Two fried eggs, a cappuccino with raw sugar, a homemade banana muffin and a copy of the Daily Monitor – all served up under a royal blue umbrella on a quiet little patio opposite a huge bougainvillea. This is the new food of Gulu. Maq Foods opened here in May of this year, to the collective and frenzied delight of the multitude of foreign NGO workers in the town.
Ugandan entrepreneur Patrick Menya saw how rapidly Gulu was changing and decided to “think outside the box” about his latest business venture. Menya spent six months working at a catering center in London in 2001, learning about western tastes in bakery and coffee. He returned to Europe again in 2005, attending an international pastry exhibition in Germany and visiting a bakery ingredients supplier in Brussels. The product of his travels and experience in food service was a comprehensive business plan for Maq Foods – a unique European-style eatery catering to western tastes.
It must be mentioned, however, that Gulu is no ordinary town. Lying at the epicenter of northern Uganda’s twenty-plus-year conflict, Gulu is the home to more than 200 NGOs attempting to serve the needs of a conflict-ridden, impoverished society. The town itself was considered a conflict zone until the signing of a cease fire agreement just last July. The boda boda drivers in Gulu know the location of every NGO. Massive clusters of signs point the way to Catholic Relief Services, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, World Health Organization, UNHCHR, UNOCHA, UNHCR, Invisible Children, etc. It is a bubble of foreign aid allocations, which means lots of dollars and euros hoping to achieve peace in the region.
A year after the cease fire signing, Gulu is a burgeoning hub of economic activity, but sustainability poses a larger question. As peace approaches, will these NGOs still play a role? More specifically, will there be a market for Maq Foods? Menya thinks so. After all, some of Gulu’s explosive growth has come from an ever-expanding trade network with southern Sudan. Gulu is changing, but are those banana muffins a fleeting extravagance in a town that will eventually be littered with little more than dusty NGO signs?
I will retain my sense of cautious optimism. There is much to do in northern Uganda even once peace is achieved. Perhaps the NGOs will shift from relief to reconstruction, and in that case, someone will have to feed all the hungry mzungus. Maq Foods will be well-suited to do the job – with frothy cappuccinos, chocolate croissants, hamburgers, chips and ice cream (heads up NGO workers - ice cream coming to Gulu this October).