Maama Mbire: The mother of business

Tereza Mbire

. She provides guidance and an example to career women who constantly debate their work-family balance and is proof that there are usually no shortcuts to a rewarding life. It would also be unfair not to recognise her role in economically empowering grassroots women, especially through her credit access and entrepreneurial projects, writes Brian Magoba

Coincidences sometimes appear more meaningful than they really are and, like horoscopes, cannot be taken seriously. At other times, they are the tool fate uses to shape the destinies of people and nations. Take the example of Tereza Mbire, who coincidentally shares a birthday with Jesus Christ.

She asserts that like him, she too is BBC (Born Before the Computer). But like him, her impact transcends her own generation and affects even age Ugandans. Like him, she too was an exemplary feminist before the word became popular for her generation.

As early as August 2, 1984, she co-founded the Uganda Women’s Finance and Credit Trust with Ms Ida Wanendeya, Justice Mary Maitum and Ms Mary Mulumba. Its mission? To deliver collateral-free loans to low-income earners and more particularly, women who, not owning property like land, would otherwise not have accessed lending services through usual banking procedures.

Like its Luganda folk-style advert asserts “Finance Trust has earned a reputation in economically empowering people”. Substitute “Finance Trust” with “Tereza Mbire” and “people” with the women who form 70 per cent of its clientele, and by her own admission, it would still rank as the most successful of her initiatives.

Empowering grassroots women, economically
Founding the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL) in 1987 extended her vision of economically empowering grassroots women. The association pioneered and advocated government support for the contribution of women to Uganda’s economic development. In her role as founding member, she has tutored many Ugandan businesswomen, and encouraged women to determinedly experiment with economic activities as a method of practical emancipation and securing stable futures for themselves and their families.

Since then, many awards have rightfully come her way for the impact of her exemplary entrepreneural leadership. In Uganda she counts an honorary doctorate from Nkumba University in 2008 as part of her accolades. She has also received a Global Recognition Award for Leading Woman Entrepreneur of the World from the Star Group of America.

Her book Shaping of a Destiny: Tereza Mbire: An African Woman’s Story of Challenges, Perseverance, and Triumph, ought to be required reading for anyone saddled with self-doubts about whether they could transform their passion into their profession. Her life’s story is one of creating or exploiting opportunities where the majority would see only adversity, and of taking well calculated risks even when the benefits are not obvious. She left her teaching job to take advantage of the scholarships Israel was offering for people training in hotel management. She was sharp enough to have foreseen the possibility of working at the four-star Apollo Hotel (Sheraton) which was still under construction at the time she left for the course.

The vision paid off. Certification in Hotel and Tourism Management from Tel Aviv’s Tadmore Hotel set her up to eventually become the first African Executive Housekeeper at Sheraton Hotel, where she worked up to 1973. She attained even greater prominence as a nation-wide trainer for Uganda Hotels, a position she left after three years because the travel demands ate into family time. Her example provides guidance to career women who constantly debate their work-family balance. The success of what she did next proves her belief that “There are usually no shortcuts to a long and rewarding life. Success comes veiled in different forms and there are many routes to it”. Her twisty route involved raising six children by herself after her husband’s death in 1985.

And her legacy lives on
Perhaps it is taking cues from her example that made one of them, Charles Mbire, apparently the wealthiest indigenous Ugandan and also the direct creator of the Sing-for-Mama genre when he commissioned the song Mama Mbire for her 70th birthday in 2004. It also involved an involuntary change of business when Amin’s soldiers looted 100 sewing machines belonging to Pop-In, a factory that tailored women’s clothes to satisfy the demand imported dresses could not, and served as one of Uganda’s first fabric-to-riches reference.

It closed, its 200 workers rendered jobless like their boss. But for those who had learned to think like her, the closure was not the end of the road, but rather the opportunity to re-channel their energies into an enterprise they might otherwise not have thought of as viable. Mbire was challenged to start from scratch, this time venturing into interior design with Habitat Interiors, again capitalising on her experience arranging rooms at Sheraton Hotel.

The garments idea was also borne of sewing skills she had learned in childhood and honed at St. Thereza Girl’s and Butare Girl’s Junior Secondary schools. Testaments to women to make valuable skills they take for granted rarely come better distilled, an example very contemporary in Uganda with its statistics of soaring joblessness. Teresa Mbire is proof that persistence, usually characteristic of last-born children like her, pays.

• Author of Shaping of a Destiny: Tereza Mbire: An African Woman’s Story of Challenges, Perseverance, and Triumph.
• Admires Oprah Winfrey, Janet Museveni and Nelson Mandela
• Member, Uganda Women Entrepreneur Associates.
• Subject of Juliana and Bobi Wine’s 2004 song, Maama Mbire.
• Senior Presidential Advisor appointee.
• Founder, Uganda Women’s Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL)
• 1986 Uganda representative to World Women’s Conference.
• Honorary Doctorate from Nkumba University for entrepreneurship in 2008.
• Global Recognition award as Leading Woman Entrepreneur of the World by the Star Group of America.
• Professorship Recognition from United Graduate and Seminar of America. • World of Difference Award 2008 (Washington DC).


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