Mobile phone airtime, petroleum, beer, more beer, and more petroleum: these are the goods which the five most profitable companies in Uganda supply their consumers. The list of the top 1000 corporate taxpayers was published in the national broadsheets The New Vision and Daily Monitor yesterday. It provides interesting reading.
If we are to assume a straightforward correspondence between company profits and tax contribution, mobile phone services provided by South African telecommunications giant, MTN, generated the highest profits in the financial year 2006/2007. MTN is followed by Shell, Uganda Breweries, Nile Breweries and Caltex Oil.
MTN shares the telecommunications market with two other companies, Uganda Telecom and Celtel Uganda. Since these three companies are within the top 20 list of corporate taxpayers, the profitability of the telecommunications sector in Uganda is beyond dispute. This level of profitability poses one question, however, which is whether the price of cellular phone services is too high, given the absence of alternative communicative infrastructure such as landlines.
The prominence of petroleum companies on the list is striking: they occupy position 2, 5, 7, 11, 13, 22, 24, 27, 29 and 30 in the top 30 list. Perhaps the success of the petroleum sector highlights the importance of road traffic and the lack of other means of transport such as railways and ferries. But the country’s electricity shortage might also have caused the increase in petro-profits. Indeed, the tenth largest taxpayer is Aggreko International Projects, which supply “temporary power generation solutions” such as electricity generators.
Although Apac cannot be said to represent the country in economic terms, most people here indeed do spend a large proportion of their income on airtime, alcohol and fuel. Far from everyone has a mobile phone, but many do. It is mainly a working class phenomenon to have an individual phone, since most farmers cannot afford one. Visiting a village 50km from town, opposite Kwibale Primary School, you would find two mobile phone owners: one is a teacher at the school and the other is the local priest. Their phones are in a sense semi-collective, used by the whole community. The village has found a particular spot roughly 100 meters away, where, if you stand on a small rock, you could be lucky to have cellular reception on either the MTN, Celtel or Uganda Telecom networks.
If the culture of Apac is anything to go by, the success of Uganda Breweries and Nile Breweries should not be a surprise. Every night, when the sun has set and women have returned to the domestic sphere, the working class men of Apac assemble at small eating joints or bars; there they drink beer and exchange news, jokes and gossip. It would not be surprising to hear them lament about the fuel prices: any fluctuations in the price of fuel affect their bus journeys to Kampala where they do business or attend workshops or meetings, their rides to the nearest large town, Lira, where most non-agricultural supplies come from, their ability to fill the power generators at work, their field trips if they work with any kind of service provision. The women, however, are more independent: they do not travel as frequently and most household tasks do not require electricity. They also drink far less beer.