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20-year-old paper bag entrepreneur

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Mupuya displays his paper bags at his workshop.

Mupuya displays his paper bags at his workshop. The paper bags business idea won him the Anzisha Prize worth Shs75m. PHOTO BY REBECCA VASSIE  

By Jude katende

Posted  Monday, October 15   2012 at  01:00

In Summary

He is young, an entrepreneur, environment conservationist and a boss. Mupuya is such a person to inspire fellow 20-year-olds to do something that can change their lives and communities

Just 20 years old and still studying, Andrew Mupuya who employs people older than him recently won the second annual Anzisha Prize, the premier award for Africa’s young entrepreneurial leaders. The awards ceremony was held on August 29, 2012, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mupuya won $30,000 (Shs75m), and was among 13 exceptional entrepreneurs, all under the age of 22, selected from 270 youth in 23 countries.

His first big win, however, came in 2008 when he was a student at Kololo SS and participated in the now annual Junior Achievement programme.
“We were over 200 students collecting plastic bottles and selling beads to companies in Norway and Uganda. Our company, Quapack was the best that year. I got inspired by my entrepreneurship teacher, Timothy Mugerwa. I consulted him and he encouraged me to draft the business plan,” he explains.

The second win was in 2011, when his own company, Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (Yeli) won $1,000 (Shs2.5m) for the International Labour Organisation business plan competition. His winning plan was about the extension of the paper bag business. Yeli has now produced over half a million paper bags in its four years of operation.

Mupuya’s claim to fame so far has been through his undying passion for entrepreneurship. The Makerere University third year Commerce student majoring in accounting won’t be on the streets searching for a job as he is already an employer.

When his parents became unemployed, Mupuya struggled to balance his school fees with the need to support his family. In 2008, then aged 16, he saw a market opportunity in paper bag production, as the government considered a possible ban on use of polythene plastic bags. After he had raised his initial capital of Shs36,000, Mupuya started making paper bags on a small scale basis while still in high school.

Business plans
“We learnt how to make these plans at school but I had to inquire from my teachers whether the paper bag plan is viable. I sold the idea to the students. I had done market research so they got convinced. During my Senior Six in 2009, I employed 30 students at the school. It was too much work.

The school gave me premises. During my free time, I would train the students. They would sell the paper bags and I would give them commission,” he recalls. In 2010, Mupuya officially registered Yeli. His Mulago-based business has grown to employ 14 people, the eldest of whom is a 53-year-old father of eight. Yeli’s customer base includes local hospitals, retail shops, roadside sellers, supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies and major local flour manufacturer companies like Maganjo grain millers and Akamai Foods.

From his earnings, Mupuya is able to pay for his tuition, salaries and support his family in Mbale by opening up a distribution outlet run by his mother. “In March this year, I was watching news on TV then I saw an advert about celebrating young innovative African entrepreneurs. I applied, and two months later, I emerged a semi-finalist.

“The organisers visited my project and interviewed my employees. They visited markets and the community to see if I have created an impact. They took the information and I was later among the 13 finalists. While in Johannesburg, South Africa, we presented our projects to the judges whose criteria included impact, ingenuity and scalability. I expected to win. I was so happy,” Mupuya narrates.

In addition to managing his growing enterprise, Mupuya has found time to train over 500 individuals, mostly young people, on how to make paper bags through which 16 other projects have been set up. His personal goal is to employ 60 people by 2015 and set up a paper bag making plant in order to achieve a vision of a cleaner Africa.

“The grand prize is a great honour for me. With this money I plan to expand my production capability and also build a paper recycling operation,” he explains. He hopes to have the plant at Namanve Industrial Park.
“I have done my research on the necessary machinery for the plant and on the production process. The recycling machines are expensive but I will get them gradually,” he explains. He adds that he is in touch with paper suppliers in Kenya.

“Uganda’s paper material is not good and the distribution is poor. Ugandan suppliers have disappointed me. They are inconsistent. The poor quality paper in Uganda is more expensive than the good quality paper in Kenya,” Mupuya argues. Asked how he manages to balance books and business, Mupuya says he tries as much as possible to maximize his time relevantly. Because of his achievements, some of his friends ask for money or loans but he always asks them how they are going to invest it and they fail to explain.
“I know how to handle people who ask me for money be it girls. I will be interested in girls when I am settled. Right now relationships can distract me,” he argues.

When asked how managers older than him feel about his being their boss, Mupuya says it is something they have to live with. “Some of them feel intimidated but when I talk to them I tell them that it is the business employing them, not me,” he says.

On if he has any diversification plans, he says that is what kills some Ugandan businesses. “In Uganda, we like diversifying a lot. People should first take time and grow one business then go to another. I want to expand my business first. Rwanda is a potential market for me. Although Uganda hasn’t fully banned polythene bags, I will look to Rwanda,” argues Mupuya.

“They also block drainage channels and this causes flooding, but the blocked channels also act as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I believe I am doing something good. I want to partner with UIA, Nema among others to promote paper bag use and lessen polythene usage,” he summarises.

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