Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lake Victoria Triathlon

To avoid the intensity of the midday heat, the annual Lake Victoria triathlon kicked off in Entebbe at 0700 am after a 0630 am registration.

A tradition started four years back had this year managed to get 140 participants to sign up – 84 competing for the 28 men's teams. Our team was assembled for maximum speed.. Peter (Austrian and a strong swimmer) did the swim leg, I, as the weakest link, did the cycling and Richard (Ugandan and a strong runner) was to nail the race with a fast 10 km sprint. The accepted wisdom was that if I only performed mediocre we would still be able to nail a spot in the top three. It failed, but not for the reasons expected.

The track went follows: 1,000 meters swimming in Lake Victoria; 30 km cycling in the Entebbe area (basically around the airport and a bit more); and running 10 km through the Entebbe Botanical Gardens.

I started out on the cycling as number four, but quickly caught up with the three ahead, and was in the lead for most of the race. Being in the lead had the amusing benefit of trailing the official boda boda motorcycle.. It rained intensely in the beginning which made it a very muddy experience.

About 5 minutes or so from the finish line, I did a left turn where I should have gone right.. It was partly my fault and partly the fault of the marker who was out of view. It took me a good 5 minutes to realize I had gone wrong, and turned backs, so total lost time came to about 10 minutes. In the end we came 4th out of 28th men's teams, so not bad at all. 4 minutes faster, though, and we would have taken the price. I have pledged to come back next year! Peder Hanssen

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Rwenzori Hike – 21st to 28th February 2009

"When you guys showed up at the base camp on Sunday I could tell [from the lack of equipment] that you didn't know what you were getting yourself into" This was the confession made to Dave (my co-climber and colleague at TechnoServe) and I by our guide on fifth day of our hike. He was right. We had not anticipated the low temperatures – it was sub-zero and snow above 4,000 meters; the rain – it rained every day even though it was the dry season; or the difficult terrain – we walked in deep mud for about 20 hours in total during the week. Thankfully we experienced some amazing highlights to make up for the relative hardship. We reached the peak of Mt Stanley in the afternoon on the fourth day, just as the clouds lifted around us to reveal below us the hills of the Congo in the west and the mountains, valleys and plains of Uganda in the east. But, to start from the beginning via some background…

Dave preparing and weighing gear

Troubled past

The Rwenzori Mountains is truly a hidden gem among East Africa's national parks. A world heritage since 1994, the mountains are merely visited by a few hundred tourists a year. According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority 416 people visited the Rwenzori National Park for more than one day in 2005 (the 1,200 includes day visitors). By comparison about 35,000 people climb Kilimanjaro every year – about 100 per day entering the park for more than one day versus about 1 per day in the Rwenzories – quite a ratio. Potential visitors to the Rwenzories are probably discouraged by: Inaccessibility, cost, difficult terrain, bad weather and lack of awareness (marketing). I think it is fair to assume that whilst most people can place Kilimanjaro on a map, very very few people have even heard of the Rwenzories.

Regarding inaccessibility, the Rwenzories have been off-limits to visitors during two significant periods. During most of the 1970s under Idi Amin and up until the end of the civil war in 1986, there was only a trickle of tourists visiting the mountains. Then again between 1997 and 2001 the mountains were occupied by guerrillas, the Allied Democratic Forces, who were involved in the then fierce war in Eastern Congo. During these years the mountains were closed to visitors, paths were land mined and infrastructure declined. Anyhow, by 2009 that is all history and safety no longer an issue.

I don't think I will write too much about the hike into and out of the mountains, but rather focus on the summit attempt. Suffice to say it’s the most amazing and most difficult wilderness experience I have ever encountered The pictures are more effective in describing the changing landscapes and what we saw than any words.

