SPECIAL FEATURE. The youths are slowly disappearing from idling by roadsides in the oil producing districts of Buliisa, Hoima and Masindi to explore ever opening opportunities in the oil rich region.

This is a departure from previous way of life when the locals, mostly the youth used to stay on the roadsides in anticipation that a good Samaritan may pass by and give them the day’s food.

Progress on upgrading of main roads from marram to bitumen is nearing completion and hope and anxiety is visible on the faces of the locals in anticipation of cashing in when the road is completed.

The transition from subsistence to commercial farming is visible as you move along the oil roads, while many had resisted displacement to clear way for the road openings, it was a blessing to many who after being compensated, have ventured into businesses which they had never dreamed of had it not been the ‘oil money’ to provide the capital.

One of such is Mr Herbert Tumusime, 56, a former primary teacher of Wangseko primary school who abandoned his teaching profession after receiving a hefty compensation package in millions of shillings.

He bought a motorcycle which he now uses to supply fresh and dry fish to hotels and restaurants in Masindi and Hoima a thing he says could have been impossible had the roads not been upgraded, he now moves faster and makes his deliveries on time. Tumusiime says he does not regret his decision of abandoning the teaching profession.

"I'm not regretting at all this oil road construction is changing communities’ welfare not only in Albertine districts, we have customers coming as far as Kampala and Democratic republic of Congo, we are able to look after our families well unlike before, all the years I worked as a classroom teacher, I had nothing tangible to show but now the story is much different", he stressed.

 Less than 13km from Tumusiime’s residence is Ajigo village in Bulisa trading Centre where a section of youths has formed different business groups dealing in apiary, Milk products, and horticulture among others and are already tapping from the150km Albertine region roads.

They claim they dropped out of school due to school fees and were already wallowing in abject poverty now with transportation of their products they have already acquired three motor cycles and having sacco group to save money to help them upgrade their education level and later expand their business ideas in the preparation for the oil exploration project.

Mr Henry Oketha, a fishmonger from Pondiga Village, Nyamutete parish, recalls that the plight of fishermen along Albert lakes of Wangseko, Hoima and stretching as far as parts of Panyimur to Dei in Pakwach district were drastically affected by deplorable state of roads and that the upgraded oil roads have presented lots of opportunities which are springing up.

“We want to appreciate the government for better new roads passing through Murchison falls national game park, we used to suffer a lot with our fish decaying since we had to spend days on the road to access markets, this has helped us economically”, Oketha said.

Hoima district, that got the biggest share with 8 roads measuring close to 120Km, the business community say delivery of goods from Hoima to Masindi that used to take nearly two and half hours is now less than an hour. They say it has improved business confidence and reliability from both the supplier and the buyer.

With government improving a total of 150km marram road network in Buliisa and Hoima districts at a cost of Shs 6.5bn under World Bank funded $145m (Shs528.9bp) under the Albertine Region Sustainable Development Project (ARSDP), locals are optimistic that improved road network will directly translate into improved local economy and therefore household income.

Locals are already testifying of a booming roadside businesses while farmers equally say they can now access markets without hindrances.

Under the ARSDP, the biggest share went to Hoima district which got eight roads measuring close to 120Kms.  Buliisa got three roads measuring 31.3kms which has increased the number of accessible feeder roads network to about 200km.

The three roads which have been worked on in Buliisa include the10.7km Ndandamire-Bikongoro-Ngwedo road in Kigwera and Ngwedo sub-counties, the 10.8km Buliisa-Bugana road which links Buliisa Town Council to Buliisa Sub-county, and the 8.5km Biiso-Nyeramya-Waki road that runs from Biiso Town Council to Kihungya Sub-county.

However, Ngwendu sub county Chairperson business community Mr Patrick Asaba said with increasing opportunities, the community should adopt a serious development agenda by considering the comparative advantage that resonate mainly with oil and gas sector to ably use the good roads to boost trade  within all the Albertine graben districts while attracting both local and foreign investments .

