Do you know what could be worse than starting and failing? Well, it is simply not starting at all. It’s no telling how much thoughts go through our minds each day, and like traffic, these thoughts can be directed and indeed controlled; they can be channeled in a positive direction to achieve great feats or left to wander on the lonely and dark streets of uncertainties and impossibilities.
We are great beings, created with the innate ability to make a difference wherever we are. If only if we can see and believe, then we can achieve; for truly we are greater and stronger than we can ever imagine.
Andrew Mupuya was just 16 years old when he discovered and acted on this truth. A time when it was almost impossible for his family to make ends meet; his parents had just lost their jobs and could only afford to cover his school fees.
“I had to get to meet my basic needs by myself,” remembers the teenager. “I decided to face the world alone.”
And like they say, there is no hold strong enough to stop a determined mind, the teenager found a great opportunity and took the world by surprise. At the time, Ugandan government officials announced that they were considering a ban on plastic bags to curb environmental damage. Mupuya, who was still in secondary school, immediately grabbed the opportunity to launch out in business; he decided to start a paper bag production company.
The young man’s journey was a trying one; the road was bordered with great challenges and severe oppositions yet in determination, he pulled through.
“After form six, my brother, who was my host sent me away back to the village, 3 days later I came back to Kampala. I had nothing to start with but I wanted to build my business,” he stated.
To start out his small operation, Mupuya reckoned he needed a capital of 36,000 Ugandan shillings ($14), which for the teenager was not an easy sum to come by, but to achieve this he had to make a sacrifice.
Mupuya embarked on a “pick up plastic bottle” operation. He cleaned the environment by collecting used plastic bottles; and by the end of the first week, he had gathered up to 70 kilos of used plastic bottles which he sold to a plastic recycling plant and was able to raise the first $11. He then borrowed the remaining $3 from his school teacher and embarked on his entrepreneurial journey producing paper bags on a small scale.
The genius reckons: “I started out in secondary school after the government put a ban on ’buveeras’ (Plastic polythene bags). After the ban, I decided that I wanted to create a solution. I conducted a feasibility study, market research around retail shops, kiosks, supermarkets around Kampala and discovered there is need and potential market for paper bags .I made a business plan. To start out, I needed 36,000 Uganda shillings [About $13.4 at the current rate]. So I collected 70 kgs of used mineral water bottles to raise capital. But I raised only 28,000/-UGs. [$10] My fellow students and teachers thought that I was mad. To meet up with the plan, I borrowed the remaining 8000/- [$2.9] from one of my teachers.’ I sold a ream worth of paper bags every 3 weeks and from each ream, I earned 20,000/-[$7.4] worth of profit.”
He continued thus “everyone thought that I was never going to make it. Even my teachers told me that I was going to fail class. But I had a weekly timetable and that is how I made it,”
This reminds me of what a writer once said; “The people who say you can’t and won’t are probably the ones who fear you could and would, so pay no attention to the many who try to bring you down but always say to yourself I can and I will”.
Mupuya believed he could, and to the amazement of his scorners, he made it.
In 2010, the trail blazer registered his new company, Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (YELI), which is now the first local registered paper bag and envelope producing company in Uganda. His business has grown to employ more than 19 people, who produce more than 20,000 paper bags each week.
Since then, the business has grown extensively .YELI’s customer base includes local hospitals, retail shops, roadside sellers, super markets, major local flour manufacturer companies like Maganjo grain millers and Akamai Foods and also multinational companies like Samsung. The company has made about 1,000 niche bags for the local stores of the electronics company.
“Right now I have 72 clients,” says Mupuya. “Ninety per cent of our clients always come back.”
The dream of the then unassuming teenager has now grown into a huge business venture, which has won him great fame and international awards.
In 2012, Mupuya won the $30,000 Anzisha Prize, a major award given to young African entrepreneurial leaders who take the initiative to address critical needs in their communities.
In the same year, he received The Ferd Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a worldwide competition which aims to celebrate current or past participants of Junior Achievement entrepreneurship programs from throughout the world, who through their enterprises have created a positive social impact in various fields of activities.
He was also the recipient of a 2.6 million Ugandan shilling ($1,000) ILO business plan competition. From his earnings, Andrew is able to pay for his bachelor’s degree in commerce at Makerere University, pay the salaries of his staff, and support his family in Mbale by opening a distribution outlet of bags and envelopes for his mother to sell.
Again in 2013, the paper bag magnate received the Social Entrepreneurship Award in Europe. A competition open to 15-45 year olds. Out of the 17 semifinalists selected worldwide, Mupuya emerged as one of the 4 finalists. Interviews were done via Skype with judges from all over the world. The other finalists were from the United States, Norway and Sweden.
About this the young entrepreneur says; “The awards I have won give me courage to push on with my business, it shows to me how I am doing the right thing and it helps me define the impact am creating.”
In addition to managing his growing enterprise, Mupuya has also trained over 500 young people, on how to make paper bags through which 16 other projects have been set up.
He says in excitement, “I love to share my skills and information. So far I have trained over 500 people in making these paper bags and writing business plans. Some of the trainings I have done via Skype. I have trained people from Norway, Ghana and Zambia. I have done trainings in secondary schools and so many other forums,”
Andrew is currently collaborating with the Ugandan Research Institute to develop a way of recycling the materials that are usually left out in the paper bag production process.
“I hope to start using recycled paper next year. When making the paper bags, there are a lot of cuttings that we do not use, the bits and pieces that are left out in the process. I want to start recycling those and create more paper. I am currently doing a training program with Uganda Research Institute to that effect. But to do that, we will need a bigger premise. So I am working on building bigger premises before I embark on that project as well,” remarked Mupuya.
Well, it sure looks like the genius has got amazing plans for the future; he says by 2015 he would have built a paper bag making plant that would result in a cleaner Africa, whose beautiful landscape is free of the litter of plastic bags and so have up to 60 people in his employ.
Currently, Mupuya sources his paper from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. His business is housed in Kasokoso, a slum just outside Kampala’s active city center. Here, everything is done by hand and with precision. YELI employees turn out thousands of bags daily, cutting the paper manually and then folding it and gluing it appropriately.
But this takes time, and as customer numbers grow, the team cannot keep up with the increasing and unceasing orders. He acknowledges that one of the biggest challenges for his business right now is supply and demand.
“It needs time to produce the right quality and quantity to all clients, because it’s run manually,” he says. “It’s quite hard to catch up with some clients who are used to cheap plastic bags,” adds Mupuya. “My next step is to get a machine because I am only able to supply 5% of the demands I have.”
Yet Mupuya says that this is a problem that most clients understand, pushing him to keep thinking big and press ahead with his plans to promote environmental conservation.
But his target is clear, he says;
“My vision is to have a cleaner Africa by eradicating use of plastic bags and emphasis on paper recycling,” he says. “I dream of having a big plant where I am able to supply paper bags all over Africa, putting emphasis on sensitizing about environmental conservation.”