This inspirational woman entrepreneur from Uganda shows the power of grit and determination to succeed in business, despite the many hurdles encountered, to build a highly respected, multi-million dollar drinks and foodstuff empire in Africa.
Today, Julian Omalla is one of Uganda’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories, and the owner of Uganda’s largest juice processing factory, Delight Ltd, with an annual turn over of US$4m and 45% of the local market. She’s known affectionately as “Mama Cheers” after her popular fruit drink brand, Cheers. Julian now has diversified into a range of other business activities, too, including poultry, a flour mill and bakery, a student hostel for 400, as well as coordinating women’s farmer cooperatives that provide food aid into Sudan. She is also a major employer in the country. However, her entrepreneurial journey was not an easy one and she is an inspirational example of triumph over adversity.
She began her working life as an employee of her brothers, while at the same time saving her own money to start a business as a small trader. As a woman, she wanted to show that she could have her own business, too. She was doing well until she became too trusting. She transferred all her funds to her new business partner in order to purchase stock and he just disappeared from his place of business. This meant she was back to where she started. It was to be a hard lesson that was to shape her entrepreneurial journey from that point onwards and she learnt not to put all her eggs in one basket – a strategy that was to become her philosophy for business expansion and diversification in the future.
Just over a decade ago Julian Omalla lost everything when her business partner ran off with all the cash she had advanced to purchase stock. “The only things left were a wheelbarrow to take fruit to sell at the market and a red dress I would wash out every night."
So, although devastated by what had happened in her first entrepreneurial venture, Julian began again as a sole trader, wheeling fruit in her wheelbarrow to market and saving the proceeds of her sales each day. At that point, she had nothing except one red dress which she washed out every night, her wheelbarrow, and sheer grit and determination to succeed. Over time, Julian was a very savvy trader and she worked out that if she took the overnight bus to Kenya to buy and bring back goods from Kenya to sell in the local Ugandan marketplace, and stood up all the way on that bus, it would only cost her half the fare. So, she would do that, and she would bring back goods from Kenya and sell them, making maximum profit. She managed to save $100, and with that $100 she made an investment. She did a food processing certificate, realising that there was a gap in the market for locally produced fruit juice and canned fruit. Her aim was to start a juice processing business, not just small scale like the market vendors, but a real factory. Her inspiration for this new venture came from her mother who had taught her as a child how to process local fruit. That knowledge, combined with her newly acquired food processing certificate, gave the technical expertise she needed to put her new business idea into action.
Julian has become known affectionately as “Mama Cheers” after her popular fruit drink brand, Cheers. Today, Delight Limited, has an annual turn-over that exceeds US$4m and 45% of the local market.
Once again, she had to take her new juice products for testing to the government chemist by foot because she couldn’t afford transport, once again relying upon her trust wheelbarrow to transport her goods. However, despite these early challenges, the local market responded positively to Julian’s products and she could see her dream being realized. This time, she learned the lessons of the past and ensured that she was in full control of her business and that it was formally registered and licensed. She recalls how cumbersome and complex this was, with numerous offices to visit and unclear requirements. “There was so much to do and so many different places I had to go – for business registration and tax payer identification numbers, different licenses and requirements from a range of different authorities, a declaration that had to be made before a Commissioner for Oaths, a company seal to get, inspections of my premises from different authorities– it all seemed so complex. I remember paying a lawyer what seemed to me the gigantic fee of USh500,000 (US$279).” The added complexities of being a wife and mother, as well as a businesswoman in a traditionally male-dominated business environment, also made setting up the new venture extra challenging.
Julian’s juice processing business was now a reality, known in the marketplace as Delight Uganda Ltd, with her fruit juice brand ‘Cheers‘ becoming a popular choice amongst consumers. Once Julian felt her juice operation was running smoothly, she wanted to expand Delight Uganda Ltd’s operations and product range. Capital for expansion became a major obstacle. The banks always want collateral which so few women have in Uganda – women don’t inherit under custom law so we are at a big disadvantage. Savings and retained earnings were Julian’s two main methods of financing business expansion.
Commercial farming beyond fruit for the Delight factory seemed a good business prospect and by engaging others to use their land to grow crops Julian avoided the need for a big capital outlay. Julian has always been a strong advocate for other women and looked for ways of helping rural women form farmer cooperatives. Over 100 women now belong to the Bunyoro Grain Farmer Association through membership of women’s cooperatives like “Till and Feed the Nation.” Julian started by coordinating grain sales for the women’s groups and then saw the opportunity of creating her own processing and packing operation. Called Global Food Securities, flour is packaged under the brand name “Mummy’s Choice.”
“My aim was to start a juice processing business, not just small scale like the market vendors, but a real factory. My mother had taught us to process local fruit and I’d done a certificate course in food science, so I had the technical background. I could see there was a gap in the market.”
In addition to catering to growing local demand, Julian was among the first Ugandan business- people to take advantage of the Southern Sudanese market after the war, and now around 50% of her exports go there. Julian reiterates that it hasn’t been easy. While women are the majority of those working the land, under customary law they have only user – as opposed to ownership - rights. Their husbands must give permission for them to join a farmer group and then they have the rights to the cash earned from their wives’ work. “I am suffering a lot for some of these women,” Julian admits. “Often their husbands take their hard earned money to drink or to buy another wife. It pains me so much. We try to organize village meetings to confront these issues but change isn’t easy.”
When Julian won the Uganda Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2004 she felt even more compelled to help other women get ahead economically. Active membership in the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Network meant Julian became part of a “Gender Coalition” of seven women’s groups advocating for better regulations for businesswomen. The Gender Coalition has been successful in creating a women’s tax desk at the Uganda Revenue Authority and the commitment for a “one stop center” for business registration and licensing, where all steps can be completed at the same place, at the Uganda Investment Authority.
Julian is proud that she has been able to be part of an effort working for better business conditions for all Ugandans. Because of the additional constraints women face this will be even more beneficial for businesswomen. Julian’s business empire now includes a grain processing and packing plant, bakery and confectionary line, a poultry farm with 30,000 commercial laying hens and a student hostel under construction. As she reflects back on her successes, Julian says the thing that gives her most satisfaction is being able to create jobs for other Ugandans, especially women. Ironically, she says losing everything in those early days turned out to be her best lesson. Her advice to other women who want to succeed in business? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Visit the Delight Uganda website here.
Read Julian's full LoA Profile here.
Why LoA loves it....
For any aspirant African woman entrepreneur wanting to build a major brand against all the odds, Julian Omalla is a real inspiration. No matter how many setbacks she encountered in life, she believed in herself and her abilities, recognised business opportunities when she saw them, and worked tirelessly to make them happen. Today, she is one of Africa’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories and a real Lioness of Africa. --- Melanie