At 43, Awais Raoof is a young visionary. He is the Honorary Consul of Uganda in Pakistan, a successful social entrepreneur, Chairman Board of Governors, University of Lahore and CEO of Jehan Media. Pakistan Politico met with Awais Raoof to discuss his linkage with Uganda and his vision for Pakistan’s footprint in Africa.
Q: How did you become the Honorary Consul of Uganda in Pakistan?
In 2010, I was attending a conference in Turkey. It was an all Muslim universities conference. I was requested by the Rector, Islamic University in Uganda to come and help them in putting up a medical school. And some of the landscape told to me then was that Muslims are in a minority, around 20% and had a small number of doctors in the community. So they wanted a medical school which would produce doctors. They were seeking support from many Muslim countries. Malaysians and Turkish were on board, Saudis too and initially it was an initiative by Islamic Development Bank under the OIC. So I took interest and received an invitation to visit Uganda in Feb 2011 at the convocation. I had no idea about that part of the world and a basic search about Uganda led me to Joseph Kony, of Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that inducted thousands of child soldiers to fight. Obviously, that was not the kind of introduction I was hoping for. I took a chance and flew from Pakistan. I could not get Ugandan visa since there was no embassy in the country or the region. I had trouble with immigration trying to fly to Uganda and that is when I thought that we should have an office here. Fast forward, in 2011, I was there for 10 days, attended the conference and then took their pro-rector along and visited the entire country to understand the higher education landscape. During that trip I was requested by the rector to put up a feasibility study for them because they were hoping they would get funding from the Islamic Development Bank. The expected funding was to be almost $40-45m. By 2012, I had the feasibility which I gave to the rector but by 2012, IDB funding had lapsed. It was a serious downpour and pessimism in Uganda because our feasibility which was an extension of the one done previously by the others was about the quantum of $40m, including a large sized hospital, new infrastructure, way beyond things we even find in Pakistan. For a year after that there was no activity since there was no funding coming in.
The end of 2012, I was invited again. By that time I knew everybody in the Muslim circle in Uganda, knew some of the ministers too. Uganda is a beautiful country and I started to build an attachment with it. By the end of 2012, I was in conversation with them on how to carry on with this project in the absence of funding. Setting up a medical school is not easy and has lots of steps, for example accreditation etc and then to attach a hospital to it. This time when I was in Uganda, I had a different mindset. I thought that if I were to do this project then how would it look like, what would it entail and how much money would be required given our limited resources. Found a hospital in Kampala and convinced them to attach it to the medical school that was non-existent at that time. Went around the city, found a structure owned by Muslim community, built but left incomplete due to lack of funds. Met them, convinced them to give that structure to us so that we could finish and start a medical school in it. The structure in itself was perfect for a medical school. Providence has its own way. That trip I was able to identify resources that were available on the ground that we could put together to build a medical school. So rather than building a 500 bedded hospital, we identified a 300 bedded Muslim community hospital which they were happy attaching with a Muslim medical school. We just had to finish it, bring in equipment, books, library, furniture, faculty and that is where a lot of support still came from Saudi Arabia. By 2014, we were able to finish that project and we got it accredited. We did not get $40m from anywhere, not even $4m. We were able to finish it with already available resources and friends who donated money and other supplies needed to complete the medical school. After accreditation in 2014, we were able to launch admission. I am happy to say that end 2019, we will have our first class of 100 students graduating as doctors from this medical school. All graduates will not be Muslims because we decided that we will allow everybody to come. We do keep a certain number of seats for the Muslims, at least 50-60 boys and girls but we have an equal number of Christians also taking admission. Medical Council of East Africa visited the medical school once it was accredited in 2014 and declared it one of the best projects in health sector in the country. The Health Ministry of Uganda also declared it as one of the best investments in Uganda that year. And that is when the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni invited me. He wanted to know who was the face behind this project, why did Pakistanis come to Uganda, in Africa where no one wanted to invest in long term projects and how was the project accomplished. I did not think that the President would know about Pakistan but to my surprise he did. The President knew Pindi and for somebody to know Pindi came as a relief and established an immediate connection. In our first meeting, the President asked me who is looking after the Ugandan consulate in Pakistan. Since there was none, he declared me the Honorary Consul of Uganda in Pakistan. Then he asked me why did you come here and why did you do this? At that time I did not have the right answer. I think it was providence that took me there and made things happen.
