Dennis Ngabirano is the proprietor of Psalm Food Industries Ltd. In this interview with Robert Kabushenga (RK), Dennis Ngabirano (DN) speaks on how on how he worked his way to success.
RK: Good to have you Dennis on #360Mentor. I have told anyone who cares to listen that yours is a story of someone who has come from the bottom.
DN: It is my pleasure
RK: I am going to ask you a personal question, who is Dennis Ngabirano? Where does your story start?
DN: I am a male adult of sound mind hahahaha. I was born to Francis and Priscilla Zinorumuri. My father is a teacher by profession and my mother a farmer.
DN: My father retired recently. He has been a headteacher of a chain of primary schools in Mukono. He started serving at Namilyango Junior Boys and Namiyango Junior Girls, Nkoyoyo Boarding Primary School, Bugolombe and a number of other schools. I equally attended the same number of schools. I have a paragraph of primary schools that I attended.
RK: For me.. from primary to university is one sentence. But for you primary alone you have a paragraph.
DN: I started my nursery at Namilyango Boys but I also attended a girls school.
RK: Eh! You man, what were you doing in a girls’ school?
DN: My father was transferred there, so I ended up enrolling there as well for a whole year.
We didn’t have the kindergarten thing. You started right away in P1 A and then moved to P1B. Then go to P2. There is this interesting experience we went through. As a headteacher, my father was transferred from an urban school to a rural setting. He was transferred from Namilyango to Kikusa Primary school deep in Bukunja where there are night dancers. The kind of classroom setting there was really a typical third world village school. Grass thatched classrooms with dusty floors which had to be smeared with cow dung. We used to do that every Friday as a preventive measure from jiggers.
Actually, I lost one of my toe nails after it was attacked by jiggers. That experience reminds me a lot.
My mother had had enough, so she decided to turn to farming. She kept chicken, goats and pigs. Imagine on the days of transfers, they would send a Tata lorry to come and collect the headteacher’s items. And in one corner of the truck, you would have the goats and the chickens and in another you would have the household items.
From that kind of background, here comes Dennis Ngabirano. After my S4 at St Balikuddembe Kisoga, I had very good grades. I had 18 points in 6 subjects. My father then suggested that I would make a good teacher, so he took me to a teacher’s college. I tried to resist and his argument was that in the 1960s and 70s, the teaching profession was only for academic giants. They were the only ones who could qualify to go to teachers colleges. He asked me to go and be the change agent.
RK: Where did you go then? Which teacher’s college?
DN: He took me to Shimoni Teachers College.
RK: I was at Shimoni Demonstration for my primary school
DN: Which is incidentally no more. At Shimoni I pursued a grade 3 teacher’s certificate. I performed excellently. By the time I finished my second year, I was already booked. By then I did my teaching practice at Old Kampala Primary School. The then headteacher Hon Victoria Rusoke recommended me to join Kampala Parents School which later became City Parents. At that time there was a system among Kampala schools, they would always go hunting for the best teachers at the teachers colleges. I managed to be among the top five. So I joined City Parents School. That was 2002. I was a young aggressive man. I started teaching mathematics and art. During my second year, my father encouraged me to take on mathematics. He believed that a mathematics teacher would never fail to get employment. And himself having been one, he wanted me to emulate him.
I had this interesting experience during my teaching experience. We were asked to go to the villages to stay there and find a school to teach at. My father, being a head teacher, asked me to go to his school. After day one, he asked me to tell him what I had taught. He asked for my lesson plan. When we later returned home, he gave me a book titled, ‘The teacher’s code of conduct’. The booklet had a number of dos and don’ts. And then page 17 was talking about teacher-pupil relationship. My father never emphasized the other pages. He only pointed to page 17. He would ask “ have you read page 17?” “did you understand it?” I had to go back and read page 17 even when I had skipped it. That challenged me to take up my job professionally.
When I got the job at City Parents School I got a one bedroom house in Nansana. At the time I was earning UGX 300,000. At that time in 2002, that was really a lot of money. My monthly transport allowance was UGX 10,000.
At that time I tried to upgrade to a diploma, a degree and a masters.
RK: Wait a minute, you go back to school, you do what course? Where was this?
DN: I did not do the diploma in education. I still wanted to prove to my friends that I was not a dull student. What I did at first was to do a mature entry for high school. Every evening, I would go for adult education at Kithende College on Rubaga Road for classes.
RK: So in addition to teaching, would you go to Rubaga road as a student to do A levels?
DN: Yes. I took on HED/ART and I passed with 15 Points. That gave me the satisfaction in my heart that I had also passed A level. After that I went for a diploma in education planning and management.
DN: At Kyambogo University. After that, I enrolled for a Bachelors of Guidance and counselling at St Lawrence University. My life was now tuned to evening learning.
One time we were given course work which required us to prepare a business plan.
RK: Was this at St Lawrence?
DN: Yes, it was during my second year. We were asked to prepare a business plan and prepared about goat rearing. I named my project Ngabi Stock Farm. Ngabi from Ngabirano. I had always seen my mother rear goats and I thought I would also become a prominent goat keeper.
