Henritte Paula Mugisa on Digital Tech & Business

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Henritte Paula Mugisa (HM) on Digital Tech & Business .

RK: Good to have you on #360Mentor Henriette

HM: Thank you for having me Mr Kabushenga.

RK: Let’s start here, were you born a digital entrepreneur?

HM:  No, I wasn’t.

RK: I thought you’re one of those people who were born with digital tools.

HM: No.  I was actually born in the late 80s.

RK: Ah! Would you qualify to be called a millennial or Gen Z?

HM: Definitely, a millennial not Gen Z.

RK: Who are the Gen Zs by the way, I have no idea of this stuff anymore.

HM: Those are the young people born from 1995 onwards to the 2000s when the internet had already taken off.

RK: I think for us we are the baby boomers.

HM: Yes.

RK: Oh my! What a world! I can’t imagine that I meet guys who call me grandpa. I know I have grey hair but it’s not that bad.

Anyway, first of all, tell me, what do you do?

HM: I prepared for this question and I still don’t know the best way to respond to it.         

RK: It’s very simple, start at the beginning.

HM: My office is on my laptop and my phone. Literally, I can work from wherever I am. And what I am doing is supporting businesses; to start, to grow, to scale; to solve  a problem, to enter a service/ product on the market, whatever. But I support businesses. I like to call myself  a business development consultant.

RK: Do you have a company or something?

HM: Yes, I have a company under which we do all this business support that I am talking about. It’s called Teesa. We started out as Teesa Advisory Services three years ago, now we are just called Teesa. I like to say Teesa is a non-traditional advisory firm for micro small and medium enterprises in Africa. 

RK: Why non-traditional?

HM: Non-traditional in the African context, even in Uganda,  when we say consultant/ consultancy  we mean this person or group of persons who come in their suits with  their briefcases speaking fancy English selling a bunch of ideas and plans that they are going to implement. A lot of times, the traditional/ conventional consultant does the work and implements it on behalf of businesses. We are nontraditional in the sense that knowing that most of our entrepreneurs couldn’t afford this service, we offer the knowledge, the expertise or whatever assignment we are given and give it to them to implement it themselves.

RK: How do you manage where others haven’t been able to do it? others create jobs for themselves, how do you manage not to create work for yourselves?

HM: It’s actually very interesting. One of things that I thought when we were making the transition, (we started the traditional way). We create business resources and content and put it online. Somehow we have managed to convince people to take on the models and strategies and implement them themselves. They create more value and results for themselves.

RK: What kind of businesses do you work with?

HM: Right now, our ecosystem in Uganda and Africa is very fragmented. We have yet niched an industry that we work with, we simply work with all sorts of micro businesses across different industries. Because at the foundation of the businesses, many of the concepts that you ought to do are the same.

RK: Let’s assume Rugyeyo Farm is  a small enterprise, when you come to my organisation, how do you- on a  day to day basis- create value for me?

HM: I assume that Rugyeyo farm is a relatively new business. For businesses less than 3 years, the way that we add value is by talking to them about refining their brand online. if you are a product based business like Rugyeyo selling coffee, having an e-commerce shop. Going to the Jumias which you have already done. Expanding to different markets and so on. If we were coming  in as traditional consultants, we’d give you all these ideas. you would respond to the ones that you would think would work. you would make a plan on how to implement these activities.

Now, the nontraditional part we would say, the most important thing right now is to build itself an international  brand profile to show that you are doing things differently from other farmers locally so that it can attract people outside Uganda and Africa who are the biggest buyers of coffee to its story. and we would tell you how to do it rather than do  it for you. And then we track your activities and the results you are getting and then troubleshoot and so on and so on.

RK: Let’s go for the most difficult part of the conversation which is your story. Born in the late 80s, where do you go to school?

HM: I was born three months after my father had died. Single mother household, youngest of five. I went to kindergarten at rainbow international  school. Then I went to Aga Khan  for primary school, then Kabojja for early high school then went back to Aga Khan then went to Internations School of Uganda at the time it was the only school in Uganda where you could sit for your SATs. That’s early 2000s.

RK: Just to go back a bit, during that time, was there any indication that you would be an entrepreneur of some kind?

HM: Definitely. Many times when I’m sharing my  story; studying  in international schools and going abroad, there is a certain kind of vibe that it creates. Entitled. Easy life. no hustle. Vibes. Which is not the case.

RK: Here on 360, we are very open minded, not judgemental, we just want to learn and go and implement. We are not going to go into whether you’re privileged or not. there is something you are going to teach us that we didn’t know about. 

