Reflections on COVID-19
In the third part of our four-part COVID-19 reflectional series, Sarah Owembabazi, a Rotaractor, Entrepreneur, and Alumni of Re!gnite Africa CPP, interviews Vaolah Amumpaire, Founder and CEO of Wena Hardware, about digital businesses and what we could learn from it for this season. Wena Hardware is Uganda’s first online hardware store established in 2017.
SO: What inspired you to become self-employed, create a business in hardware sales and venture into online/digital ways of conducting this business?
VA: I am a professional marketer and during my career practice, I realized Ugandans abroad were sending money back home for construction materials for their homes and this money was being used by those they trusted for personal gain. I noticed that a digital solution would be a bridge for Ugandans in the diaspora and their construction needs back home. Since then, we have served thousands of customers and expanded to Kenya.
SO: How were you able to start and set up Wena? Did you have capital saved up?
VA: All I needed was a technical person to set up the website …I used the skills I had developed earlier in my career to start. I did not have money to hire people at the beginning.
SO: Before COVID-19, I had started an online and mobile laundry and housekeeping cleaning business together with a friend. However, we cannot operate because we need public transport to move from one place to another. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the Wena online hardware business?
VA: For the greater part of the lockdown, hardware stores were not considered essential businesses. Therefore, we were not operating. Now with the new presidential directives, we can conduct business. It also helps that it is already digital business so we can still take orders, put them on trucks and deliver them to the drop off address a client shares.
SO: Now that Wena is growing, do you have job opportunities especially for young people?
VA: I want to especially learn from others. I want to know how many are managing during this period. We have so many gaps yet filled. We have a lean team and we are trying to ensure we just manage…the circumstances do not support hiring new people now. However, very soon, we should have opportunities once all this (COVID-19 pandemic) is over.
SO: As a person who has interacted with so many people in the innovation space, do you think we still have online opportunities that have not been tapped into? If yes, which ones?
VA: In my opinion, the internet is an enabler of how businesses run, and any business that is still in brick and mortar stage can still be transferred online. young people can choose what areas of their businesses can be digitized…I think it is just a cultural related factor that many of the things we consume are still not yet digitized. We have the mindset that we do not believe what we cannot touch. We need to change that mindset.
I also think the ecosystem is not yet ready to support digital businesses. For example, we were just trying to connect to a zoom call and the connection is bad. If things like these are not solved, if the cost of the internet is still high, if we do not have people with the right skills in the digital space then getting businesses digitized will be hard. Let us grow the ecosystem, let us have more players, and let’s try to get more businesses online.
SO: Does Wena have a physical office and if it does, what does look like?
VA: We are an Alibaba of building materials. We are on amazon and Alibaba. What we do is help people source materials locally. We have different payment options and that allows anyone to access services.
SO: One of the easiest ways for start-ups to market their businesses is through social media. As Wena, have you used these platforms to market your business? What is your opinion on the social media tax?
VA: Largely, we Use social media channels to market our business and we have accepted that OTT is part of our expenses…Sometimes you must go past the huddles to do what you have to do. We are currently conducting series where we are doing different interviews with professionals in the field and we are streaming these conversations live on Facebook. Use the social media platforms you have to share about your work.
SO: Do you have competition for your business? If yes, who is your biggest competitor?
VA: Our biggest competition is physical hardware stores… considering that many people still prefer to walk into the store and make purchases physically. They are our collaborators and the main competition.
SO: What are some of the challenges you still face?
VA: People have a different perception of our business; government businesses or intended clients. For example, when I went to KCCA last year to apply for a youth loan and presented registration documents of Wena and I was told they would come to my hardware store and assess how much of the loan we qualify for. I had to explain to them what Wena is and how we operate. The lady who was handling my case said, ‘’how do you even have that as a registered business?’’ It was shocking to hear this; there is a lack of appreciation for digital ways of doing business. Changing that mindset is the biggest challenge.
SO: Any challenges you have overcome and lessons for young people?
VA: Starting, the biggest misconception was that I could not possibly do this. I was a woman, a young woman, and someone who did not have experience in construction.
Lessons: When it comes to doing what I want and how I want it, I try to go all out and giving it my best. I approached people who were willing to listen, advise, and help me understand why other people in the sector were reacting to my business that way. I had to learn about construction from people who had been in the business for a while.
It also helped that I am a marketer and I used my skills and experiences to talk to people about the business in a certain way. For things I could not do myself, I had to find the right people. I hired people on a part-time basis because I could not afford to keep them. I did most of the work by myself.
When it comes to resources, I had to make sure I trust my team and empower them because I needed them to run the business on my behalf when I was not around (at the beginning when I still held a fulltime job).
SO: As a person who has been formally employed, do you advise someone who has been employed to resign and venture into self-employment?
VA: For a while, I was running Wena while still employed…I had to keep working because I needed to accumulate money for my business. One can decide depending on what an individual can do, their mindset, and what they think their business can achieve. In my opinion, if you leave your job just because you want to be self-employed might be far from the reality…The work that you put in self-employed — the struggles and weight that you have to endure is what most people are not aware of. Why should people come to work for you if you are not willing to work for other people? If you think it is the best move, go for it. You need to be informed before you make the decision.
SO: At what stage should someone take a loan for their business?
VA: Unfortunately, I was unable to be considered for that KCCA loan and I have not taken a loan. There are many dynamic uncertainties in running a business, especially one that is unique and new to the market. If you have an alternative source of capital, consider it before you take a loan.
SO: How do you coordinate with your team?
VA: Currently, I run a virtual team for both the Kenyan and Ugandan operations. We have daily meetings online using google hangout. The daily calls help us set targets and evaluate our activities. We are also in constant communication on our WhatsApp group.
SO: Message for young people? Any advice for those trying?
VA: Let us use the resources we have. We have been born in an era where technology is an enabler for business. We should utilize the resources available to us. Additionally, you need to know how to work with teams; know your strengths and weaknesses, and know what value your business/es bring to the market.
SO: How can youth have access to knowledge and information on how to run such a business?
VA: It is about the willingness and drive an individual has on trying to find that information. We live in an information era…yes, you could be mentored/guided but the biggest task lies in one following through and learning on their own. If you are out there, telling your story, and making yourself available to the right networks, you will find people to guide you and help you build your business and look beyond the Ugandan boundaries for example.
Try new businesses — even if it means duplicating the Wena idea. Find a problem you can solve uniquely and use digital media to market it.