Lucrezia Biteete

Why Re-focusing the Education System is Key for Business Development and Investment in Uganda

by Lucrezia Biteete on 16/03/2018 No comments

On the 15th of February, New Vision, the country’s biggest newspaper, published an article to clarify the matters around the closing down of Bridge Academies in Uganda. Bridge is an investor and innovator in the education sector, and has gained much attention through its backing by Silicon Valley giants like the founder of Facebook, as well as its wholesale approach to cheap, private education in Africa.
I don’t know much about the details of the Bridge case in Uganda, but the article was an illustration of the crisis the education sector in Uganda is in. Below I add my own views and experiences, as well as clear ideas on how the education sector could be turned around to being the fuel for business development and growth in Uganda.

Life skills

After having spent more than 12 years working with people all over Africa, from poor rural communities to high tech private sector companies, it becomes more and more clear to me that the key to the development of a country is the development of its people. As much as African countries need infrastructure and services, only a population that is empowered and instructed will use its ingenuity to use this infrastructure for something productive. So many times I have seen a lack of education being a major inhibition for a community or a person to develop, despite goodwill and efforts by NGOs and donors. I mean education in a broader sense than what you learn in a classroom; the NGO lingo prefers to give it labels like “life skills”. Education understood in this way includes the basic understanding of cause and effect, sense of responsibility, consciousness of time and history, but in short: the skills needed to thrive and grow in a capitalist society. For Uganda is in a global village where development is measured through on capitalist indicators of growth, profit, efficiency and productivity.

Precisely in a capitalist economy, the power of education could have such a potential, especially in a country like Uganda. With one of the largest “young” populations in the world, Uganda should take its investment in the next generation seriously and even use this as a way of gaining a comparative advantage over its neighbouring countries. Uganda once used to have good schools and universities, Makerere University was lauded as one of the best on the continent. Unfortunately, short term thinking and the inability of government (for whatever reason) to accommodate innovation and foreign investors like Bridge will continue to result in a sluggish growth rate.

The paradox of unemployment and the skills gap in Uganda

Having worked for a private company in the IT and tech sector for the last four years, I have seen first-hand how the shortcomings of the education system have a crushing effect on economic and social development. The Norwegian IT company I work for, Laboremus, is out-sourcing software programming services to the Norwegian market. Demand for the services in Norway has been high, but the company has struggled to grow. One of the main reasons has been the tremendous effort it takes to train young and talented Ugandans to deliver software at an international level. On average, a very talented graduate needs two years at Laboremus before being able to work on European projects. Even after years of experience in Uganda I was taken aback by the inadequate level of education that Ugandan graduates get throughout the schooling system.

As Chairperson of the Nordic Business Association for two years, and frequently in forums with investors and entrepreneurs, my complaints are echoed by everyone: human resources issues are the biggest headaches and inhibitors for growth. This is a paradox in a country where Runemployment is high and competition for the few formal jobs is fierce. Everyone agrees that talent is abound in Uganda, but the skills given by the education system to translate this talent into productivity, reliability, professionalism, customer care and quality is terrifyingly absent. Focus on theoretical learning from early age, “cramming”, big classes with little interaction and a curriculum and pedagogic approach that punishes questioning, creativity, curiosity and play have a profound effect. Students are expected to sit down, be quiet, follow every wink of the teacher, learn everything by heart and then reproduce it in an exam. Yet as soon as these young people leave school or university, they face an employment market where employers value people who are problem solvers, team workers, have people skills, are innovative, entrepreneurial and so on.

In addition to fostering these important qualities, the curricula are also tremendously outdated. If at least all the cramming resulted in a solid theoretical foundation, our task as employers would be easier. Especially in the fast-moving (but increasingly important) IT sector this is flagrantly evident. As one of our employees put it: One day he entered the university class and the teacher wrote XHTML on the board. He had just started to teach himself HTML5. He walked out of that classroom and never turned back. Without a formal bachelor’s degree, he is one of our best programmers today. Generally, Laboremus does not hunt for talent in the software engineering or computer science departments at the universities, we instead focus on the engineering streams because this is where you find people with enough capabilities in math and abstract thinking. That in itself should say something about the adequacy of the curricula.

