As a student at the department of foods science and technology at Makerere University, Martin Ssali made his first attempts to becoming an entrepreneur.
He was a salesman with GNLD nutrition and household products. Within two months, he was recognised as an exemplary salesman.
Some of the challenges he experienced while selling the GNLD products included their high and changing prices due to the weakening Uganda shilling. Learning about food science and technology student on sponsorship of the government, he thought he could start, develop and sell some products of nutritional value.
To him, setting himself on a journey of self-discovery was a better option of using knowledge and energy in selling expensive US processed products.
How he started
In his third year of study, in 2007, Ssali put two and two together with friends to work on a special project focusing on bringing to reality an idea of a Soy Foods processing technology. They shared the idea with the department don, Dr Abel Atukwase. The idea involved developing a meat alternative from Soybeans and the realisation of spin-off products of commercial and nutritional value for the Ugandan population. He works with Abubakar Mpagi as director in the business, Trina Muluya as business development manager, Boaz Wanyika as sales manager and Barbra Nakyanja as production manager. There are four support staff in production and three in sales and marketing.
He cannot enumerate how much he invested at the start. Dr Atukwase gave him $100 (about Shs370, 000), to invest in the procurement of critical process ingredients so as to improve the quality of the products he was working on. He would purchase 10-to 20 kilogrammes of soybeans from Kisenyi market in Kampala, on an average of Shs2,000, so he would spend between Shs40,000 and Shs60,000.
As a food technologist, Ssali realised that there is a lot of value that can be added into soybeans. “The only commercial soy products on the market were porridges from soy flour with a limited market of only toddlers. Soybeans are rich in a unique plant protein (40 per cent), have 20 per cent fat, are rich in fibre and are also rich in phytochemicals which is plant based chemicals that are scientifically proven for their health potency, cancer prevention and reduction of progression,” Ssali explains. He adds that due to soybean’s unique characteristics, soybeans have several food and non-food applications industrial applications of which many of the applications were almost non-existent in Uganda and many of the African countries.
His first product was tofu, a meat alternative in both plain and marinated versions also known as ‘Soy meat by several Ugandans’. Over the years, the company he heads as director, Smart Foods Limited, has sold several tonnes of tofu mainly to health conscious A and B class segments of the population notwithstanding the resident foreign community. The company’s most popular product is the ‘Smart Soy Yoghurt’. It is uniquely processed from soybeans and serves a wide range of people right from the very rich to the low-income earner.
At the moment, the food company uses a shared facility at the food technology business incubation centre. The company’s maximum production is 900 litres of soy yoghurt per week due to space and equipment limitation.
Like that, dry soybean grains are turned into yoghurt and special meat food that can be enjoyed with rice, matooke or any other food of choice. To this end, one kilogramme of soybean which costs about Shs2,000 is transformed into value added products worth between Shs9,000 and Shs20,000, achieving value added that is more than fivefold.
A litre of yoghurt goes for Shs5,200 as the factory price, 400 millilitres Shs1,600 and a 250 gram cup for Shs1,500. So far the entrepreneur estimates to have invested Shs25m in production equipment.
Still the company can do more and if it were not for the limitations, the entrepreneur says that their wish list includes branching into extruded snack products, fruit flavoured soy milks, soy ice creams, soy cheeses, textured soy products and animal feed from soy milk residues.
The current range of products is currently sold in retail outlets right from the high-end stores in Kampala to its suburbs and neighbouring districts including Mukono, Entebbe and Wakiso.
They would like to further grow the company’s monthly and annual sales revenue, attract investors and also graduate from the food technology business Incubation centre to the Namanve Industrial Park where government has allocated land for scale-up of start-ups like theirs.
At some point in the future, the entrepreneurs expect to start exporting products into the regional market.
Among plans in place to realise the projections is to improve the internal control systems of the company “We are also looking at attainment of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) quality certification within the next three months. Also, we would like to adopt an aggressive market development and market penetration strategy supported by an increased production capacity.”
Also, there is a plan to obtain venture capital partners focused on growth and expansion of the entrepreneurs’ operations. With the company’s steps, there has been technological growth too, from a genesis of research and development work since its formation.
“For instance, we started out by pressing the whey out of soymilk with use of stones and the process would be done over 12 hours. Today, we use an air compressor based pressing system, which delivers a final product in 10 minutes only.”
Packaging has improved from plastic pouches to packaging in branded cups and jerrycans.
There are currently 13 employees, five permanent in production, three in sales and marketing and five support staff that cut across the company operations.
Ssali attributes the 11-year journey to the team. “Even when things are bad and some people leave, I have had staff who have stood by me in times of market failure, bad debts, bad seasons, lost clients and tough loans to pay. Secondly, the support of the Food Technology Business Incubation centre has been key in helping us hold up in business. We would not have achieved anything without the support of the centre,” he further explains.