The past two years have been great for Brenda Katwesigye. Not only was she named by Quartz Africa among their 30 innovators of 2018, in September, but Forbes’ Contributor Allyson Kapin also named her startup – Wazi Vision – among her “60 women-led startups that are shaking up tech across the globe.”
But that’s not all. In October, last year, German-based GreenTec Capital Partners announced that they had made an investment into Wazi Vision. The firm shortly stated on its website that the value of the investment was $800,000. But, they have since pulled the amount down.
Brenda clarified that this was not an actual cash investment. Rather, it was a collaboration agreement where GreenTec would help Wazi Vision with business strategy and also raise money on the startup’s behalf.
Brenda has also before, participated in a couple of accelerators and fellowship programs. The most notable ones are; Mandela Washington Fellowship, F-Lane, and Westerwelle.
Looking at the fact that the above came in a very short period of time, one could think that she has had it easy. Yet, Brenda says that everything did not just happen. “It did not come easy,” she says. Adding that it is a “result of compounding of several experiences and failed businesses.” In an interview, she was able to walk me through where she started from and how far she is looking to go.
Brenda never thought of herself as a businesswoman until when she joined Makerere University. “I seriously got introduced to business while at the university,” she says. Her first attempt at business happened in 2013 and 2014 after she had just finished her university studies.
“I noticed that people attend graduation but are not allowed to get into the graduation grounds with their phones or any electronics,” Brenda talks of Makerere University graduation ceremonies. “I found it a bit strange,” she adds, “why would someone attend a graduation party without a phone or camera to capture the moment?”
She thus decided to place shelves at every checkpoint, hired some young people to attend to customers and police officers to keep watch over the electronics. “We charged UGX 1,000 ($0.27) per phone, UGx. 2,000 ($0.53) for cameras, and UGx. 3,000 ($0.8)for laptops,” she says.
This, however, never came to last as it proved to be a short stint, after realizing that it would never be profitable. That was partly because they had to pay a lot of people in the value chain; from the police to the members of the students guild, everyone wanted a share of it.
They were also plagued by other challenges. “My brother was arrested just because he had not given the policemen the money they wanted,” she says. They thus decided to call it quits. Nonetheless, she maintains that it is “when I made my first [UGx] million.”
The next step
Although Brenda’s first business efforts were frustrating, she already had a cushion. Besides pursuing the ‘side hustle’, she had a day job at Deloitte in Uganda. At the same time, she decided to start another venture, to move past her frustration.
After looking around, she remembered something they had worked on before while at the university. “After University, we had done this project of using tech to bring health care closer to people,” Brenda says, “I figured I could actually push it as a project outside the university.”
This came to be known later by many as m-Tambula/InstaHealth in 2013. Yet, InstaHealth – too- did not live long. The startup shut down completely at the beginning of 2016 due to a multitude of things that went wrong. “We did not want to close it, but we had to,” Brenda pointed.
She blames the failure to naivety as well as having no prior experience running a business. “I was a bit clueless,” she says, “I understood the basics of costs, revenue and profit but I did not understand what it took to get people to pay for such a product.”
Not only did it take them so long to figure out the R&D, but the business model also wasn’t clear as well. “Of course, we had raised some money from a few grants and prizes but it was not enough to meet some of those costs,” she says.
Yet, from InstaHealth’s failure, she points out a key lesson learned. Since then, Brenda has made ‘keep it simple’ her mantra when approaching innovation. “Everything has to be simple,” Brenda cautions.
“A layman should be able to get it well enough to be able to understand its value and pay for it. When you talk about your product, do people easily understand? When you talk about mobile money, even my grandmother knows I need to get a message that has money.”
Enter Wazi Vision
Using her conventional way of doing business, Brenda looked around for something she could take advantage of. “Again, I saw an opportunity to give people an alternative to expensive eyewear and eyecare generally,” she said.
So, as InstaHealth was shutting down at the beginning of 2016, she was already thinking of a potential replacement. That later came to be known as Wazi Vision. “They almost overlapped,” she talks of InstaHealth and Wazi Vision.
But this time around, the new idea was to come “with a better business model.” She also “worked on branding it better, being more clear on what exactly I was trying to sell and also make better use of opportunities to grow.”
She also wasn’t able to face financial challenges as was the case with InstaHealth. “I started out with my own cash for R&D,” she says, “but I got a USADF grant, that’s not a secret.” The grant amount totaled to at least $75,000 which she received towards the end of 2016.
Though she also held her job at Deloitte until January 2017 before quitting to focus on Wazi Vision 100%.
Even though Brenda walked into Wazi Vision more enlightened, still, a couple of challenges were awaiting her. “Nothing is ever too straightforward with no challenges. We are still very far from what we want to achieve but the desire for growth drives me.”
A lot of changes have happened since she started, like where the production is happening. Before, production of the glasses took place in Uganda, however, Brenda says that it was very expensive to make the end product affordable for their target market.
“We couldn’t also maintain the consistent quality and it was very frustrating in a way,” she added. “But you also know the manufacturing scene [in Uganda] as regards to new products and R&D, and expectations in the market.”
So they had to start outsourcing the production. “We are moving the production to Switzerland,” she hinted, declined to reveal the company’s name. Though pointed out that the “company is a luxury brand manufacturer which is looking to do goods in Africa.”
They have already rolled off a few pairs of glasses from their partnership with the Swiss company and Brenda says that “they do not break.” “For me, I think that is a value add because I have seen people who wear glasses and their hustle,” said Brenda.
Wazi Vision started out on the back of social impact which involved recycling plastics to make glasses. Moving the production away from Uganda, thus, significantly reduces the amount of social impact the startup boasted on the outset.
Though Brenda disagrees. “The social aspect is there [but] the story is a bit different now,” she says. Maintaining that recycling plastic for the production of the frames wasn’t the only social aspect of Wazi Vision.
“When it comes down to certain things, they are designed in Uganda by Ugandans. The glasses are designed here, though not manufactured. So the design stays here.”
She also adds that they are serving people who otherwise could not afford the glasses. “We are tapping into a market that is not you and me,” she said, “people who can afford to pay, but can’t afford to pay too much.”