Ugandan juice company capitalising on abundance of cheap fruit

Employees filling bottles at the company's plant.

Employees filling bottles at the company’s plant.

Sam Turyatunga was studying food science at Uganda’s Kyambogo University when he decided to start a juice manufacturing business. He saw an opportunity because of the large number of fruits, such as bananas, that were selling at throwaway prices.

Uganda is a banana country,” says Turyatunga, founder and director of Tursam Investments. “Everywhere you go you find bananas, but they sell at very low prices. I saw an opportunity to do value addition and make natural fruit juices.”

Today his company manufactures banana and mango fruit juices under the Uhuru Fruit Drinks brand. The company also makes non-alcoholic fermented wines from bananas as well as a malt beverage called Bushera.

When he started the business towards the end of 2013, Turyatunga used to make juices in his hostel in the mornings before going for lectures. His primary customers were fellow students. When business picked up he moved production to the university lab, but soon this also became too small.

So in May of 2015 Turyatunga relocated production to a manufacturing facility just outside the capital Kampala. Today production stands at over 500 litres per day. The company sources fruits from contracted local farmers.

“In Uganda people take a lot of flavoured carbonated drinks. However, there is an emerging trend with more and more people taking juices. The two leading juice brands are Minute Maid, which is made by Coca-Cola, and Afia (manufactured by Kevian Kenya),” he explains.

“Our prices are lower when compared to these two brands. So we are mainly targeting youths, especially those in school. Remember many young people in Uganda are either unemployed or their earnings are very small. Our products sell very fast here – I put it on a shelf and in three days it’s out because it is what the youth can afford.”

The juices are supplied to over 150 schools and universities across the country. They are also stocked at supermarkets and informal shops. Uhuru Fruit Drinks has contracted distributors who handle the transportation and product supply.

A need to automate processes

When he moved to the current manufacturing facility, Turyatunga received a US$15,000 loan at 5% interest from a friend. He used the money to buy machinery and automated some activities, such as the peeling of fruits and purification of water. However, most of the processes are still done manually.

“We still need to automate our systems. Right now there is a lot of human handling in the product development. For instance, we fill the bottles using jugs and use hands to put caps on because we don’t have the machinery. We make about 1,500 bottles per day so you can imagine how much work that is.

“It takes us up to three hours to do the packaging yet there are machines that can do the same amount of bottles in less than an hour. So we need to automate the bottling line. That way we would be able to produce and package 4,500 bottles per day,” he says.

“Our packaging material is also very poor. It is hard to find quality packaging here. So our bottles are weak and we sometimes make losses from spillage.”

Turyatunga notes there is also a need for improved marketing and educating consumers. He says many confuse natural fruit juice with fruit-flavoured drinks.

Growing step by step

Despite the challenges, and the big need for financing, Turyatunga says entrepreneurship has taught him “growth has to be progressive”.

“I have learnt to grow step by step. When I started the business I was using UGX 30,000 ($9) to buy fruits from farmers, but today I am happy to see trucks come here to deliver fruits. So we have grown, one just has to be patient.

“I have also learnt to stay focused. During the rainy season sales go down and you can get frustrated knowing there’s not much activity in the factory. Sometimes you fix one problem and another arises. So you have to be focused, be flexible, and be willing to adapt to changes. Going into employment can be tempting – but I stay put knowing that I will achieve my goals one day, even if it takes 10 years.”