"We are experiencing boom in trade and the number of people coming to do business with our community has increased and this is mainly attributed to the smooth road constructed in the preparation for the big anticipated oil work in this region, my appeal is; let us focus on the big picture, lets register our businesses to tap from the multimillion shillings projects’’, Asaba said.

He continued “With all these good and smooth roads, we need to embrace serious development agenda by ensuring we put in place infrastructures that will bring investors”.

He said it now takes only two hours for traders to come from as far as Kafu in Masindi with their merchandise compared to previous times when the roads were in bad state and that perishable goods can now reach their destinations when they are still fresh which makes the farmers to cash in on their produce.

Ms Evelyne Katusahabe, a mother of six and a resident of Bugana parish, Waiga village, Ngwedo Sub-county, Buliisa district, a roadside food vendor said the roads have led to increase in volume of trade in the area.

"I want to thank Uganda National Roads Authority and the government for these great roads, we get busy from morning to evening, the volume of our supply has increased compared to when these roads were in bad state, we are really benefiting economically", Katusabe said.

“We can now freely and easily move to the market without any hindrance. It used to be tough whenever it rained. The road would be flooded. I can now move from here to Wangseko market and sell my produce as my daughters remain in this other hotel business", the joyous Katushabe added.

The Parra bridge

As part of the main component of oil road in the Albertine region, Ministry of works and transport in its Annual Sector performance review states that the bridge from Parra connecting Masindi-Pakwach at Tangi gate is appropriately 169 km of which significant section of 122km lies in the Murchison falls established with the aim of improving livelihoods and spur economic development.

Bodaboda, taxis and long trucks are the main beneficiaries of these routes for they use it at their convenience.

Mr Alfred Kumakech, a bodaboda rider from Pakwach district who often plies the route expressed delight upon construction of the road saying he uses it to supply food items and beverages to hotels located in the park and makes about shs 2 million in fortnight.

"We carry passengers at our convenience and that has made us make money like never before, we are almost better than some civil servants, the level of work rate and the demand for supply has gone up, it roughly takes us 40 minutes to be in the park compared to one and half hours before it was done", Kumakech said.

The Parra bridge which is nearing completion but is already under use for travelers has dual carriage way which users say shortened their time for travel compared to when it was not in place.

New roadsOne of the new roads nearing completion linking Pakwach to Buliisa-Masindi-Hoima. PHOTO BY GEOFREY ACHORA.

Challenges raised by the traders

However, a section of the populace especially in Buliisa district, have raised issues with the size of the road and unnecessary fees levied to transport goods through the Murchison falls national game park and accessing the neighbouring districts of Pakwach and Nwoya.

Mr Bernard Atuhaire, a resident of Buliisa district said stoppage of inter district movement to curtail the spread of corona virus save for essential workers had also hit their businesses so hard.

He adds that the roads are also narrow to handle the increasing volumes of traffic adding that pedestrians and cyclists have also not been catered for.

“The lockdown has hit us badly, our hopes of making money and business activities booming like previously is uncertain”, he says.

“Besides, a section of people are marginalized in terms of jobs offered, we have been limited to jobs like drivers and traffic controllers though we have the capacity and qualification to do the specialized jobs, the oil is in our place but we are not being employed in the meaningful positions”, Atuhaire says.

Uganda, Total E&P CNOOC and Tanzania signed the long awaited Final Investment Decision in early April paving way way for the construction of the 1440km crude export pipeline from Western Uganda to the Tanzanian Indian Ocean Port of Tanga, a key piece of infrastructure needed to get the east African country’s oil out of the ground and on to international markets.

 Appeal for More market expansion

The Buliisa district chairman Mr Alfred Lukum said they are grappling   to expand markets to cater for village long distance traders particularly in Mvule and Nile parishes that are meant to be constructed in the district under the ARSDP program is yet to commence.

“We are financially strapped, in our plan, we intend to open up many markets and revamp the existing ones. This has affected our capacity to accommodate the ever increasing number of traders not only from Albrtine region but also our neighboring areas of Democratic Republic of Congo’’, Lukumu stressed.

This story was sponsored by Natural Resource Governance Institute through African Centre for Media Excellence.