Early childhood education

Last but not least, the education system does not provide the nurturing that young people need to grow into mature, responsible and self-confident adults. This is often described by employers and teachers as a “poor attitude” in the youth today, and manifests itself through a lack of loyalty, lack of commitment, inability to take advantage of an opportunity and other poor habits like stealing, fraudulent practices and “corruption”. This all goes back to the adults that these young people grow up around.

Through my work with Fontes Foundation, we established a youth development centre where we try to primarily work on the “attitudes” of the youth to make them ready to be employed or become entrepreneurs. The programme includes personal development classes that work on people’s self-confidence, direction and interaction with others, a mentorship programme and a job-placement programme. In essence, we are trying to give the young people in six months what many of them did not get their entire childhood. At Laboremus, we work with many of the same issues with our university graduates, who have had a much more advantageous background than the disadvantaged youth in the Fontes programme.

In a country where a large majority of children come from rural households where the older generation only had limited education, more responsibility is put on the institutions to provide the youngsters with role models and adults that can provide career guidance, personal guidance and teach children all they need to know about their health, sexuality, relationships, talents and last but not least, strong values and culture. Yet children are taught in classes where there is no room or time to cater for individual development problems or needs, often (still) using cruel methods of discipline and by teachers who are more concerned about their own survival or the next PLE exam than developing each child into a successful adult.

The result of these deficiencies on both the part of the parents and the education system, is that employers are left with the burden of not only teaching their employees their trade, which most are willing to do, but also to provide guidance, personal development and communication skills. This takes time and a huge investment from the part of the employer, who is constantly faced with the risk of the employee leaving for greener pastures as soon as an opportunity with a slightly higher salary presents itself. Employers must also pay the employee a salary in the training period, during which the employee is not adding much value to the company. And on top of that, employers are taxed up to 43% of salaries (28% PAYE and 15% NSSF) to provide education and training that is ideally the responsibility of the government. Seen from this perspective, the poor results of the tertiary education system are in fact a socio-economic tragedy: young people spend three years of their most creative years but rarely recall more than experiments with alcohol, partying and sugar daddies from this time. Parents break their backs to pay for expensive university fees, often by selling cows and land or taking expensive loans. Yet after three years, after all this investment, the results are dismal.

The action plan

So what can be done to turn Uganda into a power house of innovation, entrepreneurship and agriculture; a middle-income country as put by the country’s president?

First and foremost, the country needs to control its explosive population growth by making family planning available to all women in the country, along with sufficient information to use it properly. This includes sensitisation of men and other family members, who often attempt control women’s fertility. Countries like Ethiopia have shown that it is possible to extend this even to remote rural societies. Rwanda can serve as a model in how to drastically reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health – these are also drivers of population growth. Once fewer children are born to the households that are already resource-strained, more focus can be put on the development of each child.

Secondly, more emphasis needs to be put on early childhood development. It is commendable that Government wants to make early childhood learning centres available, however, this is partly barking up the wrong tree. Most of the skills and knowledge pre-school children need is not related to reading and writing and should not be taught in classrooms. Mothers need guidance on how to foster the cognitive development of infants from an early stage. Remarkable research from the US shows that the number of words spoken to a child in its early years is a great predicting factor for later academic success. Through village health workers and other community initiatives, parents should be taught about the importance of unconditional love to nurture a self-confident child, basic health knowledge and how to stimulate children’s curiosity, willingness to learn and motoric capabilities long before they set foot in a school.

Third, the mammoth task of reforming an education system stuck in Britain in the 1950s needs to get underway. This will take years, a profound shift in attitudes and strong leadership from the top. One of the complaints about Bridge was that they take their teachers abroad for training. However, this is precisely what is needed: through seeking lessons and inspiration from other countries, Uganda has the unique opportunity to “leap-frog” much of the developed world and go straight into an approach that prepares the next generation for a world where robots compete with humans for jobs and subjects like IT and technology are key. Tech founder Jack Ma said at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 that “If we don’t change the way we teach, in 30 years we will be in trouble [..] We need to teach something that is unique, [so] that a machine can never catch up with us”.

