A COUPLE of weeks ago I met a young lady and after two hours of close interaction left her in tears.
Her name is Safina Namaganda, and I haven’t stopped mentally saluting her daily while hoping we raise more young Ugandans like her but without letting them fall back down again – as happened to her.
Safina came to me by way of a friend, James Wire Lunghabo, who did Agricultural Sciences at the University at the same time as I did Journalism, then became an ICT Entrepreneur of note and now does almost as much journalism as I do, while mentoring many Ugandan youth along the way and doing some serious farming and agricultural value addition.
One day during a casual conversation he mentioned a young lady whose bright future in agricultural value addition and processing kept coming to sudden ends because of the usual frustrations we hear youth in Uganda expressing – financing, corruption, inefficiency, bureaucracy…the list runs on and on.
Her last venture was a fruit juice business enterprise that was promised government funding from as high as ‘State House’ but the persons involved made such awkward noises that she gave up on it. Meanwhile, Lunghabo told me, another guy who went into the same business now has his products on supermarket shelves and employs about 30 people at his factory in Nansana who earned Ushs80million last year alone (his second in business). That success story, Lunghabo said, is even exporting products to Rwanda and Kenya!
“If she had gotten the funding without those (insert bad word here) approaches from that government official, she would also be employing possibly another 30!” he declared.
He vehemently brushed away any queries about the girl herself probably being at fault and then offered to set up the meeting so we agreed to buy her coffee in Kisementi and she turned up with a friend.
She told me her story starting with her University days when, as a student, she took an interest in jackfruit (fenne) and particularly its seeds. I remembered vaguely that as a child I had tasted roasted jackfruit seeds at various points and liked them quite some.
Her method was even more serious – she found a way of enriching the seeds with soya and spent time studying the chemical properties of the jackfruit and its seed, and tried to add value to the arrangement. Her University project was titled, “Physical Chemical Properties of Jackfruit Soybean Flour”.
She got the stage of actually making the flour and turned it into a porridge mix and started selling it as a University Student. At first, she got the seeds free of charge from fenne dealers in Kampala markets, but when they saw how interested she was they started charging her Ushs1,000 per kilo. She paid the money, made porridge, and sold it. When fenne was out of season, she suffered, but she went on for a while regardless.
Academically, she went on as well, and was supervised by Dr. Hadijah Nansikombi who appreciated her project. More to that, though – in 2010 she became Guild President at the Islamic University in Uganda (I didn’t double check that) and on one of the President’s visits there she told him about her project and he took up a keen interest in it. He offered her a State House scholarship and she happily accepted it (who wouldn’t?).
It couldn’t last without funding and lots of other support, and along the way Safina picked an interest in bananas – particularly the ‘Musa’ species (embidde). Her parents had the variety at home and she knew how to make the juice traditionally, and had seen through her childhood how popular that banana juice was.
“My interest had always been to employ myself, so I thought this would be a good idea. People used to always enjoy drinking the juice so I knew it would have market. My father used to tell me, as a child, to always work towards employing myself rather than being employed. He had only ever had one job and after that decided to employ himself – which he is doing till now,” she says, wistfully.
She is unhappily employed now, because her dreams didn’t last long enough – but she will go back.
She started making the juice and packing it in those see-through buveera, going door-to-door and selling the packs at a neat profit to eager, thirsty, nostalgic consumers.
It did quite well, which wasn’t surprising because she was a student of Food, Science and Technology, a course her father approved of because it would help her achieve self-employment. He, himself, is an Engineer, Haji Mohammed Katongole, and owns a foundry at Mawakato Technical Services, in Najjanankumbi. He insisted, she says, on all his children aiming at self-employment and studying relevant courses to achieve it.
When her door-to-door approach proved popular she decided to go bigger. She met up with a friend, Mahmoud, who was good at production and would ensure they had a quality mbidde product with no added water or sugar, and they went to the Consortium of Enhancing Responsiveness in Agricultural Development (CURAD) for funding. With Ushs3.9million (which they are about to finally pay off, thanks to her current employment which she took up in order to clear the loan when the business met a technical hurdle) they bought equipment and packaged the mbidde in 320ml bottles from a factory in Matugga and went to market.
They did well for a while, and even took part in our biggest Expos here. Her goal, while doing so, was to achieve the Uganda National Bureau of Standards Quality mark…but they couldn’t get there before they got stopped.
Along the way, though, she had met the President again and told him about her new venture – and again he offered support, to get machinery, premises and working capital of about Ushs2billion. For months, they chased that offer while working out of home to pack the juice but it didn’t come to fruit before the authorities understandably told them to stop the domestic production. In April this year someone called Musa contacted them with the offer of helping to pursue the offer if they could cover the costs of Ushs5million – which, obviously, they could not.
Shortly after that, they dropped the business and she went back to work so she could pay off the CURAD loan, while Mahmoud did the same – at a car bond.
I found it admirable that she was committed to clearing the loan for the entry-level equipment they had installed and were using, and sad that she had to drop this locally-made banana juice that could have been employing a few more of her peers, while supporting a couple more businesses such as the bottle manufacturer they bought their materials from; sadder still that they put their entrepreneurial resourcefulness aside to do fairly mundane work.
The actual funding support they need is to set up premises that will pass muster and to get the right machine to squeeze the juice out of the bananas, which is much less than Ushs2billion – but they can’t find that even though many of us spend our millions buying up Range Rovers and very many bottles of tasty whisky every weekend.
Safina and her partner even went to her father and to Musa Body and to the Tamales to get someone to make the right machine but they couldn’t do it – not yet.
The reason she had tears in her eyes by the time our conversation ended was because she couldn’t believe ANYONE would listen to her entire story and not ask for money…and even pay for her tea while at it, giving her hope that there was a light ahead of this tunnel that she finds herself in.