Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing young people in Uganda. Many of them are educated and qualified but they lack job opportunities to earn an income. During a visit to the country in 2017, I had an interesting conversation on how young people are seizing every opportunity to break into the job market. In my conversation with Sharp, a recent university graduate, he details the path to a new job in accounting. He gives insight into his field, work culture in Uganda, and the day-to-day experience of a young person trying to earn a living. Below is our discussion.
Lydia: So Amoti, tell me what life is like for a young man like you in Uganda. What are your challenges?
Sharp: One, in Uganda you learn the hard way. You just have to be creative in whatever you’re doing. You don’t have to wait for a job from the government; you have to create one yourself. I don’t know. You just have to be creative. The job finds you where you are.
Lydia: How has it been since you finished school? What was your expectations and how have they materialized?
Sharp: I had good grades, and I thought I’d get a very good school. I did get one; I taught for one term; I taught in a government school called Gayaza High School. Unfortunately, the pay wasn’t good. But I had a goal. My goal was to become an accountant, so I had to divert from being a teacher to being an accountant. My second job, I joined a company named Harris International where I worked as a marketeer. You meet different people with different views, you communicate with people; and you learn a few things here and there.
Lydia: What were you marketing?
Sharp: I was marketing beverages and foods. It was a really good market because we were competing with Coca Cola and Pepsi. The market is interesting, if you don’t improve on your products, they take over your company. The company I worked for—what was it called, photocopying; our drinks more or less looked like Coca Cola. The price was favorable for Ugandans because Coca Cola products are a bit expensive. A bottle of 320 ml is 1200. Our bottle was 400 ml costing only 1000. So we managed to penetrate into their market, and we beat Coca Cola. It wasn’t easy because with beverages—even when it rains, they don’t shift. They don’t shift; it’s a matter of fact, so you have to do a lot to move the product. Marketing is not easy. You have to be calm if you are to sell something, especially to the ladies. They are emotional. I was very calm, and most of my customers were ladies. I won their hearts, and I used to have balances. The only disadvantage to marketing, you can go a day without eating because once your market grows big, you can hardly eat. You’re called here. You’re called there; you can hardly eat because you want to serve them all the time. We used to have disappointments with the company. A lot of the time [we] ran out of beverages and customers would abuse me. They would be mad at me. At times, you didn’t fear to hit the road because you would have products. So marketing needs someone with a strong heart. You have to be calm because there is a lot to learn from customers.
Lydia: Give me an example of your day, what do you do and how do you get there?
Sharp: I wake at four in the morning. I read my books until six because with professional courses you have to read and understand. There is no short cut. If you didn’t do the paper, you fail. So I wake up, read my books. From six I hit the road because there is a lot of jam (traffic) on the road. Seven thirty, I’m in town. I go to my audit firm. If there is work to do I go to the field with my supervisor, my seniors. Some big companies like MTN—I have to go with someone because they are a big client. There is a lot to do and a lot to learn. But if it’s an NGO, they have very little work to do. They don’t have a lot to compute; I normally go alone. But when I go to big companies there is a lot to look out for, so I go with other people because I need help.
Lydia: How do you like it?
Sharp: Accounting is like chess. One, you have to think very fast because we have a few principles in accounting. If you mislead your customer, tell him “your business is doing fine” but in the next few months the business fails, the first person to account is the accountant, because you have misled your customer. Two, you have to be strict when carrying out your daily activities because at times these guys don’t want to disclose they fulfilled their taxes. They don’t want to give the right taxes. So what I do personally, I tell them to sign. In case anything goes wrong, I have signed.
When I don’t have work, like today, I go to school for discussions, I read my books. For now, my course has deprived me of my social life. I no longer go to church, no longer in the choir. No longer in rotary, I used to run in the evening with my friends, see golf, I no longer see things. I no longer see relatives.
Lydia: Oh man, you have cast everything aside.
Sharp: Yeah, because I feel, I have to go to school discussions. When I have free time, I do call my aunties, reach out to some few friends, rotary, fellowship. At the end of my day, I go back; I reach home at nine. I shower, have a talk with mom, watch television for thirty minutes. Read my books until midnight. Sleep. And when I have time, I meet my girlfriend.
Lydia: [laughter] When you have time?
Sharp: [laughing] I communicate with her every day. I don’t see her every day because she also works with a receiving and forwarding company. Musk. On weekends we link up.
Now. We have some challenges as the youth in Uganda because of lack of working experience and such. But we are managing to penetrate the fields if you can work as a volunteer. But even then, we’re so many. We’re so many Ugandans who have worked but are unemployed. But if you have a professional course, it’s much easier to get a job.
Lydia: Ok. So University is expensive, there is no guarantee of work, yet most people are going that route. Is it better to get some technical training?
Sharp: We’ve been doomed. We’ve been doomed with the British—I don’t know the whole cycle. We’re still on the British [system] in Uganda. Because we think if you study you’ll get a good job, if you study you’ll be well off, and we feel that going to university is the way to go. I personally, before I joined Makerere I was meant to go to a technical institution but many Ugandans when you tell them about Technical Institution they feel like; ‘come on’, you feel like you been deprived of your rights. In Uganda, you need skills because right now going to university is not the answer. One, you get out of university, but you don’t have any skills. Whereas people who have been to Technical Institutions people that have done professional courses ACCA, CPA, nursing—normally get jobs very fast. People that have done short courses in electrical, prefer employing those people than someone from the university. It’s hands-on skills. Two, they ask for very little money. But someone from campus will be asked,’how much do you want to earn?’ they’ll say, ‘I want to earn one and half million.’ They are not going to give you that money. Another thing will be who you know.
Lydia: How do you change the mindset to say instead of going to university try technical approach?
Sharp: Personally, I belong to rotary. The first thing they do is develop leadership skills. What we do is meet people of different professions, doctors and engineers. When I was still a teacher, my goal was to become an accountant but when I did education rotary, encouraged me to follow my dreams. I met a big accountant; he has an audit firm, I told him my goal was to become an accountant, and he asked me if I was ready to work. I told him yes. I told him I was ready to work for free as long as I get skills. He was working with Pricewater Coopers—I talked to him, he was a manager, and he has a private audit firm. I linked with his private firm; he gave me an opportunity to train with his private firm. At the end of the month, he gave me a bonus. That is how I managed to pay my fees. I am so happy I haven’t failed any papers. My best course has been tax because tax is very practical. When I talk about capital gains tax, when someone is selling a car you know what you’re supposed to go thru. For example, if Robert was to give you a car, I’m a taxman, I wouldn’t tax you because there is a provision that when a spouse is passing on a car to his wife, I won’t tax him or her. Or if you’re passing it on to a cousin, there is that provision. It’s very practical. If you’re not registered for tax, VAT, all income tax, it’s very hard to go back to the tax authority here in Uganda to demand that tax. You would have to have registered. For example, to register for income tax you must be getting one hundred fifty million shillings a year.
Lydia: About your profession, do you feel accomplished? Happy?
Sharp: I was driven by passion, I don’t think about money. I like what I am doing; and my heart feels like now, I am achieving and fulfilling my goal. Because I have always wanted to be an accountant.
Lydia: Honestly, it’s hard being a young person anywhere. What are your friends doing?
Sharp: Others are teaching. Others are engineers—once in awhile we meet up and discuss a few things.
Lydia: Five years from now what do you hope to be doing?
Sharp: I want to become a tax consultant. And I think in fifteen years I want to become a partner.