Bujuku River with Mt Speke in the background

The trek

We set out from Kampala on the 21st February. By bus… we arrived at the Rwenzori Base Camp, near the town of Kasase in Western Uganda, late in the evening and spent the night at the mountaineering services campsite there. The base camp is located at the lower reaches of the Mubuku Valley and in the west the mountains rise majestically above the small farms and large tea plantations of the area. The main mountains (there are six of above 4,500 meters in the range) can not be seen as the Portal Peaks (a smaller range of mountains) are in their way.

The next morning we got up early and were briefed on the challenge ahead by the local manager of the Rwenzori Mountain Services. We were then allocated a guide who would see us through the ordeal. Thankfully his performance was excellent throughout the six days we spent in the mountains – courteous, knowledgeable and security conscious – he made the many obstacles we faced bearable. We also got allocated a total of seven porters(!), which with the cook, brought or groups total body count to 11 – quite an entourage for the week-long hike.

Hiking up towards Elena Hut

It took our party three days to reach the Bujuku Hut in the upper part of the Bujuku Valley – the area from which attempts at the various peaks can best be made. The hike up-valley was beautiful in everything, with constantly changing landscapes and flora, though hard in parts with deep mud, river crossings and steep climbs. During the first three days we hiked through four vegetation zones as we walked upwards: the Forest zone, the Bamboo/Mimulopsis zone, the Heather/Rapanea zone, and eventually the Alpine zone. Above this again was the Afro-arctic zone, which we had entered by the end of the third day.

As it turned out, "arctic" in this sense actually meant arctic. As a Norwegian I had remained skeptical about how cold it could actually get on the equator, reminiscing about the neg.15c and high winds I have grown up with on winter holidays in the mountains back home. I was off the mark – the Rwenzories were arctic, and felt arctic, with the associated strong winds, snow-fall and below zero temperatures, both outside and inside the huts. That was the other significant detail I had not anticipated – that the huts would be without heating, and essentially be as cold as it was outside and even as windy (in one of the huts the door wouldn't shut).

Dave and the guide trekking across the Stanley Plateau. Moebius Peak in the background

This brings back our guide's observation about lack of equipment, and perhaps lack of adequate planning. We got acquainted with another group of climbers on the way up, three Poles who were hiking up-valley on the same schedule as we were. (They had 13 porters between them, so all in all it was quite a few people moving up the valley those days.) We learnt on the second night that the Poles had brought three sleeping bags each (type NorthFace Arctic -18), hence all the porters. Dave and I didn't quite get the point of the three sleeping bags. At 3,400 meters we still felt quite conformable in our more traditional gear. Dave had rented a pink sleeping bag at the base camp. It appeared satisfactory, even though it only reached him to the middle of the chest. I had got sent the wrong sleeping bag from home, a brand called Halti. Although I was glad to see this old relic from my boy scouting days in the early 90's, I assume Halti is a discontinued brand from South East Asia (from the days before that region started producing quality exports!). As I would later learn, although there was no label to verify it, the Halti was probably never meant for any temperatures below +10c. On the two coldest nights at above 4,000 meters I would crawl up in a ball inside the sleeping bag wearing all my five layers of clothing. Lying completely still I would then place a jacket and pair of trousers on top of the sleeping bag. While I never got quite warm I imagined this extra layer would prevent the outer layers of the sleeping bag from getting directly exposed to the freezing temperatures in the hut. Needless to say, I did not get much sleep.

The Stanley Plateau

Summit day

On the fourth day, we made a rather unplanned summit attempt. The original schedule had been to have a go on the fifth day to reach the peak in the small hours of the morning. It transpired as follows: From the Bujuku Hut we walked across a mud plain for about an hour up to a very steep path twisting and turning up towards the Elena Hut at 4,550 meters. It was on this steep ascent I first felt the effect of the high altitude – I had to stop every 10 minutes or so to regain my breath. We arrived at Elena Hut at 1pm and made the decision to attempt the summit immediately that afternoon. This was contrary to the original schedule which was to make the attempt very early the following morning. We made the decision for two reasons: First, the temperature at Elena Hut was sub-zero – in our inadequate gear it was simply to cold to not do anything for the rest of the afternoon. We would have to walk somewhere. Secondly, on all the previous days we had had grey overcast weather in the mornings followed by a lift in the clouds by mid-afternoon, hence, we felt the chance of clear weather was better by continuing up that afternoon. Our guide agreed and we set out at 2pm, Dave, the guide and I, finally without our backpacks.

