Tereza Mbire – Serial Entrepreneur, pioneering women business advocate, Presidential Advisor; Kampala, Uganda

Words of Wisdom: “Integrity is the most expensive currency that we should carry as African women.” – Tereza Mbire

Interview with Tereza Mbire – Serial Entrepreneur, pioneering women business advocate, Presidential Advisor; Kampala, Uganda

Tereza Mbire – Serial Entrepreneur, pioneering women business advocate, Presidential Advisor; Kampala, Uganda

Tereza Mbire is the founder of Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL), an association that pioneered and advocated for government support and recognition for the contribution of women to the economic development of Uganda. UWEAL has been in existence for the last 23 years and this year won the award of 1st runner up best association in the country beating 999 institutions.

Tereza is also one of the founding members of the Uganda Women Finance Trust that started as women’s only microfinance institution that is now at the level to graduate to a full commercial bank.

At the age of 77, has grown many of the key businesswomen that Uganda boasts of today. She is still actively running her businesses and continues to go all over the country giving speaking engagements to inspire women to break out of the bondage of poverty,

Today, she is still the proud owner of Basix Uganda Limited and Proper Services, companies that deal in household items.

Recently, Tereza Mbire was appointed a by the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, to be one of his advisors.

Tereza Mbire was one of 100 people receiving a World of Difference Award at The International Alliance of Women Global Forum in Washington, DC. Receive in October 2011.

Tereza Mbire ~ YouTube promo video (approx. 5 min.)

Tereza Mbire – Serial Entrepreneur, pioneering women business advocate, Presidential Advisor; Kampala, Uganda

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom! Suzanne’s questions are in bold, the guest answers follow.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: As a woman of many firsts – first to create many new business initiatives and an association – what do you think it takes?

[ Tereza Mbire ]: You need to do research first.

  • See where there is something missing in your country. Then venture into that business. The sky will be the limit.
  • Most people tend to copy other initiatives, without doing a proper feasibility study.
  • If you start doing a business without the pros and cons of entering into it, it may not be successful.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Where do think some of the bigger business opportunities are in Uganda?

[ Tereza Mbire ]: In Uganda, we can grow anything. I would advise people to venture in agriculture. It is important to grow then processes. One would not fail if they process the agricultural products.

[ Suzanne ]: Do you feel life has happened to you, or have you created your destiny?

[ Tereza ]: I have created my destiny. I had to work hard to support my family and myself. I did everything I could do to have the success I have created.

Your husband passed in 1985, how reliant were your children on you?

Even though the youngest was 18yrs, they were all still reliant, because they all were in London at University at the time. I had to pay their tuition fees.

Was the burden of paying all their fees a catalyst to starting or building on a business?

  • No I had to improve one of my businesses. I lacked going to university, because I did not have school fees, since I was an orphan. So I wanted the best for my children.
  • I had to work hard to meet their school fees, and their living requirements in London.

How far did you go in school?

I went to secondary three, and then went to teachers college. Graduated as a teacher, and then became an Hotelier.

  • I stopped teach because I always wanted to move forward. Israel was offering scholarships for people training in hotels, and they were constructing a four star hotel. I decide to shift to hotel management.
    • I shifted from hotel management because when Idi Amin took over government he joined Uganda hotels; I was travelling for three years all over the country training at various hotels. I was continuously away from my family. I felt I was doing injustice to my family so I resigned and then ventured into business.

How long has your business Basix Uganda?

That business has been around for almost 40 years. I have two retail outlets and one wholesale shop.

What advice can you give to women on keeping their business current?

  1. You have to be trusted by your bankers.
  2. You have to mindful of paying on time. Once the banks trust you, you can really succeed.
  3. You must have ‘customer care.’ Once the customer has confidence in you they will always come back.
  4. Stock quality products.

What are some strategies you impart to your staff to ensure that there is good customer care when they come into your shops?

  1. Before recruit your assistances/clerks, there must be some training.
  • When I took hotel management, they always told me the customer is always right, no matter what he is wearing – the most expensive suit, or walking on knees. Who ever entered your premises, regardless how they looked, they were king, and they have to be respected.
  1. I do special promotions, but don’t advertise on TV, and I don’t go to shows or anything. I have just always put my customer first.

What other advice can you give when going into business?

  1. Make sure it is not a crowded market
  2. Do your feasibility analysis on a new opportunity
  3. You must study, what is lacking in the business. Don’t just copy. When you copy someone else who has a successful business, you will never be able to be more successful, because the other person has more experience learning from each interaction they have with their customers. You can’t compete with that experience. Someone needs to study. See what is lacking in that area and look where she can get her materials. Make sure there is a market for your products, if you haven’t done your feasibility study, you are bound to fail.

Lets take an example of hairdresser, what could she do to be different from other hairdressers?

Find the new products for hair and makeup.

  • When you started school until the time you graduated, maybe the products have changed. It is important to know the latest products.
  • What do women want today?  What are the fashions of the day? Become familiar with them and how to create them.
  • Also communicate to your customers that you are using the latest products.
  • Advertising is also important. Test your advertising, see your customers’ reactions, and only then decide if you are going to invest more money.

Where have you advertised?

  1. Radio – was the most successful advertising, especially in local languages.
  2. Sending out pamphlets
  3. Customer care – satisfied one customer, and then you will get five customers.

What has been the most successful strategy for your business?

  1. I would look at what was needed in the country. After Asians departed from Uganda, there were no florists in the country. Because I learnt how to do floral arrangements when I was in the hotel business, I went into that business. I was the only florist in Uganda for fifteen years. I did very well.
  2. When we had no foreign currency to import ready-made garments. I felt there was a need for ladies to dress well. I went into garment manufacturing.
    1. I always look for something that was missing in the market and then I would go into that business.

