Nalwoga quit a bank job and now owns a multi-million business in tourism
What you need to know:
- Business should not be about competition but learning to complement each other. It is this principle that has seen Irene Nalwoga a former banker build her tourism business from scratch, writes Edgar R. Batte
Irene Nalwoga is Managing Director of Women Tour Uganda which organises traveller safaris for women only. Every month, she schedules dates for female international travellers to make bookings.
A former banker, Nalwoga chose to leave a paying job to begin an entrepreneurial journey in 2011. Her decision was inspired by her travels through which she met many people who wanted to travel to Uganda but did not know who to guide them and offer affordable rates.
Since then, she had been bringing together female travellers from different parts of the world to enjoy excursions together then return to their respective home countries.
Many have become her good friends. Tourism being a business of recommendation, the satisfied clients have referred friends and become return travellers.
To make business sense of her establishment, the former banker is keen to price the safaris affordably but competitively. “We take a minimum of 14 women on any trip to minimise mass tourism, but we are still able to make a profit. I can make about $20,000 (Shs70m) on a good trip if it takes a number of days,” she explains.
Her tip on succeeding in the travel and tourism business include an entrepreneur staying focused on their motivation for establishing the business and then loving the business.
Otherwise, with no interest, it will naturally collapse. She practices what she is preaching because as companies closed shop during Covid-19, hers kept its door open.
“We kept the faith alive knowing that either way, Covid-19 was going to reduce, or people would travel again. That would mean that Women Tour Uganda would be in active business, again,” she says.
“We incurred losses within that period but kept going because I honestly love what I do. I have made losses for example when I have priced for four people and only one turns up. I have made losses but met incredible people who am optimistic will send me clients, so I give them an experience of a lifetime. Profit is good but you have to look beyond that, to find a way of impacting others- inspiring them to do what you do,” says Nalwoga.
Her biggest loss on a safari has been $2,000 (about Shs7.2m). She priced a 10-day safari for four women but only one turned up. To give the client that showed up a good experience, Nalwoga decided to travel with her.
The two had a memorable trip. She printed a photograph of their experience on a pull-up banner in her office.
The two are happily smiling in the lush jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with a mountain gorilla in the background. As she adds that the two became and are still friends.
Nalwoga employs 10 people. Experience in business has taught her never to compete. “Appreciate what you have got and work towards achieving what you dream of getting. The moment you begin to compete with the others then you are digging your grave. I have learnt to always appreciate the clients who have come to me, served them with all I can marketed my business more and not to compare myself with my competitor,” she says. She chose to befriend and learn from her competitors. “I make them my friends. They teach me and I teach them,” says Nalwoga.
She says Women Tour Uganda would not have made the milestones it has were it not for the mentorship she received from Morgan Kisitu, the founder of 1000 Shades of Green.
The idea of her safari company was born in a conversation with him while on a flight to Nairobi. He told her to take advantage of getting along and having many friends in her professional and personal circles.
“I will never forget his kindness. He is a competitor, but he held my hand. At that time, I had not gone to international travel exhibitions abroad. He taught me how to market in such exhibitions. They say never forget someone who has held your hand when you did not know the way to take. Kisitu encouraged and pushed me into the women tours (niche). He told me I had a personality that gets along with women, so I needed to use it to make money,” Nalwoga recounts.
She has experienced the downside of business. When Covid-19 broke out, her business was hit. Her marketing efforts between 2016 and 2020 had only given birth to returns with tourists confirming bookings.
And boom, the pandemic halted it all as the world locked up as preventive measure to stop its spread. That largely deterred socialising, and movement. Sad and blue, she was perplexed. Then she met Aisha Ali of Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE).
“That day was a miracle in my life. Aisha liked my idea and energy and told me that I was a woman who could impact many women. She told me they were soon closing but had a slot. I was happy to take it up because I needed mentorship and guidance. I had never gotten formal business training.”
Nalwoga adds that under the AWE’s ‘Dream Build-Up Programme’, she was able to pick herself up, count and accept the losses she had made during the pandemic and start a new phase in business. The Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs under the United States (US) Embassy launched the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, an initiative supporting women entrepreneurs around the world. “Through the programme, I realised the business mistakes I had been making and learnt the things I needed to know such as e ‘boot strapping’. I appreciated not to look at my finances from the angle of profits but interpreting them. We used to make money and want to invest it in something (immediately) and not keep money in the bank, but I learnt how to organise for contingency,” she explains.
Most of the payments for her business are made through the bank. “We write our receipts then have someone who handles our accounts. We have kept our files from 2011 when the company was started. Any payment that goes out of the company, must be signed for. That is something I learnt from my banking background. We do financials at every end of month and year,” she adds.
Advice to others
For a woman who would like to join and make business sense of being part of the travel and tourism business, her advice is the belief that baby steps in establishing a business works.
“Sometimes all that you need is to have leap of faith. Please do not be scared to start. The world is looking for female entrepreneurs. When you are helped, like I was, also help other women around you,” she urges.
She also advises; “For my brothers, invest as much as you can. Tourism is scary and risky but also a well-paying business that can maintain you for a lifetime if you handle it well. If a client has paid you for a trip a year in advance, be faithful enough with their payment. Do not eat people’s money and close your business. Think long term,” she says.
On her wish list, is anticipation to see more women join business and excelling at doing it. She would also like to see more tourists coming from the US as a big source market.
With more tourists, there is creation of job opportunities and ultimately more money being spent in the country. As a tour operator who has attended international travel and trade exhibitions, Nalwoga would like to see the government and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) do better in marketing destination Uganda. She says she has visited countries where people have never heard about the tourism potential Uganda has save for its dark political past and the stories of fallen president, Idi Amin. “We have a lot to show the world,” she adds. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is her favourite local tourist destination because of the eye-to-eye contact she has severally had with the mountain gorillas.
She adds; “It is so personal. Putting the wildlife aside, Bwindi gives me a beautiful experience because being in the forest makes me a meal as if nothing else matters. I also like being the mountains.”
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Irene Nalwoga was a banker; a fact she says she hides from most people because most are unable to reconcile why a person will ‘throw away’ an honourable career such as banking and go into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship. Such things are only normal in movies, where the damage can be controlled.
While Nalwoga likes the idea of following your passion, she explains that to start your own business in tourism, passion is not enough. “Really highly skilled people and people with a high level of expertise can charge premium rates,” she says. “Master your skill,” she advises. “Get good at something, because you need something to bring to the table.”