Bringing sanitation services to slums

Thursday May 24 2018

Inside one of the men’s toilets.

Inside one of the men’s toilets.  


After finishing school, Joel Ssimbwa started working for his cousin. However, his cousin’s success forced him to quit and start Joelex Uganda Limited, a company that builds toilets and public showers in Kampala. Although the journey thus far has not been smooth, Ssimbwa believes that one day, his services will spread to not only the rest of Uganda but also other countries.

Did you ever imagine that you can make money from offering toilet and shower services? I bet not. Joel Ssimbwa, a 29-year-old graduate of International Business, is proving that there is no end to opportunities available to graduates, if only they would focus on their dreams.

His company, Joelex Uganda Limited, is making water and sanitation accessible to many in Kampala by building and operating public toilets and showers, especially in markets.

“Currently, we have facilities in Kireka and Kyaliwajala in Wakiso District,” he says, continuing, “We are in negotiations with the leaders of Kiganda slum in Kasokoso, Nakawa Division, to build a facility there as well. The slum has a population of about 2,000 to 3,000 people and they only have four pit latrines – which are all full.”

The original plan was to get into slums immediately, but we had to change course because there is no formal land ownership in slums. “It is a big risk to put up a facility of $15,000 (Shs55.5m) in a slum, without a land title.

However, we went back to the drawing board and designed movable facilities to overcome the land challenge. We are going to use them in Kiganda slum.” A facility consists of four toilets and two shower rooms. The company charges between Shs200 and Shs500 for toilet and shower services and Shs200 for a jerrycan of water.


How it all began
With the labour market being what it is today, a new graduate would feel lucky to land a white collar job. And if the job is offered in a company belonging to a relative they would be assured of job security, and get comfortable. Not Ssimbwa, though. “Immediately after I graduated from Makerere University Business School (MUBS) in January 2013, my cousin employed me in his firm, Finicon Group (U) Limited, as a brand manager. They have different product portfolios and I managed one of them.”

Ssimbwa founded his company the same year but could not raise capital to run it. After being employed for 11 months, he resigned. “My cousin was young, had his own company, and was getting good contracts designing and building million dollar projects. That inspired me and when I gave him my resignation letter, he had no objections. Of course, my parents and siblings were not supportive. Every financial help I had from them was cut off. Life was not easy.” Being young and naïve, Ssimbwa poured his savings into his company, thinking he would reap profits in six months. However, that was not the case. He struggled to make ends meet.

“I began doing odd jobs to survive. I sold leather shoes for a commission. Then, I supplied fish fillets. I would go to the lake and negotiate with the fishermen. I struggled for two and a half years.

Getting to run his own business
In November 2016, his entrepreneurial plans were given a boost when he won Nile Breweries Limited’s youth entrepreneurship programme, Kickstart.

“I won $10,000 (about Shs37m) but companies take time to process such money so it took us about eight months to get it. In November 2017, though, I managed to get land in Kireka and put up the first public facility. We have been active for 14 months, and I would be lying if I told you that we made profits in the first year. Like any other business, we made projections and estimated to get at least 800-1,000 people using the facilities every day. That is not happening.”

The company leases the land on which it operates and employs seven temporary workers.

Business model
On doing the right thing in business
Ssimbwa’s business model involves writing proposals about his upcoming projects and lobbying partners to come on board and raise capital. “Before you get partnerships, you have to know what you want to achieve, what they (the partners) will achieve, and constantly try to fulfill that.”

Although he is not at liberty to mention all his partners, one of his technical partners is Engineers Without Borders, Canada who have provided him with volunteer engineers to provide talent to the project. “Our first facility was enough for us to get some partners who helped us raise the money to put up the second facility and the next three we are planning to put up.”

To succeed, an entrepreneur needs to develop certain habits and mindsets. Ssimbwa believes what has gotten him to where he is right now is his God-fearing nature, persistence, and hard work. “We have operated for 13 months and we have not yet made profits. Nowadays, businesses close after six months in operation. I am persistent, though, because I believe it will work one day. We are the only company with this kind of business model. If sanitation facilities in city buildings are making money, why can’t we?”

People have the wrong impression that entrepreneurs have a lot of freedom, but Ssimbwa says he works from Sunday to Sunday. “To start a business you need a vision and goals. Despite the hurdles which will definitely come, continue visualising what you want. I am visualising 500-1,000 facilities in Kampala in five years’ time; although, right now we are only moving to five facilities.”

Ssimbwa, who counts Sudhir Ruparelia and Warren Buffet as his inspiration, does not read business books. He only reads business and investment articles on Facebook and Twitter. His plan is to hire a social media expert to manage the company’s social accounts.

The former student of Lohana Academy, Budo Junior School, St Mary’s Boarding Senior Secondary School Kitende, and MUBS is a 2018 Fellow of the Young & Emerging Leaders Project of the Léo Africa Institute. He is married, but does not have children as yet.

Biggest business mistake
We hired the wrong people to clean the facility and hopped they would be honest. Instead, they robbed us. Right now, we are in the process of trying to formulate technologies that can help us independently verify our revenue collections. In the meantime, we are doing more supervision of the facilities.

Best advice received
What you visualise in your mind should be put on paper. Secondly, write down the agreements you make with people, detail them, and have them witnessed. Have something to always refer to. Do not rely on word of mouth and think that everyone is going to be good and honest.