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Nurturing entrepreneurs through incubation

By Flavia Nassaka

The Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) is an incubation centre for entrepreneurship. Prof. Charles Kwesiga, the Executive Director spoke to Flavia Nassaka about business incubation and its future in Uganda.

What are the key elements of your management philosophy as a CEO?

For any director to succeed, they have to understand their mandate and mission and then determine what it takes to accomplish it. For instance, the pillars upon which UIRI has grown are having qualified, skilled and dedicated staff, appropriate technologies and of course funds. We have had to understand the cause and lobby for the cause of UIRI.  I understand the essence of professionalism and I’ve therefore focused on developing appropriate staff and affording them an opportunity to grow professionally so that they can deliver appropriate goods and services.

In terms of strategy and execution of UIRI’s mandate, how has the institute transformed over the years?

Significantly, from a mere department under the ministry of trade to an agency that is now enjoying peer recognition at every level. We have  become a center of excellence for the East African Community in research and development.  I was elected president of the World Association for Industrial and Technological Research Organizations (WAITRO), an organization that brings together 160 countries across the globe. That’s significant transformation.

How successful has UIRI been at incubating?

We have a number of entrepreneurs and products enjoying successful penetration of the market. I look at the general picture and I know anybody who has walked with us through the journey can tell the significant impact we have made on the general population.

How does UIRI pick the business ideas to incubate? Isn’t this the equivalent of the government picking winners and losers in the private sector?

We don’t have a wish list that we are looking for this sort of ideas but there are many sources. Sometimes we get ideas from our own personnel, individuals and sometimes we pick them from collaboration with similar institutions. However, individual interactions have led to adequate flow of ideas, which we develop further into successful businesses.  I can say there’s a significant genius among the Ugandan population.

Why the focus on agro-processing?

That’s the nature of our economy. About 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture in one way or another so value-addition to agrarian products is a very logical starting point.  That’s how it’s done every where even in the developed world. They identify what they are best at and focus on that. But, this doesn’t mean this is all we do.  Industrialization doesn’t allow exclusivity because activities are interdependent. For instance we have to engage in development of technologies in order to make a go in successful agriculture because we need a lot of agro-inputs.

How is incubation transforming the agro-processing sub-sector, if at all?

Through a vibrate value addition activity, we are able to extend shelf lives of products, to reduce post harvest losses and also to reduce poverty levels of the peasantry.

When we start with value addition, we create wealth in the communities giving them the power to invest in the primary industry, which has an effect on imports substitution. And as we move from poverty to wealth creation, we are setting a precedent for the manufacturing industry, which requires heavy capital investment.

How does the incubation process actually work? When does a firm graduate from incubation?

The point is determined by a number of factors because we can’t let go of an entrepreneur who has not yet grasped the basics of running a business. It makes no sense to let go of a person who isn’t ready for the real world.

We nurture and support a start up enterprise until it can be self-sustaining and this we determine by looking at whether a product has already been tested in the market, whether the entrepreneur has a sustainable technological infrastructure and the ability to stay in business as a viable enterprise.

How does the Makerere Food Technology approach differ, if at all, from the UIRI one?

If they are following the definition of incubation – supporting and nurturing a start up enterprise until it becomes self sustaining – then it doesn’t differ. I expect that they are doing similar things except that their pool of incubatees initially was focused on their graduates yet we cover the general population irrespective of their education level.

At what point is a project declared a failure?

Business failures whether they are in an incubator or in the real world are pretty much the same. There are entrepreneurs who may lose interest or who may not follow the script given to them and end up messing things up. There are also those who come as a partnership and it goes sour but we don’t have many of those.

Generally, lack of affordable financing is the main reason why some enterprises don’t grow.

What is the future of business incubation in Uganda?

I see it expanding and helping a lot more. Already in our strategic planning, we are focused on expanding our business incubator portfolio and I am sure there’s a future because with the nature of our economy, there are no many other choices. At the skills front, nationally we are not doing well. Not even at the entrepreneurship front. Business incubation ends up filling those gaps created by the state of our economic activities.

How big is incubation in relation to other programmes at UIRI?

Incubation is the most commonly known because it has a direct impact on many people but this couldn’t have taken off on its own. We had developed affordable and appropriate technologies so the division for technology development has significantly helped us transform the rest of the divisions in the institutions. The analytical laboratories also help us develop high quality products. So there’s a lot going on here, incubation is just a small portion of it.

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