Let’s even start with the fact that you did not have a father figure, how did that shape your thinking?

HM: It greatly impacted my thinking. Growing up with multiple siblings in a single mother household,, you quickly learn…

RK: How many boys?

HM: Three boys, two girls.

RK: Hahaha. Now I get a sense of what the household was like.

HM: You quickly begin to understand the value of independence. Figuring out stuff on your own. finding out the link between money and independence. Independence at the age of 12 is really all about figuring out what you want to do and buy what you want to buy.  I remember figuring  that out  at about 12. At that time, I had just finished PLE at  Aga Khan. I really wanted to work. I hounded my mother and nagged here over and over every single day. There was an ice cream shop near where we lived.

RK: There’s always a motivation.

H: Interestingly, I didn’t want to be paid in crecream, I wanted to be paid cash to be able to do what I wanted to do.   

RK: Which included buying ice cream?

HM: Well, yes. But my brothers were significantly older. They could leave the  house when they wanted. You had to leave slices of bread for your brother, why? I want to eat all the bread. But with one provider in the house and with many people in the house, you eat your two slices and move on. And be grateful.

I remember my mum didn’t succeed in convincing the Indians who owned the ice cream shop that I should work there.

RK: What exactly did you  want to do at the ice cream parlour?

HM:  Serving ice cream and smiling at people. I really knew I could do it..

RK: At the age of 12?

HM: Yes.

RK: I shouldn’t even be talking. At the age of 8, I was already selling bread in the  neighbourhood.

HM: You get it! there’s power in it. You start to make your own decisions. We also went to international school but at a time after our father died and a lot of property had to be sold to support  a lifestyle that we had while he was still alive. So I was going to the international school but not with the new clothes or the new shoes. Do you remember those catalogues that used to come with tshirts and jeans? They were in the early stages of the internet.

My siblings and I knew that stuff was not for us. We know we are here but we are not like these other people that go to the international school.

RK: You learn very quickly that all you are there is to get a fairly good education and get out. and we knew we were lucky to be there.

So there is a build up to wanting to make decisions at 12. From what you are packing in  your lunch box and what others are packing. How you spend your weekend doing nothing and how others spend it travelling.

RK: At what point do you start feeding the empowerment you’re looking for? Working for your own money and trying to do something for  yourself?

HM: Oh wow, it was a long fight. My first experience of making money and making  a decision was S2, I think. My mum was into construction moving around the country building schools for the  company she was working for leaving my brothers in charge of the money and the food and everything. and you  know when they are in charge of the house, the first few days you are eating meat and the other days, you are eating posho. When we negotiated with my mother to manage the house while she was gone, as the youngest, so we could eat better the entire time she was away. And live a better life. That was my first time with that kind of empowerment.

RK: What in terms of your education prepared you for your life and journey of enterprise?

HM: Not much actually in my early education. I only started making links between what I was studying and entrepreneurship when I was in the States for the first time. there is that feeling that you can do whatever you want. I felt the same on campus starting entrepreneurship. That was my earliest experience. Early international school here did not indicate to me much that I was going to be an entrepreneur.

RK: What did you study at university?

HM: I went to the states and studied business administration with entrepreneurship and a minor in music.

RK: Eh! You can sing?

HM: Yes, I can sing.

RK: Why didn’t we have you sing for us before the show started?

HM: Hahaha wish you had asked. But yeah, I was there for two years and I was swept away by the idea of entrepreneurship and innovation. But I dropped out. I thought I knew everything there was to know. I was so keen and eager to know things. I wanted to come back here and implement.

So I did, to my mother’s shock and  dismay. I left and came back home to start a business. I failed to raise capital and I left again. This  time to the UK to study again.

RK: First wait. You raised money, started a business, and failed?

HM: It failed in 10 months. Lost everything and didn’t even sell.

RK: We want to hear that story, what happened?

HM: Before I went to the states, I went on a trip to Dubai and China with friends. And one of the fascinating things for anyone going to Dubai is the hotels and how the hospitality industry works. So I asked myself, what –out of all this- could an everyday person duplicate in uganda? Restaurants, no. Hotels needed a lot more money than I could raise. I visited one of the hotels and  I saw how they did their laundry.

I inquired around here and I was told that the biggest laundries we have are at mulago and the Sheraton. So I thought, why not start one  for businesses. But I wanted to go to places that had to do bulky laundry. I was able to convince  a friend and we raised quite a bit of money interestingly. We raised $60,000. I was about 21.

