When Maxima Nsimenta started making Livara beauty products in 2014, she didn’t know how things would work out. Today, Livara retails in 6 exclusively owned stores, 3 saloons and round the world. Nsimenta recently appeared on #360Mentor hosted by Robert Kabushenga (RK) where she spoke about how she built the company.
RK: You are welcome Maxima Nsimenta!
MN: Thank you Robert.
RK: When did you found Livara?
MN: It was established in May 2015. We started testing and practising a year and a half before around 2014.
RK: How old were you when you quit your job to start Livara?
RK: At 27, you quit a good job and went to start a business. We shall come back to this. I wanted to get this out there for a lot of people in their late 20s, they might think what you have done could have been done by someone on the 5th floor like me. Let’s go back to the time you were growing up in the same neighbourhood with Comrade Otoa, where was this?
MN: That was in Jinja on Gokale Road. His mum saved my brother from a serious asthma attack. She rushed him to hospital in her lesu. Because of her, he got saved.
RK: Maxima, looking back, was there a thing in your childhood which pointed out to doing business, especially your current line which is business?
MN: My mother has always been entrepreneurial.
RK: Wait! Maybe let’s start with a simpler question, where are you from?
MN: My parents come Kabale which is now, Rukiga district from Mparo. I am musigi. I am lucky to have Thereza Mbiire as one of my grandmothers. I was kind of mentored from a young age. I have had these people I have looked upto in business.
But personally, I like beautifying people from secondary school. I used to do eyebrows and makeup for sosh. I was the go-to person.
RK: Let’s first go back a bit, in high school what did you study?
MN: I was doing physics, chemistry, maths and economics. My academic journey has really been good. In P7, I was the best girl in Mukono, S4 I had 11 points in 10 subjects and S6 I had 23 points. At Makerere I had a first class. Academic-wise I came from a family where it was really important to be among the best.
MN: I had to work hard. My parents were peasants. My mother wore her first pair of shoes in S4. Her aim in life was to educate her children. She kept on telling us, “You must go further than I have gone.” Come S6, she told us she was not going to support anyone on campus so we all had to get government sponsorship. All 5 of us. She kept on telling us, you have to do more. You have to do more. All my campus life I was trying to prove a point that I could do more.
After campus, I went on to work in the oil and gas industry where I got expatriated.
RK: Wait a minute. So you go to Makerere, get involved in this project, get a first class degree and do you go straight in oil or you worked somewhere else before?
MN: I worked throughout campus. I was employed on government projects and we used to earn UGX 2 million a month. Throughout campus, I was working and studying at the same time.
RK: What exactly were you doing?
MN: Developing software and doing projects. So after classes you had to work and work. But remember it was imperative to pass. It was only if you passed that you would be maintained on the projects.
RK: So here is this girl Nsimenta who is studying and has to deliver on all these projects, and she graduates with a first class degree? How did she do it?
MN: Planning and having the right people around myself. I would look out for the best in my class and I would make sure that I surround myself with those particular people. That way we would plan together and execute together. It was much easier that way.
RK: After graduation, where did you go next?
MN: I knew I did not want to continue with programming life. But I also need to find out what I want to do with my life. So I went on an eight month hiatus to discover myself. It was a very interesting time of my life. I had these many interesting job offers but I did not want to take them on. I also did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I was broken during that time of discovery. Towards the end of that time, I had a discussion with Daudi who pointed out that Oil was the future of this country. So I looked into it. I applied at Total E&P and joined the gas sector here. I then moved on to Schlumberger, the biggest oil and gas service company in the world. It was my dream job. I had USD 10,000 to take home per month. It was very good but then I was dumped in Congo. I didn’t really speak French at the time. Schlumberger teaches you to really hustle in the jungle. You have to figure yourself out quickly, otherwise you fail and you are booted out of the company. There is no mercy. I had to learn French very fast.
I went to Congo with my relaxed hair. Three months later, I needed to retouch.
RK: Which Congo are we talking about here?
MN: Congo Brazzaville in the oil district called Pointe-Noire. It’s an ocean town. So I go out during lunch break to a salon in the middle of Pointe-Noire, the high end town. They told me blatantly that they cannot do it. These are black girls working in a salon in Africa and I am being told that they cannot work on my hair.
MN: Because they didn’t have the chemicals for my hair. They only had for Caucasian hair. Went to the next salon, same thing. At the third salon, I was advised to go one kilometre out of town to a market area to retouch my hair. I got so pissed and I chopped off all my hair.