Q: You have made some impactful and durable interventions in the healthcare sector in Uganda. Tell us how it started and what successes you have achieved.
Intervention in healthcare sector is one of the biggest needs in Uganda in particular and Africa in general. So not only that the President was happy with what we had done, he asked me to move forward, sit with the health ministry and identify if health is the sector where Pakistan had good resources and best practices to share with Uganda. By the end of 2014, having delivered a project in Uganda, I started working with different ministries to see how we could take things further. I invited the Ugandan health minister over to Pakistan, then their education minister and they had meetings with different ministries and saw so much potential. I think for many Ugandans, before we went there, Pakistan was another province of India or their exposure to Pakistan was as such that they thought Pakistan was somewhere in Saudi Arabia or Turkey. It surprised them that we were an independent Muslim country. That networking across different ministries grew to such an extent that around 2015 in one of the meetings they requested us to go further and assist the ministry of health and education in putting up more institutions of higher learning even more institutions for courses and academic degrees in allied health sciences especially radiology, diagnostics etc. By the end of 2015, we signed a MoU with the Ugandan ministry of health that gave us access to the entire country, to all their teaching facilities and to all their tertiary care health institutions where we could intervene with the help of the local institutions and investors to introduce further higher learning institutions, may be more medical schools. They wanted us to put up a postgraduate dental institution. They visited University of Lahore’s dental facility and they wanted us to lend them some of our faculty to assist them set it up. So by the end of 2015, we were in an arrangement with their health ministry and they started visiting us more often and we had somewhat a plan of bringing Pakistan and Uganda closer through healthcare diplomacy.
The second project came when the health ministry wanted us to assist them in training radiologists, assist them in training postgraduate dentists and these were those areas as University of Lahore in Pakistan where we were quite formidable. We had that resource available here which they came and identified. Even other universities started to come on board. The Rector of Kampala International University (KIU) visited us at University of Lahore and since then we have assisted them in building their human resource, assisted them in training their postgraduates, PhDs in Pharmacy etc. There is a very large size human resource deficiency in certain professions, it is the same in Pakistan too but over the last 70 years, we have been able to build reasonable resource. So the model was that they would identify and we would assist them. And being Honorary Consul, I felt it was my responsibility in bridging the gap between the two countries. Yes, we do not have high end computing, we are not manufacturing radiology equipment but we have the human resource to run it and manage it. So whatever areas of strength we mutually identified, we started moving in that direction.
The second project was in Masaka which is the second largest town in Uganda after Kampala. There is a large 600 bedded teaching hospital in Masaka and the idea was to build a medical school there. Again with the help of local resources, local partners, we put up a radiology center there. Similar model, local partners, local investors, universities, and then we trained them. Uganda does not have training resources and this is where our people started traveling and running training programs, helping them in designing, organizing, implementing, the whole works. Now that project is also to be inaugurated this year by the President. It will be another medical school, another school for postgraduate studies and a school of radiology, training and development.
Q:Two of the essential factors in developing cordial and strong inter-state relations are goodwill and reputation. How much does Pakistan score on both counts in Uganda in particular and Africa in general?
I think when it comes to Pakistan’s reputation globally, we all know in our hearts where we are at – is it going to be any different in Africa, probably not. In the countries that have had some exposure to Islamic violent extremism or terrorism, there is a general negative perception about Pakistan. Uganda has had its share of fighting terrorism. They were fighting in Somalia with Al-Shabab, they believed they were somehow trying to contain that terrorism in Somalia since they did not want it to have a spillover into Kenya and Uganda. But Al-Shabab used this very reason to come and attack civilians in Uganda. To cut it short, even though Pakistan had no linkage with what was happening in Uganda, Pakistan did not have a good reputation. In Nigeria for example there is a Boko Haram problem, Pakistan has got nothing to do with it but still there is this perception. For the past six to seven years, I have traveled extensively in the Sub-Saharan region, even in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, and I can tell you that there are perception problems of different kind there.
