Rolex is the latest addition to Uganda’s diverse food menu. Its popularity has increased in recent years especially among the young people thanks in a large measure to its relatively low cost but also the ease that comes with preparing it; both factors putting it ahead of other fast foods such as chips and chicken as the preferred choice.
Thanks to its popularity in Uganda, Rolex, which is comprised simply of a Chapati, fried eggs and some vegetables like tomatoes, onions cabbages, recently attracted the attention of the American news television channel CNN, which trumped it up as a unique item.
Now some business minded persons came up with an idea of organising a Rolex festival and interested the Ministry of Tourism to promote the street snack as one of those unique Ugandan meals – the same way the Hot dog is to America, or the Pizza is to Italy.
The new state minister of tourism Godfrey Kiwanda Ssuubi recently launched it as a proudly Ugandan snack.
But is the Rolex really worth the hype it has received? The pronouncement of the Minister that the government intends to market it as a unique part of our heritage has triggered a heated debate with some saying it is too petty and a sign of opportunism by the Ugandan government to mentions made by international news channels.
But others think it is potentially revolutionary and all it needs is better packaging, smart branding and promotion and before you know it, tourists will be flocking in to taste the different types of Rolexes.
Ben Ntale, the proprietor of Apetreks.com is one of those optimists who think that the Rolex as a unique snack could one day rival Gorillas or bungi jumping in foreign exchange earnings.
Ntale’s main argument is that tourism is about identifying something unique, brand it and popularise it as much as possible to attract the attention of others.
Ntale points out that many tourist attractions around the world are not exceptional, but they have been developed through aggressive marketing as well as development of facilities like hotels.
He says: “We started Gorilla tracking in 1993 and no one expected it to be this big. When the government gazetted the forest as a natural forest reserve, it had to relocate the Batwa people who originally lived in the forest.”
He goes and says: “The original Rolex comprised simply a chapati, eggs and some tomatoes and onions. Now the recipe is getting diverse. At the launch, I was one of those people who were eager to spend Ushs20,000 for a Rolex made of Malewa.”
“So the point I am making is that most things start small. The Italian who started the Pitza probably didn’t know it would become a global snack. So did the old retiree American who started frying chickens and named them KFC. Now KFC is a massive American brand and gets them a lot of money globally,”
Ntale cites several other examples such as the Brazilian carnivals, the Zanzibar food festival or the painting of a woman called Mona Lisa by Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci that all attract thousands if not millions of revellers every year.
He argues that although Uganda is mostly known for its ecotourism – especially the wildlife, there is need to develop other products.
But Ntale’s optimism is not shared by many. A number of critics actually think the government has just jumped onto the Rolex band wagon without careful thought on how to make it better as a tourism product, support it financially to aggressively popularise it widely and and make it the hit that people like Ntale want it to be.
Internationally renowned Batik painter and artist Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi is sceptical that the government will promote the Rolex as a unique Ugandan snack, even though he believes it is potentially novel. In fact, Nnyanzi argues we have ignored potentially bigger attractions that would have earned us billions of dollars.
Nnyanzi says: “It is not surprising that the GOU is jumping up and down about the Rolex because it always does that as soon as a Ugandan product is recognised by the western media especially the BBC and lately CNN. It likes busking in glory even where it didn’t invest.
He adds: “Remember Kiprotich in 2012 when he won a gold medal in the Olympics with minimum support from the Government of Uganda (GOU). During pre Olympics preps, he had to sneak into Kenya to train with Kenyans as a pace-setter. Thanks to their generosity.
And that almost cost him his job had he not won. Earlier on it had been Davis Kamoga in Atlanta. Remember Pastor Okudi of the ‘ Wipolo Lubanga’ who won the Kora Award in South Africa? Who cares what happened to him?”
“The point I am trying to make here is that GOU does not entertain long term investment for sustainable development. It prefers to benefit from someone else’s sweat. And even when it does it makes a shoddy job in the end.
“Back to the Rolex snack, it would be more useful to identify those who do it very well and train them in hygiene, and provide them with safe equipment and a condusive working environment before talking about exports.
The main market for Rolex is still domestic but can also earn forex through visitors who come to Uganda and bump into it and then on going back to their respective countries entice others to come and experience the same.”
“The idea of a Rolex festival is great but it should primarily target the domestic market made up of residents and visitors as plans are made to make Rolex an exportable commodity that meets international food standards.”
Edris Kisambira, Managing Director of Africa Uzuri Safaris Ltd argues too that the government would have done a better job packaging Uganda’s diverse food traditions than simply focus on a ‘petty’ roadside snack.
“I think we need to expand the festival beyond just a mere street snack to something much bigger say a food festival. A food festival would bring together the entire diversity of Uganda’s culture in a full fledged food festival.
With a food festival, the government would take advantage of the newly created tourism clusters – regional efforts to promote tourism by the regions – Buganda, West Nile, Lango, Bugisu, Busoga and Ateso.
Kisambira notes that the decision to support a Rolex festival than a full fledged food festival epitomises poor planning in the tourism sector and the economy as a whole.
Indeed others are worried that the focus on the Rolex is a sign of poor implementation of government programmes since tourism is ear-marked by the National Development Plan (NDP) as one of the three major sectors, after Agriculture and Minerals that will transform Uganda’s economy from subsistence to middle income.
If the history of poor implementation is any guide to the future, some one outside Uganda could make better use of the Rolex and may develop it as a tourist attraction, a hot selling item and may even patent it before we do. Time will tell!