Kampala — Long a trading town, the good times have returned to Arua, and other towns adding not just money and new languages but new challenges and opportunities of doing business with neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since a north-south peace deal in Sudan in 2005, the fortunes of Arua's traders has changed. Official figures show that Uganda exports 32% of her produce to Sudan, making the latter Uganda's leading export destination. The bustle of trade is changing fortunes but comes with its challenges. Sam Baker, a trader in Arua town, admits the new situation is any businessman's dream come true.
"For sure there are lucrative business opportunities because the market is available" he said, adding, however, that food and accommodation in Sudan remain a big challenge. And so is the language. "At first people spoke to me in Arabic until I pressed them to use Kiswahili," he said. A truck of 200 local mats can earn a profit of about Shs2.6 million but one must overcome the language barrier, he adds. Many Ugandan traders have learnt to speak Sudanese languages and Arabic. Small scale industries in Arua are also picking up. They include the West Nile Distilleries Limited, which produces the "7 hills Vodka" and Arua foam mattresses factory managed by the Nile Coach Bus Company proprietor. Officials report a steady growth of the local economy. It could be better, the officials say, except for the fact that much of the trade is informal and illegal. The town is notorious for cross-border smuggling. The URA Supervising Enforcement officer for West Nile region, Mr Patrick Mwesigye, says the tax body will not allow businessmen to continue smuggling goods. The most significant cross border trade is in Ariwara Market in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Gold and timber from the DRC exchange countries here as do agricultural products like coffee, cereals and manufactured goods (clothing, bicycles and electronics) from Uganda. The trade has, however, not favoured some residents. The Mayor, Mr Charles Asiki, says markets are running out of food items and prices have gone up because most food items are taken to Sudan.
Because of booming trade, banks have opened up. "They should offer low interest rates so that locals can borrow," Mr Asiki said. Mr Riek Deng, a Sudanese trader in Arua, told Daily Monitor that with little transport infrastructure and agriculture that was destroyed by war the demand for food and drinks in Sudan can only be satisfied across the border in Uganda.