Almost two decades ago two young men asked themselves what it would take to create a “Rolex” chain of restaurants.
The ideas would be take the rolex, which at the time was championed by one Sula in Wandegeya, create a menu, standardise the ingredients, upgrade the sanitation issues, license the Sula name and employ him for good measure.
They would then open branches at all the universities – there were only three at the time and they would have a million dollar business in no time.
It was brilliant idea. But that’s as far as it got.
Actually worse. The idea was forgotten.
That is until last week when Natalie Bitature was named one of three young Uganda women innovators at the World Economic Forum (WEF), that was hosted in Kigali, Rwanda.
Natalie, daughter of businessman Patrick Bitature, came up with the idea of a solar powered street vending cart for her final year undergraduate project. She is studying social entrepreneurship at Hult University in the US.
"The rolex is our original fast food, which needs few ingredients or space to produce and deliver...
Apparently the average vendor sells up to 200 rolex a day and nets about sh25,000. The project discovered that the main driver of the low margins was the energy source. They also worked out that sales would be even further enhanced if the vendor was mobile.
Enter the Musana cart.
Still in its pilot phase, the container on two wheels, would be nothing but a pimped up push-cart were it not for the fact that it has a solar panel for a roof, which would allow vendors to cook, or refrigerate drinks or even charge phones.
Natalie and her project mates have worked out it will cost just under sh2m to buy a cart.
“Of course it could be cheaper but what about quality. It has got to work. It has to be reliable, sturdy and the solar panels must provide enough power given all that it’s a fare price,” said her father Bitature.
The project members have worked their way around it by enlisting the help of a local microfinance bank to lend the vendors the money to buy the carts.
But the project is looking beyond Kampala, where there are an estimated 100,000 vendors of whom they are targeting one percent of for their cart, but beyond the borders of Uganda. They point out in a fact sheet that there are 13 cities around the continent with populations of more than half a million people.
"The project is interesting enough that it is one of six teams in the final round of the Hult Prize, which will be awarded in September. One million dollars will given to the winner of The Hult Prize, which is the world’s largest student competition for social good, aimed at solving the world’s most pressing needs in food security, water access, energy, and education. Over 25,000 projects from around the world including Makerere were showcased in the preliminaries. The five other finalists will receive $200,000 (sh700m) to go towards starting up their venture...
Regardless of what happens in September this project is noteworthy on several fronts but most especially it is about our own entrepreneurs and innovators thinking up solutions to our own challenges.
No in is going to do it for us. This applies to challenges in medicine, agriculture and the environment.
As a country, as a continent we need to invest more in research and development. And then we need to develop the capacity in the public and private sector to take such promising projects to their full potential.
Uganda is the most entrepreneurial countries in the world studies have shown but we also have one of the highest death rates of business, with less than one in ten businesses making it past their fifth birthday. But an even more outrageous statistic is that even fewer companies, maybe even less than one in a hundred, live and thrive beyond the original founders.
A deficit in our business ecosystem, beyond inadequate funding is to blame. In more advanced economies businesses have the support of mentors, business associations and differing financing options tailored to the stages in the business growth giving them a better chance of survival.
"The younger Bitature has clearly tapped into this more developed environment in San Francisco, fast becoming the social entrepreneurial capital of the world, and chances are Uganda will be the winner from the experience...
And the rolex too. But not with Sula as its main mascot.