Diminutive and light skinned, Mariam Kyasiimire is a courageous business woman. How else would you describe someone who leaves formal employment to start a business she knows nothing about – and succeed at it?
The managing director of Kagera Safaris Limited is pretty upbeat about the future of her business. Not even the fact that there is no signpost to direct clients to her offices can deter her.
“Honestly, most of my clients are foreigners and we transact over the internet,” she says, “I have not set out intentionally to market the business locally. But I know there is growing interest among locals about touring Uganda.”
For a business which was started in 2012, Kagera Safaris is going places. Kyasiimire, having been part of the Mandela-Washington Fellowship 2015, managed to get a grant from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) which has helped in the marketing of her business.
Birth of the idea
Kyasiimire’s father owned a drug shop in her childhood and she admired his flexibility. Because it was a personal business, her father had enough time to engage in community activities.
“He hired a nurse to work in the drug shop, which left him with a lot of time,” says the 30 year old, adding, “I admired him and felt that if I ever started something, I would want it to give me flexibility as well.”
Having come to that conclusion, the question was what kind of business to start.
“It had to be something I would enjoy doing. Business is hard as it is, so if you do not enjoy what you are doing then running it becomes tricky. Since childhood I always loved travelling, so I decided to make money out of it.”
The Quantitative Economics graduate had never heard of the touring business, though.
When she came up with business ideas, she just imagined taking visitors around the national parks. She did not know how she was going to do that. There was no operational plan to back up the idea
“I started visiting touring websites and reading a lot about the business and eventually I came to the fact that I wanted to start a tour company. Since I was going to deal with nature, I named the company after a river – Kagera River.”
At this point, the business was just an idea. Kyasiimire was still working in formal employment.
“I worked for two Christian-based organisations as I developed my idea, but it was at my third job, at a printing company where I spent three months, that I knew it was time to start the business. I had been waiting to have everything in place but I came to the conclusion that time would never come. There was even no guarantee that I would get what I needed.”
Since she was single did not have children, it was easier to do away with luxury spending to concentrate on the business.
“I figured if the business did not pick up, I would be having tea and buns for supper until it began doing well. I only had the funds for setting up the website and registering the company.”
However, Kyasiimire did not have the funds to get office space; she was working from home, but, to learn more about touring, she joined the Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA).
“It was really hard getting information, because I had never worked for a tour company before and those in the business were not willing to share their secrets. I really did not see the need to make the same mistakes they had made when they were just starting out.”
The big break
Her big break came when a friend knew someone who was having a big wedding. The couple had invited guests from abroad and they needed a tour company to transport them.
“My friend applied to a few tour companies, requesting for quotations about their rates from them, but none replied. Desperately out of time, she turned to me and I prepared my quotation.”
It turned out that transportation of the guests involved organising day trips to other districts and travelling to the national parks.
“It was uncoordinated, but it was a learning experience, and through it, I made connections and networks. Afterwards, the emails started coming in and the rest is history. Our first client booked a 10-day safari.”
Recently, Kagera Safaris moved into its new offices on Kakungulu Road, in Ntinda.
The tour business is basically a market intensive business and availability of marketing funds is still a challenge for the company.
“To market more effectively, I have to travel to the source countries where most of our clientele come from. We also have to produce brochures and other printed materials.”
There is also the perception that local citizens cannot afford the prices charged for touring the national parks in the country. However, Kyasiimire says there are different packages that cater for different people according to their financial needs.
If you chose to take your family on a tour, you can cut on the costs by camping in tents at night instead of booking into a hotel.
Although Kyasiimire says she is not where she wants to be, she is glad she believed in herself and took the leap. And she adds that the future does look bright.