When Alana Mukunzi took time off her finance job to take care of an ailing family member, she began thinking of what to do for a living in the meantime. As she saw a truck painted with various species of mushrooms, the answer to her next steps came to mind. She contemplated the mushroom growing process under the assumption that these white umbrella shaped plants she’d seen were imported.
Later that evening, she got a call from a friend who coincidentally spoke about a mushroom growing training. For Mukunzi, this would be a great opportunity to gain some knowledge on this agribusiness.
At the training, she discovered that mushrooms were easy to grow and that they required minimal space. In September 2018, she ventured into mushroom growing running it under the business name, Kalo’s Mushrooms. All was well for two years until the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of her biggest market, the restaurants.
“There was a time I delivered mushrooms to a client and he said that he had enough supply for mushrooms. I wondered what I was going to do with 20 kilograms of mushrooms. It compelled me to diversify my products,” Mukunzi says.
She researched mushroom preservation and with training, she considered making mushroom oil, handwash and gel. These products are still in the pipeline.
In this business, she’d initially invested Shs4.4 million in buying everything she needed and building a makeshift shelter for growing the mushrooms. Through her farmer ‘s market, Mukunzi has been able to make Shs50,000 per day on average, every six days.
She says more than giving her a source of income, the business has brought her into a useful network and exposed her to a diversity of knowledge.
With a lot of lessons learnt along this farming journey, there have been challenges mainly emanating from not doing enough research on the farm practices.
“Initially I was motivated by the money. There are lots of things I didn’t anticipate like people being used to one kind of mushroom, the tiny local ones,” Mukunzi says.
Because this was getting in the way of her sales, Mukunzi invested her energy into gaining acceptance for her mushroom species. She went out of her way to teach potential customers how to cook the mushrooms using different recipes. Even though this is labor-intensive, it is beginning to pay off.
One of the factors that have impacted her business positively is Women In Technology Uganda (WITU). WITU is an accelerator program that provides women and girls with tools and skills to live sustainable lives. It offers digital skills, business and leadership opportunities, and network connections that propel women into gainful employment. Over 75 per cent of the accelerator’s alumni start their businesses or get digital-related jobs. They are able to provide for their families, return to school, contribute to family decisions, and reduce vulnerabilities like domestic violence.
WITU’s work is supported under the COVID-19 Rebound and Resilience Program (CRRP). The CRRP program is an initiative executed by The Innovation Village, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation following the COVID-19 pandemic. It exists upon the premise that vulnerable populations globally and in Africa have largely borne the effects of the pandemic including closure of big and small businesses, the loss of jobs and closure of schools.
The CRRP program focuses on helping institutions and communities in Africa to withstand and respond to the short-term impacts of this pandemic, while strengthening their resilience in the long-run. The Mastercard Foundation is doing this through supporting companies or organizations like The Innovation Village to help various categories of vulnerable people like women, the youth, displaced persons, small holder farmers, people from low-income households, to access quality education, skills, financial services, and dignified work. The goal is to unlock opportunities for 35,000 young people within the ecosystem.
When Mukunzi joined the accelerator program, she was skeptical about encountering the negative response that comes with social media marketing for businesses.
However, during the CRRP business ideation and modification session, participants were asked to identify gaps in their businesses, and test their action plans. Mukunzi found the confidence to eventually share her mushrooms on social media platforms. It has been a positive experience since then. Mukunzi says that while her initial market was one of family and friends who formed about five repeat customers, posting on Facebook and in Whatsapp groups has resulted into a network of 50 new customers that also keep referring more clients to her.
“Contrary to my original fear, I was shocked that from an online platform, my business has been able to make tremendous sales. Through this exposure, the COVID-19 Rebound program has opened my business to new opportunities,” she says. Her business currently brings in a minimum of Shs300,000 to Shs600,000per week.
While her business thrives through the pandemic with the help of social media marketing, Mukunzi has dreams to train other women in this trade.
“There are many opportunities in mushroom growing and you can’t exhaust the market. I hope to interest other women in this venture. I also dream of having machinery to do some of this work as it is labour-intensive. For now, I have one semi-permanent employee, but I hope to give people more jobs.” Mukunzi says.
Her dreams like those of many Ugandan entrepreneurs are possible thanks to a myriad of factors within the startup ecosystem. This is why The Innovation Village together with other partners are cushioning these businesses with mentorship, networks and support to access funding to ensure that these dreams come to reality.