Vertical farming: Ugandan company develops solution for urban agriculture
We speak to Lilian Nakigozi, founder of Women Smiles Uganda, a company that manufactures and sells vertical farms used to grow crops in areas where there is limited space.
1. How did you come up with the idea to start Women Smiles Uganda?
Women Smiles Uganda is a social enterprise formed out of passion and personal experience. I grew up with a single mother and eight siblings in Katanga, one of the biggest slums in Kampala, Uganda. I experienced hunger and poverty where we lived. There was no land for us to grow crops and we didn’t have money to buy food. Life was hard; we would often go to sleep on empty stomachs and our baby sister starved to death.
Growing up like that, I pledged to use my knowledge and skills to come up with an idea that could solve hunger and, at the same time, improve people’s livelihoods, particularly women and young girls living in the urban slums. In 2017, while studying business at Makerere University, I had the idea of developing a vertical farm. This came amid so many challenges: a lack of finance and moral support. I would use the money provided to me for lunch as a government student to save for the initial capital of my venture.
I managed to accumulate $300 and used this to buy materials to manufacture the first 20 vertical farms. I gave these to 20 families and, in 2018, we fully started operations in different urban slums.
2. Tell us about your vertical farms and how they work.
Women Smiles vertical farms are made out of wood and recycled plastic materials. Each unit is capable of growing up to 200 plants. The product also has an internal bearing system which turns 360° to guarantee optimal use of the sunlight and is fitted with an inbuilt drip irrigation system and greenhouse material to address any agro-climatic challenges.
The farms can be positioned on a rooftop, veranda, walkway, office building or a desk. This allows the growth of crops throughout the year, season after season, unaffected by climatic changes like drought.
In addition, we train our customers on how to make compost manure using vermicomposting and also provide them with a market for their fresh produce.
3. Explain your revenue model.
Women Smiles Uganda generates revenue by selling affordable, reliable and modern vertical farms at $35, making a profit margin of $10 on each unit. The women groups are recruited into our training schemes and we teach them how to use vertical farming to grow crops and make compost manure by vermicomposting. Women groups become our outgrowers of fruits and vegetables. We buy the fresh produce from our outgrowers and resell to restaurants, schools and hotels.
We also make money through partnering with NGOs and other small private organisations to provide training in urban farming concepts to the beneficiaries of their projects.
4. What are some of the major challenges of running this business?
The major challenge we face is limited funds by the smallholder farmers to purchase the vertical farms. However, we mitigate this by putting some of them into our outgrower scheme which helps them to generate income from the fresh produce we buy. We have also linked some of them to financial institutions to access finance.
5. How do you generate sales?
We reach our customers directly via our marketing team which moves door to door, identifying organised women groups and educating them about the benefits of vertical farming for improved food security. Most of our customers are low-income earners and very few of them have access to the internet.
However, we do also make use of social media platforms like Facebook to reach out to our customers, especially the youth.
In addition, we organise talk shows and community gatherings with the assistance of local leaders with whom we work hand in hand to provide educational and inspirational materials to people, teaching them about smart agriculture techniques.
6. Who are your main competitors?
Just like any business, we have got competitors; our major competitors include Camp Green and Spark Agro-Initiatives.
7. What mistakes have you made in business and what did you learn from them?
As a victim of hunger and poverty, my dream was for every family in slums to have a vertical farm. I ended up giving some vertical farms on credit. Unfortunately, most of them failed to pay and we ended up with huge losses.
This taught me to shift the risk of payment default to a third party. Every customer who may need our farms on credit is now linked to our partner micro-finance bank. By doing this, it is the responsibility of the bank to recover the funds from our customers and it has worked well.
8. Apart from this industry, name an untapped business opportunity in Uganda.
Manufacturing of cooler sheds for the storage of perishable agricultural produce is one untapped opportunity. Currently, Ugandan smallholder farmers lose up to 40% of their fresh produce because of a lack of reliable cold storage systems.
Providing a cheap and reliable 24/7 cold storage system would dramatically reduce post-harvest losses for these farmers.
Women Smiles Uganda CEO contact information
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