In January 2020, The Smiling Panda, a popular nightclub in Gulu city, got a facelift but most importantly a new purpose when it was chosen as the home of The Innovation Village (TIV) in Northern Uganda.
With Gulu city as the commercial hub of the far-flung region, it was necessary that the young dreamers, innovators and entrepreneurs in the region have a place where they can access a community, training, mentorship, talent and necessary resources to build their ideas into sustainable businesses.
Simon Okello, the Regional Manager, has successfully held the fort together and guided the journeys of Gulu’s entrepreneurs as they unfolded this year. In an interview, he tells us what it looked like and what next year holds for the community.
As we come to the end of the year, could you give us a snapshot of what 2021, has been like for The Innovation Village Gulu?
This year began well. Despite the second lockdown, the entrepreneurs have remained steadfast in pursuit of success for their enterprises. The startups have grabbed every opportunity to learn and network. Our road to recovery from the ongoing pandemic has meant putting in place several initiatives that have kept the ecosystem alive with opportunities for startups.
What are some of the entrepreneur-focused initiatives that TIV GULU has implemented this year and what have you achieved through them? We have had several activities that are engineered towards stimulating the northern entrepreneurial ecosystem to provide opportunities and advancement for our entrepreneurs. Through events like the Founders Lab and the Co-Founders’ Speed Matching events, we mentored entrepreneurs and provided a peer support system for entrepreneurs who are at various stages of building their startups. These events have resulted in the skilling of 75 youths and linkages of 42 youths to key stakeholders.
To provide a platform for entrepreneurs on which they can exhibit their products and linkages to the market, TIV Gulu hosted three expos in 2021. We hosted quarterly expos lasting a week and startups in all sectors were able to exhibit their innovations, goods and services within our space. Through these expos we have created linkages to markets and funding for 100 startups in Gulu.
TIV Gulu has also taken startups through financial literacy training throughout the year in partnership with Equity Bank and Opportunity Bank. Our aim with this initiative was to increase access to finance. Through this program, we have been able to skill 241 youths in financial literacy and link 31 youths to loans for their startups.
To solve the issue of market linkages for the entrepreneurs, we invited market leaders from specific sectors to have info-sessions with the startups on the best marketing practices, bulking of agricultural goods and selling as a group to get a better price. Through this initiative, we have successfully linked 69 people to markets.
This year, we focused on sparking entrepreneurship through a partnership with MoTIV where we carried out an apprenticeship program for 69 people. This program was intended to cater for the development of desired skills or expansion of skillsets which resulted in the creation of better products.
Through these initiatives, TIV Gulu has created 101 jobs, skilled a total of 928 youths and linked 808 youths to the different opportunities available such as jobs, mentorship, market, financial services and any other opportunities.
Founders4Founders Training in Gulu
We have also been able to support two startups by providing an enabling working environment which has allowed them to create eight jobs for the community.
Tell us about a startup in your community whose growth and success has been remarkable this year.
One of the main sources of joy for our team has been witnessing a startup’s birth from the UPSKILL digital marketing training program that happened this year. The startup called Leads Advertising Agency was developed as an idea from the UPSKILL training to provide digital marketing services in Gulu. It is currently run by six young entrepreneurs who have gone on to register legally. They are now working as a social media marketing agency for several businesses around Gulu city with two hotels as clients. Witnessing such a transformation born of just an idea is why we started in the first place. Our hope is to nature a million more opportunities such as these.
What lessons are you taking with you into 2021?
Through this experience of serving young entrepreneurs during a crisis, one lesson remains with us and that is the fact that young people have never really been short of creative ideas. The only problem is that they sometimes lack a chance to express themselves or showcase what they can produce.
With TIV Gulu opening doors to young entrepreneurs, we have been able to see startups like Lead Advertising spring up and create changes in their own lives and that of their communities.
Two years into this work of enabling young entrepreneurs in the Northern region must have equipped you with a lot of experience about the needs of young entrepreneurs in the North. What are some of these urgent needs?
There is still a lot of work to be done for youths in the northern region. We ought to intentionally have business advisory days to support already established startups to sail through business challenges. Businesses meet challenges every day ranging from management issues, finance, customer service, public image among others. These cannot wait for planned activities or programs.
The rest of the work to be done is around more networking and more linkages to funding, markets and networks.
In a nutshell, looking back at the year 2021, it has been a year of recovery and rebuilding from the sudden changes that 2020 brought into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Regardless of this, it has been a rewarding year and our impact in the region affirms that we are on the right track.