RK: Wow! That’s commendable.

HM: Thank you. We bought heavy duty machinery from Dubai and shipped it here.  We registered a company called multimax. When we got here all the problems started. We couldn’t find a  place we could afford because we spent the money on taxes and machinery. We found semi detached houses in Bukoto. We didn’t realise we needed 3 phase electricity. We need an industrial water line. All these things we had no idea. We started losing money at that point.

But also as ayoung person you  don’t have the capacity to  build relationships and the tools to manage conflict. You’re fighting with your partner. They think you should do things one way, you think you should do things in another way. Your family is crazy about you. They still don’t understand  why they left and how it’s going to work out. So yeah, in 10 months we failed. We did not do any single laundry service for anyone. Very interesting time.

RK: What lessons did you draw from that experience?

HM: So many. The biggest one for me was getting off that high way of life. In Uganda, we like to say “calm down”. I had to really calm down. Chase the dream in a way that is more realistic and practical. I was extremely naïve.

I used that story to convince the program director of the University of Buckingham to let me into his venture creation program where I did graduate.  There was an opportunity.

Victoria university before it was owned by the Ruparelia group was funded by an Arab education fund called Edulink. They wanted to give Ugandans and Africans the opportunity to get an international education locally. If that was at the time to prove myself, then I don’t know which was. Because I couldn’t just do business the street way or the naïve way.

RK: So what did you do then?

HM: So I went to Victoria University and they had a business foundation program and  studied so hard, I made sure I had the best grades, was on top of my class, and won the scholarship. Then the drama about homosexuality started and Edulink came out, the university of Buckingham came out but there was an old lady Dr Frances Robinson. She was the collaborations director between the University of Buckingham and Victoria University then owned by Edulink. When I was looking out for what next, I landed on their entrepreneurship program, the only venture creation program in the world. They teach you how open  up and run a business. They only accept 11 people from all over the world. And they give you funding for your startup as part of your degree.

I had to convince or nag them to allow me into that program. I never gave up.

RK: You were relentless?

H: I was. Anyone who knows me knows that. Once I focus on something…

RK: Dog and born together?

HM: Together as one. Dr Robinson said all she could do for me was to get me a skype interview with the program director and that’s it. I just told the gentleman everything I could and I got in.

RK: At what point upon your return do you start to build your business?

HM: It started at Buckingham. I was a completely different person from the one who went to the States the first time. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to be there. In the first semester, you have to figure out what business you are going to build. And you have to pitch to what they call the Buckingham angels funding. And I thought these universities are seated on a bunch of resources that we need. If I can hack it, the way I have come here is to get all these resources and aggregate them somewhere for my people (all entrepreneurs and hustlers). So if I could convince as many universities as possible,  I could be on something. That’s what I built.

 RK: How did you get to work with NSSF and what was that about?

HM: Hi Innovators is a brain child of NSSF. We reached out to NSSF to support and create more jobs. By that time, Outbox Hub is the main implementing partner of the HiInnovator program under NSSF.

The reason TEESA was approached and  I was approached because at  the beginning of the lockdown we launched our program called Tutandike. It was first on line. Heavy business fundamentals for Uganda entrepreneurs and NSSF was doing something similar but at  amassive similar level and they onboarded mastercard onto their big vision for Ugandans and enterprises. And so they said, you build content, work out something that all Ugandans can use and get ideas from and enter new services and products on the market as well as create new jobs. That’s why we were very privileged enough to sit on the table. We worked with Outbox, MUBS and the team at NSSF to create the Hi Innovator Program.

RK: Let me bring in Patrick, could you take us through HI Innovators and what it is trying to do.

PA: Thank you Robert. I think you know by now that we have 200,000 students who graduate from school every year. So you’ve got a backlog with people with a lot of knowledge who are not able to do much because they don’t have an organised place for them to do it.

As NSSF, we grow organically when we make our revenues and exceed our expenses. We also grow when we get higher salaries or new members. The big companies are not really hiring. Through innovation, they are trying to reduce their headcount. Basically, the one thing NSSF that can do to grow is by attracting new members. But if the country is not making jobs, it means in 10 or 15 years NSSF can die. We decided that we need to intervene in this job market. That’s the only way we can ensure that we have new members 10-15 years down the road.

I relate with what Henrita is saying. I have started a business and failed. If you look at the ecosystem for job creation, people have wonderful ideas, they test them, then they pilot the ideas to make sure they work. Then they commercialise the ideas to make sure that people want to buy them. And then they scale it. In the scaling stage there is enough funding.  Banks are there for that. In the commercial space, there is some money because private equity and venture capital are there.

