By Charles Batambuze
It has been weeks of unending drama at the country’s top retirement fund, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). There is a duel between Hon. Betty Amongi the Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development, and NSSF Managing Director Richard Byarugaba.
This has also attracted the usual fear-mongering and distortions to discredit the Chief Coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) Gen. Caleb Akandwanaaho whose ideas to transform the fund are just one of the many. What is interesting though is that the Uganda Retirements Regulatory Authority (URBRA) is still on the fences.
For starters, NSSF is part of the financial infrastructure of Uganda that also includes banks, SACCOs, Insurance Companies, and the Capital market. This financial infrastructure is limited in many ways resulting in capital being a challenge for most businesses. This situation is not helped by the fact that NSSF is yet to meaningfully invest beyond its three traditional areas that include: fixed income (which makes up almost 80% of its assets), equities, and real estate.
This investment model has put the performance of the fund in the spotlight, with stakeholders expressing concerns about the low returns on investment and poor interest payouts to members. NSSF blames this on the decline in financial markets in East Africa and the impact of COVID-19.
It is quite unusual that anyone with foresight would love the option of doing nothing about this state of affairs at the country’s largest fund. The fund needs to be innovative by providing key solutions to address societal issues for a better and more sustainable future. For example, the aging population in Japan is at the heart of solutions and innovations of the Japanese Social Security System. In the case of Uganda, a youthful population that stands at 78% below 30 years should guide NSSF investment decisions. It is therefore natural that a $3.5 billion fund would be called to the table to discuss how it can be part of the transformation required to better the economic prospects for the citizenry and that of their country.
It is important to note that Uganda is not the only country in the world that has had these kinds of discussions. Singapore, one of the Asian Tigers rallied its social security fund which was the cheapest source of capital to finance large housing estates for accommodating industrial workers. It also provided financing solutions to businesses. As a result, Singapore posted positive growth indices that are admired worldwide.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the issue of Kapeeka was blown out of proportion. It evokes memories of similar happenings when artists visited Gulu and yet the creative industry is now better organized. Everyone that has attended Gen. Saleh’s meetings knows that his heart beats for agriculture, industrialization, power and creative industries. These he considers profitable and advises investors to put their money in such ventures.
Encouraging NSSF to invest in new areas is a correct strategy. The creative industries for example would not only give the fund access to enroll up to 386,000 new members that work in the sector under their voluntary enrolment but also to invest in an industry with short and high returns on investment; the biggest potential for the creation of new jobs, innovation and contribution to GDP.
There is also the issue of the Shs 80 billion monthly payouts that NSSF makes to members. Many people are alarmed by the lack of impact on the economy by this huge money inflow into the marketplace. It is a failure to utilize the fund which is a crime of omission on the part of NSSF. Retirement should not only be about financial benefits. Members need to be prepared 10 years in advance of retirement in areas like investment and enterprise development to guard them against losing funds that have been painfully collected over years. Part of the preparation should also be to creatively invest in joint enterprises such as small and medium-sized industries, content industries, and commercial agriculture where investments of between Shs 10 billion to 20 billion would change the economic fortunes of districts and entire regions helping to lift them out of poverty.
It is these kinds of thoughts and dreams that Kapeeka embodies and not what the impudent debate has been propagating. We can change our country by thinking correctly about everything.
Authored by Charles Batambuze, the Vice Chairman of the National Culture Forum (NCF).