Another reason for bad reputation was also that all the Pakistanis who were in Uganda, made a lot of wealth out of trading but never were able to give back to the society. So, the first challenge we faced in Uganda as a Pakistani institution trying to deliver any service for that matter, was the perception problem. But there was a major turnaround after our first project and then with the launch of subsequent projects. People now realized that there is a lot of good that can come out of Pakistan. The President when he met me after our first medical school project told me laughingly, ‘you are the first good news out of Pakistan’. So this tells you that we as Pakistanis have a massive reputation deficit across Africa. How did we face it? To be honest, we had nothing to lose. We set up our first project in 2014 and till this day we are supporting it. At every stage from faculty to facility, it required our help and we were there. It was an achievement that we could not abandon halfway. The medical school is part of the Islamic University in Uganda set up by Idi Amin as the first Muslim private sector university under OIC initiatives. There were four Islamic universities set up all over the world, this was one of them. When you enter the medical school, you will see a big plaque which says in collaboration with and supported by University of Lahore. Once you visit the University, you would know that there was a university from Pakistan that came and help set it up. That was the first face saving initiative that helped build Pakistan’s positive reputation from scratch in Uganda. That brought such quality and level of advertisement across Uganda that we would go to places and we did not need to tell anybody that we were from Pakistan. That project became the face of Pakistan.
Q: Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi have stressed upon the need for Pakistan to focus on Africa. Are the Ugandan and other countries’ governments that you deal with, keen on furthering ties with Pakistan. If so, what are the chances of Pakistan and African countries enhancing the scope of their relations in the near future?
Let us compare what we can offer Africa to what is being offered to them by other countries. The Indians have committed $20bn to Africa. The Chinese have committed $200bn to Africa in trade, development and infrastructure. Can we offer even $2bn? At this point we cannot when our economy itself needs stability. I see Africa as five distinct regions:
- The first region of Africa is Egypt which probably is the only non-African type of state which wants to behave like Arabs. We can somewhat attach Sudan to it as well. You go there and you do not feel like you are in Africa. The only thing African passing through is Nile.
- The rest of the Muslim North African part, Morocco up to Mauritania is what I see as another region. These are two regions which are predominantly Muslims in the North and somehow both do not want to relate to conventional Africa.
- Then you have the Sub-Saharan region where you have East Africa.
- Then you have the West African community.
- Then down south you have South of Tanzania and South Africa, the old Rhodesia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar and they are totally different from the other African countries. That is the carefree Africa. In terms of global perceptions, this region is not insolated.
So how does Pakistan enter these five different regions? We already have some history of association with Egypt and Sudan and the Muslim Northern African region in general. What about the East African countries, five to six countries, then the West African community with Nigeria being the bulwark of the West African countries. And then South Africa.
My proposal is that we must focus on the East African communities and Uganda can be its center and then West African communities with Nigeria as its center. Amazingly we have a history with both these countries so it is easier to start there. In Nigeria, people who were taught in 60s and 70s were taught by Pakistani teachers. Our forefathers, elders, went to Nigeria and joined their schools and universities as faculty members. In Uganda, Makerere is the top university and 20 years ago, one of its first registrars was a Pakistani. Even the Islamic University in Uganda had contributions from Pakistanis. With these two regions, Pakistan must start engagement immediately and simultaneously.