You won’t believe it, in the idea stage, there are enough resources. Kampala alon has about 24 business centres. Anybody with an idea can go to a business centre and can find that idea. The problem is that at the pilot stage, nobody wants to put money in. All the good ideas  just fall off. That’s why we came in.

We picked a model used by YCombinator. They have been there for over 20 years.  They basically started with $20,000 ideas that had potential to grow. What they have is that the tools we use today came from that. Dropbox, Uber, Reddit, Whastapp. All these came about because someone put $20,000 in an idea.

So we did  a pilot which showed us that entrepreneurs in Uganda are so tunnel focused  they only looked at the idea. They didn’t look at the market and  all those other requirements. We decided that we cannot give them money before training them. That’s where Teesa comes in. 

Lo and behold, the second lockdown came. Our plan was to go to the countryside and teach entrepreneurs. So we couldn’t travel. We decided to have an online platform where we could have material/ content where entrepreneurs could access and read. Teesa did just that.

The reason we went to Teesa and MUBS, the other content which was available, was geared towards American/ European mindsets. Nothing African. We launched that in May  2021. By August, 1500 Ugandans across all regions had gone through it. Out of those ideas we shortlisted 87. We had a mastercard come on board. out 87, we are going to fund 30 of them with up to  $30,000 per idea as they go from piloting to commercialization.

The good news is that we have now got the banks, Stanbic,Equity, UDB and AB Trust  have signed up. they will  also be able to provide soft loans so that this entrepreneur has a chance to succeed. The target is to fund 500 entrepreneurs over the next five years.

The failure rate in the US is 75% within  the first 5 years. The US with all its structures. In Uganda, the failure rate is 90%. Out of 500 startups  that we put money in, we expect 90% of them to fail (450) but the 50 that succeed may become the MTNs, UBLS, Stabics of this world that drive this economy. That’s the interesting journey we have been on. The Next cohort is January and another in April.

RK: Paula, what’s your experience with the startups Patrick is talking about? What do you say to people trying to figure  out things on their own, how can they benefit from all of this?

HM: I would like to commend NSSF and the Mastercard Foundation and the other partners. What they are providing is not capital which comes to our minds first but also content, networks and the other things Mr Ayota mentioned need to come together.

However at the very base, what we are finding over and over is enterprise education, skilling in terms of enterprise, unlocking mindsets, that’s the foundational key critical component for the entire thing.

Once the entrepreneurs are given the frameworks, ideas and strategies, it’s’ the beginning of the big journey. Beautiful practical African ideas, that’s the first part. To be able to jump the huddle of business failure, you need the information.

The HI Innovator program is free for anybody listening and is accessible to everyone all over the country. We use Ugandan case studies and examples for each and every one of the modules to make it relatable to us. That’s an investment that’s worth the time.

On the online component, I would say that even before covid, having content online or using digital platforms where it reaches many people is cheaper and these are solutions we should have had maybe even 10 years ago. It’s just that covid has put pressure under us to reach people with information services and ideas which is a huge opportunity. We need more of that. We need enterprise education that is specialised by industry. We need industry education for people who have been in business for seven years, ten years, thirty years to continue to unlock their mindsets into innovations and trends and all the new things coming up so we can apply ourselves differently.

PA: Actually, one of the winners yesterday was a gentleman from Yumbe. He does bee keeping. He wants to scale up with machines to help him package better. He has a market in South  Sudan but he has been doing it crudely. So I was wondering how he got onto the program. In my mind I was struggling to see him get on to the internet. His daughter has a smartphone. They went through the course for three months on the phone. And the training is very interactive. He was one of the winners. That is what digitization has done. It has democratised investment. There is no way under the traditional methods, that this man in Yumbe would have been  able to apply for funding and is not in Kampala and get it. It is amazing the things digital can do. Teesa is doing a great job and we are just at the start.

The other thing we did was to go away from the usual things of asking for financials. We have instead built a sharing service through the ICAP, the accounting body. We are telling our entrepreneurs, for a small sacrificial fee on a monthly basis, you will have access to accounting services, marketing, strategy and all other services to help you and your business succeed.

If we do that, we can then reduce the failure rate of 90% and bring it down to 75% and that means there are more businesses created in that process.

RK: Henriette, you did something with UNDP, what was that about?

