Benedicta Nanyonga paints a picture of a friendly, strong, determined woman as she welcomes you to her craft stall at a trade expo.
At first glance, the items in her stall may pass off as ordinary tie and craft items but close scrutiny reveals they are made out of plastic straws.
Nanyonga, the director and founder of Kinawataka Women Initiative (KIWOI) located on plot 11 Robert Mugabe Road in Nakawa, has found her niche in picking straws and recycling them into unique products that appeal to both the Ugandan and international markets.
The 65-year-old has overcome challenges which would have discouraged the average innovative business minded people to become the brain behind the million shilling recycling enterprise.
Leaving the bank for business
Nanyonga worked as a senior note examiner for Bank of Uganda for a modest salary just enough to keep her and her family well.
In 1997, she developed a spinal cord problem around her neck and was advised by a doctor to leave work. She defied the medical personnel’s advice and continued to work in the bank until 2001 when she resigned from her job.
She had worked for the bank for 23 years but left with nothing to show for her labour since she had used her little earnings to educate her children and build a house.
“I was working on contract and earned a gratuity after every two years which I had used to take my children to school and construct a house,” she says.
For six years (2001 to 2006), she depended on her now grown up children who catered for her every need.
Jobless for such a long period of time, she saw herself as a burden to her children who had other responsibilities and in 2006 she devised means of making money.
With a love for the sophistication of crafts her innovativeness drew her to one unique aspect- plastic straws. With Shs500, she bought two jerrycans of water at Shs200 and a sacket of Omo at Shs300 and she began off with her venture.
She recalls how people thought she was mad, some of whom hurled insults at her on seeing her sifting through rubbish pits for straws.
“You used to work in the bank and now you’re picking straws? You will be taken to Butabika,” she recalls, adding, “People thought I had ran mad.”
Even her children discouraged her from doing the work. During that period of time, she got a boost when her work was recognised by the UN Habitat and Lake Victoria Region Local Authorities Corporation who honored her with The 2005 Lake Victoria Environmental Award for her environmental friendly work.
In 2006, she got encouragement when she showcased her products at that year’s private sector trade facilitation at Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA) show ground in Lugogo.
Coca Cola Company spotted her environmentally friendly business and started to support her through collecting straws for her.
“When Coca Cola saw that I could help them dispose of the plastics, they asked me to get a letter from NEMA allowing me to recycle the straws which I got and they gave me support,” she said.
In 2010, she was listed as an international vendor for Coca Cola which saw her receive orders for her products from Kenya, Tanzania, Germany and USA.
“In 2010, I got an order from Italy for 100,000 shopping bags. This was my first big pay. I was very happy.”
This deal earned her Shs25 million, part of which she invested in a huge bowl for washing the straws at Shs1.5 million, a small straw binding machine at Shs8.5 million and four sewing machines at Shs7 million.
Her partnership with Coca Cola gave her more exposure through the company’s international vendors’ list. In 2011, she got an order from the United States of America for 20,000 different items from which she earned Shs750,000.
Post Office Uganda charges her Shs57,000 per kilogramme to export the products depending on the dollar rates.
Through her deal with the Coca Cola company, she gets discounts on her export costs if she uses DHL since coca cola has an account with the company with 20 bags costing her Shs257,000.
She finds the local market slow and very low in income generation.
“The Ugandan market is not good for my business. People are not aware of the product and they say it’s expensive.”
The cost of her products range from Shs3,000 to Shs80,000 which some people find expensive.
“Ugandans take long to appreciate locally made products and don’t want to part with their money,” she adds.
She credits the success of her trade to the international market where her products are attractive to foreigners.
“White people order for the goods in bulk compared to those here,” she affirms.
She currently employs 42 people all registered under her KIWOI organisation.
“I hold training sessions to equip my workers with skills,” she says.
A training session will cost you Shs100,000 and a day’s training session outside Uganda goes for $100.
She hopes to join the fruit business industry and has already set up a fruit farm on a 10-acre piece of land at Kiwawu on Mityana Road. It consists of guavas, oranges, paw paws and mango trees.
Nanyonga also plans to purchase a vehicle to help in transporting the products.
She plans to construct a training centre to train people on how to recycle straws and make crafts.
Currently, she trains women mainly from her headquarters in Kinawataka and plans to widen the trainings to other parts of the country.
She advises people intending to go into business to be motivated and start thinking of what to do instead of just waiting to get employed by someone.
“One should have a vision in their mind of what they want to do,” she says.
She also advised people to plan out their business projects. One should have a clear view of how they are going to promote their company.
Lastly, she calls upon private business people to always be committed to their work.
“One should maintain focus and commitment to their business and put aside all the mockery and hardships they may face.”
“I was mocked by people in the beginning when I started collecting straws but now I am earning my good money and living well,” she adds.
Her KIWOI organisation boasts of more than 270 registered members across the country who are involved in the straw craft production.
Her straw recycle business has not only given her employment, it has also given her credit nationally and internationally including the following awards.
The 2014, 40 most influential women in Uganda from CEA international.
The 2014 TIAW World of difference award from The International Alliance For women.
The 2011 Environment and Energy Award winner for Business Association and community development awards from The Private Sector Foundation Uganda.
The 2009 UN Habitant Business Award from UN Human Settlements Programmes.
The 2008 Presidents Export Award from Uganda Export Promotion Board.
The 2007 A. Lubogo Award for community Involvement from Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited.
The 2005 Lake Victoria Environmental Award from UN Habitat and Lake Victoria Region Local Authorities Corporation.
Being the first company in the world to make crafts out of recycled straws, machinery for compressing the machinery is currently unavailable.
“The business is majorly faced with lack of machinery to compress the straws, so we are currently using knives to compress the straws,” she says.
She says using knives to compress the straws flat is real tedious work and they at times get their hands bruised and injured.
“We sent a model design of the machine to a manufacturing company in China. Hopefully, the company will deliver soon,” she adds.
Without a machine to assist with the meticulous production process, she is being forced to resist some orders.
“Three months after purchasing the binding machine, it broke down and when I went back to the person who sold it to me, he refused to get me a replacement it yet he had offered us a six-month guarantee,” Nanyonga shares. The company also finds it hard to transport the products since they are bulky.
Exportation of the products is quite expensive with high taxes that are imposed on the products.
Instability on the local market is also a challenge since few Ugandans are buying the products.
Numbers about the straw firm
Number of people she employs in her recycled straw company.
Amount of money she used to start the business.
Average amount of money she earns in a month.
Money she has earned from one of her biggest deals.