When it came to submission of the project, the lecturer emphasized one point; the entire assignment was to be marked out of 40 marks. 20 would go to the writeup and 20 to implementation. I got scared. I had attached a very big budget. I had exaggerated the size of the farm with very expensive goat breeds which was all out of imagination.
Around that time, I had met my wife Maureen, she was a teacher and her parents too were teachers just like me. I wanted to marry her but I had very little money and was basically saving for tuition.
I had to accept to do kukyala and an introduction. I looked around my school network. I decided to mobilise support from my fellow teachers and the parents. But in the process of fundraising, I realised that the support was massive. I decided to change the program, I added the wedding.
RK: Ngabirano! Ngabirano! Anha!
DN: We wedded on 22nd August 2009 at Christ the King Church. After the wedding, I realized there was a cash balance of UGX 620,000. We decided to go to Mombasa for our honeymoon. You can call it a road trip but for me it was a honeymoon.
While in Mombasa, we did not have much to spend. We visited the Pirates Beach and Fort Jesus. We found a man with a makeshift charcoal stove like the one for rolex guys. He was basically frying raw matooke. He had a litre of cooking oil and a slicer. He would slice the matooke and fry them and sell them to the tourists.
As we were about to leave we saw the line and we decided to try out the snack but it was not as tasty as we thought.
I promised my wife that we were going to try out this business upon our return back home. Remember I had a pending coursework assignment. I knew I could execute this business. The following day upon return, I decided to do copy and paste. Where there was goats, I put gonja. And substituted for the whole project.
I was already late for the coursework submission but I explained to the lecturer. I told her the previous idea was going to be hard for me to execute so I had decided to do one, I was sure I could do. It was very simple, I could very well have samples. And she was very happy. The entire budget was UGX 43,000. We had a charcoal stove at home already. We had saucepans, we had the cutlery from our wedding gifts.
The following day I went to Owino market to get gonja and the other few things we did not have at home. That night we made the samples. We didn’t have a slicer. We had a knife but I failed to slice accurately, she took on the slicing.
The neighbours came out to find out what we were cooking at night. They ate all the gonja crisps. That gave the encouragement that if they liked them, then they were good enough. I remained with only two packets which I took to school.
I gave them to the lecturer, and I was ready for inspection. She was so excited and she encouraged me to do the business. I immediately went back to Owino and got more gonja. That night the neighbours came out and this time round, I told them it was for sale. That is when it hit me I didn’t know the price of the gonja. We made 12 packets.
The following day, I took all the crisps at the university canteen for about UGX 4,400.
I ordered for gonja and the market kept on growing, from the University to City parents, to groceries around Kabaka Anjagala.
Two months later, we had holidays at university and we maximised that time on stocking and marketing around the supermarkets. The sales grew from UGX 4,400 to 100,000 and that is enough to cause excitement in the life of a teacher.
RK: How do you move from being a mutembei of gonja to being a fully established business man?
DN: Maureen was a secondary school teacher and she was teaching in two schools. I was a primary school teacher. One school was paying her UGX 120,000 and the other school was paying her UGX 90,000 per month. My one job was paying me more than two of her jobs. so I suggested that she leaves one job and I pay her out of my salary as she concentrates on our business. I would be running the marketing over the weekend. The demand was growing so much.
Eventually, she withdrew from the second school as well. But there was more. We had to register the company but she wanted to have shares in the company. So I gave 20%, so she had both the salary and shares in the company.
With a full registered company, we had more clients coming in. But, we also began trying out new products like gnuts. We would try them out during the day but sometimes they would not come out so well. What I would do was to take them and then give them out to my teacher colleagues and classmates at the University. But I would pay for them out of my pocket to motivate her. How could I tell her that things were failing when I had convinced her to leave her job.
After the bachelors, I enrolled for a masters degree at Ndejje university. I did a Masters of Arts of Counselling Psychology. But that came with too much on me. I went to the head teacher and asked for a study leave. The study leave was granted but without pay. I needed to find a way. I went back to the head teacher and asked that since it was without pay, I asked for six more months to prepare myself.
During this time, I decided to challenge myself. I decided not to touch my salary for the six months. I wanted to see whether I would make it. For that time, we were now surviving on the business. After the six months, I realised my account had some good money. About UGX 10,000,000. I paid for my tuition for a full year.
Believe you me, Robert, when I settled down for only two activities, my masters and the business, the sales doubled in two months. I couldn’t believe it. It was then that I realised that I had taken so long to resign from my teaching profession. I was a lost entrepreneur.
When my study leave expired, the business had grown to 26 staff members. I asked myself, do I leave the 26 to go back to report to someone again. At City Parens, they had trained us on how to take care of a customer. I notified my head teacher and they even gave me a sendoff.
But it was a paradox. I couldn’t believe that I had left teaching. I worked so hard. Within six months I had bought a Noah Voxy. My daughter was studying at City Parents but under a bursary which was given to teachers. When I left, the bursary was taken away but I wanted to keep my daughter in the school.
When my former colleagues saw me returning as a parent, they too were motivated.
