How A YALI Fellow Overcame Stigma Of Female Entrepreneurship In Uganda

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Written by Ann Brown

Jamila Mayanja took something as simple as washing clothes and turned it into a business that’s helping to empower women in her native Uganda, where entrepreneurship sometimes still carries a stigma for women.

Mayanja is one of the young Africans who participated in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program in 2015.

Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders as they trigger growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa.

Mayanja founded Smart Girls Uganda, a company that empowers young girls and women through training to build self-esteem. Through Smart Girls she launched a franchise company, J Mobile Laundry Services, that has helped put a dent in youth unemployment in the capital city of Kampala.

The business offers door-to-door domestic laundry services, employing youth while training them in entrepreneurship and employability skills. The company has a workforce of more than 30 women.

Mayanja talked to AFKInsider about how women entrepreneurs are overcoming obstacles in Uganda.

AFKInsider: What is it like for a young woman starting a small business in Uganda?

Jamila Mayanja: It’s really a hard because when you’re a young woman in this community the elders believe instead of trying to start a business they need you to instead look for a man get married and have kids. They feel you would be wasting time, so it takes time for you to prove your worth if you start a business. And when you’re married some women will just have luck like me to have their husbands (who) let them work. My husband is actually my biggest supporter.

AFKInsider: How did you fund your startup?

Jamila Mayanja: I funded my business out of personal savings.

AFKInsider: You help women save money to launch their own businesses. How does this work?

Jamila Mayanja: I partnered with Rotary Uganda and we started a program called Rotary Vijana Poa that trains youth and women in entrepreneurial and employable skills and also challenges them to start a business at only 10,000 UGX (approximately $3). So every week I train these ladies on how to start their own business and also in partnership with Financial Literate Uganda for training in basic bookkeeping and savings. I have four full-time staff and three part-time staff.

AFKInsider: How and why did you take part in Young African Leadership Initiative?

Jamila Mayanja: I applied for YALI in 2014 and successfully went through (as a) 2015 Dartmouth Mandela Washington Fellow. I took part in YALI because I wanted to get the extra skills that the program was providing so that I can pass on the skills to the women I mentor and to also to prove me as a person and all my initiatives. The program was worth it.

AFKInsider: What were some business leadership lessons you learned from YALI?

Jamila Mayanja: In business I learned how to use “design thinking” to develop new ideas in businesses and it’s what I teach all my ladies to use. And in leadership I learned you need to work as a team. You also need to learn and understand yourself as a leader and the personalities of the people you work with.

AFKInsider: Describe your educational background.

Jamila Mayanja:  I left primary school in 2000 at Kitante Primary School, then attended my Secondary School At Nabisunsa Girls School from 2001 to 2006. After (that I) attended Makerere University business school from 2007 and graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I majored in marketing.

AFKInsider: Why did you want to open your own business?

Jamila Mayanja: I actually studied in Uganda my whole life and am passionate in creating a change in my country; we have a long way to go.

AFKInsider: What is the Haven Anti-Aids Foundation?

Jamila Mayanja: I am a co-founder of this organization, a charitable, indigenous, not-for-profit children and youth development organization, registered with a mandate of involving and empowering children and youth to fight against HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, to alleviate poverty through the use of their talents to improve their livelihoods, realize their potential and discover their worth through participatory and advocacy activities.

AFKInsider: What are your business goals for 2016 and long term?

Jamila Mayanja:  To cover all areas in Kampala and to move the business in some neighboring districts. To have the business benefit and reach at least 200 girls throughout the year. My long-term goals are to cover the whole country and East Africa, to build affordable community dry cleaning laundry places to phase out hand washing; and to develop a Smart Girls training center to hold these training sessions.

AFKInsider: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Jamila Mayanja:  Changing the lives of these ladies is my full enjoyment — when I see a smile on their faces because they can fully sustain themselves.