But since Pakistan has a resource constraint, how do we go about it? I will give you small figures and this tells you an opportunity for us. Uganda’s population is about 34 million people. Unofficial numbers of registered doctors in the country are about 1000. Masaka hospital where we are working with the government, total number of doctors is less than 22. It is 600 bedded. In OPD, there are more than 2500 people. For 24 hours coverage, less than 25 doctors are available. So this tells me that the country has severe shortage of doctors. Who is then running the health care? Nurses. And they are not qualified from four year undergraduate program but one year undergraduate program. So it is the nurses running the healthcare of the Sub-Saharan region. What has then started to happen is that life and death is no longer an important issue. You go to a hospital where a parent has lost a child, they no longer cry. You as an outsider feel like crying. But they do not. They have resided with this reality as their fate that this is what it is, there are four more kids to look after, this one had to go early so fine, let us move on. So, healthcare is a dire emergency in Africa. And that is the place for intervention. Health and healthcare education are therefore two important areas that are wide open for us to intervene since these are also two areas where our quality and standard is comparable to any other country in the world and is cost-effective. With the Western doctors charging $10,000 a month, it will become nearly impossible for the poor African countries to afford them. This is where Pakistanis will be welcomed and are needed.
Q: What role can education diplomacy in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa play in increasing Pakistan’s footprint in the region? Do you plan on establishing varsities in other African countries? Also, tell us as to how you have managed to attract a large number of African students to study at the University of Lahore (UOL)?
Education diplomacy has huge potential in Africa. I went to meet the Nigerian education minister recently. In the meeting, there was to be an introduction to Pakistan and he asked me if I could recite some of the verses of Allama Iqbal. I asked him how did he know Allama Iqbal? He said “when I was a kid, I was taught by a Pakistani teacher.” He had memorized Allama Iqbal’s poetry back then. And even till today, when he is nearing 60, he remembers Allama Iqbal. So we need to be conscious about the power of education diplomacy and then use it to offer our interventions. Let us understand how a teacher can influence an individual and through that ultimately an entire society. So this is an area where we can seriously go in and perhaps let us not set up school systems all over the country, let us not get into colleges, but get into universities, set up medical schools, engineering schools, areas where Africa needs help and we have cost-effective trained resources to help them. Africans hate charity. We therefore, need to intervene and start humanitarian projects. Until recently their image about a Pakistani was that he was bringing in basmati rice or second hand cars from Japan since these are the two businesses Pakistanis in Africa do. But I ask you, is basmati rice going to be the only introduction of a society comprising 200 million people? No. We want to be known for something other than basmati rice.
It looks to me that we need to run a campaign of introducing ourselves to the world. We should have trade fairs. There are many embassies in Africa right now. They hardly organize any events. There is a Pakistani embassy in Kenya. Let us push them into organizing trade fairs. Let us take our products abroad.
On your question about the students, diversity is the answer. University of Lahore has the largest international student body in Pakistan with more than 15 nationalities represented and a student body nearing 450. Africans are traveling all over the world for studies since there is lack of good universities in the Sub-Saharan region especially. So it is an opportunity for all universities across the world to accommodate them. For a university, any university, UOL is not an exception, diversity is important for rankings, it is almost a requirement. For obvious reasons, primarily security, not many international students from across the world, want to travel to Pakistan for studies. But we found it possible to invite students from countries in the Gulf region and Africa, particularly Sudanese, Ugandans and Nigerians since they were more keen to travel to Pakistan for higher education and professional training especially the Muslim students. While there was a need and we wanted to, we were not sure how we would generate it. It took us six years to galvanize this effort. Now there are a good decent number of students on campus. They live here, excel in studies, enjoy the life and hospitality of Pakistanis and invite more of their countrymen to Pakistan. So slowly and gradually it is an organic number.
Q: Islamabad and Kampala stand to gain by cooperating in the fields of agriculture and counterterrorism. Are both countries likely to work towards exploiting these commonalities, especially through interactions at the highest levels?
This time when I met the Foreign Minister of Uganda, I realized that they acknowledge Pakistan’s successes in counterterrorism. He asked me how they can defeat terrorism. He said that they are fighting terrorism but are finding it hard to defeat it. To him my reply was that until you actually neutralize the ideology behind terrorism, whether it is Muslim or Christian ideology, you will never be able to defeat it in totality. You will keep fighting it on different fronts, it will keep changing shapes and find new ways to hit you therefore defeating terrorist ideology is the key. This is one area where there are obvious successes in Pakistan and they want to learn from us. The word has gotten out on our successes in countering terrorism and whenever I meet someone from Africa, they are now willing to take advice from Pakistan in this domain. This is an opportunity Pakistan must build on. Not all countries in Africa are suffering from terrorism so the focus can be limited and thus more productive.
