Trade is as ancient as mankind and as the popular saying goes, “no man is an island.” Therefore it was precisely for reasons such as this that man kind has been engaged in trade activities since time immemorial. This case is not any different in Uganda and the history of trade in Uganda bears its roots from the fact that there is no community that was able to sufficiently cater for all its needs.
Even among the bitterest enemies like Buganda and Bunyoro trade was still able to flourish due to the fact that the Baganda needed salt which could only be obtained from Bunyoro. In the early days before European exploration and colonization of Africa trade was already existent in the region though on a small time basis and in the form of barter trade.
Communities usually met to exchange what they had in abundance for what they could not produce or what they had in insufficient quantities. Later on they were joined in these trade activities by the Arab traders who formed trade caravans that travelled inland from the East African coast to trade in goods such as guns, cloth, mirrors, beads and other commodities in exchange for ivory, gold, slaves. For a long time there was prosperous trade between the natives and the Arabs though this was mainly beneficial to the bigger and better organized societies like Buganda and Bunyoro however the smaller societies which were mainly organized as chiefdoms suffered mainly in slave raids while obtaining captives to be sold to the Arab traders.
Eventually European explorers like H. M Stanley, John Speke and others entered Uganda. They found it a fascinating and beautiful place with abundant resources and a wealth of opportunity. It was no wonder they placed a lot of pressure on their home country, Britain to come and take control of the country. After the arrival of Europeans in Uganda who were mainly missionaries and explorers.
The next group that followed was the traders and they organized themselves under the Imperial British East African Company. This company grew significantly till it almost controlled all the trade in the region. Its success spurred the British to declare a protectorate of Uganda which later became their colony. Under colonial administration, a number of changes occurred including the introduction of currency which was the Indian rupees to replace he cowry shells. Another major event that took place was the construction of the Uganda Kenya railway. This railway was built by Coolies of Indian origin who kept building shops along the railway and the very first of these Indians to build a shop in Uganda was Alidina Visram. This was the beginning of an era of Asian merchant trade in Uganda. The British then encouraged the growing of cash crops like coffee, cotton, tea and tobacco which were mainly used as raw materials for their home industries back in Europe. This trade was largely exploitative and did not benefit the Ugandans greatly.
The construction of hydro electric power dam at Owen falls in Jinja later played a major role in the establishment of industry in Uganda since it solved a major obstacle to trade that had existed in Uganda and that was the issue of energy to run production in industries. The result of this was the development of Jinja into Uganda’s most industrialized town. Most of these industries were owned by Asians of Indian origin and they formed the bulk of Uganda’s wealthy middle class. The independence of Uganda changed the direction of industry and trade in Uganda due to the many hardships that later followed like political instability and the expulsion of Indians which led to the collapse of several industries in the country.
The NRM government which came into power in 1986 was able to return peace and stability to the country coupled with investor friendly policies and accepting the return of Indian traders back into Uganda. Uganda’s trade and industry sector has since then grown in leaps and bounds to make Uganda one of the most strategic areas to carry out trade in the entire East and central African region. The country is blessed with a vast array of resources and untapped potential for the business community and it offers a promising future for all those interested in carrying trade and industry related activities.