RK: At what point do you start building the factory?
DN: That was in 2015.
RK: How did you move from 26 workers to the strong brand you are at now?
DN: At the level of 26 workers, we were renting someone’s compound. We had temporary makeshift structures which we kept expanding. I found myself asking for more space for the ground rent unit I expanded to the entire space. I asked my landlady to allow me to rent the whole premise but to my surprise, she suggested that I buy the entire facility.
There’s a plot of land I had bought while still teaching. During my second year of teaching, we were approached by Standard Chartered bank who gave us loans. I took a loan of UGX 2 Million and bought a piece of land in Mutungo. I sold the same price of land at UGX 56 Million after eight years. It had appreciated greatly. I paid the landlady UGX 50,000,000 cash down and I was so happy.
I used the land agreement to ask for a loan of UGX 150,000,000 from Centenary Bank. But they were not willing. I had last borrowed 3 million in 2003. They were not willing to give me 150 million. So they advised me to get the title of the land. They gave 75 million and I started working on expansion.
Around the same time, there was an Indian man who had a similar business in Industrial Area. He was making only crisps. He had rented a very expensive warehouse and it was too expensive to run. So he opted to sell. He had seen my products. So he approached me to purchase the whole set of equipment. He sold it to me on goodwill. But in Nansana we did not have three phase power. I used the money to transform the house into a production house and got the three phase power. The Indian man brought all the equipment at 120 million. The man trusted me. I only had 6 million but he gave me everything that was in the warehouse including cups and plates.
RK: How did you pay him?
DN: I went back to the bank and asked for a loan upgrade. So I mortgaged the same equipment, that was after 3 months. They gave me 40 million which was directly paid to the Indian man. We agreed I would pay back all the money in instalments. But believe you me, the Indian man was always at my place everyday to supervise the equipment. He installed the equipment at no fee. He would come to teach us how to improve on our product. In two months, our product had transformed.
On top of that we would go with him to the market. He would teach me how to market. He gave me some of his customers that he used to supply, especially Indian-owned supermarkets. And he never told them he had sold, he said we were partners. By the end of that year the business had grown. Banks were now looking for us to give us money.
I got a bigger loan of 500 million which we used to build the new facility. But along the way we kept on buying out the neighbours and expanding.
RK: Today you have over 20 products, what are the lessons looking back that have been helpful?
DN: Robert, I have learnt that it is very important to be humble. With my teaching background, I have not had excitement in my life. When people find me, they get shocked. Even when I go to the bar, I don’t get excited. I drink only two beers because I have tuned my lifestyle to remain true to myself. And you know throughout the day, there are a lot of things to do, from teaching, to studying, then the crisps and marital obligations. This is a lot of work.
RK: Those ones are very important.
DN: I tried to make sure I put all my time to use. By the way, in between my busy schedule, I found time to tutor learners at home for an hour. That 30,000 would buy more oil or something.
But above all, we decided to live a very financially disciplined life. My wife had a salary. When I left teaching, the business started paying me a salary as Managing Director and I made sure that whatever came out of the business was managed under the business.
But above all, I have tried to make sure that I keep the customer as king. It is not good to lose a customer. I always make sure that we come up with a customer retention policy. Even the staff knew that when you lose a customer, you pay 50,000. If you don’t have a thorough reason. Or you have to recruit 3 new customers in 7 days.
The kind of practice of self-improvement over and over and innovation. We started by selling packets with candles, then charcoal stove, an ironing box, to a hand sealer, then a pedal sealer then to an automated sealing line.
There are more lessons from patience to hard work, loving what you do. Even today when you find me in my V8, I cannot shy away from telling you that I make crisps. I feel comfortable talking about what they do.
While others may be shy about talking about what they do, someone else has found pride in what they are doing like yourself with coffee.
But also social networks are very important. Make very good use of resourceful people. Don’t let them go without learning from them.
I always make sure when I spend I have to earn before leaving the table.
In 2002/3 there were plenty of snacks from Kenya but I tried my best to bench mark and see how to improve on our product and now the results are showing off. When you look at profits alone, you forget that this same customer has to options, you lose out. A customer that is poorly taken care of will be taken care of by someone else.
RK: To the people reading this, what single piece of advice do you have for us?
DN: If you have a business idea, start right now. You don’t have to first leave your job. There are a number of opportunities you can tap into to do business. The moment you see that the business you are doing has reached a certain level. Then you can withdraw. Some people want to first withdraw and start the business. That is very wrong. Some entrepreneurs are made while others are born.
Remember my mother was a farmer. Whenever we harvested, we went around vending boiled maize on our heads. There was a bicycle called maanyi ga laare. That was an achievement for me, she bought me that bicycle from the maize we sold. We should go out there and work. Let’s not wait for the opportunities to find you on your desk. I was the first Ugandan to sell at Shoprite and I enjoyed that time alone. We all have 24 hours, we should maximise them. Please give me one gift, buy a SUMZ snack and recommend a friend.
RK: Thank you very much Dennis.
DN: Thank you for the opportunity, Robert.