn’t seen since returning to Uganda 25 years ago.
Gideon hasn’t changed much. He still lives in the same family house, although now with his two wives and six children.
He’d dropped out of school at 16 after his first child was born – his parents having decided it was time for him to “man up”.
It’s striking how little the neighbourhood has changed. I recognise the same traders I saw as a child, still selling the same things they did in the 1980s.
Gideon sells charcoal and, like many in the area, works to provide his family’s most basic needs. He doesn’t expect to become rich from it.
I can relate. My brother and I started a poultry business as teenagers, primarily to relieve the pressure on our mother. With no money to do it on a larger scale, we never thought about it. We were just happy to meet our existential needs.
This was the 1990s – before technology like mobile phones and the internet made the world seem both smaller and more accessible.
It’s allowed people like Isaac to dream bigger. But young Africans are aware that the perception of Africa – especially in business – needs changing.
“My vision for Africa is one that is not corrupt,” Isaac Oboth says, “where business leads the way, where people get work on merit – not because you’re well-connected or you’re willing to give kickbacks – and where failure is punished.
“My vision for Africa is international,” he adds, “[but] an Africa that is self-reliant.”
I don’t remember thinking like that when I was younger. We never thought about the continent as a whole, lost in our own realities just trying to survive.
Isaac is currently trying to produce an ambitious TV series called Discover Uganda, hoping for it to be screened across the entire continent.
“I have to start creating that pan-African vision I have in my head by actually doing something pan-African. By getting this content into homes in Ghana, the DRC, into bars in Zimbabwe – that is going to change the future.”
As a Ugandan, I’m aware that Africa’s had big dreams before. Nearly 60 years ago our leaders promised that independence would bring wealth and stability. It didn’t. But a new African generation is working from the premise that it’s the grassroots that matter most.
They’re also taking risks.
Despite once selling rock buns just to stay at school, Isaac quit his university degree before graduating.
Many Ugandan parents – like their counterparts across the continent – would have considered this too risky. The common belief is that a university education translates into better work opportunities.
Yet this is not always true. Hundreds of thousands of young people graduate from tertiary institutions in Uganda – but only a fraction are absorbed into the private or public sector. The informal sector – such as hawkers and market porters – often consists of young, overqualified people.
So many are doing what Isaac did – a trend fuelled by the fact that many of Africa’s wealthiest people barely went to school. Famous university dropouts like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs serve as similar inspiration.
This would have been impossible in my day. The entire clan would have prevented any attempt to abandon university, which was a source of pride for entire communities.
But not all young Africans are seduced by big business – or by Isaac’s expansive pan-African idealism.
Leticia Nabirye’s teaching degree failed to get her a job in Kampala. So she decided to return to her rural village of Tirinyi and become a farmer.
“[Many] thought I was a failure,” she says. “They would say: ‘You are a university graduate, you are supposed to be in an office! Why are you back again cooking food? Some of us who didn’t go to school can also cook’. But they didn’t realise that I am smart!”
Using the research skills she’d acquired at school, Leticia did her homework on farming.
Soon she’d transformed underused family land into a thriving business. Any of her ground nuts, potatoes or beans not sold at the local market get used by her catering business instead.
Leticia now makes about $1,000 a month – about 10 times more than she would have earned as a teacher.
More well-educated, young people finding themselves in unrewarding employment should return to their villages and live off the land, she believes.
“The future of Africa lies in the rural areas,” she says. “There are idle resources which need to be exploited. [Many] people in towns are doing a lot of nothing.”
Back in Maseno, I asked Gideon for a number to remain in contact. “Why do I need a phone?” he replied. “All the people I know live here.”
He seems to have made a conscious decision not to move with the times. “I like my life as it is. Why should I complicate it? My needs are very basic.”
His life is almost identical to that of his parents. I often wonder if I would have been any different had my mother not decided to leave.
But unlike Gideon and I – who are essentially products of our parents’ choices – young people in Africa are taking more control of their futures. And they all believe that the new Africa requires a completely different mind-set to that of their parents’ generation.
Listen to Alan Kasujja’s My Africa radio programme on World Service Radio on Tuesday 10 February at 16:30 and 20:30 GMT