We help businesses of any size to thrive, says tech guru 

Tuesday June 08 2021

Mr Richard Zulu, founder and Team lead/managing director at Outbox, an innovation hub and co-working space in Kampala engages an entrepreneur on their startup. PHOTO/Eronie Kamukama

By Ismail Musa Ladu

What are you looking to achieve with the Innovation Challenge you are involved in?

From our analysis, several start-ups have had challenges with access to markets and partners that could enable them to scale their products further.

Through this intervention, we seek to build direct linkages between startups within our member organisations and established industry players to enable the businesses scale in terms of impact and sustainability.  As such, on one end, we have identified some of the most promising businesses to support whereas the other side is a network of partners who have access to the markets, tools, know-how that can enable these businesses scale up. The Innovation Challenge is an initiative of Startup Uganda, an association of Innovation and entrepreneurship support organisations in Uganda.

Isn’t this space better filled by private sector and government who are ultimate beneficiaries of this projects and challenges?

The Startup Uganda Innovation Challenge is working with private sector. The membership of the association is composed of private sector incubators and accelerators that are offering support to these private businesses. So we are all bringing something to the table. 

What was the focus of the previous challenges and what lessons have you drawn from them?


The focus will always be to solve a problem. Our previous challenges focused on the financial health of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME). With this challenge, the focus was on addressing the impact of Covid-19 on small businesses by improving their medium to long-term financial health.  Then we also have challenges focusing on addressing how to drive better engagement between citizens and government representatives through improving feedback mechanisms on service delivery.

Then we have something on leveraging the last mile distribution networks. Here, the focus is on supporting innovators and entrepreneurs with products or services targeting rural communities to leverage digital community entrepreneur networks of some of our partners. 

We also have something around digital literacy. This challenge was focused on supporting innovations that could enable beneficiaries of cash transfer programmes adequately improve their digital and financial literacy skills and use the services properly.

As for the lesson, the biggest one has been the need to learn to communicate and educate private sector businesses about the importance of the last mile distribution and how it is important for them. We learnt that a number of entrepreneurs required support to appreciate these challenges and contextualise them.

This year’s challenge just ended. Briefly what was it about and what we should expect from the winners of various categories?

The winners came up with interesting concepts and innovations that we believe can be transformational.  For example, Patesente winners for Financial Health for MSME track offers a factoring platform for small businesses to buy or sell goods on favourable terms. If you look at what they did with Masha Dairy Cooperative, a farmers group that was the first user of this platform was amazing. We know small businesses often fail to meet the payment terms with either their suppliers, workers or customers. We also know that they are unable to get credit from banks because they are considered high risk, uncredit-worthy and often times lack collateral. Through this platform, all these challenges have been diagnosed and solutions prescribed.

Then Famunera who came up with an interesting way to leverage last-mile distribution networks. They came up with prescription to poor quality farm inputs sourcing, delayed last-mile delivery, limited remote farming advisory support and lack of farm inputs traceability throughout production (from planting to harvest) for smallholder farmers.  And the last winner was the Backspace Ivy. The female run IT consulting enabler and social innovation enterprise specialising in online digital training for underrepresented groups such as girls in STEM, youth, orphans, and refugees, people with disabilities, women and young people. The company has developed a wifi-free pocket size smart learning kernel called smart booklet that allows people in rural communities to access video trainings to improve their digital and financial literacy.

We are looking to support the winners with mentorship, technical assistance and funding to pilot their scale-up interventions together with our anchor partners. At the end of this phase, each business should have figured out what element of their business to optimise to support growth.

Is that all they need to actualise their ideas/concept/innovation?

They will have access to key subject matter experts to help them address any gaps and challenges they might have. Through our anchor partners, the businesses/winners will be able to pilot and test their ideas in new or existing markets they have not been previously serving. Our partners will make introductions and help them navigate the stakeholders in these markets. Furthermore, the partners will provide some of their infrastructure to enable the businesses to launch in these markets. We will also provide each business with some funding to help them prove its product or service offering during this phase. Each business will have an opportunity to learn new skills or acquire new knowledge on entrepreneurship through the Startup Uganda members supporting them. So we want businesses to succeed. These support being offered to the winners is a great start towards helping them actualise their ideas/projects at this stage.

What is the fate of those who have not won but have good ideas and concepts? Any future collaboration with them? 

The businesses that have not won will be introduced to new opportunities within our partner network. We have up to 30 Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support organisations running various interventions from which these applicants can benefit from. Also our goal is to have this digital innovation challenge annually. We look forward to reviewing our learnings and impact from this phase to inform how we can structure future collaborations.

Do you think you are achieving a return on investment?

We were impressed with the quality of final applicants who pitched on the final day. This was informed by the level of effort input by the innovation hubs who supported the initiative. We started off with a boot-camp that allowed applicants to refine their ideas. Thereafter, there was a three-month support process where qualifying applicants were further supported to address some gaps in their businesses. This culminated into the final pitch day. There was a lot of effort by multiple organisations into this initiative. As such, we achieved our initial objective.