Empowering women and interfacing with Barack Obama

Sunday March 4 2018

Empowering women interfacing Barack Obama Jamila Mayanja

In addition to the door-to-door laundry business, Jamila Mayanja runs a foundation which carries out school outreach, educating girls about menstrual health, among other topics. COURTESY PHOTO 

By Esther Oluka

Jamila Mayanja, the founder of Smart Girl Uganda, a non-governmental organisation that empowers young girls and women through mentorship and training, shares her remarkable story on female empowerment, starting a door-to-door laundry business as well as an unforgettable encounter with Barack Obama.

Cheerful. Lively. Talkative. These are some of the words that best describe Jamila Mayanja. The 30-year-old is confident, eloquent and speaks quite fast with authority.
In fact, she even jokes that there are people who mistake her for a man, on the phone. “They call me “ssebo” (sir) because of my imposing voice,” Mayanja says amid laughter, adding, “It is something I am used to now.”
Mayanja shot into the limelight in 2015 during the Mandela Washington Fellowship for young African leaders. This is a programme of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers youth through networking and leadership training in the United States of America (USA).

Mayanja was undertaking a fellowship programme for six weeks alongside 500 selected youth from across Africa. Mayanja was among 30 youth selected from Uganda after a successful application process.
In the course of the fellowship, Barack Obama, the US President at the time, made a speech commending the participants for exhibiting unique entrepreneurship skills in their respective countries.
“Obama mentioned names of some participants and suddenly, he mentioned Jamila Mayanja. Oh my God! I was in shock! I excitedly sprung to my feet, smiled, waved and did a variety of poses like a fashion model,” she recalls with excitement.
She certainly caught Obama’s attention who imitated her. “Suddenly, everyone shifted their attention towards Mr. Obama and I. There was laughter in the room,” she says.

Less than five minutes later, when calm had been restored inside the room, Obama applauded Mayanja for starting a door-to-door laundry business back home in Uganda.
“Just the mere mention of my name and business by Obama changed my life forever,” she says.
Instantly, she became a topic of interest on different social media platforms and news outlets, both locally and internationally.
When she eventually returned home at the end of the fellowship, she was in demand.
“I got many invitations from people requesting me to give talks about the laundry business, among other things,” she says.

How the laundry business started
Mayanja started her door-to door laundry service shortly after getting married in 2013. The couple relocated in Kawempe, a city suburb. Mayanja did not hide her frustration when it came to washing clothes. It stressed her to bits. “I hated washing clothes,” she says in an irritated tone. For this reason, she often gave her clothes, including those of her husband to a “washing lady” who charged for her services.
“She would come home and wash every weekend. I would then pay her Shs20,000 after the work,” she says.

Over time, Mayanja started noticing that the physical appearance of the “wash lady” was greatly improving.
“She smelt nice and plaited her hair,” Mayanja says, adding, “It was until one time she revealed that she had been saving some of the money I had been paying her, and, when a reasonable amount had accumulated, she opened up a grocery shop selling onions, tomatoes, and green pepper, among other items.”
The profits from the grocery shop enabled the “wash lady” to enhance her looks. Right after the revelation, an interesting idea ran across Mayanja’s mind. “I told her (washerwoman) to go around the neighbourhood and get unemployed girls aged between 15 to 25 years of age,” she says.

The girls, about five in number, gathered at Mayanja’s premises. She then went out in the neighbourhood to find people interested in having their clothes washed.
“The bachelors especially welcomed the idea. I then turned it into a business. The arrangement involved the girls washing the clothes from the owner’s premises. After hanging, they had to wait until they dried before collecting, folding and returning to the owner,” she says.
After washing, Mayanja collected the money from clients and paid each girl Shs15,000.

Issues arise in laundry business
The washing business which came to be known as J Mobile Laundry Service grew from five employees to 30. Its growth came with a few issues. These included; some girls stealing from clients and some washing poorly. There were also the stubborn customers who refused to pay.

Mayanja says these problems cropped up because of the other programmes she was involved in that took up her time. She was also running Smart Girls Foundation Uganda, a non-governmental organisation that mentors young girls and women to speak out and positively impact society.
“The Foundation does a number of things including school outreaches, gender-based violence awareness and menstrual health, among other aspects,” she says.
The laundry Service is a programme under the foundation.

Jamila Mayanja was born in 1988 to the late Hood Mayanja and Janat Nakayenga. Mayanja grew up in Konge, Buziga with her siblings. After her mother’s death in Senior Three, Mayanja was raised by her stepmother, Hajati Amina Mayanja. She went to Kitante Primary School and sat O-Level (2004) and A-Level exams (2006) at Nabisunsa Girls School. She holds a Bachelors degree in Business Administration (BBA), majoring in marketing from Makerere University Business School in Kampala. She graduated in 2011.

“No matter what you are going through in life, it is important that you never let that hold you back. When you fall down, try as much as possible to get back on your feet. Never give up.”

“It is impossible to do everything by yourself. Delegate tasks to ease your work. But also, it is important that you always plan your day.”

Tomorrow, we feature Judith Adong, a playwright, lecturer and film maker.