In 2004, a company was born with a small workforce of only five and meagre funds from donations. It all started out of compassion. There was that drive to improve the lives of disadvantaged farmers in the war-ravaged Northern Uganda.
To Ms Josephine Okot - one of the founders of Victoria Seeds Limited and the current managing director – starting this company was not just about making money; it was about courage and determination to transform a community that had been disadvantaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army two-decade war.
“I have worked with these marginalised people in a post war conflict area; who are ignored by the financial institutions because they think they are not bankable with their only survival depending on handouts. Nobody believes in them,” she says gazing at the floor as if reminiscing the bad old days.
To her, Victoria Seeds as a business has given farmers from Northern Uganda support to learn how to fish for themselves and this partnership has moved them to the next level.
“I was touched because most of the food production was done by women and more so they lacked the inputs and resources. This inspired me a lot to start this company,” Okot remembers.
She knew starting a seed company would not only empower them in improving their crop yields and incomes, but they too needed the skills and ability to positively impact on the lives of their families through education.
Through this, she has seen the lives of over 900 farmers who supply her with the raw materials improve in Gulu, Oyam, and Mpigi districts where their processing facilities are situated.
“To me the look on the faces of these women at the end of the day keeps me going up to the next level; because I have seen a difference in their lives right from the food security of their families and standard of living,” she says.
The company has also since grown to be one of the leading seed companies in the country employing over 90 Ugandans.
Currently the company produces over 3,000 metric tonnes of seed annually, with 70 seed varieties for both the local market and 15 per cent of this is exported to Southern Sudan and the DR Congo. This has also strategically placed the company as the East African region embraces the common market.
Her road to success has been about doing it professionally and aiming for quality and currently her company has managed to command a nearly 20 per cent market share in an industry of 23 players in the country.
The company’s turn-over has surpassed $2.5 million (Shs5.4 billion) from a mere grant or donation. “My dream is to see Victoria Seeds as a market leader,” the graduate from Makerere University Business School who decided to go it alone after her first employment in one of the agribusiness companies says.
In her ambition to become a market leader, Ms Okot has established research facilities at Kawanda and Gulu. She has also set up a processing and production units in Masindi plus a sales outlet terminal in Kampala District.
Her role has been felt and this has earned her several accolades among which were the Oslo-‘Business for peace Honoree Award’, the Top 100 Hundred NMG award, Uganda Investment Authority-Investor of the Year Award –Small and Medium Category among others.
Like any other business, overall, Victoria Seeds as a small business has challenges at play; this has hindered them to reach all the population affected and forced them to concentrate on farmers who are near their processing facilities in Gulu and Oyam districts.
The cost of finance was her biggest challenge then but she appreciates the recent government support of a 10 per cent on agricultural loans and hopes with this it will help her diversify her businesses.
“Also working with good partners like Stanbic Bank and Dfcu Banks have been my financial partners and have helped me grow the business,” she adds.
Passion for her profession has been a motivational factor and kept her focused even when she bumps into obstacles; she always gets up and moves on with her head high.
Her advise to fellow women is to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. “Once one makes a decision to do something make sure it’s something you do with passion.”
She adds that social and business networks help a lot, more training is vital because they help one be a better leader in a male dominated environment.