Entrepreneur Prudence Ukkonika is inspiring her fellow women to build careers in agribusiness, writes Patience Akumu.
Every day in Uganda’s markets, wheelbarrows of leftover fruit are dumped into gutters and streets, and often shoppers find their feet sinking into slime. It is this public wastage that inspired Ugandan entrepreneur Prudence Ukkonika to start making organic wines and juices using the abundant fruit.
“Every morning I walked past the market to go to work, it was painful to see so many pineapples, mangoes, passion fruits… going to waste,” the former civil servant says as she loads a carton of Bella Wine, one of her products, onto a truck parked outside K-Roma Limited, the company she founded.
K-Roma, whose offices are in Wandegeya, a robust business centre in Kampala also known for its vibrant nightlife, manufactures packages and distributes wines and juices all over East Africa. Sitting at the helm of a company with an estimated worth of over $350,000, Ukkonika’s success is no mean achievement at a time when there are still few female winemakers world over – and even fewer from Africa.
Today, Ukkonika works with Ugandan farmers, most of them women, to grow fruits that provide raw material for her industry. “Growing up, they told us to wait for our husbands to give us everything. But now, with the women’s rights movement, everything has changed,” she says. “We must not just talk about liberating women. We must put our talk into action and empower them.”
Cultural and religious factors, along with lacklustre agricultural policies, have often put massive barriers in the way of female entrepreneurs in the sector, and Ukkonika is determined to break stereotypes and show that women can make money out of the country’s agricultural bounty.
“Our young people are running away but there is a lot of money to be made here in Africa. We have land, good weather, everything we need,” Ukkonika says.
Whether they are farming for sale or home consumption, women in sub-Saharan Africa contribute up to 80% of the labour force in the agricultural sector, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Yet, still as part of tradition, they do not own the land they work on and do not have much say over the produce arising out of their labour.
African agricultural productivity is still well below the global average. The continent still spends an estimated $35bn on food imports – excluding fish – according to the 2014 Africa Progress Report, in part because of the out-dated farming measures that have been passed on from generation to generation. This in turn leads to cycles of poverty – and women are the hardest hit.
Emma Naluyima, a veterinary doctor whose main source of income is a one-acre farm on which she has increased yields using improved technology, says that ignorance about the way in which patriarchy hampers development is at the heart of Africa’s flailing agricultural sector.
“Everything belongs to the husbands. If [the women] do not see the benefits of their labour, how will they be motivated?”
Ukkonika’s motivation came from watching her father and mother who were already using sorghum and maize, beating British colonial laws to brew and sell beer locally in the 1950s and ’60s. “We had plantations and plantations of maize and sorghum,” Ukkonika says.
“My parents then decided that instead of handing most of it over freely to the neighbours, we should make local beer and sell it.”
Ukkonika bemoans the fact that African farmers have still failed to see agriculture as a source of income.
“It is tradition. You grow maize and give it to the neighbours, and the rest goes bad. We need to find ways to add value and conserve our produce. We need to teach our young people that they can grow rich from agriculture.”
Like many men in rural Uganda, Ukkonika’s father was polygamous, which forced her mother to find ways to make money. “It was competition. It was survival. It was resilience,” she says. “She had to travel miles to sell the beer in her own village,” she says, adding that divorcing was never an option for her traditional mother.
Ukkonika says she wants to empower other women, no matter their situation, to know that they can be successful agribusiness entrepreneurs. As a step towards the promulgating the crucial change in attitudes that she believes is important to their success, Ukkonika regularly travels all over East Africa to talk to women entrepreneurs and inspire them.
Naluyima, on the other hand, has used income from her farm to start a primary school where she plans to teach children agriculture from an early age.
“Even more than teaching them how to make money, they must know that farming is what puts food on the table. And, all over the world, people want, first and foremost, food on the table.”
For their efforts, both Ukkonika and Naluyima are recognised as model agribusiness entrepreneurs and have international and local accolades to show for it.
But, Shifa Mwesigye, spokesperson for Global Rights Alert, a Ugandan NGO that campaigns for women’s property rights, says that a lot still needs to be done to give African women control over much needed resources to enable them do agribusiness independent of their male relatives.
She argues that until women start owning important resources like land, success stories like that of Ukkonika and Naluyima will remain the exception.
“Most women rely on their brothers and fathers to own land,” she says. “Most rural women are cohabiting, and the laws here do not recognise them as spouses entitled to marital property. So, when they leave their homes, they must lose
everything they worked for.”