Brenda Nanyonjo: Unsung hero behind Miss Uganda

Brenda Nanyonjo poses with Miss Uganda Quiin Abenakyo. Photos by Giulio Molfese.

What you need to know:

game changer. Brenda Nanyonjo’s takeover of the Miss Uganda beauty pageant has been nothing but a work of passion. The 40-year-old has endured criticism and disparagement that would have forced an ordinary person to give up, but she did not. Quiin Abenakyo’s recent win is a validation for all her investment into the franchise writes, Esther Oluka.

Uganda’s reigning beauty queen Quiin Abenakyo gave Ugandans an early Christmas present when she brought home the Miss Africa crown from the Miss World beauty pageant. While praise was being heaped on “our girl” we momentarily forgot that she could not have done it on her own. Abenakyo’s win lies on the shoulders of a very committed and passionate team, chief among them the Miss Uganda franchise manager Brenda Nanyonjo.
Nanyonjo, a fashion designer and sometime actress, took over the franchise in 2011. By the time she took it over, the pageant was losing its reputation because of the many controversies it was facing including fixing winners. It was alleged that parents were bribing organisers to crown ftheir daughters. Other winners claimed they were never given their prizes.
“As a person who has had a lifelong passion for mentoring girls, I could not let such an opportunity go to waste. I vowed to restore integrity and credibility to the pageant,” Nanyonjo reveals.

Rocky start
But before hunting for sponsors Nanyonjo had to first qualify as a worthy organiser from the Miss World organisers who have their registered offices in London UK.
“I had to prove that I had experience doing such work, I was trustworthy enough to be trusted with something as delicate as young women’s reputations. I would like to think that my past experience as a stylist, editor and events’ organiser helped me along the way,” Nanyonjo adds.
She had previously worked as a style editor for African Woman Magazine owned by Sylvia Owori who also ran the pageant until 2006. With the newly acquired licence now, Nanyonjo embarked on a path of looking for sponsors in order to organise the pageant for the year 2011. “All these controversies did a lot of damage. The public was so opposed to the franchise that by the time I took over not many companies wanted to be associated with it,” Nanyonjo says.
She reveals that she knocked on many doors which kept getting shut in her face until Daniel Ogong, who was then the marketing director at Luzira based Nile Breweries Limited (NBL) accepted to take a chance by sponsoring the event.
“I remember him telling me that he was going to take a chance because he was moved by my passion for the franchise. I was very humbled and very grateful,” she adds.
The sponsorship, however, was not enough to cover all the expenses which forced her to sell off her car, a Toyota, at Shs8m, to come up with the Shs14m needed to buy the prize car, a Spacio, for that year’s winner, Sylvia Namutebi, Miss Uganda 2011/12. She describes her first event as a huge success because it attracted a few more sponsors who included Redds Uganda which helped cover most of the budget for the years 2012 and 2013.
“For those two years, Redds Uganda covered 80 per cent of the budge including the prize car for the winners. Meanwhile, I covered 20 per cent of the budget,” she reveals.

The 2014 backlash
The euphoria was however, short-lived since in 2014 the sponsors once again starting pulling out of the franchise claiming they had experienced budget cuts.
“The timing could not have been worse. In addition to sponsors pulling out, I was expecting; the combination of this stress was more than I could handle. At one point I considered giving it all up and calling it a day,” she recollects.
At the verge of almost giving up, a friend suggested that she meets up with General Salim Saleh, the national coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), with the aim of interesting him into sponsoring the event. A meeting was organised and Nanyonjo alongside her small team from Miss Uganda met with Saleh.
“I had to explain to him thoroughly what the Miss Uganda Franchise was all about and how it aims at helping the girl-child,” she says, adding, “After five days of the meeting, he called us and agreed to take a chance to sponsor almost every aspect of the event that year (2014),” the passionate businesswoman relates.
The involvement of Saleh caused an uproar from members of the public that year.
“There was a lot of misinformation going around. I heard rumours that I had sold the Miss Uganda licence to the army, which was not true. The only reason they were saying that was because an army general was sponsoring the event,” she says.
As if that backlash was not bad enough, when Leah Kalanguka was crowned Miss Uganda that year, some sections of the public came out to say she was not “beautiful” enough to be winner.
The following year, after the backlash, Saleh still came on board as a sponsor but this time contributing only 40 per cent, meaning that Nanyonjo had to continue looking for other sponsors for the event.
The hustle of looking for sponsors continued the following year 2016 and in 2017, Nanyonjo deliberately decided not to organise the pageant that year.
“My plan was to re-strategise and think of a better way of planning the event. But of course, since we did not have the event that year, people said the pageant had finally died and I was finished. But as usual I ignored them. My attitude when I hear such negative rumours about me, I think to myself, they need to heal and it has nothing to do with me,” she recalls.

