On my way to a study visit in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, I came to realise how Africa, and Uganda in particular, has completely forgotten about the basics of infrastructure development.
Transport and communication in all western countries is based on well-developed railway networks, not to mention the smooth pothole-less roads. As we all already know, communication development is one of the key factors in the development of nations; it opens new markets for goods and eases movement of people and the setting up of new businesses.
The question now becomes, how did the western countries develop their communication infrastructure? I guess not many African leaders have thought about this question, and if they have, they haven't done much about it! As a materials engineering graduate, I have thought about this problem at length.
Materials and chemical engineering are part of the core courses needed in the production of most technological materials, including metals like steel, cast iron, aluminium, to mention a few.
This is because these courses are tasked with coming up with processes of making new products from naturally occurring raw materials. Steel, for example, is the most important structural material ever made. It is applied in the construction of roads, bridges, dams, houses, towers, etc.
This is because of its desirable physical and chemical properties. Steel is a product of iron ore smelting and surprisingly one of the most abundant raw materials on planet earth. It has even been argued that iron ore is more integral to the global economy than any other commodity, except oil. Moreover, Uganda has very large reserves of high-quality iron ore concentrated at Sukulu in Eastern Uganda.
The question then becomes, why is there no primary production of steel, a product of iron ore, in Uganda? The art and science of making steel is a relatively old and known technology which has been known for more than a 100 years.
It is well-documented that traditionally, Ugandans smelted iron ore and used it in making spears, arrows and other iron implements. Isn't it fair to say that these had better iron smelting technology than 21st century Ugandans or Africans?
So the question still remains, why is Uganda not producing primary steel and other structural materials needed for infrastructure development? As mentioned earlier, the main problem in Uganda as regards to materials production has been the lack of focus on core university subjects tailored to the production of the required materials here.
I always hear lots of lip service from Ugandan political leaders about their plans to develop the country's infrastructure. It is sad to mention that none of that will ever happen until we learn to produce our own raw materials, steel in particular. It is, rather, apparent that hardly any country has ever developed without producing large amounts of its own steel.
The first step towards infrastructure improvement in Uganda should start with having the required engineering courses at our major universities in order to produce a skilled work force that can be employed in the production of desired structural materials for infrastructure development, Materials and Chemical Engineering courses being just two of them.
Secondly, Uganda has no choice but to begin setting up primary steel and iron producing industries. The country not only has the raw materials, but also a number of material and chemical engineering professionals (mostly in the diaspora) capable of running these industries if called upon.
Finally, with an exponentially increasing population, the need for better housing, roads and hospitals will be even greater in the coming decades. If we think we will import enough steel, iron and other structural materials for our current and future needs from China (which itself needs lots of steel for its 1.2 billion citizens, especially the growing middle class), then we are definitely misguided.
We shall always complain about the poor roads, bridges and Kampala's pathetic housing. And Uganda's Achilles infrastructure problem will not only grow bigger but will eventually become unsolvable!
I am sure that if we act now by setting up our own steel-making plants, we shall not only save Uganda billions of dollars over the next few years on reduced steel imports, but we shall also have control over our own infrastructure development, shielded from global steel market ups and downs.
The writer is a PhD candidate of Materials Science and Engineering from Missouri University of Science & Technology, USA.