By Shemei Ndawula
Mugerwa Joseph is a natural born story teller, perched on his wooden stool, his hand nestled absentmindedly in his prickly black beard stubble, one would be forgiven if they wouldn’t believe he’s one of the most influential personalities in Uganda’s flower industry, running two successful flower shops and wholesale flower depots as well as an accomplished events planner.
But once you hear him speak, you catch a glimpse of a savvy business man whose vision and ambition led him, with little formal education and financial grounding from the dusty backroads in rural Mityana, Uganda to what he describes as “the world’s largest floristry market” in Guangzhou, China.
His colleagues jokingly refer to him as a Ugandan-Chinese because his TV set in the florist is always tuned into Chinese news station CGTN and he’s always quick to offer insight on the news stories relying heavily on his experiences in China, he often has a rapt audience listening to his stories as he extrapolates, in a deep sagely voice, his Chinese experience.
When I first met him, he was emphatically detailing the meals he used to have while on the Asian continent, he was saying (the following words are translated and paraphrased from Luganda which is his main language of communication) “as a Ugandan in China, the easiest meal to get is chicken, we ate so much chicken we almost got tired of it, I see you people excited by these restaurants like KFC but in China, these are very normal things, in fact, we would have to take a train from our area in Guangzhou to go have Ugandan food like Matooke” he exclaimed to his enrapt audience.
Mr Mugerwa’s first trip to China was a decade ago. This was after close to eight years working as an apprentice florist in Kampala for one of the earliest commercial flower companies in the country and deciding he wanted more.
During his early days in Guangzhou, Mr Mugerwa was fascinated by the technological and artistic innovations he came across. He marveled at the efficient and fast transportation systems, the modern buildings, and the use of digital technology in almost everything and most importantly the advanced manufacturing capabilities of the Chinese synthetic flower industries which could make high quality artificial flowers with the appearance and texture of natural flowers.
Inspired by this, he would take long walks around Guangzou flower market in the evenings trying to learn and soak in everything he could about the industry, which would later prove to be a game-changer for his florist business in Kampala.
He was mind blown by the abundance of affordable high-quality flower accessories that he’d possibly never have imagined while in Uganda. This sparked a new idea in him. He was quick to establish contacts in Guangzou despite the language barrier (he is still predominantly a Luganda speaker) and because of the amazing business acumen that has come to define the Chinese bilateral trade, he had access to many high-quality goods at heavily discounted prices many of the sellers even offering the enthusiastic fast talking Ugandan businessman credit facilities.
Using his contacts in Guangzhou, he imported his first shipment; a great haul with floral wrappers, ornamental vases, decorative linens and realistic artificial flowers many of which were novel to the country which sparked a revolutionary ripple in the local Ugandan floristry industry.
With his new-found business knowledge and a steady supply of affordable high-quality flower accessories, Mr Mugerwa’s florist business in Kampala has been on the up and up since his first trip to China. Because of the great bilateral friendship between Uganda and China, Mr Mugerwa is able to import high quality goods from factories in China at low costs and resale them at affordable prices in Kampala, a win-win partnership with his Chinese suppliers which has turned the ambitious Mityana youth into an astute businessman expanding his first florist with a second flower shop which deals exclusively in events management and decoration as well as a second wholesale flower depot. Additionally, the floristry ideas and techniques he picked up from China have also made him one of the best creative florists in Kampala and doubtless an unassailable force in the industry.
The story of Mr Mugerwa is no strange outlier. Countless Ugandan lives have been positively impacted by the great Sino-Ugandan partnership over the last six decades. From business men like Mr Ntumwa Birimumaso of Ubuntu Cafe, to scientists like Engineer Rita Nasaazi a petroleum expert, and agricultural and bamboo enthusiast Mr Andrew Ndawula Kalema of Talent orchards.
Often when we discuss diplomacy, bilateral trade and foreign policy, it is easy to get lost in the statistics and figures as well as heavy sounding diplomatic diction that we may at times forget the faces behind the statistics and the voices behind the economic trends. Every unique story like Mr Mugerwa’s is a vote of confidence in the special bilateral friendship that Uganda and China share and a promise of what we can achieve by working together, the promise of the CCP leadership in China and the people of Uganda, a friendship of mutual benefit, cooperation and development that’s echoed in the China’s infrastructure support in Africa especially under the Belt and Road Initiative and the established preferential trade agreement between China and African countries.
It is said that one of the greatest achievements of the ancient Chinese was to build The Great Wall of China; I believe, in retrospect, the future may perceive the greatest achievement of modern-day China as The Great Bridge of China; the great bilateral friendship that connects so many countries to the People’s Republic of China bridging the gap between dreamers and opportunity, a win-win partnership.
Shemei Ndawula is a senior Research Fellow, Sino-Uganda Research Centre