Educationalists worldwide agree that because of the speed at which technology advances, more emphasis must be put on giving the youth a solid foundation of concepts, principles, values and tools so that they can become “life-long learners”, instead of learning much content. This includes giving the youth the skills to research, filter and analyse information, abstract thinking, problem solving, concept development, visualisation and team work. At Laboremus, we already have workshops tackling all these subjects for our employees. This includes less focus on theoretic university education for success, but the integration of a vocational system which produces high quality technical professionals. Let’s focus more on what is delivered in the schools, and how to get out from the aid-dependency trap that has also ensnared the minds. Well-enlightened teachers and students will themselves find solutions to the absence of tap water or sanitary pads in the schools.

Low-hanging fruit

While the reform of the curricula and teaching methods gets underway, there are three low hanging fruits that the Government can use to its advantage to reap short term gains.

First, focus on the teachers. By drastically changing the way teachers are taught and restoring teaching as a prestigious profession, an impact will be felt already when these teachers set foot in their first classroom. The article had many critics of the way Bridge uses tablets to guide teachers through their lessons. While this might be a little rigid and maybe not a long term solution, it is an attempt to improve teaching at a scale that no government has until now achieved. E-learning has a great potential and there are plenty of start-ups and e-learning initiatives. However, our experience with Fontes shows that teachers and students are not able to take advantage of the vast resources on the Internet if they are not given basic skills in how to navigate this wealth of information, or how to successfully use e-learning as a teaching aide.

Secondly, use the private schools as pioneers and trailblazers. Uganda’s best schools are private and private education is a huge business. Yet surprisingly, most of these schools are still stuck in the old ways of teaching. A need to satisfy parents, who are the ones to pay the fees, could be one of the reasons why many of them prefer to have a “traditionalist” image. At the same time, these schools are better equipped and have more resources to effect changes quickly. Bring a few of them on board and take lessons from the growing number of international schools who are trying out different types of curricula and teaching methods. Give these schools the freedom to innovate around curricula and methodologies, and change the metrics to assess the performance of students to incentivize schools to focus on the skills that are needed in tomorrow’s world.

And third, don’t penalize the private sector for investing in training of their employees. Tax breaks for training periods, cheaper work permits for foreigners and cheaper business visas for experts would all support the tremendous efforts that employers are already making. This would have benefits that are two-fold: first, employers would be able to hire and train more employees (about double, in fact) if taxes were slashed on training periods. Even if only one ends up in formal employment, the second one will leave with valuable skills to use elsewhere in the economy. At Laboremus, we receive phone calls every day from students seeking internships. The last time we hired entry-level IT graduates, we received over 900 applications. We have tried different internships and trainee programmes, some even with donor support. But all turned out to be too expensive for the company to make commercial sense. Yet, without building a pipeline of new talent, Laboremus is in a catch-22 situation: without more developers we can’t make more money, but the developers take too much money to train.

Supporting the private sector in their training efforts would also attract much-needed foreign investors to set up shop and create employment in Uganda. Although the government is currently avoiding the Elephant in the room, soon youth unemployment will catch up with Uganda. Problems such as crime are already on the rise and Uganda is showing much slower economic growth than neighbouring countries. With such a huge young population, it is virtually impossible for all employment creation and growth to come from within, especially with a poorly educated population. Whether we want it or not, Uganda will need investors like Bridge to bring in foreign money and skills to create the jobs needed.

Photos: Fontes Foundation & Laboremus Uganda Ltd

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Lucrezia BiteeteWhy Re-focusing the Education System is Key for Business Development and Investment in Uganda

Is University the Only Road to Success?

by Lucrezia Biteete on 20/01/2014 No comments

The Fontes Foundation scholarship programme provides sorely needed technical and practical education to disadvantaged youth in western Ugandan villages.

