Uganda: Soya bean business grows from side hustle to sizeable operation
Charles Nsubuga used to dig trenches and break stones as a labourer in Uganda. Without a formal education, he realised it would be difficult to move beyond unskilled jobs in the construction industry. Keen to take advantage of an opportunity, however, he observed most of his co-workers would buy roasted soya bean nuts on their break from the local shops.
With his foreman’s reluctant permission, Nsubuga – who was taught how to roast soya beans by his grandfather – began selling soya snacks to his colleagues.
“I started doing marketing on the truck that brought us to work. I said: ‘You guys don’t have to go to the other side of the road anymore to buy your nuts because I came with them,’” he recalls.
Although he made a loss on the first day because he gave out samples, Nsubuga soon started selling up to five kilograms of nuts each day. “At night, I would spend a lot of time roasting and preparing the nuts.”
Developing the business idea
In 1979, Nsubuga was forced to forego his soya bean side hustle when he fled to Kenya to escape the violence associated with Idi Amin, Uganda’s former dictator.
“I came back to Uganda in 1981 and found myself back at zero because there was no more construction work, there was no job for me.”
He visited his mother who baked bread in an oil drum in the capital city, Kampala. He decided to learn the technique and recreate it in Jinja, a town on Lake Victoria. He made small doughnuts called mandazis and registered a bakery service called Serve to Save. Moving away from baking, the business eventually turned into Sesaco, a Kampala-based company that processes soya beans to make a range of food products.
Experimenting with products
Nsubuga reveals he quickly expanded the product catalogue away from roasted soya bean nuts to include “very unique products”. One example is soya coffee, which his mother had suggested since she was not allowed to drink tea, coffee or soda as a Seventh-day Adventist.
“I’m an innovative person so I played with the recipe and created soya coffee that people were happy to drink. I kept selling the product until the shops stocked it,” he says. The product line has since expanded to 15 items including soya porridge powder, soya milk powder, soya yoghurt and soya ice cream.
A big development in the soya business is the rising popularity of meat-free protein alternatives. The entrepreneur says he recently branched out into soya “meat” to meet the rising demand of people who are turning to artificial meat for environmental, ethical or health reasons.
Sesaco sources soya beans from over 4,000 farmers in eastern Uganda. The raw material is transported to a factory near Kampala and checked for aflatoxins, a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops. It is then cleaned and added to a processing line that converts the soya beans to a specific end product.
According to Nsubuga, Sesaco’s main customers are nutrition-conscious people and those who prefer soya as a non-caffeinated alternative to tea and coffee. “Soya beans have calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and fibre. All these things are not added.” He is also targeting people with busy lives as most of Sesaco’s products require only the addition of water.
Sesaco has since evolved into a sizeable processing company with more than 40 staff and is expected to double in size over the next five years. Its biggest overheads are salaries and distribution costs. Nsubuga says he is currently looking for distribution partnerships with logistics companies to save on the cost of transporting goods across Uganda.
While he has received interest from European, American and Middle Eastern buyers, Sesaco is yet to export to other countries. “Some businesses have great potential but it is not realised if you don’t have the finance,” he says, adding that it is hard to get low-interest loans in Uganda.
Sesaco managing director Charles Nsubuga’s contact information
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