Strong winds on the Margherita glacier. Alexandra Peak on the left, the lower reaches of the Margherita Peak on the right

The first stage of the ascent was a steep scramble up a rock face/gully. It was wet and slippery and didn’t seem all that safe, with loose rocks hanging out on both sides of the path. After about an hour we reached the edge of the Stanley Plateau (the large glacier that partly covers the top of Mt Stanley). The weather had been grey and foggy the whole day and we could barely see more than 30-40 meters about us. Crossing the plateau was comfortable and about mid-way out on the glacier the clouds partly cleared and we caught glimpses of the surrounding peaks protruding from the snow in all directions (there are 9 peaks on Mt Stanley). At the end of the plateau we fixed ropes and descended over rocks about 50 meters down to the Margherita Glacier. The next part of the climb would be to hike up that glacier until we reached the final rock face of the Margherita Peak. This proved to be the most strenuous part of the ascent as it was steep and we were nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. We stopped very frequently to draw breath and it took nearly an hour just to climb 500 meters or so. At the top of the glacier we were directly beneath the rocky summit. From here we were faced with the only technical part of the climb – getting up 7 meters or so of vertical rock face. Fortunately a small ladder was set up for the first meter and from its end a fixed rope started from a point further up. This made it relatively easy to pull oneself up. I was a little queasy though, as this was my first attempt at vertical rock climbing, ever. Once up we had an easy walk of about 50 meters to the summit.

The guide and me at the summit of Margherita Peak (5,109 meters)

The clouds had thickened again so there was no view, but amazingly, after a couple of minutes at the summit, the cloud cover lifted and revealed a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains and valleys. In the west the green hills of the Congo emerged (the peak is exactly at the border between Uganda and DRC) and in the east we could see as far down as to where we started the hike four days earlier. Great feeling, great result!

Upper Mubuku Valley – Guy Yeoman Hut in the distance


After six days on the mountains we returned to the base camp, tired, wet and dirty, but extremely pleased with the outcome of the expedition. The majority of climbers do not make the summit. They don't try or give up, so felt like there was some uniqueness to the experience. For sure, Margherita Peak has been climbed by thousands of people during the last two decades, but many of the other peaks in the range have only been climbed some very few times, even only once for many of them, like the peaks of Cagni and Kinyangoma mountains according to the guide book. (An excellent but hard to obtain guide book is "A guide to the Rwenzori" by Henry Osmaston, 2006). There are even unclimbed peaks in the remote southern ranges of the mountains. I find that extremely fascinating – and definitely a reason to return!

The Mubuku River. Mt Baker hidden in the clouds

Peder Hanssen

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A nation in the dark

The history of Uganda's power sector is short and uneventful. In 1954 the British dammed the Nile just out of Lake Victoria and built the Owen Falls hydro power plant and a transmission grid stretching to the main population centers. Half a century later the only major addition to the power net is a few additional turbines in the Owen Falls dam and a couple of small scale hydro plants, but mostly the utilities infrastructure remains much the same – what does not remain the same is Uganda's population: It was 5.7 million in 1954 and it's now 31.5 million!

Uganda's total power production in 2006 was a measly 1.2 billion kWh, or 38 kWh per person. Norway's in contrast was 135 bn kWh, or 28,723 KWh per person – or 754 times that of Uganda! Needless to say there are a couple of implications of this obvious shortage of power.