Uganda shares the fate of many developing countries, where university education is seen by the parent generation as the only way to have a successful life. This perception is based on the history of the civil servants of the past, where everyone who made it to university became a civil servant and automatically earned a salary. Today, the reality is different. The civil service is filled up with people, wages are low and working conditions are poor. The young graduates therefore fight for a job in the country’s formal sector, which is extremely limited and where competition is fierce. Only 12% of Ugandans pay taxes, meaning that they work in the “formal” sector. University graduates can easily wait for 2 years after graduating without any work, not even an internship.

Zarika is part of the programme and branched out of senior four. In the long term she wishes to open up a hospital.

Zarika is part of the programme and branched out of senior four. In the long term she wishes to open up a hospital.

In addition, university degrees are extremely theoretical and often based on outdated curricula, and the students are not given sufficient “life skills” and entrepreneurship skills to venture out on their own. Increasingly, young graduates have to compete with children of the upper-middle class that have been sent abroad to study in order to improve their chances on the job market. But even a graduate with a degree from the UK or the US can easily sit at home for 2 years before getting a job.

Paradoxically, the employers are screaming for qualified workers. There is a huge shortage of medical personnel in Uganda, especially nurses and midwives. Companies lack plumbers, carpenters, welders; even drivers of heavy machinery are high in demand. At the same time, parents are breaking their backs, selling off family land and livestock just to send their children to university.

Our scholarship programme in Katunguru, western Uganda, was created out of the huge demand for education in the villages. Students and parents only had one goal: to complete high school in order to get a chance to go to university. However, university studies are extremely expensive, and as explained above, not always an easy career path.

Therefore, we slowly started to introduce the possibility of going for a technical education after “O-level”, and not do the two years of “A-level” that mainly prepare you for an academic future. It has not always been easy to convince parents, guardians and community elders that have a more traditional view. But in the recent years, there has also been more and more debate in the media and by politicians and leaders about the need to develop practical skills and entrepreneurship skills in the young population.

Kichwamba High School in Rubirizi, Kamwenge District in Uganda is another school where our scholarship students develop their skills.

Kichwamba High School in Rubirizi, Kamwenge District in Uganda is another school where our scholarship students develop their skills.

Fontes Foundation established the youth centre in Kampala as a response to the same problem. We also organised a study trip for all the scholarship students in 2013 to the nearby Wildlife school, to expose them to the possibility of a practical course.

Last year, one of our students started a course in midwifery after she completed her O-levels, and this year four students are starting nursing school, only two are going to A-levels. After only two or three years these students will already be earning a salary and contributing to the development of the country.

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Lucrezia BiteeteIs University the Only Road to Success?

All Eggs in One Basket

by Lucrezia Biteete on 06/12/2013 No comments

HR Management in Africa requires adaptability but gains on the input of your European egalitarian principles and horizontal management style.

Lucrezia Biteete and Marius Koestler, both involved with Fontes for almost 10 years, have recently ventured into new waters, but have brought with them much of the experience gained through work with Fontes Foundation. For example, they are both advisors with the Norwegian-African Business Association (NABA), a private sector organisation in Norway that promotes business in Africa and provides advice. The Fontes experience has also been vital in their newest project, which is establishing the Norwegian IT consultancy firm Laboremus in East Africa through an office in Kampala. On the 1st of November 2013, they were asked to hold a presentation at the prestigious NABA summit in Oslo, about human resources management in Africa. This article summarises the presentation, which can also be found on

Managing staff in Africa can easily cause high levels of frustrations and challenges Norwegians are not used to meet. However, the key is to better understand where the workers come from, what society they live in and what problems they deal with. A good start when trying to get to know somebody, and where they are coming from, is by asking “How are you?”

Once you have a job, all family and friends expect you to help out with all financial matters. The social pressure is immense.

Once you have a job, all family and friends expect you to help out with all financial matters. The social pressure is immense.