Our engagement therefore can be in three to four areas as identified. The first one has to be healthcare, healthcare education, and mechanized agriculture sector. With the agriculture sector in Uganda there is massive scope. They have the landscape, terrain for mechanized agricultural interventions. They have been growing fruits and want to move to crops and from their exports they want to earn decent revenues. India is into manufacturing through private enterprise mostly. But Chinese are coming into infrastructure. You land in any capital in Africa, first thing Chinese have built is the airport. The second thing is the highway that connects the airport to the city centers. The third thing Chinese built is the foreign ministry’s building, the fourth is the Parliament, fifth is the president’s house. They have identified these six to seven places to intervene; the outlook is all Chinese. What has happened now is that in every country in Africa, Chinese get preferential treatment, at the airport, immigration desk, police is not allowed to treat them differently or arrest them – their embassy intervenes right away. For example in one African country there are more than 300,000 Chinese working under Chinese government projects. So, China is everywhere. China is in infrastructure. China is in manufacturing, and it is seriously assisting these countries in looking more developed. Indians on the other hand are into trade, manufacturing concerns but through mainly their private enterprise and now some of their companies abroad in Africa are of a size that they can turn countries around. Massive job employment opportunities are being created by the Indian companies. Indians are also coming into healthcare. They are establishing e-healthcare systems. They are introducing drones to deliver medicines to far flung areas in African countries. So these two countries, China and India are going massive in Africa and their interventions are not without design. Given the Chinese and Indian presence in Africa, Pakistan will find it very difficult to intervene at this stage but in Kampala we can have an edge. We are already there with our healthcare interventions and all we need is governmental support to take it forward and expand in other areas I have mentioned.
Q: Is it lack of vision or lack of resources? Why has Pakistan been absent in Africa?
I would start by asking a counter-question: why would somebody think about Africa when we are not even thinking about Pakistan? Sadly, there has been no vision. Not only in the foreign policy domain but Africa has been absent in our national discourse as well, academic and non-academic. Has it been like this forever or is it a recent phenomenon? You go to Zimbabwe, you are treated as a royalty because of our assistance in their independence during Zia’s regime. You go to Zambia, they tell you they were supported by Pakistan. You go to Nigeria and until very recently, Nigeria used to look at Pakistan for all sorts of support. During the Nigerian General Sani Abacha’s time, most of the military equipment came from Pakistan. All Nigerian current political elite was taught by Pakistani teachers in Nigeria. Morocco supports Pakistan’s Look Africa policy. So, there have been different pockets in Africa where we have had historical relations and presence but it is not sufficient. I guess somewhere down the line, Pakistan started ignoring Africa. And in the meanwhile we were absent, negative perception about Pakistan started filling up the empty space, not only in Africa but across the world in different regions. And now, in order to replace those elements of bad reputations, someone has to build in elements of good reputation to make space for us to be accepted or welcomed back. This is what we faced in Uganda when we went in initially. So while counterterrorism is one area where our successes have been acknowledged, but that working space with some African countries that face terrorism, is limited. Not every country in Africa is facing terrorism. For example, Rwanda does not care about terrorism. Similarly, Congo has no clue about counter-terrorism. Coupled with both lack of vision and lack of resources, Pakistan’s Look Africa policy will only falter. There are opportunities there which must be explored by our present government.
Q: Pakistan wants to extricate itself from the economic crisis by increasing exports and foreign investments. What can Uganda offer Pakistan in these portfolios?
I do not think Africans can come in and cause an economic revival of Pakistan. They also have serious resource constraints. So to expect FDI from African countries in Pakistan is perhaps expecting too much from them. The best we can do is trade with them primarily agricultural products, perhaps more basmati and more mangoes at best can be exported. But if we are able to facilitate them and start giving them visas early, which takes about six months to issue a visa to a Ugandan to visit Pakistan, we can expand healthcare diplomacy. A lot of patients from Uganda can travel to Pakistan for healthcare emergencies and be treated in Pakistani hospitals. As an example, many people travel from Africa to India for healthcare and treatment. If we can expedite visas process from Uganda to Pakistan, we will be in a better shape to offer timely medical interventions they need. We can become their fly-to country for healthcare. I appreciate that our government has relaxed visa regime and also opened visas on arrival for some countries (including some African countries) but Uganda is missing from the list. I would like to see Uganda in that list.
