“You have been lost,” my neighbor and local dukka (small general stores that litter Ugandan towns by the hundreds) owner says to me.
“Lost?” I ask. “But I have been around. I see you almost every day.”
“Yes, but you used to always come to me to buy eggs and bananas and pay me for doing your laundry.”
She is telling the truth, and I had hoped that this conversation would be prevented by the usual Ugandan reserved politeness, but I was not surprised to be asked anyway. I could have easily skirted the question and gone on my way, but I decided to be honest with her. The second of three goals for every Peace Corps Volunteer is to share the culture and values of America with people of our communities, and that is exactly what I decided to do.
“Well, nnyabo (m’am), you haven’t had any bananas to sell in months.” I watched as this fact registered with her. “You sell eggs for 300 shillings each, when most places in town sell them for 250.” Again, I could see her contemplating this fact. “And I had to find someone else to do my laundry because you did not seem to be very serious about it. Even after I told you about the problem, you continued to bring my clothes back wet and smelling worse than when I gave them to you. I am not going to pay for such service.” It may sound like a ridiculous story, but this conversation actually took place, and it is an almost perfect microcosm of the state of rural Ugandan business as I have found it.
When talking with my friends and neighbors about why they shop where they do, they will usually give answers that perfectly mirror at least two or three of “The Four P’s of Marketing”; product, place, price, and promotion. Very few of them have ever heard of the concept, but they use their common sense and list them off anyway. They will say that they go this specific shop because the prices are better, or they prefer that shop because it has what they need and is conveniently located, or they always go to the other shop because the keeper is so friendly. Basically, they are the exact same things that cause anyone to choose to buy what they do from where they do it.
For some reason, though, the common sense on the customer’s end does not equate to the same knowledge on the owner’s end. If you walk down the streets of Kisoga town, you will find failing dukkas everywhere you look. They are shops that have been opened in an already oversaturated market which don’t carry the products people want to buy, are staffed by people who are negligent or flat out rude to their customers, and are located out of the way of any significant traffic. In many cases, when sales are poor the shop keeper attempts to address his or her losses, not by fixing the issues of the business, but by charging more money for the few products that they are selling.
I can’t say I have any idea why the customer’s common sense appears to be like rocket science to the people who are opening up these businesses, but I suppose it presents an interesting opportunity for me as an economic volunteer. As a friend once told me, “if it was already developed, we wouldn’t need development workers.”