Western Silk Road
Uganda - Entrepreneur Academy
Sandra Ejang realized that her engineering job could not afford the upbringing she would have preferred for her four children. As she and her husband discussed what side business to enter to help the family finances, they stumbled upon an advert inviting would-be investors to venture into honey production. So they invested about 3,000 US dollars from their savings in beehives. They followed the instructions in the advertisement and were now in the beekeeping business.
Luckily for the couple, they did not need to lease land as they had a family parcel some 300km from where they live in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. However, one year later, things went sideways, leaving them with lots of insects but not a drop of honey. With their investments gone, Sandra's husband opted out of the business. Sandra focused on recouping the losses and quit her engineering job. She says she did not find it fulfilling anyway.
"I spent a lot of time on the internet trying to find out as much as possible about beekeeping. Six months later, we had our first harvest of honey. I contacted the people who had initially expressed interest in buying the commodity. Still, after factoring in all the costs, I concluded that being a primary producer would not work. That made me think about going into packaging and value addition," she says.
Sandra got into the Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2017, where she met other beekeepers doing better with fewer hives. She came away with a rekindled passion for the business. So she started expanding her business to create and sell products infused with honey and build a network of honey farmers throughout Uganda who could supply a consistent honey inventory.
However, Sandra recalls that as her business grew, new problems emerged. One of her biggest concerns was staffing. She couldn't get it right and always ended up with people who only wanted quick money and left soon after. This impacted her finances, which were also in a mess. She did not know where to start. Just when things were looking up, she felt overwhelmed by the progress.
Fortunately, at this point, a friend who had gone through the program introduced Sandra to Sinapis Entrepreneur Academy. "When I looked at the program outline, it was a great fit for my needs. My biggest challenge was managing my financials. At some point, I was not even sure if the business was profitable," she says. Supported and guided by Sinapis, Sandra hired an accounting firm that now handles the books and provides much-needed business projections.
"Being part of Sinapis also helped me learn to delegate and stop emotional hiring," she recalls. "I was struggling because I hired people who either needed the money or were relatives. As a result, I ended up with many underperforming staff. Sinapis also enabled me to set up a proper office, so I don't work at home."
Today, Western Silk Road employs 20 men and women and works in virtually all aspects of the beekeeping value chain. It builds mutually beneficial relationships with a network of 1,500 farmers in Uganda. She organizes them as Community Business Organizations and offers mentorship in technical beekeeping, advisory consultancy, and provision of equipment. This has enabled the firm to become a reliable supplier to major supermarkets in Uganda. The honey is traded under the brand Asali Wa Moyo (meaning honey for the heart or sweetheart).
Besides building a name in the quality food circles, Western Silk Road also sells beauty products from the beekeeping value chain. Her cosmetics brand is AZZA naturals (created from the initials of Sandra's children's names).
Now much better organized than before, her business is focused on building lives rather than throwing money at processes. She takes a genuine interest in the farmers' lives, and the more she interacts with the community, the more she understands the people's needs and potential. "I have noted a unique challenge for women. They struggle to keep their children in school, so I have started offering them interest-free loans and beehives. The cash I loan them is paid directly to the schools," she says. The women supply Western Silk Road with honey to repay their loans. Sandra says the plan has worked, and she currently has two women-only groups in the program.
Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to have guiding principles. "Start with what you have and make changes as you grow."
Member of the Community Women's Enterprise Network (CWEN)
African Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF)
2018 African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC)
2019 DFCU Bank Rising Women participant
Women in Africa 54 Project Laureate for Uganda in 2020