(The Owen Falls dam on the Nile)

Power cuts – the cost of doing business

The frequent power cuts and power shortage is often referred to as one part of "the cost of doing business" [in Uganda]. Say you operated a factory for 10 hours a day with machines running on external electricity. If power is out 2 hours a day on average – then your production will be down 20% on average. In reality it's more than that, as the timing and length of the cuts will vary, not allowing you to plan properly; staff will be out drinking tea and will need time to get back in position; etc. Those are the direct problems. The indirect ones includes everything that hits you through other services – banks, telecom companies suppliers and customers are all affected by power cuts – so your transfers will be late, your calls will be cut off, your customers will not get their emails. The total cost to your business is incalculable.

Most factories, hotels and serious business cannot afford daily power cuts; hence they all have on-site diesel generators, as a consequence Kampala is full of humming and exhausts spewing generators of various sizes. Indeed, a full blown diesel fired power plant has recently been commissioned – at 50 MW and consuming thousands of barrels a day it makes Eastern European dirty coal plants look like a Greenpeace invention. In fairness though, the people of Uganda produces very low emissions per capita.

So with the enormous problems created by the lack of power, why hasn’t more been installed? The cost to the economy is surely astronomical. From an investor point of view, putting up power plants involves very high upfront construction costs followed by a steady stream of cash flows over the next 15-20 from the buyer of your power - usually the government. Unless you know with near certainty that the government will continue purchasing the power you are producing in the long term, the investment is ludicrous. Uganda as a sovereign entity is defacto bankrupt with 40% of its annual national government budget coming from direct aid transfers from the Nordic countries, the UK, Ireland and the World Bank. Put another way, there is no reliable buyer of power. Uganda's struggling businesses will remain in the dark until one shows up.
Peder Hanssen

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Planning for the Rwenzori expedition

In the spring of 2006 I was occasionally frequenting the weekly meetings at the Mountain Club of Kenya (MCK) at their clubhouse in Nairobi. On one of these evenings some members held a slide show about an expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains. The speaker was engaging and knowledgeable, and the pictures amazing.
Shrouded in fog and low clouds, hidden away in the remote west of Uganda along the DRC border, the mountains seemed mysterious and intriguing. I have wanted to do that climb ever since.

Being in Uganda is obviously a great starting point to finally do this climb. Hence, it's finally happening and on the 21st February I am going, together with an Australian colleague, on an 8-day hike through the mountains and hopefully to the top of Mt Stanley (at 5,109m Africa's third highest mountain).

Expedition outline
We will start out near the town of Kasase, at 1,650 meters above sea level, where we will pick up a guide, a cook and two to three porters for each of us. So the total expedition should count about 8 – 10 persons. (All food, cooking equipment, etc, has to be carried, hence the number of porters). For three days we will hike along the so-called "Central Circuit" and spend the nights at basic huts set up and administered by the Uganda Wildlife Authorities. From what we have heard the accommodation is basic but adequate.

The highest laying hut is the Elena hut at 4,540 meters were we will stay either one or two nights (depending on weather conditions) and from where we will try and reach the peak of Mt Stanley – the Margarita Peak. There is some technical difficulty on the final ascent: Crossing two small glaciers, and then scaling a vertical rock face near the peak. Will be interesting, as I have never done that (at any altitude), but apparently no prior experience is required. In any event, we have decided to be particularly careful and not think twice about turning back should weather conditions deteriorate. From the peak down there are another three to four days hiking along a different path in between some of the other tall peaks of the mountain range.

Planning and preparing for an expedition from the ground is paradoxically turning out to be a bit of a disadvantage. Mainly because there is very limited availability of hiking gear and woolen clothes for sale in Uganda, and I have not brought anything down. We have, however, spoken with a couple of people who have done the trek, and gathered valuable advise on how, timing the hike, how to avoid altitude sickness and what to bring.

Apparently. about 1,200 people enters the Rwenzori National Park every year. Not sure what percentage of these people climb the peaks versus those who just hike in the lower reaches (like I did back in January) I will try to find out.

