Thursday, December 25, 2008

Kampala – the ideal city?

Kampala can be described in a few words as green, sprawling, peaceful and safe. In short, a very nice place to live and work. I moved down in October and feel at home after only two months on the ground. What is it exactely that makes a place pleasant?Its hard to pin down but for Kampala I think the following characteristics are key:

At 1,200 meters above sea level and located right on the equator, Kampala has the most suitable average temperatures imaginable – basically between 20c and 30c year round. Average annual rainfall is 1,244mm ( – same figure for Oslo is 655mm (and it rains a lot in Oslo too!) and London 752mm (same comment as for Oslo..) With that much perspiration combined with 12 months of sunshine and fertile soil (no frost or other impediments), one can imagine how green the Kampala is. The city is spread out across a range of hills (23 in total, I think), which makes it easy to find your way around.

For a city of 1.5 million people the town centre is amazingly small, a bit like you would expect of a town of 50,000 inhabitants back home. But the suburbs are huge and spread in all directions. The key reason for this peculiar development is rapid population growth combined with low levels of investment.

Kampala has not followed the growth pattern of a normal metropolis. Back in 1969, so 40 years ago, the city had 350,000 inhabitants – a CAGR of 3.7% (1969-2009). Uganda has one of the worlds highest population growth rates – 8th in the world at 3.24% - so that the urban growth rate stands at a little above that makes sense. Still, compare this with, say, London's population growth, which has been around zero over the same period, and you realize Kampala is a relatively young city.

Investment per capita is low in Uganda (Kampala). Its about USD 90 per capita per year (CIA worldfactbook) in fixed assets such as factories, machinery, buildings – basically the nations CAPEX. The corresponding figure for South Africa is USD 1,170 and for Norway USD16,600 (185 times more than Uganda..) An office building is an office building where ever it is, and construction costs are similar across the world. (Cement is a traded commodity and there is a global market for cranes, for example) Cost of Labour is of course very cheap in Uganda, but say for arguments sake that the cost of putting up a tall office building is about half in Uganda compared with Europe. That's still a long way from 185 times less..(Ignoring population size) And we don't even have skyscrapers in Norway!

In short, Kampala's population has quadrupled in the last four decade whilst physical construction has stagnated. The result is a low rise sprawl, spreading far in all directions out from the city centre, resembling a very large suburb. I saw a picture book once comparing photographs of the same area in Kampala now and some decades ago – the remarkable thing was not the change, but rather the lack of it. I live pretty much in the middle of the city, but if you saw the view from my balcony you would think I lived in the country side!

Safe and peaceful
About the safety aspect – there is very little crime in general. In particular compared with Nairobi or even more so with the large Southern African cities. There are no reliable statistics of course, but people say its safe, and that is the impression you get when living here. In two months I have only heard of one robbery – against someone I did not know – and given it's a small town you would have heard of it if there was more, so all in all crime is low. Especially considering the large income discrepancies.

Moreover, people move slowly in Kampala. To be sure, there is lots of people and lots of traffic, but movements are slow. The stress and running around of comparable cities is non-existent. It translates into slow service as well, but hey..

In sum, Kampala is a very nice place to live and to spend a year or two. Beyond that you need to be of a peaceful nature to enjoy it – but I guess after two years here you will have adapted sufficiently to hang on a little longer.

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