At 16, she quit her first job as a house help and resorted to hawking merchandise on the streets of Kampala.
That was in 1995. Sylvia Namutebi, aka Maama Fiina, started with an initial capital of Shs38,000 to buy polythene bags which she started selling at Mini-price, in down town Kampala. She says she does not earn from witchcraft as many would assume.
“I was hungry to increase this money because I was not only going to blame myself but the woman who had given me the capital. I learnt that when fellow hawkers bought polythene bags from us, they would sell them at a profit in the Old Taxi Park, so I changed my working station to the park. There were more people, more business and generally I saw an opportunity to sell more,” Namutebi explains.
Her first duty stations were at the Kayunga, Mukono and Jinja taxi stages. She says she was both hardworking and lucky. “I found the polythene bag business profitable. After six months, my business was worth Shs160, 000. Then a friend told me that we can go to Nairobi and buy clothes in wholesale and sell at a profit. I bought into the idea, saved more and travelled with her to Nairobi. That introduced me into the fabrics business,” she explains.
After four trips she recalls making a profit of Shs800, 000. She kept at it and in three months, she realised profits of Shs3 million. She was really very strict and saved every penny.
“In November 1996, I felt I wanted to start rewarding myself a little. I had dreamt of driving a car. By this time, one could buy a second hand car at Shs1.4 million,” she recounts.
“But right about the same time, a gentleman, who would later become my boyfriend, drove past me around Namasuba one midmorning. He bought me a phone and gave me Shs7 million cash. I was excited. I used part of the money to buy a Matatu. From one Matatu I was able to save and buy another, and another,” Namutebi says.
Along the way, she met her current husband Ali Kyonjo with whom she was able to broaden her business horizons. “I had more money than he had but he was immensely industrious. At this point, I went into importing and selling busuti (gomesi attires). In 1998, I made my first trip to Dubai to go and shop for merchandise. All along I never for a day forgot that I was not educated and that I could not afford to mess with my businesses,” she explains.
With a phone, a rare possession at the time, Namutebi started making friends through calling in on radio. This, she says, earned her political capital. “My businesses started growing. Gomesi attires earned me the most profits. By 1999, I would make up to Shs30m in both the clothing and transport businesses. I had about five cars operating on the Kampala-Jinja highway. At the time, each Matatu cost Shs8.5 million,” she recollects.
Namutebi says she saw another opportunity in motorcycles or boda boda business. “I would buy the boda bodas and give them to riders on a loan scheme.
I would buy the motorcycles at Shs720, 000 each and tell the riders to return Shs1.4m on completion of the loan. This meant I earned more than 100 per cent on each boda boda.”
Because of the high profits, the business woman was able to grow her business to 500 motorcycles in Kampala. She says she started with 20 motorcycles which grew the business to 500 motorcycles.
Today, Namutebi has branched into real state which she says is equally rewarding. “As a trader it is not wise for you to deal in one thing. If you go to buy shoes and find there are no shoes, buy socks or buy shirts,” she argues.
Call on women
Namutebi encourages women to go into business because, as she says, women are better business managers than men. “Work hard, pray and trust in God, be honest and trustworthy. Women should no longer think that men are their sole providers. It is satisfying to be earning your own money. Do not undermine yourself. You might even be lucky that you went to school. I did not, so go use that knowledge,” she advises.
Although she does not own a car bond, Namutebi says she buys and resells cars at a profit. She adds that it is not wise for an entrepreneur to invest in one business entity or one item.
She says that is how she has managed to grow her business empire to a float of Shs500 million. “Whenever I go to Dubai, China, Turkey or Europe to buy merchandise I will go with about $15,000 (about Shs38m) or $20,000 (about Shs50m),” she says.
“I have managed to get people who run my businesses so now I am always shopping to strengthen the business. I travel every two to three weeks. Distribution of my business into different items and entities has helped spread my profit since out market is not predictable.”
But as Namutebi explains business has come with its challenges too. “There are so many sub-standard things these days,” she points out.