The comeback
In 2018, the pageant came back onto the social calendar scene, bigger and better, with even a reality television show which managed to take viewers behind the scenes.
However, when a video surfaced online of her other Miss Uganda organisers criticising one of the contestants who had failed to pronounce the word Makerere, the scrunity surfaced again.
“Many viewers blew that whole thing out of context. For trying to correct her, viewers called me a witch, ugly and irrelevant. But like always, I always blot out all the negativity,” she says, adding, “We were only trying to set the bar high for these girls as well as putting into consideration the Miss World standards where we were also considering tall girls,” she says.
Eventually, during the finale held in August 2018, Quinn Abenakyo, 22, was crowned Miss Uganda. And when Abenakyo went for the Miss World finals, she made history for the franchise after getting crowned as Miss World Africa as well as becoming the first ever Miss Uganda to make it to top five.

The Miss World experience
Besides, the nightmare that comes with looking for sponsors, the harsh criticism, Nanyonjo has also, over the past years, faced the challenge of securing money for purchasing airline tickets for the Miss Uganda finalists to fly out for the finals.
“Last year (2018), I was up and down looking for sponsors specifically for the airline tickets to enable Abenakyo and I to fly out to China for the Miss World finals but the would be sponsors promised to get back to me. Meanwhile, time was running out, yet, I was not getting a conclusive answer,” she says.
As Nanyonjo contemplated on her next step, Stella Nantumbwe popularly known as Ellah, Miss Uganda 2013/2014 came in and saved the day by sponsoring tickets for both Abenakyo and Nanyonjo. Because of those air ticket delays Abenakyo arrived in China on November 15, four days after other Miss World finalists had already reported. The girls are always required to report a month earlier before the finale which last year was held on December 8. Nanyonjo joined her a week to the grand finale. During the finale event, Nanyonjo says she was the only Ugandan who sat in the audience.
“And despite the fact I was alone, every time Uganda was mentioned on stage, I screamed my lungs out, shouted and jumped, I could not contain my excitement. I made such a spectacle of myself that some members in the audience started filming me with their phones, but, I did not care,” she says.
By the end of the event, Nanyonjo’s voice was almost gone. Abenakyo was eventually crowned Miss World Africa.

What Abenakyo’s win means
Nanyonjo says that Abenakyo’s exceptional performance is a sign of answered prayers from God.
“There were moments in the past I used to fast and pray to God to turn the Miss Uganda Franchise around. At that time I did not see any results but finally, in 2018, He turned things around at the Miss World finals. I am very grateful to Him,” she says.
From the time they returned back home from China, Nanyonjo says the situation with the Miss Uganda franchise has improved greatly.
“The haters and critics suddenly turned into supporters of the franchise,” she says laughing, adding, “Also, different organisations have now come out to pledge full support for the franchise,”
The mother of one, believes that things are definitely going to be bigger and better for the Miss Uganda Franchise this year.

She is like a mother
Although videos of Brenda Nanyonjo surfaced on social media treating contestants harshly, the reigning queen Quiin Abenkyo has nothing but fondness for her. She reveals that she and the girls nicknamed Nanyonjo mama, because of her motherly nature. “Although she comes off as very strict, mama is friendly, kind and is always ready to offer advice to anyone who needs it. During the Miss World finals, I could feel her unwavering support throughout the ceremony. She gave me all she could and I will always be grateful for that. I will never forget her excitement and kind words when I was finally crowned. A mother could not have been prouder,” relates Abenakyo.