One of the wooden lampshades in Simon Yiga’s showrooms. PHOTO/ABDUL NASSER SEMUGABI

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Yiga traded mathematics for a career in fine art

What you need to know:

  • Simon Yiga discourages startups from acquiring loans.
  • He says operating under the pressure to repay the loan usually compromises product quality and proprietor’s ability to assess performance of the business, writes Abdul Nasser Semugabi

“You were not restricted to doing one thing. You can do much more,” is the key lesson Simon Yiga learnt from the irony of his career path.

Studying at Mityana Secondary School, Yiga hated Fine Art and, he says, he dropped the subject in Senior Two. At Advanced Level, he chose Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Entrepreneurship.

In 2013, he earned a Bachelors degree in Commerce from Makerere University, and added a certificate in Procurement and Logistics Management at the Management Training and Advisory Centre (MTAC). But none of these credentials define him more than creative arts.

Baby steps
Five years after university, Yiga strongly believes his future depends on the success of Syrico Woods, a company he founded in 2018 that turns soft wood into fabulous lampshades, handbags, portraits, animal heads, among others.

In 2015, Yiga got a job selling lamps, wires, among others at Kiyembe Lane in Kampala.
From July 2016 he worked with a cargo handling company at Entebbe Airport. A month after watching Newton Buteraba, a motivational speaker, preaching self-employment on NTV, Yiga resigned in July 2017 and started the long journey to determine his own finances. His mother was not happy.

“So you quit your airport job to become a carpenter?” she challenged him. “Well, try your luck, but…”
But Yiga assured her: “Mum, I’m not just trying; this is serious business.”

Three years later, Yiga’s mother, aged 66, is one of his marketers. “She proudly shares each post of my products on Facebook,” he says.

Yiga tried making jam out of jackfruits, but he lacked capital. He briefly worked as a procurement officer at his family friend’s construction company.

That friend saw a Nigerian who made toy cars out of wood. “The toys looked so nice, made with high-level precision,” Yiga retells the business’s humble beginnings in 2018. “We wanted to try it out but we did not know how.” But intuition told them they could learn. “When we browsed the internet, we learnt that we could also do it,” Yiga says.

They had only two choices: doing it manually using wood carving and a bit of conventional carpentry, which is cheaper but labour intensive, with low production capacity. Or using a machine which is faster, simpler and with high production capacity, but expensive.

Yiga and his friend chose the latter. But they neither had the machine nor a fraction of the money to acquire one. However, they found a cheaper way out—taking their wood for cutting at Makerere University, where they would pay Shs1,000 per minute.

Yiga estimates their starting capital at about Shs80,000 from which they bought pieces of soft wood at Shs30,000 and paying for the machine work; Shs5,000 for transport costs; Shs5,000 for wood glue; and Shs3,000 for sanding.

They could not rent a room. So Yiga would buy the wood, take it to Makerere for cutting, and did the rest of the work on them at his rented home in Mpereerwe, about six miles on Gayaza Road. Four miles farther was the paint manufacturer where he took the pieces for painting.

Yiga also tried to make colleagues his business partners but to many the future was not bright. Even his co-founder quit. But Yiga did not.

Three years later, he estimates his business’ worth at about Shs250m and some of his colleagues have returned as workers.

Changing mind-sets
Yiga says the most challenging bit was the people’s misperception of his products’ authenticity and durability.

“We made about 300 pieces, selling each at Shs30,000, some at Shs50,000,” Yiga says. Soon, they ventured into making earrings, clocks and calendars.

“Still, customers were skeptical. Some thought the photos we shared online were mere artistic impressions; they told us we could not make such products,” he says.

Yiga displaying a bedside lampshade made of soft wood. PHOTO/ABDUL NASSER SEMUGABI

It is normal if the skeptic is a layman. But it baffles when one is a renowned television personality, with reputable interest and knowledge about interior décor.

“He told me ‘you cannot be making these things; maybe you just import them from China and assemble them.”

Others were just unwilling to pay the due price. “One could offer Shs500 for a pair of earrings worth Shs2,000.”

But challenges just urged him to dig deeper and master his trade. Challenges, he believes, are what separates successful businesses from others.

Sharon Sabiiti, one of Yiga’s loyal clients, credits him for being hardworking, having an eye for uniqueness and always aiming higher.

“Simon does his research…I’m first a customer but he also consults me for business advice,” she says.
Yiga adds that working with expatriate engineers at the airport trained him to give customers reasonable timelines and stick to them.

Fortune amid pandemic
During the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, Yiga retreated to Mityana and concentrated on his mango growing business. “I used up all the money I had saved,” he says. Regardless, Yiga aggressively marketed his products especially on social media. And as businesses struggled to rise from the pandemic ruins when the economy partially reopened by mid-2020, Yiga was working day and night to deliver the countless orders he had accumulated.

The biggest of such orders, he says, was 100 lampshades worth Shs25m for a hotel in Arua. Talk of hitting a jackpot in a pandemic.

