How to Manage a Start Up as a Woman in Business in an African Country

Guest Blog by Vanessa Atim, Founder of ProInterns

Vanessa Atim

I recently took the bold step and relocated to Kampala, Uganda from London, UK to set up ProInterns, a start up I created in 2015 – ProInterns is an internship platform which connects students and graduates with employers in Uganda. I visited Uganda last year and following a conversation with a family member I had learned that he had attained a great degree from one of the best universities in Uganda, however after job searching for over one year he remained unemployed (this is something many graduates in Uganda face not to mention a youth unemployment rate of 83%) it saddened me that there were no existing platforms, schemes or initiatives in place that helped graduates and students gain hands on work experience which would boost their chances of being gainfully employed, so I decided to create something to bridge the employment gap. In 2016, I decided to relocate to Kampala, I’d be lying if I said it has been smooth sailing but after adjusting to the way things work I’m enjoying new experiences and my start up journey. I wanted to share my journey of managing a start-up as a woman in an African country.

  1. Networkingsocial capital is KING, when starting up its super important to network, put yourself out there and meet people, be open with your start up and you’ll be surprised at the amount of people who are willing to help. Personally I’ve found that networking whether it be at events in Kampala or social settings; has really helped connect me with the RIGHT people/ businesses. And in Africa its sometimes not what you know but WHO you know (fact) always carry business cards and build relationships with people.
  1. Assertive – as a woman starting up be assertive, when you attend meetings pitching your business/ idea. Walk in with confidence, be very clear on what you are offering or expect in return of a potential business relationship. Enter partnerships that will be mutually beneficial, and don’t give in too easily just because you are a ‘start up’. Understand your value.
  1. Evaluate – evaluation is key; most start ups would agree that sometimes we are just in auto-pilot; trying to do as much as we physically can. But I would advise this to any start up regardless of location – set a specific date every month and analyse and evaluate your achievements, goals, deadlines and areas for Improvement. Time passes very quickly especially when you are running your own ship.
  1. Pivot – as I’m in a totally different market, it’s a whole new playing field and being on the ground makes things much clearer. What I’ve found is that certain ideas I had in mind to implement won’t really work well on the ground and after speaking with employers and students/ graduates I have a better understanding of their needs, therefore I’m in the process of tweaking a few things to better serve my target market. Book recommendation: ‘The Lean Start Up by Eric Reis’.
  1. Patience – if I could give you 1,000UGX  for every time time I’ve heard the words ‘be patient’ you would have over 50,000UGX in your pocket (had to keep it in context guys) . When starting a new business in Africa (in my case Kampala) you have to be patient. Things take much longer to sign off, clients take longer to make decisions and all in all things are just much slower than the fast pace I’m used to in the West.
  1. Become an expert – position yourself as an expert in your field, welcome the idea of participating at events. I was recently on the panel of an event organised by ‘Africa Elevation’ on discussing how to tackle youth unemployment in Uganda. It was a very insightful event which gave ProInterns some brand exposure.
  1. Challenges vs Adaptation – when you face challenges you have to adapt and that’s a fact. Challenges can be as trivial as transportation which is something I experienced in my first month. Where do I start? The traffic is crazy (as in you can be stuck in a traffic jam for up to 2 hours) and there aren’t many friendly modes of transport; however, I have had to adapt to my surroundings and this means travelling in off-peak hours to ensure I get to meetings/ office on time or hopping on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) if I wanted to skip traffic. But Uber Uganda has arrived – hooray! Also I’ve found that time keeping is a big issue here I truly understand the meaning of ‘African Time’ initially I became frustrated when I was the earliest person at events ( once I waited  2 hours for everyone to show up ) OR waiting around for 15 + minutes after a scheduled meeting begins. But I have to adapt instead of complaining or becoming frustrated now I check emails, or read a book and utilise my time as much as possible.  Okay I have one more, hardly anyone likes emails; you can send someone an email follow up twice and get no response. I’ve found that the best thing to do in Kampala is just pick up the phone and call or just show up at the office (which may sound slightly aggressive) BUT you have to be deliberate when starting up and 9/10 people prefer face to face interaction.
  1. Seek advice – There is always room to learn from someone, I’ve taken the initative to seek advice on business decisions from those that own businesses in Uganda. Uganda is an extremely entrepreneurial company and MOST people have a side gig aka side business. I always ask questions which often help me on my start up journey and also give me insight into the way things work.

Visit www.pro-interns.com to learn more about Vanessa’s business and follow her on twitter @vanessa_atim_

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