Esther Ruth Okiror did not go very far in her education. She dropped out of Kangole Girls Senior Secondary School, Moroto District, in first term of Senior Three, at the age of 17 years. This was in 1981.
“I failed to continue with my studies after I became pregnant,” she says.
She gave birth in the same year and later got married to the father of her son, Solomon Okiror, at the age of 19.
In order to make ends meet as well as financially support her husband, Okiror opened up a restaurant in Amuria District, which also doubled as her family’s residence at the time. She prepared breakfast, lunch and supper.
“Running the restaurant was overwhelming, especially cooking. The two workers I employed mostly helped with cleaning the restaurant and fetching water,” Okiror says.
The heavy workload forced Okiror to close the restaurant in 1998. She opted to open up a shop for general merchandise and sold items such as soap, sugar, and salt, among other household and foodstuffs.
The initiation into agricultural business
One day, in 1998, as Okiror went about her business running the shop, she unexpectedly received two visitors who sold her the idea of becoming an agricultural middle-agent involved in selling improved seeds to farmers.
“The idea seemed profitable and I agreed to take part in trainings in order to understand more about the business,” she says.
She attended the trainings while still running her shop.
However, when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in northern Uganda intensified, Okiror was forced to close shop, and in 2003 her family relocated to Soroti District. While here, she opened a general merchandise shop.
In 2007, Okiror put her acquired training to use by opening up a shop dealing in agricultural produce, especially seeds.
Victoria Seeds Limited, one of the leading agricultural seed companies in East Africa, were one of her first clients.
“There was a woman from that company who approached me and requested that I supply them with sorghum. They would send me money from time to time while I purchased for them seeds from different farmers. Since I was dealing with a big company, I had to ensure that the seeds were good quality,” she says, adding, “In the end, I would earn my commission,” she says.
The experience of working with Victoria Seeds Limited gave Okiror a lot of exposure.
“Before I knew it, I started getting other clients requesting me to supply seeds to them. Others would request me to sell their harvested produce, mobilise farmers, conduct trainings, among other activities,” she says.
This demand is what inspired Okiror to open up and register her company — Acila Enterprises Ltd in 2008. The enterprise offers a number of services, including cleaning and drying grains (with the help of a machine), advising farmers and selling improved seeds as well as fertilisers.
Turning points in the business
In 2011, Okiror spread her wings further by approaching renowned companies requesting for business partnerships with them.
One of the establishments she approached was Nile Breweries Limited.
“I requested if I could be one of their suppliers of white sorghum. They welcomed the idea, however with terms and conditions. They told me that I had to have a warehouse as well as a machine capable of cleaning the sorghum,” she says.
“The other conditions included the potential of organising small farmer groups and being able to train them on the basic agronomic practices.”
Okiror was only able to qualify as a supplier in 2012 after receiving training from International Fertiliser Development Centre, a science-based public international organisation involved in fighting poverty by introducing improved agricultural practices to farmers and linking markets to them.
Another breakthrough was in 2014. This was while reading the Daily Monitor newspaper and stumbling across an advertisement from World Food Programme.
“They wanted to dispose of a multi-purpose (grain) washing and cleaning machine. Although I was hesitant to throw in my application, my team encouraged me to try.”
Okiror applied for the machine backed with the required documents. And after a vigorous countrywide selection process, she got it.
“The machine has boosted my business a lot. It helps me sort dirt from different grains, including sorghum, beans and millet. Thereafter, it washes the grains thoroughly before drying them,” she says.
Like most business people, Okiror is a little hesitant to talk about the profits and losses she makes from her business as an agricultural agent, alluding to it as private information.
“I mostly earn a living from commission. For instance, I may buy seeds for a particular company and they pay, acting as an agent,” she says.
However, Okiror emphasises seasons do register different profits.
“For example, when harvesting is done, say between the months of August and December, I may make a profit of Shs50m during this season as an agent,” she says, adding, “But the money always differs from one season to another.”
Now aged 52, Okiror uses part of her earnings to supplement the family household. She has five children.
Coping with challenges
According to Okiror, the biggest challenge she faces is mostly drought and when farmers sell to her seeds of poor quality.
“I hardly have any work to do during the dry season. This is because I can hardly purchase any good quality seeds or crop yields from farmers,” she says.
Then, there are individuals who delay in making payments, which tends to affect her work.
When such things happen, Okiror says she remains optimistic, bearing in mind that tough times do not last.