“I used that money to order for my first laser wood cutting machine which was delivered in March 2021,” he says. Acquiring the machine—which also cuts fabric for his wife’s tailoring business—was a giant leap. “Surely, 2021 is my best year so far.”

Before, Yiga only had one employee. Now, to handle the ever increasing demand without compromising quality, he has grown his staff to 10 including the machine operator, designers, among others. His wife is a co-director and heads the finance department, his sister is the accountant while he is in charge of marketing.

Nowadays, students from Makerere do their wood cutting here, for which he charges Shs1,000 per minute.

Finding niche product
Having mastered making different items, Yiga decided to invest more in making lampshades, as his core product. And when we visited his store and showroom recently, we saw hundreds of lampshades designs ranging from Shs150,000 to Shs600,000. 

Yet he has not neglected the other products. He still makes wooden handbags, earrings, table mats and coasters, portraits, book shelves, wall hangings, clocks, calendars, napkin holders, notebook covers, animal heads, among others. He says, if multibillion telecom companies still sell airtime worth Shs250, “why shouldn’t I sell earrings, worth Shs2000?”

Due to his experience, he also gets “easy money” in consultant fees.

Stages
On why one would prefer a wooden lampshade to others, Yiga says “Wood is gold and very dynamic.” Any new colour gives it a new life, new look. But it takes a careful process to bring out the gold in wood.
It begins with developing an idea or borrowing one from the internet. Then sketching it with a pen (better, if you know technical drawing).

Some of the employees at Syrico Woods handling different stages of creating a wooden product. P

Yiga says mathematics, his favourite subject, comes in handy. “In modern art we deal with numbers to determine dimensions.” We use Arc Cut Pro software or Adobe Illustrator to create a shape and dimensions.

Then cut the wood into the shapes (by machine or hand). Next is sanding the pieces and applying sanding sealer—a clear liquid base that seals the wood pores to make the surfaces smoother and easier for gluing and bonding. After the sealer has dried, it must also be sanded down to make the wood even smoother. Next is assembling the parts into a whole. Then spray any colour of your choice and leave it to dry. Now the wooden lampshade, handbag, etc. is ready for use.

Through that process, Yiga says he needs about four days to produce 100 lampshades.

Online marketing
If you have seen some fabulous wooden décor in homes, restaurants, hotels around Kampala, in tourism sites, among others, you could have seen Yiga’s products. “Some of our clients are from Canada, USA,” he boasts. “I’m now targeting France and other European countries.”

Most of his clientele comes by referrals  from his customers.

But social media is his major marketplace. He clustered his 1000 WhatsApp contacts in four groups of 250 members each. In each group, he shares pictures of three different items in a day.
“That is 12 different lampshades, for instance. And of the 1000, about 800 can view those posts in a day, and 50 of them contact me to inquire more about the products. And within a week the orders are overwhelming.”

In addition, he pays $70 (nearly Shs250,000) for five days to Facebook so that they boost his posts by exposing them to limitless audiences.

But you need to strategically time your boosting. “I prefer Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when social media traffic is high,” he says.

If you want to do it monthly, Yiga advises, better at the end or beginning of a month, when people still have disposable income. And if daily, choose evening hours when people have time for social media. He has used influencers but finds the boosting method cheaper and better.

Within your means
Yiga discourages startups from acquiring loans. He says operating under the pressure to repay the loan usually compromises product quality and proprietor’s ability to assess performance of the business.
So, instead of borrowing to acquire a machine worth Shs30m, he says, try a smaller version at about Shs3m. Though it won’t do all what the superior one does, Yiga says, it’s safer to operate within your own means.

“And upgrade if it adds value to your business, not to be a liability.”
Yiga speaks out of experience. He worked from home until his business could pay for its address. That’s when he rented a room for the business in Makerere-Katanga, in early 2019. “And I only started with one room, now I have four,” he says.
Shall he shift his business to fancier locations such as Kampala Road? “When the right time comes, Yiga says. “One step at a time.”

He also advises small-scale business owners to resist the temptation of luxurious living. “Buy a car if you really need it and can afford it; not because it’s the trend.” Yiga does not party or drink. He usually starts his days at 3am and goes to bed at around 9pm—except when Manchester United is playing at night—and spends most Sundays at his mango farm in Mityana.

Changing trends
On July 31, Yiga will be 32. By 40, he wants to have stopped hustling. He is not a wishful thinker. He has a plan. Currently he knows no competitor but he knows “they will inevitably come.” Yiga also knows trends change like day follows night. So he wants to change with trends, or change the trends to avoid being caught napping.

He is already making coffee tables and is due to add beds, sofas, TV units and stands, shoe racks to his collection.
“I want to be the maker of all interior and exterior furniture and décor.”

But soft wood is vulnerable to rain and sunshine. So he has ordered a superior laser machine that cuts hard wood and metal.

He is also researching paper, acrylic, and mounting boards, among other materials to avoid setbacks when wood becomes scarce.

“Competition is inevitable; and good for business because it pushes you to be more creative, aggressive,” Yiga says.

“But I’m very dynamic. I never settle for less; I cannot afford to be complacent,” he says.
 

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