An unassuming young man smiles as he extends his hand in greeting. At 22, Noah Walakira, Chief Executive Officer of Namirembe Sweater Makers is articulate and welcoming, immediately putting you at ease. He is calm and composed; a far cry from your ordinary young man.
He is eager to tell his story and cannot wait for us to reach the one room, which serves as his “factory’. So inspiring is his story that the day before, the Cable News Network (CNN) was in the same place, charting the journey of his success.
“This is where it began in 2008,” he says, sweeping his hand across the tiny room. “There was only one machine, on which I taught my brothers and friends how to knit.”
Ordinarily, this would be a muzigo —a low cost rental, but when the previous tenant left, Walakira’s parents gave it to him. Seven years down the road, with two other workshops, in Kalerwe and another at Jemba Plaza in downtown Kampala, Walakira still uses the place.
“I have 12 sweater-making machines here. Three of them are in constant use while the rest are loaned out to member of the community free-of-charge.”
Four young people are working on the machines. On the fifth is a middle-aged woman, his mother. At various stages, Walakira has employed his family members to work in different capacities.
His mother joins the different pieces of the sweaters together. Previously, this was work that was hired out to a tailor in Kiyembe Lane in downtown Kampala.
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Although the young entrepreneur set out to make sweaters, in 2013 he branched out into other forms of clothing.
“Since our customers were schools, during the holidays business was low. So we marketed our sweaters to security companies and petrol stations.”
The company also diversified into school uniforms, T-shirts, and woolen scarfs. Currently it supplies 48 schools countrywide, with clients coming from as far as Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania.
“My goal is to tap into the Kenyan market but for that I need to upgrade to faster and better machines.
After sitting his Primary Leaving Examination in 2006, Walakira was at a loss of what to do with the time on his hands. Seeing his grandmother knitting sweaters, he asked her to teach him how to do it.
“The first sweater we knitted sold at Shs15,000. With this success, my passion for knitting grew. Before, I was knitting to pass time but suddenly I realised there was money to be made out of it.”
Of course, his brothers made derogatory comments about boys engrossing themselves in “girly” pursuits —as knitting is generally thought of, but to his surprise, his parents encouraged him.
Ignoring the comments, he stuck it out and knitted a sweater alone, in three weeks. It was immediately bought. When the vacation ended, he enrolled in a day school and carried on knitting every evening. Soon he became an odd man out among his friends; while they depended on their parents, he had his own money.
“My parents told me to go to Kiyembe Lane to see other people engaged in the sewing business. I was amazed that people were making sweaters using machines. When I enquired, the cheapest machine was going for Shs250,000.”
Back at home, Walakira saved every profit from the sweaters. With his pocket money added to it, finally, in 2008 he bought the machine from a Hajji Sula who also taught him how to use it. Despite those close to him telling him that he would never make it, the first order came from a nursery school near home.
His brothers, seeing the business opportunity in his passion, joined him. With other friends, they went to work, averaging three sweaters a day.
In 2009, when Walakira’s father lost his accounting job, he was able to pay his own school fees and still had enough money left over to buy a second machine.
By 2010, the number of workers had grown. Walakira says: “I had taught them how to knit but the machines were few. Every worker was marketing the company and the orders were many.”
There was need to buy more machinery.
Targeting the Youth Fund, he registered the company as a Community Based Organisation. In 2012, the company got funds from KCCA and expanded to two other workshops.
“I employed my father to help us balance our accounts. He also introduced us to printing badges on the sweaters. Before, the company was using this room as a courtesy from my parents but we started paying rent,” Walakira says.
Working with schools has its difficulties, since business is transacted on a cash-on-delivery basis. “Our goal is to deliver on time and sometimes some of our customers do not meet their obligations on time.”
This affects business, because there is a shortage of funds to meet other client’s demands.
“There are better machines on the market that can do the work faster,” Walakira adds. “Currently, each machine makes 10 sweaters a day but we would like to upgrade to more efficient machines.”
The seasonal nature of the business also affects the company. In the hot season, orders are few and to fill the gap, the company has diversified into making designer sweaters.
Walakira considers himself more of a leader. “I just saw an opportunity and helped others connect the need to the solution,” he says. “There was poverty and unemployment on the one hand, and people with knitting skills on the other.”
Although his grandmother was his inspiration, when she passed, Nelson Mandela became his role model. “African leaders who give of themselves to society inspire me.”
Advice to young entrepreneurs
“Passion is everyting. If you are passionate about something, no one will force you to persist at it. The persistence will be automatic.”
He advises that if a businessman is not passionate about his work, then there is need to return to the drawing board.
“Besides paying for my A-Level education, I now pay for my younger siblings as well,” says the as-yet unattached young man. “I have taken two gap years but I am going to see myself through university.”
On why he is still single, Walakira says he has gone as far as creating a list of qualities he wants. “My focus is now on academics and giving back to the community by teaching them my skills for free.”
Making of reusable sanitary pads is Walakira’s goal and to facilitate it, he has teamed up with ICare, a Kenyan company to learn how to do it.
In five years, he sees the company’s client base growing to more than one hundred.
In 2014 Walakira won the Anzisha Prize. The prize, which awards young entrepreneurs who have developed and implemented innovative solutions to social challenges or started successful businesses within their communities, came with $2,500 (about Shs7.35m).
The organisation also facilitated his travel to the South African Leadership Academy to learn more about running businesses.
Two weeks ago, he was first runner-up for the Mulwana Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award. The award came with Shs3m, which he plans to use to buy an embroidery machine.
With systems in place, the company no longer needs Walakira’s day-to-day supervision. He is now considering pursuing his education, having applied to a university abroad.
Born on July 4, 1992 as the third in a family of seven, to Joseph and Betty Kabanda, Walakira went to Nakasero Primary School, and Mengo Secondary School for his O and A-Level.
“My former schools empowered me to be forward and confident about seeking business opportunities.”
Last year, Namirembe Sweater Makers held an outreach in Katwe and distributed items to street children.
“Most of the street children in Katwe are from Karamoja. It got me wondering why they would leave home to come and live such a terrible life in Kampala. Yes, there is the problem of the climate, but there must be ways to work around that,” Walakira says.
He travelled to Namalu in Karamoja on an assessment study of what he could do for the community there. “I am still brainstorming but I plan to set up something there. It does not have to be sweater making but it has to be something that the community can do together.