Learning entrepreneurship from the pros 

Young entrepreneurs who are lucky enough to qualify for this yearly programme will find themselves a new friend-an established successful entrepreneur only a phone call away.

The Mara Entrepreneurship Program involves the pairing of  young entrepreneurs with ‘mentors’ who can give them the guidance they need to take their business to the next level. This is done at their headquarters in Nakasero.

Now in its second year of operation, applicants to the program must have at least a start-up business in any field, and have kept it going for a year.

The final showdown involves brushing up on one’s speed dating skills. The successful applicants are seated in front of a row of successful and knowledgeable business people, and they have three minutes to pitch to each member of the panel, and convince them that they deserve to be their ‘mentee’.

Once that is over with, the various members of the panel will pick an individual who has managed to impress them, and who they feel they are most suited to assist.

Thus is born the ‘Mentor-Mentee’ relationship which gives you, the young entrepreneur, a chance to have your mentor aid you in making your business the best it can be.

One successful mentee for the 2011 cycle was Hope Achiro, the founder of the Health focused ‘Body and Soul Magazine’, which she started in 2009. She wanted to produce an authentic health information outlet that was indeginous to africa and presented in a format that was engaging, attractive and captivating.

“I wanted readers to be health conscious without being health freaks; to be stylish without being trapped by ‘fads’ and to remain healthy without kicking the fun out of their lives”, she explained. “Body & Soul is a trendy health magazine rich in holistic topical information that covers matters on healthy living, physical health and psychological/ spiritual wellbeing”.

Another mentee, Joakim Ewechu, runs a business incubation company, Angels Finance Cooperation, that provides access to business development services through a business hub, the Mara Launchpad, and access to financial services through Angels capital microbank(s). It was also started in 2009.

“80% of all business start ups in the country collapse within the first two years of operation, and yet  Uganda is ranked as a country with the  highest Total Entrepreneurship Activity by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor”, Joakim explained how his own business started. “As businesses were being started, many of them were also collapsing. I then set out with a couple of friends to find out how we could revolutionalise these statistics, thus the inspiration behind Angels Finance Cooperation”.

I spoke to Hope and Joakim about how the Mara Entrepreneurship program has changed their lives.

KD: What was it like applying for the Mara program, and reaching the finish line to get your very own mentors?

Hope: I actually did not know about it until it was towards the close of the application window through a cousin who forwarded me an email he got. Forwarded mail does not often catch my attention but I read this one and immediately set about applying, prayerfully hoping I was not too late. I sent in my application at midnight!
The speed dating session was awesome. I loved it! Okay, I was a little anxious but not too much to stop me from enjoying the collective anxiety and energy in the room from a mix of entrepreneurs. Seriously whatever the result, I had been ‘set up’ to have a good time and do some marketing!

Joakim: I met the Director of the Mara Foundation, Nigel Nall, at a social entrepreneurial function. It was a brief encounter though he immediately loved what Angels Finance Cooperation was doing in entrepreneurship. Through him, i learned about the Entrepreneurship launchpad but then it was still  in its first cycle.
Since the  Angels Finance Cooperation was thinking of setting up a business hub at the time, Nigel suggested that we partner together, and labelled it the Mara Launchpad. He encouraged me to apply for the second cycle last year. I also wanted to get a mentor. Luckily, i got myself a great mentor and we work closely together in everything.

KD: So who are your mentors? And was it someone you had been ‘eyeing’ from the start?

Hope: Daniel Stern! Someone recently referred to him as the godfather of mobile technology. He is the Director of Uconnect, Hive Colab and Organiser Mobile Monday Kampala, and does a host of other things. I was not hoping to get someone this experienced and knowledgeable. So no, It was not someone I was hoping to get. It was more than I expected.

Joakim: My mentor is Mr. Edward Kasule Musisi, the Managing Director of Data Fundi. To be honest, I hand’t been eyeing him. But it is so amazing though how he is the right mentor i needed.

KD: And how is your special relationship going so far?

Hope: You can say it is a special relationship! We have become friends. Our schedules are unforgiving but we have managed to attend events that are beneficial together on top of our mentoring meetings which has increased our meeting time.

Joakim: I am proud to say it’s going well. We have bonded and everything is going great. Our different schedules don’t affect our communication. He creates time for me whenever i need him. He is a very principled gentleman. We communicate through phone, email and even meet in case of bigger issues that cannot be discussed through those different media.

KD: How has the Mara Program benefited you so far?

Hope: Evaluation and Assessment of my business. Hard questions have been asked especially by a few experts I have been introduced to, which is forcing me to re-set my agenda. Also, I have realized that challenges in starting a business are not unique to me which is a relief because I would sometimes get overwhelmed.

I have been introduced to people with a wealth of information in fields like finance, marketing, ICT, social media among others and It has helped me appreciate opportunities I had not tapped into at all. My meetings, for example with Mr. Boaz Shani of UGO and Mr. Carmelo Cocuzza of FinAfrica were eye opening.

Joakim: I have benefited A LOT. I have gained a lot of knowledge on marketing, business planning, management, making critical decisions, financial engineering and book keeping. So far i am proud to say, i am more knowledgeable and skilled in the above thanks to my mentor.

KD: Is there any advice you can give the general public who want to be entrepreneurs but will not be able to get mentors like you did?

Hope: Every entrepreneurship project will have challenges and you may stumble; even fall flat on your face. But guess what; all the great successful people before you did too! Be honest with yourself and where you are at each stage. Passion, and more passion will make the venture worthwhile and give you resilience no matter the challenges so it should be the reason when you choose a platform for business.

Joakim:  Have a business plan ready, it acts as a guide to what you want to do. But don’t use it as a checklist, it should always be flexible.

Before you make any important decisions, brainstorm about the issue at hand, shortlist the options and then arrange them in order of magnitude. This helps you come up with a balanced decision.

Always treat your customers like kings because they are the life of the business. Dont forget to manage your business because you are its brain and always the brain should be sharp for you to survive.

Read broadly and widely, be open to learning alot and your business will be on a great track.

by Lindsey Kukunda