HM: Stanbic Bank entered into a partnership with UNDP to support businesses similar to what NSSF is doing with funding. The criteria for that was for businesses that had been in operation for a year or two and formalised. And we know we are in one of those economies where a lot of businesses operate informally under the radar. And so we pitched an idea to pull all of the ideas in this market from informal businesses, skilled employment and many of us who have not implemented our ideas to pull them together to see how many ideas we could come up with. That’s why it was called the UNDP Idea Forum. We brought industry leaders to help the   participants find their way. We got 4000 ideas submitted, 100 of them are going to be shortlisted. They will be given funding, mentorship and skilling. But they started with the people who hadn’t started, the ideas people.

RK: There are all these initiatives happening in the different spaces, is it possible to bring them together?

HM: That’s a good question Mr Kabushenga. One of the challenges we have in the ecosystem is a fragmented ecosystem where many of the players are not working in tandem pulling resources, ideas, skills, professionals and all that. It would make it significantly more impactful for the country and the continent if we did that.

Comrade Otoa: Robert, this is happening already.  We are coming together as innovation and incubation hubs to solve the same problem. In this NSSF program with MasterCard, you have close to 8 different partners. And the idea is not to duplicate stuff but work around where our strengths are around those businesses.

The competitive attitude doesn’t work in my opinion. We need to come together and support each other. That way, we get to close the gap.

One interesting hub called Amara Hub in Kole District is in the middle of nowhere but the beauty with it is the impact it is having on the community and the people of the north. If it was not for the collaboration, we couldn’t have had that link, now that is evident, it is going to happen and grow even better.

RK: Patrick, you are the biggest player in all this, have you thought of roping in the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI)?

PA: One of the things we realised as NSSF is that we are not good at everything. We have got  a partnership with Stanbic Innovation Hub because Stanbic has a location in more that 6 areas in Uganda. Why would we duplicate the same thing? We position ourselves as the entity that can pull the ecosystem together. We want to increase the number of incubation centres. An entrepreneur in Soroti does not have to come to Kampala, if we do this well, it will work.

MasterCard has put  $1M in Hi Innovator, also as a local entity, we are willing to put our money where our mouth is. That gives us leverage. And together we then begin to shape it as Uganda. We now have a number of bodies that want to come on board as partners but they have to do so on our terms.

RK: Patrick, can you reach out to UIRI?

PA: I have had a chance to talk to Dr Kwesiga of UIRI and we have agreed on some things. We are looking at who is doing what. We want people to have an opportunity to get something. There is no problem with UIRI and we are closely following up working together.  

RK: Puala, which digital platforms can people look out for to grow their businesses?

HM: When we are talking about platforms, a lot of times we are talking about  leveraging the internet. Using the internet for selling mainly. At the end of the day, when you are in business, you are  a salesperson. That’s what we are talking about. The most traditional platform that all businesses should consider is the website. Every time we are talking about building  a platform, think about a website. A Place where you are fully in control to share about your business and sale and engage people about your brand.

A lot of people expect me to say social media but as a foundation, it is the website. But with the recent blackout, many of us especially in the small businesses, I feel like we are being given the short end of the stick, we are being controlled by the algorithms, social media is now about ads and paying. You have 1000 followers but only 100 are viewing your posts. After the website, you have the mailing lists. Many businesses now are using social media and websites to drive people to their mailing lists. There you are in more control. There are other smaller platforms which one can choose according to their interest. Other than that, one can build mobile applications. That is the top tier. That comes with cost and other challenges.

RK: Patrick, beyond your initiatives, can NSSF invest in things like better digital access and all these other unnecessary disruptions to the internet because it is interfering with innovation?

PA: We are being driven by data. I am sure if you approached the ministry and told them that we had a reach of 1 million Ugandans and  90% of them complained of network issues, they could get through the course. I think we could gain credibility and change the policies. Sometimes the best way is to lead the way. It is something we must do and we are doing it. but we must build it up in  a systematic way that is unchallengeable. We have a lot of data in different places and nobody has ever tried to pull it together.  But it is there and we must take deliberate effort to bring it together.

 RK: What is your last message Paula?

HM: First, I would like to thank Mr Kabushenga for this platform. I want to encourage everyone here to engage with enterprise education.  A lot of what we have shared today is content you can find on the Hi Innovator program. It is engaging content. It’s an exchange that helps you refine your ideas and the value you offer. Thank you.

PA: We have put together a number of players to ease work in the ecosystem. We now have KTA on board and they are helping with advocacy services. My appeal to the people out there, come and make use of these platforms. They have been designed to benefit you.

RK: It’s been a wonderful evening having you Paula and Patrick.

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