Women-Run Startups Vie for Next Global Brand

Gender bias persists in Uganda’s business landscape. A new women-only startup incubator aims to even the score.

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Women-Run Startups Vie for Next Global Brand

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Jackie Asasira shows off products in her cosmetics shop. She hopes to obtain the support of one of the country’s startup incubators so that she can grow her business.

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WAKISO, UGANDA — Jackie Asasira started her cosmetics company, Verico Beauty World, as a modest endeavor in 2015. At first, she operated out of her home, selling body lotions, shampoo and anti-aging remedies to friends and acquaintances. By 2018, she had become successful enough to open a small shop where she could sell her products more widely. But her ambitions are much bigger still.

“I want my company to become profitable and successful,” she says. “I want my products on all shelves in Uganda supermarkets and the world.”

In order to reach that level of success, Asasira hopes to obtain the support of one of Uganda’s small-business incubators, which provide promising entrepreneurs with startup capital, training, mentorship and other professional assistance. There are currently 13 such incubators in the country — the first and largest of which is the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, a state-owned enterprise that was established in 2002.

But for some women entrepreneurs like Asasira, obtaining the support of these incubators has been an uphill battle. For many years, the idea of women entrepreneurs was taboo in Uganda, and the incubators have become very male-dominated and intimidating for women to join, according to the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited, a membership organization that supports women in business and advocates on their behalf.

“I want my products on all shelves in Uganda supermarkets and the world.”small-business owner

Barbara Ofwono Buyondo, the organization’s chairperson, says that more than 4,500 members of the group have applied for support from the research institute without success.

To provide more opportunities to women in business, the group announced in September that it’s launching its own startup incubator focused solely on supporting women entrepreneurs. The incubator will provide workspace, mentorship and funding to women working in the agriculture, information technology and business sectors. Plans call for physical space for 28 women-led businesses and remote support for an additional 80 businesses.

“We shall have a center of excellence and training institute in entrepreneurship which will contribute to the economic growth of Uganda,” Buyondo said at a press conference announcing the new initiative.

The group has launched a fundraising drive seeking 25 billion Ugandan shillings ($7 million) to support the endeavor. Ultimately, the incubator aims to help create 40,000 jobs a year, says Constance Kekihembo, the association’s chief executive officer.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Jackie Asasira sells cosmetics products to a customer.

The state-owned research institute asserts that it already has a long track record of supporting women entrepreneurs. “So many women have been incubated at the Institute and have built successful companies,” says Linda Lilian, a spokesperson. She declined to provide data on how many women have obtained the group’s support.

Yet it’s clear that women still trail men in the business sector. As of 2014, the most recent year statistics were available, only 44% of businesses in Uganda were owned by women, according to a report by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that works to advance social and economic justice.

Evelyn Namara is the founder of Vouch Digital, a technology startup that aims to eliminate corruption by ensuring that aid or funds reach their intended recipients. Namara, who is a leading champion for women in tech, launched her business with support from an incubator called The Innovation Village, which provided her with office space and opportunities to meet customers and grow her business. Not all incubators operate this way, she says.

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“An incubator is supposed to take in a business, assess the needs, and work with the entrepreneur to find better ways to solve them and position the entrepreneur to be the best they can be,” Namara says. But some of the country’s incubators aren’t doing that, she says, and are instead simply taking advantage of struggling business owners without offering them real support.

“Most of these spaces have become office rental spaces that happen to have more entrepreneurs as tenants.”

Namara believes the association’s idea to create a women-centric incubator could help improve opportunities for women entrepreneurs in Uganda, if it is able to provide real financial support, professional development and networking opportunities.

“If we are to make progress, we need to be intentional in the structure of a hub space and what it provides to customers,” she says. “Built the right way, I would see a lot of value in an all-women incubation center. And yes, it would solve some of the gender inequality issues, such as access to financing, linkages to capital sources, networking and collaboration opportunities.”

Asasira hopes to be among the first crop of entrepreneurs to take advantage of the association’s new incubator when it eventually opens.

“I will definitely apply to the women’s center and others for the opportunity to grow my business,” she says. “It can only go up from here.”

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.

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