In Uganda, you will most likely be baffled by the fact that few people you know well will reply the expected “Good, I’m fine” and you will be surprised to see that many respond, “I’m getting by”, “I’m struggling” , “I’m trying, trying” or they will say; “fair, fair”. So why do they say this? You could of course just blow it off as some linguistic practice. It is not. They are indeed “Struggling, trying and trying to get by”. For example, if all school-age children in Uganda would go to school this would represent 40% of the population, against 12% in Norway. All these children have to be taken care of and school fees must be paid. One of our friends and collaborators, for example, has to come up with at least USD 4,575 three times a year to pay for his own 6 kids as well as 7 others that he is taking care of since he is one of the few in the family with a job. Family in Africa goes well beyond the nuclear family known in the west, and don’t be surprised if your employee tells you that he is expected to pay for his wife’s half brother’s funeral costs.

The large inequalities between rich and poor in Africa cause stress on the entire society.

The large inequalities between rich and poor in Africa cause stress on the entire society.

It is also important to understand that countries like Uganda still have a highly class divided society. As a manager, you need to understand these differences and make sure that people from all social layers work well together and respect each other. For example, when you invite people out for a drink you need to explicitly make sure everyone knows they are invited, not only the upper ranks. And you need to discretely arrange for your female staff’s cab ride home, otherwise she will not afford to come. Most Norwegians are naïve and even in denial about this fact.

Another thing, Norwegians are naïve and in denial about is the hierarchical management structure everyone is used to and which is instilled into them from primary school. Although we love our flat and democratic management style, it is important to step into the leader role and show authority, otherwise you will manage an office of headless chicken. Once that is established you can start breaking down the artificial barriers and encourage your employees to provide their input, first in an institutionalised way. At the same time, it is important to counter-act an arrogant culture of upper management by leading by example, and take sufficient time to explain to employees WHY certain issues are important, instead of lecturing (or even worse, yelling).

The differences between the Ugandan (left) and the Norwegian (right) management structure are substantial. In Norway, the structure is egalitarian, while in Uganda it is clearly hierarchical. The key is be conscious about the differences and to find the right balance.

The differences between the Ugandan (left) and the Norwegian (right) management structure are substantial. In Norway, the structure is egalitarian, while in Uganda it is clearly hierarchical. The key is be conscious about the differences and to find the right balance.

This will motivate your staff, but you should also be sensitive to their problems and concerns when you consider other motivational measures. For example, whereas Norwegians think a Christmas party paid for by the employer is the coolest thing, people in Uganda would equally appreciate a cash bonus or a shopping voucher (for the same value as the staff dinner) that could help them cover some of the additional expenses over the Christmas season. At the same time, all motivation does not have to come from cash, and there are a number of other ways your company can keep staff motivated which are not expensive but means the world to them. For example, make it possible for staff to take low interest salary loans from the company, write a recommendation letter for them to get a loan in a bank or lend them the company car for going to a funeral or wedding out of town.

Your goal is that your employees will eventually trust your business and focus entirely on it.

Your goal is that your employees will eventually trust your business and focus entirely on it.

If you look back at what we have claimed so far, you might be confused. In one way we ask you to respect and adhere to the way things are managed in Africa, and at the same time we ask you to stick to your principles and bring in your own values. But that’s exactly the point. You do not want to create a Norwegian enterprise in Africa, nor create yet another African one. Yet your African employees are struggling. As one of our Ugandan employees stated after being in Oslo: imagine the potential that can be unleashed if you reduce the struggle of the everyday life in Africa! As we have seen, many times this can be done at a limited financial cost. But in order to address these concerns you need to understand their realities, and this is what this presentation is all about.

In order to spread the risk in an unpredictable market, it is very common to have multiple professional engagements in order to get by i.e. not putting all your eggs in one basket.

In order to spread the risk in an unpredictable market, it is very common to have multiple professional engagements in order to get by i.e. not putting all your eggs in one basket.

