Majority of Uganda’s adult population is engaged in entrepreneurial activity, so much so, that the country was recently ranked one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world. It has also been noted however that only a few of the businesses that are created are surviving and even fewer are thriving. Does Uganda’s entrepreneurial ecosystem work?’ Does it adequately support entrepreneurs? The Makerere University Business School (MUBS) held its 14th Annual Entrepreneurship Conference on the 14th and 15th of November to address these challenging questions. Several recognized financial institutions, budding and successful entrepreneurs, academics and business incubators including Makerere University’s ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) were represented at the conference in Speke Resort Munyonyo. RAN’s representative also had the opportunity to speak at this engagement on behalf of the different players in the ecosystem puzzle. 

Among the many riveting deliberations that took place was a debate on whether business incubators were doing enough to adequately skill entrepreneurs and curb the mortality rates of SMEs in Uganda. Mr. Yoram Banyenzaki, a post-doctoral student at MUBS presented his findings from studying startups in Uganda. He noted that many of the business incubators in Uganda had no clear business model and therefore lacked adequate funding and means to support incubatees in translating research findings into viable business plans. He also noted the need for business incubators to hire technical staff who are entrepreneurially wired so as to better support ailing businesses. RAN represented by its Engagements Officer, Miss. Natasha Kassami, joined a panel of incubators that included CURAD’s Apollo Seggawa and Macky from the Design Hub Kampala, to talk through some of the challenges raised.  

After a weekend of mulling over the thought-provoking conversations and presentations at the conference, I would like to exploit this opportunity and add to the thoughts shared at the conference around the role of business incubators like RAN in Uganda. I would like to start by recognizing that while the road to success has been a bumpy, winding and some might even say slow one, we have also made some great strides in nurturing entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial spirit as a country. One giant leap is the fact that different players of the ecosystem are beginning to recognize that they have a role to play in supporting the success of SMEs in Uganda. Just last month RAN attended ‘Second  Annual Symposium on Intellectual Property, Innovation, Technology And Internet Of Things (IOT)’ organized by KTA advocates, where the legal fraternity recognized their role in fostering ingenuity and local entrepreneurship. We have also noted a growing interest by other key actors like the Government of Uganda (GoU), where programs like the National ICT Initiatives Support Program (NIISP) under the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance have been set up to offer financial and technical support through local hubs, to ICT innovators and thereby promote locally developed ICT products, services and solutions for improved service delivery. The efforts to convene different ecosystem players and to financially support locally bred enterprises are countless and are growing in number. Recognizing their place as one of the players that support local entrepreneurship, business incubators have a key role to play in the coordination of these activities and in linking entrepreneurs to these funding and networking opportunities. One simple way they do this is by linking entrepreneurs to opportunities and events (e.g. exhibitions, monthly and quarterly events) where they can pitch their ideas to potential investors and clients. These opportunities are often advertised through hubs, since they are the most obvious route to source innovators. As one keynote speaker at the conference highlighted ‘we need to stop talking to ourselves about our businesses and start talking to other people.’ To this point, many business incubators do not simply stop at linking entrepreneurs to these pitching opportunities, but also work to equip them with the skills they require to deliver a compelling pitch. 

Professor Peter Rosa from the University of Edinburgh while sharing from his experience as the George David Chair of Entrepreneurship and Family Business at University of Edinburgh, noted at the conference that children from a family business background were often more ‘ambitious and confident’ when it came to developing business proposals. One of the key things I would attribute this trait to is the exposure that these children get from an early age. Many first-time entrepreneurs in Uganda however, have not been exposed to the business networks and mindset they require to succeed. One of the roles of an incubator therefore, is to bridge this knowledge gap and one of the ways they do so is through ‘ecosystem events’. In order for these engagements to be meaningful, an incubator requires ‘a steady source of contacts’ and needs to be well integrated in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and in the community. Through regular ecosystem events like the ‘Innovation Fireplace’, RAN provides budding entrepreneurs with the opportunity to engage with and learn from entrepreneurs that are further along in their journey. We also through these events provide entrepreneurs with opportuny to build the business networks they require to succeed by exposing them to players they would not have otherwise had access to. 

Last but certainly not least to note is the role business incubators play in imparting critical skills that support the development of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Good ideas without the right skills and support end up in the valley of death. During the conference it was noted that many hubs offer capacity support and trainings in financial management, business model development, conducting research to inform businesses, among others. This technical support, as was highlighted at the conference is strengthened when other players of the ecosystem offer their expertise to help budding entrepreneurs thrive.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the MUBS Entrepreneurship Innovation & Incubation Centre for inviting RAN to take part in this stimulating discussion. We look forward to working with partners and players in the ecosystem to ensure that more businesses in Uganda succeed and thrive and to foster the spirt of entrepreneurship and ingenuity.