Namulindwa’s efforts open African markets to North America

Sunday February 28 2021
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Africa Trade Desk founded and executive director Susan Namulindwa (R) with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau recently. PHOTO/COURTESY

By Tony Mushoborozi

Susan Namulindwa has a knack for corporate leadership and international business. She is also a self-appointed African ambassador to North America. She founded and is the executive director at Africa Trade Desk, an organisation that highlights business opportunities in Africa to North American companies and vice versa. She founded the organisation in 2019 and it is based in Ottawa, Canada.

Namulindwa’s organisation oversees business development and stakeholder engagements in order to make the connections and bridge the cultural gap between Africa and North America. Her role as the person at the helm is to oversee these conversations between companies and governments, investors and beneficiaries, producers and markets on both continents to make sure that they turn into mutually beneficial business relationships. 

“I am constantly recruiting or at least trying to get the Diaspora to be ambassadors of our beloved countries and the continent. We need to tell our own stories to change the negative stereotypes that people in North America and other countries have of Africa,” Namulindwa says.
A few weeks ago, the government of Canada worked with Namulindwa to launch the Canada-Africa Free Trade forum.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the work we do. We are especially interested in the gender equity file and the Diaspora engagement plan,” she says. 

And yet that is only the tip of the iceberg. 
Namulindwa seems to have been cut out to offer business leadership at a very high level. She also serves as vice president (Canada), for the Canada-Africa Chamber of Business. This is an organisation committed to increasing business between Canada and Africa. 
“My role at the Chamber is complimentary to the one for Africa Trade Desk. I actively work with the chair of the board, the president and the VP for Africa in engaging the embassies, the government of Canada, the AfCFTA [African Continental Free Trade Area] Secretariat, and the private sector to find ways to collaborate, increase and highlight opportunities for mutual benefit of our members and partners,” she says.

You would think that’s enough work for one person, but not to Namulindwa. She’s clearly a super woman and very highly sought after by organisations that run high level business. She also serves as director and interim chair of the board at the Afro-Canadian Chamber of Commerce (ACCC).
“At the Afro-Canadian Chamber, we serve Black-owned businesses and advocate their growth and share in the broader Canadian business eco system. My role, together with my board of directors, is to drive the conversation and forge the relationships that increase the success-rate of Black-owned businesses,” she says.

And to top it all off, Namulindwa runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Maama Watali, which is Luganda means “in the absence of a mother.” She founded it in 2011 and calls it a passion project of hers. 
“At Maama Watali we work with Women and girls to give them a voice, empower them, especially after domestic violence situations. My role is to build a strong team of staff and volunteers to do this difficult and yet very necessary work, especially during the pandemic. We serve primarily in the Black and New-comer immigrant communities,” she says.


Leaving Uganda
Clearly, this is a person who is not only extremely hardworking, but also knows her way around Canada. That is because she has been living in North American for about 30 years now. Namulindwa left Uganda in October of 1992, after completing her BSc degree in Chemistry at Makerere University. 
Two of her brothers were already living in the USA. So while growing up, she had been inundated with glamorous pictures of fancy cars and highways and clean neighbourhoods. The urge to go and live out there was only natural. 

“I could not wait to go. I gave away everything I had and was anxious for the process to complete. The Visa application and the passport could not come fast enough. I went with the dream of continuing my education and getting a PhD. On top of that, I was being challenged by two of my best friends and classmates from St Mary’s Namagunga who had gone for their Master programmes as soon as we graduated,” she says. 

Humble beginnings 
On arrival in the US, she quickly realised that the life as a full-time student was very expensive. So she decided to commence a life of work, as is natural for most Ugandan students in the West. 
“My first job was a three-in-one. I worked as a cashier/front desk/ cleaner at a Japanese fast-food restaurant. I worked as a live-in-nanny for several families, a store clerk/salesperson at a clothing retail shop and at a baby-furniture store. I did customer service for a telephone company and credit card companies,” she says. 

“I have also been a Federal employee. But through all these, my heart would always dream about running my own business and I have had several over the years.”
This hustle lasted for the eight years she lived in the US. In 2000, Namulindwa would move from the United Sates to Canada. 

“I fell in love with Canada because of the Canadian culture of inclusiveness. Canada has open opportunities for immigration and immigrants in general. I wanted my children to have better opportunities in an even playing field than I had. My plans and dreams have always been and remain coming back home to Uganda and transferring the lessons, knowledge and skills I have learnt both in the US and Canada to my people in Uganda and the continent in general,” she says. 

Early childhood 
Hers was a happy childhood. She readily admits that it still is the best part of her life. “Everything I learnt about how to treat people, I learnt from my mother, Manjeri Nakitende and grandmother Samali Mbojjanyi. My mother taught me kindness, to love unconditionally, to believe in and give second and third chances to people who don’t on the surface deserve it and most of all to never give up on a dream,” she says. 

“My mother taught me how to pray and act, and how to say sorry and mean it. I get my grace of relationship building from her, a very gentle woman. I am also a third-generation businesswoman, both my grandmother and mother were serial entrepreneurs, running shops, raising goats, selling some of our farm produce etc. There was always some trading of sorts happening for as long as I can remember.
She grew up with nine siblings – four sisters and five brothers. The family lived in Luweero, surrounded by their subsistence farm, which means the NRA Bush War affected Namulindwa’s childhood in more ways than one. 

Her school journey
“My school journey started with Ms Sennyonga, one of the kindest people that have heard an impact in my life. She had a nursery school in Luweero by the Church of Uganda, and she taught me to love school. I would look forward to getting to school and learning to read,” she says.
Namulindwa went to Luweero Boys Primary School, P1 to P7, which is weird because the school accepted female students. Still does. What is even more intriguing is that right next to it, was Luweero Girls PS which was also, and still is, mixed. 

For secondary school, she attended Bugema Seventh Day Adventist College, S1 to S4. For Senior Five to Six Namulindwa went to Mt St Mary’s Namagunga Girls after which she joined Makerere University. 
She attributes her success to her relationship with God, “which guides and inspires my relationships with people”.
“How one treats others, from the person who cleans the office to the CEO’s, can be the difference. The common thread in all these roles is building and maintaining strong relationships which increase value for all the stakeholders. The other factor is believing in one’s ability to overcome and persevere through challenges and adversity knowing that around the obstacles there lies the big prize,” she says.
Namulindwa is a mother of a 25-year-old daughter and two teenage sons.