It’s not easy getting a job after completing university. It is a tough world. Ask Pauline Namutebi. After graduating with a Bachelors Degree in Petroleum Geoscience and Production from Makerere University in 2016, she applied for an office job in different oil companies within Uganda and abroad, in vain.
“I lost count of the number of jobs I applied for. Mind you, I was still staying in my father’s house and I was very broke,” says Namutebi.
The reason Namutebi had initially applied for the course was because at that time, there was a lot of excitement for Uganda’s oil industry, and, many people were eyeing numerous job opportunities that the sector would present.
“By the time I left the university, there was a continuous reduction in the price per barrel of oil, meaning that companies were making losses and laying off workers. So for many of us graduates who were so fresh and excited about the industry, we were frustrated by this revelation. We had hit a dead end. I mean, why would they hire you, yet, they were firing other people?” Namutebi says.
But, as she continued job hunting, a friend recommended her for the position of business development officer at a startup company called Emphasis Business Solutions. Part of her job included looking for market for the company’s software. She worked there for only a couple of months before being considered in November 2016 for Youth African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a programme that empowers young people with entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
The training programme lasted for one month in Nairobi, Kenya. While here, Namutebi got an opportunity to interact with a number of young people doing amazing things and running their own businesses.
“That training made me realise that it was about time I opened up my own business, where I could put the skills acquired from university to good use,” she says.
Upon her return to Uganda, Namutebi started researching probable start-ups.
Venturing into briquettes
In February 2017, the idea of making briquettes dawned on her. Briquettes are blocks made of burnable biomass material, including banana peelings or other plant residues, for instance, maize husks.
“This idea came about one day as I browsed the internet. When I dug up more information on the business, it sounded like a great idea because it was a cleaner business for the environment, especially in this era where climate change is a big deal.” she says, adding, “I would be advocating for renewable energy, while at the same time saving the environment.”
She started experimenting at home. The briquettes she was making in the beginning were from charcoal dust. But just as her business was kicking off, she enrolled for a fellowship programme, in June 2017, initiated by Global Health Corps (GHC), a non-governmental organisation that supports emerging global health leaders.
Normally, young professionals are selected for paid year-long fellowships with organisations that promote health equity in East and Southern Africa as well as the United States.
Global Health Corps assigned her to Population Services International (PSI), an organisation that helps women live healthier lives and plan the families they desire. She was to work as a sales and trade development officer.
“Part of my role was to look for market for items like condoms, mama kits, and mosquito nets. But also, in the process of selling them, I would sensitise the masses on different aspects of reproductive health, including the importance of condoms in fighting HIV/Aids,” she says.
For this fellowship, Namutebi was paired with an American national with Uganda being their country of operation. She served while continuing to run her briquette business on a part-time basis. When the one year fellowship eventually ended in August 2018, she returned to running her business full time.
Her business today
At around that time, Namutebi felt the desire to expand her business, especially after acquiring a grant worth about $5,000 (about Shs18 million) from Tony Elumelu Foundation, an African philanthropic initiative supporting entreprenuers. And eventually, she moved from home to Kalebera Village in Mukono District, where she invested the money into a bigger workstation.
And today, as much as she is the overseer of the business, she has four employees serving in other roles, and, are helping in running the affairs of the company. She has a finance officer, chief operations officer and two marketing officers.
Namutebi says people in Kalebera Village who have learnt about her business are always giving her agricultural residue to use as raw materials to make more briquettes.
According to Namutebi, the business makes a small margin of profits. “We have not broken even, yet. I believe we could make good money if we increased our capacity,” she says.
At the moment, she is trying to acquire bigger machines to boost business productivity. “They would undoubtedly improve the quality of briquettes we make on a daily basis,” she says.
One of the machines she wants to acquire is a carbonising machine that accommodates a large quantity of waste. She is also looking at getting a drier.
Currently, she only has a carbonising drum and a manual briquette press machine, meaning most of the work is done manually. The work will be made easier and faster only with the new machines, at least she hopes for.
Search for a scholarship
In order to boost her business even further, Namutebi felt the need to advance her studies in order to acquire more knowledge and skills to grow her company. In September 2018, she applied for six different international scholarships.
Out of the six applications, she was granted the Chevening Scholarship, a United Kingdom government’s international awards programme, which offers an opportunity for future leaders, influencers and decision makers from across the world to develop academically, professionally as well as build lasting positive relationships within the UK.
“Getting it was not easy. I was among thousands of applicants and when the names came out, still a long list had to be shortlisted,” she says.
However, Namutebi says seeing her name on that long list renewed her hope, especially after being rejected by other scholarship programmes.
Part of the final selection process comprised of an interview stage and Namutebi says when she was called for it, “I talked mostly about myself, the business I do, why I applied for the scholarship and how I would apply the acquired knowledge and skills from the programme when I returned home.”
She was awarded the scholarship, a milestone she will live to celebrate. Altogether, 17 Ugandans were offered Chevening Scholarships for different 2019/20 programmes.
Namutebi flew out of the country on September 18, 2019 to embark on her Masters programme in environmental engineering and project management from the University of Leeds in the UK.
“The course I am currently pursuing is directly related to my work. I hope it will address some of the existing gaps in my business.’’
• Completed Primary Seven in 2004 at St. John Bosco Katende Primary School in Mpigi District.
• She studied her Senior One to Six at Uganda Martyrs, Namugongo. She sat Senior Four in 2008 and Senior Six in 2010.
• In January 2016, she graduated with a bachelors degree in petroleum geoscience and production from Makerere University.