Nakanwagi quit job to focus on mushroom project 

Maria Nakanwagi 

What you need to know:

  • After consulting her human resource manager, Maria Nakanwagi applied for her early retirement package and tapped into her NSSF savings which she invested in her mushroom growing company, Nature’s Essence Limited. 

When Maria Nakanwagi got married to Simon Katumwa, she felt the need to stay at home and look after their children. However, this was not a walk in the park for her since she did not have any sources of income and entirely depended on her husband.
“I was at home for six years. At first it was okay but somehow I felt as a burden to my husband because I did not have any source of income,” Nakanwagi recalls.

One of Nakanwagi’s in-laws advised her to use a vacant house at home to grow mushrooms, which would be good for her (Nakanwagi’s) husband , who is diabetic. She got interested since she did not have a lot of work to do but she did not know how to grow them.
“She referred me to Kawempe Home Care, where I went through a training on the importance of mushrooms and how to grow them.  After the training, I was given spawn (mushroom seeds) in 2004 to start my mushroom growing company, Nature’s Essence Limited,” says Nakanwagi.

In the beginning, Nakanwagi harvested ready mushrooms and gave her neighbours samples, which they liked and encouraged her to start selling them.
With increasing demand for the mushrooms, Nakanwagi, ordered for more seeds and started earning some money from sales.

Learning from experience
When Nakanwagi got a job at Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), she juggled her mushroom project with her job.
“I woke up at 4am and harvested the mushrooms on a daily basis. I would then take them with me at office where people would buy them,” she recounts.
She adds: “I had tested what it meant to be a house wife without any money. My mushroom project was my side hustle for the years I worked at UBOS.”

 Leaving work at UBOS
Nakanwagi’s work at UBOS involved field work, which required her to travel a lot. This often meant she incurred losses from dried mushrooms that she contemplated  leaving her job at UBOS.
“I was aging and was no longer productive enough at work. I also felt the need to give time to my children, w­­­ho were growing,” Nakanwagi shares.
Meanwhile, women from her neighborhood made regular visits to her home with interest in learning how to grow mushrooms.

That’s when she wrote a concept note to start a community-based organisation to train women in mushroom growing in 2017.
As a result of providing training in mushroom cultivation, Nakanwagi initiated a network comprising 10 groups of women in Nansana Municipality. Together, they formed a collaborative effort in the mushroom cultivation business.

Currently, each of the 10 groups has a mushroom growing house as well as a saving and lending association. They are spread in areas of Maganjo, Kawanda, Nansana Ganda, Kazo and Jinja Karoli where 300 women have been impacted in improving their livelihoods.
With various responsibilities, work became overwhelming for Nakanwagi. She was juggling the community-based organisation, Nature Essence Limited and work at UBOS. It was time for her to decide what she would concentrate on entirely.

Covid-19 was an energiser for Nakanwagi
When Covid-19 hit , Nakanwagi worried how she would sell mushrooms after the lockdown was announced, yet she observed a rise in the number of individuals who visited her home regularly to purchase mushrooms. This motivated her to further invest in her business.

Nakanwagi also mentions that the women she trained became her out growers. In situations where the demand exceeded her capacity to supply, they played a crucial role in meeting the requirements.
When the lockdown was lifted, she reported to work with a plan to settle for the mushroom project.

“I found myself torn between focusing on my job, my family, and the mushroom business. Seeking guidance, I consulted the human resource manager who suggested that I apply for my early retirement package and tap into my NSSF savings,” Nakanwagi disclosed.
That was in 2022. 

With her retirement package  and 20 percent of her NSSF savings, Nakanwagi refurbished her former chicken house and modified it into a mushroom house after which she registered Nature’s Essence Limited in March 2022

Rising Woman Campaign
In June 2022, Nakanwagi chanced upon the Rising Woman advert and applied. She was invited to pitch before a panel of business experts.
“Because my project had impacted the community, we emerged among the first 10 businesses to attend a business trip in Nairobi, Kenya” she recalls, adding that it was a learning experience.

Impact from the trip on Nature Essence Limited
After the trip to Nairobi, Nakanwagi worked with scientists from Makerere University and Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute to ensure value addition.

“The Kenyan trip opened my eyes to redefine my value proposition. Currently, Nature’s Essence Limited has Umami Mushroom Based Foods and Celestie Natural Skin Care. This has increased marketability of mushrooms.,” Nakanwagi says
Umami Mushroom Based Foods produces Umami mushroom porridge, made up of micronutrients such as amaranth seeds, mushroom, yellow corn and oats, a seasoning of natural food spice made of mushroom, carrot and beetroot and oregano and   mushroom sambuusas.

Celestie Natural Skin Care crafts an anti-aging soap using a blend of mushroom, avocado, and coconut oil. The process involves infusing the mushroom essence into the coconut oil, complemented by the addition of sunflower, olive oil, and various other anti-aging oils.

Other skin care products include Celestie anti-aging cream which is made out mushrooms and avocado as the main oils in it, skin herbal jelly for the children and people with problematic skin issues, antidandruff hair oil and growth hair oil made of aloe vera and rosemary oil.

Rising Woman Impact
After the exposure of pitching during the Rising Woman Competition, Nakanwagi was confident enough to take up any opportunity.
She got an opportunity from Mott Foundation and Kenya Climate Innovation Centre who were running a project to support companies in the value chains of horticulture, coffee and milk.

 “In April 2023, I submitted my application and was selected as a finalist. They visited my project and various women’s groups within the communities, with a specific focus on the productive utilization of solar energy. I had provided four groups with compact solar dryers,” Nakanwagi explains. She further notes that Umami Mushroom Based Foods was recognized as the top contender and awarded USD 8,700, significantly bolstering its financial stability.

No regrets
For the last two years since she left job at UBOS, Nakanwagi has depended on her mushroom project for different needs at home.
“I consistently ensure my car receives regular servicing, and I diligently compensate my workers. Additionally, I manage a farm in Wakiso where I raise rabbits, cultivate bananas, and nearly an acre of rosemary,” she affirms.

Future plans
Nakanwagi looks forward to establish a mushroom laboratory at her home where she can develop her own spawn.
“I also want to have all my products certified by Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), after which I can do robust marketing. We began the process of certifying and we await confirmation,’’ she adds.
With Mott Foundation’s technical support, Nakanwagi hopes to brand and market her products better and improve book keeping and financial management.

“We shall have an online presence, this will not only help us market in Uganda but also globally, “she says.
She plans to acquire a food dehydrator to help in drying mushrooms regardless of the prevailing weather as well as a distiller to help in producing essential oils from rosemary and lemon grass.

Nakanwagi encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to believe in their abilities and have a purpose when starting a business.
“Your ‘why’ needs to be strong, as it serves as a constant motivator, no matter the obstacles you encounter along the journey,” she advises. She emphasizes the importance of having a support system, whether it is comprised of friends or family members, who can provide encouragement and offer candid feedback.
She adds that entrepreneurs can involve technical experts such as brand managers to advise on business branding, family to run business in case of their absence not forgetting seeking guidance and wisdom from God.