As one of our senior programmers in Uganda told us: Africans literarily live by a proverb you probably have heard before: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. This means that most people will always have more than one professional engagement in order to make ends meet, or cope with an unpredictable employment market.

Therefore, in most cases, a working place is just one of many baskets, and this makes it extremely difficult for us to manage staff, as they will act fundamentally different from what we expect. However, through directed and conscious efforts, and by providing some of the safety net that is lacking elsewhere in society, you might very well get your staff to put all their eggs in ONE basket – and that basket should be yours.

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Lucrezia BiteeteAll Eggs in One Basket

Monitoring as the Key to Sustainable Development

by Lucrezia Biteete on 15/04/2013 No comments

In April, the Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium took place in Addis Ababa, with participation of Fontes Foundation staff.

Monitoring of development initiatives is a controversial issue. Some say organizations are spending too much on useless, one-off exercises that are not updated, relevant or even used by anyone. Others say organizations do not have sufficient knowledge of the programmes they are carrying out in order to make good decisions, such as information on functionality, cost, impact and demand. How to strike a balance between using a minimum of resources and having access to sufficient information, at all levels, at all times, to make informed decisions which contribute towards improved service delivery and sustainability? From the 9th to the 11th April 2013, Lucrezia Biteete, Regional Coordinator of Fontes Foundation, participated at the Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium, organised by IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Based on the cost analysis in Kabarole district, the expenditure per capita for the different technologies in 2013 Uganda shillings, broken down by categories.

Based on the cost analysis in Kabarole district, the expenditure per capita for the different technologies in 2013 Uganda shillings, broken down by categories.

Fontes Foundation has been at the forefront on monitoring for many years. In 2008, a paper was presented at the WEDC conference in Accra, Ghana, outlining the different flows of information from community water projects such as daily water quantity information, monthly incomes and expenditures and annual numbers of beneficiaries. Already in this paper it is highlighted how important it is to ask the following questions: Who is the monitoring for? What information are those agents primarily interested in? The purpose of the monitoring should always be prioritized when developing a monitoring and evaluation framework; will the information be used to make management decisions? To report to donors? To improve a certain programme or approach? Most approaches presented at the conference showed a one-time survey and its results, but did not mention how the effort is going to be continued, who is going to pay for it and how the information will actually be used in a practical way.

Fontes has been part of an informal working group on monitoring sustainability since 2010, together with representatives from Water for People/Improve International, WASH Advocates and WASHCost/WaterAid. The team came together in Addis Ababa.

Fontes Foundation has continued its work on monitoring by developing a new indicator, Water-Person-Years, in 2009. Since then, Fontes Foundation has also participated in an informal working group, together with practitioners from WaterAid, Improve International and WASH Advocates, in order to develop a better indicator for sustainability in water projects than the most commonly used “coverage” indicator. In addition, Fontes Foundation has an established monitoring and evaluation framework in all projects. In the water projects, monthly reports are collected by the organization from the water committees, with information on quality, use and finances. The GSM monitoring system is operating in two villages, sending real-time information by SMS on water quantity, incomes and expenditures. The youth project has an elaborated monitoring and evaluation framework with a number of tools in order to improve the courses, evaluate facilitators, follow up the progress on students and provide motivation for time-keeping.

During the conference in Addis Ababa, the use of ICT in monitoring was thoroughly discussed. A number of new technologies such as smart phones and internet platforms are used to share information quicker, to a broader audience. Fontes Foundation built such a system already in 2007. Many ICT solutions encounter challenges in the implementation phase because the human aspect has not been sufficiently taken into account; people will only use something if they are motivated and have the capacity to do so.

Lucrezia Biteete also presented a paper which is based on a study which collected information on all expenditures related to rural water supply delivery in an entire district in Uganda (Kabarole) for the last 3 years. This is part of a drive to make stakeholders aware of the Life-Cycle Cost Approach in Uganda, in order to improve planning and budgeting in the sector. All publications mentioned in this article can be found on our website.

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Lucrezia BiteeteMonitoring as the Key to Sustainable Development