When did you know to move on to a new industry?

  • In the florist industry, I was growing in the Western Uganda region. When the war started it was very difficult to get flowers from the Western Region. Although they cut them, wrapped them nicely, in transport they were intercepted by the soldiers that would destroy all the flowers. Then my husband got sick and I had to look after him for six months, so I felt I could not supervise the flower arrangements, so I slowly closed it up.
  • In the garment industry, it was doing very, very well. During the overflow of Idi Amin, we had 100 sowing machines and two hundred workers, but during that time the routed everything. Nothing was left. After the war I decided to venture into interior designing.

What gave you the confidence to know that you could go from the flouriest business, to garment business to interior design?

  • I had some experience, because when I worked at hotels, I was a housekeeper and you needed to know how to do flower arrangements. Also we had to do interior design in the hotel, for example, you had to know how to change furniture around, place curtains etc. I used that expertise to run the florist shop and the interior design business.
  • In the garment industry, since childhood I was always interested in sawing with my hands. In school I learnt the domestic skills to saw. I had the knowledge of tailoring.
  • There was only one garment industry in Uganda and it was sawing men’s uniforms, trousers and shirts.
    • I decided there was an opportunity to create women’s garments.

What obstacles as a woman did you have when you started your first business?

  1. We had no foreign exchange at the timing when I started my business. Most things we had to import.
    1. To get a foreign exchange you had to make an application to the bank of Uganda to get credit.

What are some of the biggest challenges for women to start business in Uganda now?

Most challenges are the lack of capital

  1. We don’t own land, so it is difficult to borrow money from banks, as they need the collateral.
  2. This is what encouraged us to start Uganda Financial Trust, so we can help the young people with a small amount of money to start their businesses without collateral.

What advise can you give on how to grow a business?

  • You need to start small
    • Don’t over spend, you have to create the culture of saving.
    • With the savings you can increase slowly, and use bank loans then you can expand your business
    • I gave myself a salary. It is important to do that or you are always dipping in to your savings or going to the accountant. Without a budget you will fail.
    • Once you are married and have a family, it is important for your success to have the family backing you.
      • Sometimes when women become successful, they are so proud they forget the respect of their families, their husbands become stumbling blocks.
      • You need the support of your husband and family.
      • Don’t feel too big. You need to have cooperation of husband family.

What has been the most significant impact that you have made in your career?

  • Mentored many women in business
  • I have managed to educate my children through the success of my businesses
  • Start some organizations that help my country women to be successful
  • And we have shown our government that we are here, and we are businesswomen.

If you had to attribute your success to one thing, what would it be?


What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?

  1. The uprooting during the overthrow of Idi Amin period.
  2. The loss of my husband, as I had to look after my children myself.

What was the most significant decision you made in your career?

  • To stick to my business and continue forging ahead.
  • If I saw that my business was not doing very well, to look for other opportunities where I can do very well. Not to give up.
    • Don’t change abruptly. Keep your business while looking into a new venture.

Was there initiative that you implemented that didn’t work?

  • When we started Uganda Council of Women in the Western Region, it worked for a short while. My goal was to get women to stand together. Because of our beliefs in different regions it did not work well.
  • Kampala is not as bad as Western Region, however, I would start with people who are willing, as I did with UWEAL (Ugandan Women Entrepreneur Association), and work together. Not just aiming a bigger sector of women.

How do measure success?

  • The most successful initiative I have been involved in is the Uganda Women Finance Trust. It really helps grassroots women by lending them money without collateral. Now it has progressed to an MDI and now we hope it will be a full fledge bank.
  • Uganda women Entrepreneur Associates, it is reached the grassroots women.
  • These are my most successful initiatives as they impact so many.

What obstacles did you face that you were not prepared for?

  • When I started the bakery, we use to have no electricity – it would be off for 24 hours. We would have the bread in the oven, and it would have to be disposed of.
  • When in the garment industry, when all our machines were stolen.

How did you deal with those obstacles?

  1. Keep firm
  2. Pray
  3. Be strong to overcome it

I did overcome it.

What does success mean to you?

I am still working. I have to help educate my friends who want to be helped. That is why I wrote a small book to let people know what I went through to become what I am today. You share your success with others. My number one pride is to encourage others to do what I did, better then I did it.

How do you define leadership?

You need to have clear mind, be focused. Know the line you are following. “A blind man can not lead other blind men. You need to have one open.”

You need to be focused, know what you want to do and be able to reach the goal you are aiming at.

If there were one thing you could do differently, what would it be?

I would have gone for higher education, but at the time we could not afford it. I would be able lead others better then what I did.

I could have done more then I have done if I was born today. I belong the club of BBC – Born Before the Computer.  If I was born today I think I could have more impact then I had.

What is next for you?

I am retired, but I tell people, I am not yet tired. I just take things easy. I will work until nature tells me not to work. If I can contribute to the country I will do so.

Given the chance, what would you like to do that you have not done yet?

I don’t know what I haven’t done. I would possibly travel more. I love it.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

Be a girl of integrity. Always tell the truth.

Have a dream of success, and work towards that dream.

Q What do you wish you were told at 10yrs?

The future is bright. The world is big and lots of opportunity. It will be a global village.

Words of Wisdom

  1. Integrity is the most expensive currency that we should carry as African women.
  • Always keep your promise and work on your promise. If you keep your word, die keeping your word, you will always be trusted – there will be always be success.

African women, especially in prominent positions, respect your husband and family and you will always have success.

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