Meet the Ugandan entrepreneurs leading their nation out of a prolonged lockdown

Women make up more than half of new business owners at Kampala incubator programme

Filmmakers, fashion designers and artists in Uganda are at the heart of the nation’s post-pandemic economic resurgence.

Businesses and schools finally opened in January but the long shutdowns resulted in many casualties, with young people worst hit by job losses and financial hardship.

Quote
If you are not connected, it is hard to get a good job in Uganda, so I wanted the business to provide me with an income and create jobs across the supply chain
Entrepreneur Belinda Esaete

A shining light was the burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit forged in the bedrooms and garages of parents reacquainted with grown-up children who had returned home.

Their ambition was supported by Motiv, an incubator supporting young entrepreneurs with workspace, equipment, business advice and finance in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

It aims to create 300,000 new jobs in the next five years.

The project has been built with assistance from the MasterCard Foundation, with a former vehicle chop shop in the Bugolobi industrial hub of Kampala converted into five warehouses across 7,000 square metres.

It provides a stage and gallery for artists, podcast and film studios, and workshops for carpenters and seamstresses.

Women make up more than half of new business owners at Kampala incubator programme.

Unlocking the potential of young entrepreneurs

Belinda Esaete, 26, lost her job as a procurement officer during Covid-19, so started her own business, Bel Deluxe, which designs and makes sleepwear.

“I spent months looking for a job, and my parents saw how frustrated and depressed I was,” she said.

“When I told them I wanted to be an entrepreneur, they said just go for it.

“In the beginning, it was difficult as I spent three months researching what I needed.

“If you are not connected, it is hard to get a good job in Uganda, so I wanted the business to provide me with an income and create jobs across the supply chain.

“To get the first orders in was exciting, but scary.”

Raymond Malinga's short film has won multiple awards and was featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. Photo: Andy Scott

A screensaver on Ms Esaete’s laptop shows a London high street shop to keep her ambition burning. One day she hopes to supply to companies such as Primark.

“Knowledge is the one thing you need when starting a new business and Motiv helped me develop that for free by connecting me with mentors,” said Ms Esaete, who employs eight staff, three of them full-time.

“It is tough being a woman and running a business — it is hard to raise finance and to have access to networks of businesswomen.

“The Motiv community does not see gender, just ambition.”

About 15 entrepreneurs work hours to suit their business, with Motiv facilitating an online trading hub to sell and distribute products made on site.

Raymond Malinga, 32, director of Creatures Animation studio, took his business from his parent’s garage to an office in the Motiv design district and has been chosen by Disney to create a short film.

“I had always wanted to be an animator and storyteller, so started a business with my brother Robin in 2015,” he said.

“I studied in Malaysia and worked there, but Africa was calling so I returned home to Uganda.”

From paying staff in noodles and reimbursing their travel costs, the business has evolved with each of his eight-strong creative team now taking a salary.

The brothers made a short film called A Kalabanda ate my homework that won multiple awards and was featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

“It is a six-minute film about a child going into school without his homework and blaming it on a Kalabanda, a kind of Ugandan bogeyman,” said Mr Malinga.

“It did really well and showed we could come up with concepts and form a team to produce it.”

That animation attracted the attention of Disney, which selected Mr Malinga from 70 animators across Africa to submit short films to tell their national story.

The anthology of 10 short films due in 2023 will feature on Disney+ to support the first crop of African directors.

“I had to pitch to Disney executives virtually during Covid. When I was selected, I was unable to tell anyone for a year,” said Mr Malinga.

“I am representing Uganda, taking aspects of our country's story and telling a futuristic version of it.

“For a budding studio like mine, it helps them to work alongside other creative people.”

Creative hub leading resurgence for young business people

A gallery at the live performance district of Motiv showcased art for International Women’s Day from a collective of around 15 creatives in Kampala, and connects artists with buyers around the world.

A month-long exhibition called Wall Speak was the first since the art space reopened, and saw work sold to collectors as far afield as Australia for up to $10,000.

“During the pandemic, people could not attend our shows, and we had curfews, so it was particularly challenging to show off our artwork,” said Mercy Vini, an artist working for the Vodo Art society at Motiv.

“The situation helped with our expression and content as we had time and a source of inspiration.

“Our exhibitions now are themed around Covid and our experiences during the lockdown.”

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world — about 77 per cent are under 30.

The nation’s population of 45 million is set to explode as a result of low mortality and high fertility rates. It is currently growing by a million each year.

With huge potential economic benefits, there is also surging demand for jobs outside agriculture and tourism, the sectors which are the country's two main employers.

A “bounce-back from Covid” event staged in association with the Uganda Investment Authority will be live-streamed from the Motiv site in Kampala into the Uganda Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 on Wednesday morning.

It will showcase some of the work of young businessmen and women from the region to promote innovation, youth and sustainability.

Eugene Kavuma, Motiv community head, said the project has provided an opportunity for ambitious young people to shine.

“Covid has cost these people not only their livelihoods, but also their source of pride and value,” he said.

“Some have gone away to try other things or moved away from the city altogether.

“We have helped them limit their costs so they can restart their lives and careers.

“In January when the country and economy reopened, there was a huge resurgence in demand.

“People have been running a marathon to survive, and now they want water — they can finally take a breath and are excited about the future.”

Updated: March 16, 2022, 7:51 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS