UGANDA'S regional markets helped the country endure economic meltdown in the world, from 2008 to date which saw shrinking global demand for our exports and limited revenues to our country.
Top among these markets, is South Sudan, which, from a paltry $60m in 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the North and South then, to end hostilities, quickly shot to an all-time high of $900m in 2010/11.
It is strange, however, that there doesn't seem to be either trade or diplomatic policy that recognises the contribution of this market to our livelihood and its attendant expansion of our productive capabilities as a nation.
DR Congo, and other unregistered cross border informal trade routes within the region, also follow in the footsteps of South Sudan.
Remember this isn't Europe or America where our bureaucrats spend hard earned currency on hotels and aircrafts in meetings that do not genuinely yield much and fast for a country with such huge need for jobs.
My concern is that the way our embassies are manned or our trade missions are constituted seem oblivious of this wonderful trigger to economic change for Uganda.
In my opinion, trade is war and war is planned for, facilitated, executed methodically if you must win. South Sudan has officially registered 1,500 Ugandans working in her construction industry alone, 1,200 professionals in the civil service and consulting for NGOs and the government. South Sudan also sends over 100,000 students to Ugandan schools and has been our biggest trading partner since 2008!
The unregistered Ugandans who do business in South Sudan are about 15 times the official number. If we compute the multiplier effect of this on our economy in revenues coming to Uganda, we should be doing much to support this market and those in the neighbourhood.
These markets are the future to resolving our current export bottlenecks before we break into the sophisticated markets of Europe and they also hold a huge lever against unemployment.
Let's compare the South Sudan market with Belgium and Russia. In both Belgium and Russia, we have embassies and all the full representations.
Belgian trade with Uganda is lopsided against Uganda. Apart from probably some small numbers of tourists and the SN Brussels airlines, the total trade with Belgium is $129m with much of this money being import of some equipment and consulting work into Uganda.
Russia has a fully-fledged Ugandan embassy established in 1964 when the Russians gave 14m Roubles ($424,242) to Uganda and sent some experts to Mulago hospital. The same story applies to Sweden where trade between us and the Swedes is about SEK38m ($5,428,571). Many of these embassies have little net trade value to Uganda's balance of payments. They may have some diplomatic value but that doesn't give Ugandan youth jobs immediately.
In contrast, South Sudan combines all our trade income from Europe and Russia and the nugget in this is that much of the money comes to small Ugandan entrepreneurs and farmers. It is even a notch better because it comes without the usual pretences and protectionism in European markets.
Uganda's food exports to South Sudan strategically induce productivity at a farm level and this is great. A substantial amount of exports is made by SMEs and that, which is processed, comes from our emerging large scale companies in food, steel and construction.
Whichever way you look at it, this is the market where the best of resources in trade, security, and diplomatic support should be focused with substantial government resources in both foreign and trade ministries committed.
There is rapid demand growth in South Sudan for the most foreseeable future. This is fuelled by peace and oil opportunities. It is also triggered by the fact that the production capabilities of the South Sudanese haven't grown as rapidly as expected because the long civil war affected both the attitude and the ability to quickly organise food production. But this won't be for long.
If Uganda does not prepare her exports to remain competitive, we will soon lose out. For Uganda to remain the largest trading partner with South Sudan, we must ensure we reduce the cost of doing business both here and in South Sudan.
We must urgently minimize incidents of disruption of trade and show the sensitivity required to eliminate them completely.
I was pleased to find our Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura in Juba this week, speaking to his counterpart and driving the entire road from Juba to Nimule, to smoothen out security issues.
Afande Kale needs support because he is stretched. He cannot fi x Kampala and then handle trade with neighbours in one hand.
The ministries of trade and foreign affairs must have a singular ideology on which they pick and choose markets to deploy in. Diplomacy without income is meaningless. Good income will eventually set a nation to meaningful diplomacy as we see in China today. Our ministries' ideology must be jobs, jobs and more jobs.
Jobs for Ugandans through strengthened exports. Anybody deployed in our missions must be recruited, trained and be made skilfully aware of this duty.
In Uganda, there must be genuine support directly to the farmer not through the bureaucrats and their seminars, if we want to increase trade in the region.
For example, the average cost of a tone in transport within Uganda before it crosses over to South Sudan is approximately $100 (sh246,000). Inside South Sudan, it about $70 (sh172,000).
This is finally borne by the consumer and it heavily increases the cost of our goods in South Sudan. As some might know, South Sudan is not short of business suitors.
Currently, they are building a road from Malakal in Upper Nile state, to Gambera near Ethiopia to be able to reach the sea through Djibouti.
To remain competitive, therefore, our local governments need good feeder roads from production areas to the main artery roads that connect Uganda to these markets.
Currently, about 80% of all inbound traffic into South Sudan comes through either Kaaya or Nimule. This won't be kept for long unless we deal with our trunk and feeder roads which handle supplies.
So I ask again: How are our ministries organised to grow our regional markets to build our export muscle and reduce unemployment?
The writer works with Sovereign Investment Group.