It’s the highest mountain chain in Africa and contains the third highest mountain (both Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya are higher, but they are stand - alone mountains)

With Afro-Alpine moorland in the areas above 4,000 meters, the vegetation in the Rwenzori Mountains is unique to equatorial alpine Africa.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sailing on Lake Victoria

The world's third largest lake lies in Uganda, or rather in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Lake Victoria, at 68,800km2, is about the size of Ireland!. On the lake, about an hour south of Kampala, close to Entebbe (the old Capital of Uganda) and the international airport, a small, old colonial relic lives on. The Entebbe Sailing Club offers boat hire, relaxing lawns and a pool overlooking the lake. I went down there the other week with some friends to try the water and the wind. As Kampala is not on the lake, the only option for swimming in the city is hotel or club swimming pools – which is nice enough of course.. Yet, natural waters have added charms.

And risks..: There seems to be some dispute about how safe it is to swim in the lake. There is certainly bilharzia (a parasite that penetrates your skin, finds its way to the liver where it feeds and develop into worms..), Apparently you are only at risk if you swim near the shore and near sea plants, so jumping from a boat is safe, but then what if what if the lake is shallow..?

Crocodiles – before setting out from the sailing club in the small and unstable Laser boat I was reassured that there were no crocodiles in that particular area of the Lake. However, a quick Google search just now yielded the following article excerpt:

[Crocodiles have already eaten over a dozen people since January this year along the shores of Lake Victoria in the eastern Mayuge district of Uganda, local media reported on Monday. Namugongo resident council chairman Joseph Waiwsa was quoted bythe New Vision as saying that the crocodiles had attacked many children from going down the lake to collect water." We are living in fear of the carnivorous crocodiles that have already eaten over a dozen people this year and over 30 people in the last two years," Waiwsa added.]

The article is from 2002, but still I don't find this reassuring. As with most other incidents in Africa, such attacks are certainly under-reported. And even if it was a different area, crocodilles do swim long distances.

I just finished reading a biography on Stanley, and was proud to be sailing in the very waters were he as the first European set sail and met with the ferocious king of the Buganda – Mutesa in 1877. Stanley and his followers had carried a small steam boat up from the coast of Tanzania, reassembled it on Lake Victoria and circumvented the lake. The story of his meeting with the king is fascinating reading. I think it took place near or in present day Entebbe and the sailing club. Stanley walked up from the lake in between thousand of Buganda soldiers lining the parade street up to the king's village. An agreement to allow missionaries access to the land was signed, marking the beginning of British influence in Uganda. The British brought development, infrastructure and trade, but also a range of problems. Among their better imports was sailing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Turning 30 Uganda style

Turning 30 is said to be a bit of a hurdle. I remember hearing this for the first time from a teacher in high school. He always seemed to me as the ultimate example of composure and self-control, yet once he admitted to the class that his 30th birthday had been the worst day in his life! I have always remembered this, but I am glad to say I didn’t feel at all that way when the big day arrived this week.

I celebrated the night with friends and colleagues at a "beer and pork" restaurant in the suburbs of Kampala – a very Ugandan place. The TV's were blasting Obama speeches and news from the inauguration and the air was filled with the smell of fresh pork - it couldn’t have been a better night!

I woke the following morning feeling euphoric and not at all brooding, yet at the back of my mind the words of a parting colleague kept playing over: "You know Peder, in the US you have four big birthdays, at 16 you can drive, at 18 you can vote, at 21 you can drink and at 30.. well, then you're really old!"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Why East Africa will be hit hard by this recession

Most observers seem to be of the impression that the recession in Western countries will be severe and prolonged. There seem to be far less agreement on how the financial crisis and the resulting recession will impact East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi). Many commentators point out that East Africa, and indeed most of Africa except South Africa, is not sufficiently interlinked with the rest of the world for there to be much of an impact.

