Tuesday February 18 2014

Designing wood for a living

David Kigongo at work in his workshop.

David Kigongo at work in his workshop. Kigongo has done work for private companies, non-governmental organisations and single pieces of furniture for individual orders. Photo by Dominic Bukenya 

By FARIDAH KULABAKO

Doors and piles of timber lean against the inside wall of the workshop located at his residence in Namungoona while other consignments are packed in boxes ready to be delivered to the owners.

“Those in boxes are kitchen units [cabins] which I will be taking to a customer’s home for fixing,” David Kigongo, the Davik Timber Users proprietor, says as he shows us around his workshop located in the middle of the building that also houses a small showroom on the right and his home on the far left.

Kigongo says he has done jobs ranging from handling big orders from private companies and non-governmental organisations to small ones such as making single pieces of furniture for individual orders.

His products range from office furniture to home furniture such as wardrobes, kitchen units, dining tables, beds, sideboards, sofa sets, trolleys and doors.

Costs
Prices range between Shs1.5 million and Shs2.5 million per metre for wardrobes, depending on the wood type, Shs500,000 per metre for the kitchen top unit and Shs530,000 per metre for the kitchen unit base.

The dining table ranges from Shs1.5 million and above depending on the number of seats, design and timber while doors cost Shs500,000.

Although he does not advertise, Kigongo notes that the high quality of his work is the only advertising channel he uses.

“If you produce quality products, everything will work in your favour. I don’t advertise but clients advertise for me. Most people come to me through referrals,” he says.
He adds: “Marketing comes at its own price and the simplest way one can market himself is by supplying quality products to create a good reputation for the business, so that the clients do marketing for you.”

Kigongo overcame challenges to grow his furniture-making enterprise

In his journey, Kigongo counts a number of achievements including buying a piece of land where he constructed his workshop and a yet-to-be completed mini-showroom. He is also currently constructing a double storeyed building in the same area for his family home.

The enterprise is currently estimated at Shs200 million, inclusive of the workshop.
Although the industry looks crowded and is unregulated, the father of three says he has beat off competition and stand outs from other furniture makers because of the quality of his work.

“My products make my clients smile and in the end, I have them referring new ones to me,” he notes.

Kigongo says Uganda’s carpentry sub-sector faces a lot of opposition from environmentalists who argue that the carpenters’ work is destructive to the environment.
He, however, notes that ensuring the production of quality furniture is the only way to save the environment as it takes less timber.

Limited skilled labour hurts his business
The 46-year-old’s biggest challenge has been inadequate skilled labour which he says constrains his work.

“It is hard to get people who have the skill to produce quality work the way I want it,” he says, adding that although he keeps on training people, they often move on to start their own workshops,” he explains.

He adds: “You can’t employ people making furniture by the road side because they are used to making shoddy work to get quick money.”
He further notes that although local furniture makers face stiff competition from imported furniture, the trend is slowly changing.

“Some people are easily carried away with imported furniture because it’s shinning on top but they are slowly realising that it’s not durable and are now buying locally produced furniture,” he says, adding that Ugandans should start supporting local manufacturers by buying their products to grow the economy.

Honesty key to success of business

His major lessons include; honesty, quality work and hard work.

“Honesty opens doors for business success. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t fulfill his promise, it will result to negative publicity which will affect your business,” says Kigongo, adding that leisure is expensive to him because he has to ensure that he delivers his orders on time.

The other key lesson Kigongo has learnt is that to succeed in the carpentry business, a cutting list or plan is a must to ensure that one utilises wood to the maximum to avoid wastage.

“Money is hidden in calculation and not so much in labour,” he notes, adding that using dry timber is also crucial.”

Future plans

Kigongo intends to specialise in fewer but classic items in a few years to come, which will be displayed in his showroom, next to the workshop.

He also plans to increase his production capacity and explore new markets as he eyes becoming a leading furniture manufacturer in Uganda.

Passion drove Kigongo into woodwork

As a teenager, Kigongo recognised he had a natural flair for creating works of art from wood and he would make small tables in the compound under tree shades as a hobby.

He later decided to pursue the hobby as a career when he specialised in carpentry and joinery at the Nile Vocational Institute, Jinja, to better his wood curving skills.
He started working at Intex Mobale, a furniture maker then located in Kajjansi, upon graduating with a diploma in April 1991.

Although he had been offered a job at the institute as a teaching assistant, he declined the offer thinking that it would not allow him to be creative.

“I got two job offers immediately after graduation including an offer to teach at Nile Vocational Institute but I settled for a practical job at Intex Mobale because I felt it would be more challenging and help me get hands-on experience than teaching,” he says.
However, about eight months later, the company closed, rendering him jobless. Left with no choice, he went back to his home village in Mukono, to till his father’s land.

It was, however, not too long before Kigongo was invited by a relative living in Kampala to make for him wardrobes and a dining table top. Armed with simple tools that included a hammer, tape measure, a hand saw and screwdrivers among others, Kigongo made it to Kampala and made the furniture that was admired by other people, earning him contracts.

“I didn’t have any cash capital apart from the 11 basic tools I had. People would buy the material, give it to me to make the furniture and pay for my labour. But I was determined because I had passion for what I was doing,” Kigongo recalls.

Using the earnings from the first job, Kigongo bought two pieces of timber which he kept in his small room since he had no workshop.

With less than Shs100,000 savings accumulated from his mobile workshop, Kigongo later decided to get a permanent address by putting up a small papyrus-roofed structure, in someone’s backyard to act as a workshop.

His customer base also started growing.
“By 1993, I had gotten many orders than I could handle single handedly so I had to employ two people to help meet deadlines,” Kigongo explains in a passion-filled voice.
He uses timber species including pine, cypress, mahogany, nkalati and mvule, which he sources from Ndeeba, Kisenyi, Bwaise, Nateete and Gaba.

He, however, notes that mvule does not have much demand because it takes long to dry and few customers can be patient enough to wait for it to dry.

fkulabako @ug.nationmedia.com

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