A phenomenal force in tech law in Uganda, Alice Namuli discusses the field and how startups can deal with legal issues

Alice Namuli is a Partner and Head of Tech and Innovation at Katende, Ssempebwa & Co Advocates in Uganda. She specializes in Technology law with a keen interest in Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies, FinTechs, Cyberlaw and Data Protection.

She believes in empowering the youth with skills that can make the legal practice a much more lucrative space for them. This is evident in her love for mentoring them with projects like Coffee with Alice where she mentors young innovators.

As one of the most influential personalities in tech law in Uganda today, Alice has hit several milestones in her career. She is an award-winning lawyer, international speaker and author with over 16 years of experience. We sat down with her to discuss tech law in Uganda and how she has managed to thrive in this field.

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An insight into the space of tech law in Uganda with Alice Namuli

What is tech law, if you could share a brief explanation of what it is about.

Technology law is a body of law that governs the public and private use of technology so meaning in our private lives on a day to day basis as you use your smartphone to communicate, there’s so much technology around us that leads to legal issues arising. When you have legal issues surrounding a particular area then it requires to be regulated. When you bring in the regulatory side, you can’t avoid legal disputes which at the end require lawyers to intervene and solve the issues that surround the use of technology and regulate the use of technology.

The intersection of law is how do you interpret the legal issues that come out of the use of technology and how do you regulate the use of technology. It’s both public and private eg the government uses technology to obtain records from us e.g through NIRA, URA. Now the question is are you using it fairly whether as government or an individual, as you collect data from citizens how much can you collect, can you repurpose that information. The law comes in to protect citizens from misuse of technology.

How did you get into tech law?

We have hi-tech that has emerged in recent years. We’ve always had tech law under I used to do technology law as a minor, after that in the last 7 years I started upgrading to a major. When I started practising it was just the ordinary use of computers but now there’s an increased use of technology in businesses in our day to day lives so several fields have emerged. Unfortunately, there aren’t many tech lawyers in Africa and Uganda.

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What are the existing opportunities for tech law in Uganda today?

There are so many core fields that have existed for years that make it easy for you to get clients. My journey was kind of organic. When I was a leader at the Uganda law society, I started reading articles from Thomson Reuters where they kept talking about the impact of tech in the legal profession. The impact was in two forms; 1) lawyers using the technology and 2) coming up with a different practice in the tech space. That’s how I started getting into AI. There are law management tools using AI that help you carry out research.

In Uganda or around the world, all these companies that use technology need solutions to their legal questions like Facebook that collects a lot of data from its users. When Facebook sets up a branch in Uganda, it will need to comply with the data laws in Uganda. As a lawyer, I have to advise Facebook on how best they can be compliant in Uganda.

What is your highlight in this field?

I think the highlight in my career as a tech lawyer was when we were able to obtain a license from the Bank of Uganda for a digital payments platform, something which was unheard of in Uganda or Africa. When these Fintechs came onto the scene no one knew how to deal with them. There were several questions like how safe was the money they collect, where do they get their clients? There were so many questions and there were no laws for that. Somehow we used the existing laws and applied for this license which means that this platform could operate anywhere in the world.

How have you managed to thrive in your career as a tech lawyer?

There is an emphasis on soft skills. You all studied law but how are you able to turn it into something more lucrative. This depends on your soft skills. The ability to be able to deliver services in the most efficient and effective manner. These are things that are not taught in law school. I feel like this is one of the things that has helped me, understanding the difference between the theory we have learnt and also the practical solutions. For me definitely its soft skills. The lack of soft skills is what limits many young lawyers.

What are the legal challenges faced by startups in Uganda?

Lack of compliance. One of the challenges for startups is when they grow to a certain level then they need to merge or be bought by another big company. At that point is where they struggle with understanding what compliance is but the company has already grown which makes it very difficult at that particular stage. Someone wants to buy you but your books are not in order. Before you know it this opportunity has already gone.

The costs are quite high as you have to pay a lawyer or a tax consultant. For startups they can start small, but as they try to find money for other areas of business, they should also put emphasis on this particular aspect or save up for it. They could find

Lack of collaboration. There is a lot of lack of collaboration because we have a culture of working as individuals. We have so many startups doing the same thing yet there is magic in collaboration. If you have like a fintech there are many aspects of the businesses that you can collaborate with other fintechs.

How best do you think startups can address this challenge?

It is important to start at the beginning, it would be good to register your company for tax purposes, get a trading license, understand what intellectual properties you must protect.

It is expensive but if they slowly save up for it as the business is growing, it helps as opposed to when the business has grown so much and it gets to the point where you want to merge or collaborate and you can’t. You face so many challenges to comply with other compliant companies yet yours is not compliant e.g if you don’t have a license to operate, have not been following data protection laws. When you put all these together at the end of the day, your startup might not be as appealing.

How can startups approach the issue of copyright?

While you’re looking for money to invest in different arms of your business, compliance is also key before you go out to share your idea, is it protected? This is a bad precedent for innovators where the government or other investors might want to help or invest but because you’ve had so many bad stories of people stealing your intellectual property rights then you find people scared to merge or collaborate because there is some kind of phobia which hinders startups from scaling.

Who is Alice Namuli?

Alice Namuli, a mother of two and a wife, enjoys working on a range of projects, each one unique. She is a techpreneur in the law field. She’s also a member of an organization that educates lawyers, which she describes as akin to law school. Alice has also served as the Uganda Law Society’s Vice President.

Alice enjoys fundraising for many community projects as a community leader. She was the chairperson of the municipal council in the suburb where she lived. She has been a Rotarian for the past 15 years.

She is also involved in ecotourism, which she started with her own ecotourism lodge.

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