I think, however, there are some very good reasons to believe the impact on East Africa will be severe. For one, foreign exchange and trade balances will be adversely affected as follows:

Likely to be reduced as donor countries struggle to finance bail out packages. Does anyone expect Iceland to give monetary aid this year? According to US officials "the financial crisis could imperil US aid available for Africa after 2010" [Business Monthly, Jan 2009].

Foreign investment
The entrance of private equity firms in the African market is an example of how the world investor community has turned to Africa in recent years. With sky-high commodity prices and unsaturated consumer markets, Africa is fertile ground for expansion. In times of crisis, however, the risky assets go first, and East African investments surely classify as risky.

The African diaspora is huge and spread across the world, with many working in the US and UK. When firms downscale, foreign workers will often be the first to go. In Uganda there is already talk of severely reduced remittance levels. In 2008 the total was USD 1 billion (or nearly 10% of GDP!), but will be a lot lower in 2009 [Daily Monitor, 05.01.2009].

Lets assume an average Western family is having to 'tighten the belt' with say 15% in the next couple of years to counter the effect of falling asset prices, etc. If you rank an annual family budget for a year in order of importance, that luxury safari trip to Tanzania will surely be on the wrong side of that incoming 15% spending cut. Uganda receives about 200,000 foreign tourists per year, Tanzania 800,000 and Kenya 1,600,000, there will be fewer in the next two years.

The main East Africa commodity exports are coffee, tea, cotton and flowers. Prices for all these commodities are already substantially down. Furthermore, the recession increases the likelihood of new protectionist measures from the regions trading partners, blocking out African products.

The flip side

There are reasons for optimism, however:

The East African economies are commodity based, which is, in spite of falling prices, more recession proof than being based on consumerism (US), financial services (UK, Iceland) or real estate (UK).

Already down
If you climb a ladder and it fall apart you are better off standing at the lower rungs. Or put another way: If you are at the bottom you have no where to fall. Or another way: If you are a subsistence farmer you are per definition not part of any market and will not be impacted by any market corrections. The majority of East Africans are subsistence farmers.

Positive momentum
GDP growth in Uganda was 6.0% in 2008, Tanzania 6.9%, Kenya with 6.3%, Rwanda 6.0% and Burundi 5.5% [] – making East Africa one of the growing regions in the world.

No financial crisis
There will be no local financial crisis as no East African banks held toxic assets and there was no property bubble, or indeed practice of giving out mortgages (A mortgage is typically paid back in 5 yrs or even less, with significant security).

Low export levels
Export levels are low anyway, so a slow down will have a limited effect. Total export was 15% of GDP in Uganda's GDP and 14% of GDP in Kenya vs. 40% for a high-export country like Germany [CIA World Factbook]. Regional trade (within East Africa) has been promoted, facilitated and growing in the last few years.

China is likely to continue its push into Africa with undiminished determination (ref. recent resource intensive investment plans announced by the Chinese government).

The net effect of all these 'known unknowns' is obviously impossible to predict. And then there are always the 'Rumsfeldian' unknown unknowns, which always seem to be even more unknown in Africa.. In sum I think the adverse effects will outweigh positives.

My guess

• Trade deficits will increase substantially (that’s a given), which will increase cost of debt and undermine independence (Germany failed to get full subscription on a government bond issue on 07.Jan in a debt market poised to be flooded by sovereign debt issues in 2009 – I refuse to believe a country like Uganda can issue bonds in such market conditions)

• Unemployment will increase significantly (from a high base/floor)

• Dependence on foreign aid will increase (loans to plug trade deficit and increasing budget deficit – where the hole is already huge in the case of Tanzania and Uganda)

• China and India will play an even large role in Africa. On a world wide basis this will boost the anticipated power shift from east to west

Prepare for impact

If this above holds true, the result will likely lead to a step back from the Washington Consensus, with more state intervention and more reliance on aid and NGO's. The commodities will still be up for grabs by China, but so it seems will the East Africa's heart and minds, by those who give aid conditional on faith and ideology.