Q: What are some of your projects in the pipeline?
In my recent trip, I have requested the Ugandan government to invite Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan to visit Uganda and the foreign minister as well. I understand that Pakistan wants to focus on Africa and the most important region in the Sub-Saharan Africa is Uganda and the most relevant person is the President of Uganda. So this should be the start. Pakistani Prime Minister should travel. They are also willing to bring their President over to Pakistan for an official visit. This is the first initiative that I would like us to take. Till today whatever I have been doing is my initiative in the private capacity. We have done so much without that I can only imagine what can be achieved with our government’s support. Healthcare is an obvious area of intervention, so is agriculture research and education. In Masaka, we are helping the health ministry set up a center for radiology. Uganda also wants to learn from Pakistan’s experience with SMEs especially indigenous growth pockets in Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Sialkot etc where SMEs are flourishing. All our initiatives have been private. Imagine what we can achieve if there is actual governmental backing and there is public-private partnership in Africa. I have a lot of projects and ideas in mind for future but I would like to see our government extending us support. We have a project lined up in Nigeria as well where we will work with local ministries and people. Similarly, in Rwanda too, a project is lined up. So there is a lot of opportunity. We are talking about nearly 20 countries in that region in Africa where we can intervene and create decent goodwill for our country.
Q: What is your blueprint for Pak-Africa relations and where do you see them going in the next decade?
I believe Africa has many allies but the three major allies right now are China, India and Turkey. These three countries are intervening all across the continent. They have their own strengths and weaknesses but that is not stopping them from having a massive presence in Africa. In my opinion, Sub-Saharan Africans are no longer fond of the West. Their experience with colonization was brutal and humiliating. So I believe that given the African historical baggage, West will always have this trust and respect deficit with Africa. With Turks, although they are into manufacturing etc, I find a lack of clarity on their East Africa policy as to how much Turkey wants to get in and invest. They are big in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Nigeria. Africans find Chinese to be apolitical, brilliant, they bring in a lot of money, but there is a huge cultural difference between the two societies and most often Chinese lack cultural sensitivities that Africans regard the most. With Indians too there are problems with how Africans perceive them. Pakistanis, Africans find to be friendly, they blend in politely, are not abusive or condescending towards conventional Africans but since there is no state-level push to create space in African countries to make Pakistan’s presence felt as a foreign policy priority, you just find random mobilization, businesses here and there without any strategic direction.
I feel that there is space for a new player that brings in humanitarian projects in Africa like healthcare, education and training for example that do not require a lot of capital, are cost-effective sustainable businesses but with governmental support. Either we wait 20 more years when Pakistan would get its economic issues sorted out or we go now in Africa with our healthcare projects for some countries, develop networks, get close to the governments and tell them we wish to set up healthcare projects. This will get so many unemployed Pakistanis and young healthcare professionals jobs in Africa. Let us identify 10-15 countries in Africa and in the next 10 years, we turn healthcare around in those countries through sustainable projects. Indians are doing huge projects worth $2bn per country but we do not need to emulate that. We can do projects worth $200m or so only and our entire intervention will be more meaningful. We could base our new projects in the capitals of African countries, call it Healthcare in Africa Project, and by the end of 10 years, we would not have invested more than $2bn. It will not only help the Africans, it will also help Pakistan earn its much needed reputation. Every year Pakistan should go into one country, set up medical school, open hospitals, train their staff and move on to the next country the next year. In 10 years, Pakistan would have a solid mark in Africa. Pakistani presence is there in Africa, we are in Uganda, Shifa is planning to go to Tanzania, Aga Khan is in entire East Africa. But there is huge scope to invest more in other countries where space for intervention exists and is welcomed.