Hand Up For The Entrepreneurial Grannies

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 22, 2016

My bride, Barbara Bry, and I vigorously preach that entrepreneurship is alive and well and global. OK, for the middle square and the win – where is Uganda?

Here is the inspiring story of Lydia Mugisha, 58, a grandmother, who lives in a small village in Uganda and owns Lydia M Crisps.

She grows Irish potatoes, peels and slices them, then cooks them on a charcoal stove, packages them in polythene papers, attaches her name tags and finally, she sells the finished product to customers. She controls the complete supply chain. She is vertically integrated. (No Harvard MBA, but she figured it out. Same as Apple and Tesla.)

I love this. Basic staple meets consumer demand – and voila, a miniature potato empire is born.

She is almost 60. Entrepreneurship knows no age limits.

Mugisha’s path to entrepreneurship came out of necessity. She is one of many Ugandan grannies with primary responsibility for their grandchildren because of AIDS and economic hardship throughout the country. Her initial funding of 200,000 Uganda shillings (about $58) came from Women’s Empowerment International, a San Diego-based microfinance organization focused on helping marginalized women in San Diego and developing countries work their way out of poverty.

“Our focus is poverty reduction and giving women hope, self-esteem and the ability to control their lives and destinies,” said Win Cox, the founder and president of Women’s Empowerment, or WE.

Mugisha tells her story without emotion. “I take care of seven grandchildren. The parents of these seven children have either been killed by thieves or divorced or disappeared. It is a hard life here. So I am their lifeline.” Her fierce determination is evident, but quiet. She does what she has to do.

In addition to startup capital from Women’s Empowerment, Mugisha received four days of training from a local NGO, or non-governmental organization, called the International Fertilizer Development Center. Against overwhelming odds, she started and made this business thrive. Currently, her monthly revenues are about $72 and profits are $29. Just imagine for a moment the pitch deck she might present to a venture capitalist. They would love her margins – 40 percent.

Her biggest challenge, she says, is not having a commercial house where she can sit and sell her crisps. She works from home and says she has does not have access to adequate transportation. To grow her business, she wants to borrow money to rent a space in a trading center. The success of Lydia M Crisps has allowed her to pay school fees for her grandchildren, buy home necessities and pay for health care. She is self-sufficient. She is an entrepreneur with positive cash flow. (Tell that to a few of the “unicorns” in the Valley).

Women’s Empowerment was started in 2003 by Cox who joined with marketing executive Jan Percival and journalist Leigh Fenly and then a larger group of 35 San Diego women. The group issued its first microloan in 2005, and the total value of loans made since then is $523,230. As loans are repaid, new ones can be made, and the total number of is more than 22,000.

The group works with partner banks throughout the world and chose to focus on grandmothers in Uganda, said Cox, because “we want to serve the poorest of the poor women – the impoverished grannies, who range in age from 55 to 95, and have the impossible task of supporting their grandchildren and other orphans they are raising with little or no income.

“For most of the grannies, their bed is a dirt floor. If they have shelter, it’s a hut. Their only food comes from their modest gardens. And each evening, their grandchildren must walk some distance to get water. Rainwater tanks cost $10, thus few own them. In December, WE funded $20,000 in tanks for the grannies who are the oldest and whose grandchildren have to walk the farthest, often 5 miles. That dusk walk is especially dangerous for young girls.”

Currently, WE is making about $200,000 per year in microloans, according to Cox. The group’s goal is to fund $500,000 per year by 2020. It is an ambitious effort.

“To do this, WE needs to transition from an all-volunteer organization to one that has a blend of volunteer and professional staff leadership. We need to be there for the grannies who are living in extreme circumstances and await a hand up, not a hand out,” Cox said.

Rule No. 453

There, but for the grace of God, go I.


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