On the busy road, stretching from Owino market to Kisenyi is a scrap metal store operated by 41-year-old Jena Nantongo. Commonly considered as a minor job, done mostly by street children, who move around with sacks picking every piece of metal, Nantongo is seemingly reaping big out of it.
Born to a polygamous father, Nantongo is the eldest of the five children. At the age of nine, she was taken to her father’s home in Nakawuka.
“At the age of 10, my father asked me and my siblings to start bricklaying to raise money for our school fees. When we made enough bricks, he sold them off and used the money for his personal needs,” she narrates. After dropping out of school in Primary Two, Nantongo decided to look for jobs.
In 1995, at the age of 16, she first worked as a nanny in Kasubi, earning Shs4,000 per month. During her free time, Nantongo would knit doilies (bitamabala) and would sell a dozen at Shs20,000. Promised by the neighbour to get her another job paying Shs10, 000, Nantongo thought this was the right time for her to increase on her monthly pay.
Taken to a place she hardly knew along Entebbe Road, Nantongo worked for more than a year without receiving any pay. She sadly recalls the currency she was paid in- yelling and battering, which made her regret her decision to leave her first job. Weeks later, Nantongo’s boss threw her out of the house without a penny.
After seeking refuge at a friend’s home, she was advised to report the matter to the village chairperson. However, her boss denied agreeing to pay her Shs10, 000 per month. The matter was later resolved and she agreed to settle for Shs7,000. Nantongo parted with Shs84,000.
“Going back to the village, I concentrated on knitting. In 1997, through a friend, I came back to Kampala and started up a kiosk in the former army shop in Mengo. With Shs50,000 I started selling engine oil,” she recalls.
Saving about Shs10,000 every day, Nantongo says in 1999 she bought a plot of land at Shs2m where she built a two-room house.
When the army barracks was shifted from Mengo to Bombo, Natongo had to switch business from selling engine oil to selling soft drinks.
When her business began to flourish in 2003, Nantongo says her kiosk was invaded by thieves who took away everything. “Everything in the kiosk was stolen. I decided to quit business for a year. In 2005, I decided to invest in a sweet banana stall. In the evening after selling I would use the remaining sweet bananas to make pan cakes,” she narrates.
In 2012, with working capital of Shs500,000, Nantongo opened up a scrap metal business in Rubaga.
“I had not thought about scrap until a friend told me how lucrative the business was. I had a lot to learn about this new business, especially the measurements. If you are not conversant with this kind of business, expect to be cheated. No one sympathises with you because you are a woman. You must be aggressive,” The mother of four says.
Starting with a small stockpile of scrap, Nantongo was keen about the type of scrap she invested in. After several years of struggling, she eventually found herself collecting thousands of kilogrammes of scrap a week. Today, she sells sorted scrap items by a full lorry. She says one lorry carries about 12 tonnes of scrap. One tonne is worth Shs1.3m.
She says the most profitable waste item is aluminium with one tonne selling between Shs1.5m and Shs2m. Currently, Nantongo owns two scrap shops and employs two people
Although her friends and workmates refer to her as the the scrap woman, Nantongo has remained focused and hopes to own 20 scrap stores around Kampala.
Today, Nantongo is dealing in old car parts, which she sells to reclamation groups, where everything is put on a weighing machine before payments are made.