One month down the road, my hair is growing and I don’t know what to do. So that’s when the challenges start. I began looking around for African hair products. There were mainly Chinese and Caucasian hair. I quickly noticed they didn’t work with my hair. The good thing is, I was quite well travelled. As I was travelling around the world from work and vacation, I realised there were all these beautiful products which were getting raw materials from Africa. And they would proudly say, “proudly from Kenya”, “proudly from Egypt”, they were proudly from Africa but there was nothing made for my hair in Africa. I discussed this with my sister Gloria who told me about shea butter and moringa oil and how we can add value to that. In my research, I quickly realised there’s a gap. Because if I have this problem, clearly someone else has the same problem.
On my first vacation, I came back to Uganda and drove to the north to start doing groundwork to see if there was raw material that’s sustainable. Things like that.
RK: By the way, Nsimenta, before I forget, I must introduce you to someone called TMS Ruge and Ojok Okello
MN: I know TMS Ruge, we are friends. I have heard of the name Ojok but we haven’t meant it in person.
RK: So the three of us will go to Okere to visit Ojok. TMS produces moringa. I have coffee. Ojok has shea butter. You have the cosmetics whereabouts, I want to make a coffee based shea butter moringa scrub.
MN: Please just let me know when. I will add the value and create the product. I give my word on that.
SO I realised the shea tree is sustainable and the grade we have in Uganda is very cosmetic and pharmaceutical. It’s potent and good. I already had my business idea and the numbers add up. The projections were perfect. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
I didn’t want to buy and resell. I needed to manufacture. I wanted to create something that was mine specifically but also African. I realised that the bulk of shea butter is exported from West Africa as nuts. And there was no particular product to which value was added or that was African made.
I started planning. Meanwhile, this was seven months into my job. I was saving up and I had a target that if I got to 75,000 dollars, I quit. But then I had to travel around the world to be well exposed to have the brand and a quality that I needed.
I shared my business plan to my grandmother who introduced me to the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI). She shows me how we can manufacture at a low cost. I asked her to help me get an interview which she did and she left me on my own. I didn’t have a car at that time. She dropped me at the gate. She told me ‘I have done my part, go and fail or succeed.’
I met with Prof Kweisga. He is US trained and he is into numbers.
RK: And he is a great guy. A really great guy.
MN: So much. He started asking me the hard questions. I had calculated and done my numbers. He told me I was too ambitious and that I would abandon my plan. I promised to prove him wrong. I asked him for the incubation space which he offered.
I then went back to Congo with a planned exist. I had raised the capital I needed. I wrote a resignation letter to my manager with my air ticket ready. He rejected my letter. Instead, after two days, he comes back to me with a fully one year leave of absence. This is something I will forever be grateful for I had been doing a lot of work. I took on projects in Congo that were first timers on the African continent and I made them succeed. I led the team that installed the first dual ESP which was 8 kilometres deeper in offshore Congo.
RK: What is an ESP?
MN: Oh sorry. Sorry. Our oil in Uganda is heavy and needs a pump to pull it to the surface. The pumps are electrical submersible pumps (ESP). In Congo, they have a similar type of oil. My job was actually to learn from Congo and come and come and manage the oil here. But I left before I could come over.
That done, on Friday I left. The initial plan was to extract raw shea butter. The machinery was to be purchased by UIRI then I did my part of buying raw materials, I add value, mill myself and then leave.
However there were some issues, elections happened and UIRI didn’t have the money. I had to quickly switch my ideas. Instead of doing the raw shea butter, I do the final product. Remember when I was still in Congo, I was already developing products in Uganda. I had a whole year plus of product development. When we had a fully made product that I was sure would pass, that’s when I quit my job so that I could fully come and be present.
RK: You still had that one year leave, right?
MN: For me whether it was on or off, this was my thing that had to work.
RK: You had decided and that was it. One of our mentors Hillary Bamulinde told us that sometimes jumping is the only option and that is what you had done.
MN: Yes. Because you don’t care. You don’t look back, you just go. So I jumped.
RK: And you landed in Nakawa
MN: Anha! Professor was shocked when he saw me turn up for work. So I was unable to get the machines because of elections and I was very disturbed. We had done the numbers and the projections and they were perfect. The plan had to change. I had a product and I decided to put it out. There was a bride and groom expo which was happening and we got a stall. I learned about it a week before the expo and I put down UGX 1.3 million for the space.
RK: You know I benefited from that ka-money. I used to work somewhere.
MN: Haha. True. That expo started me off. I am grateful for that opportunity.
RK: So when do I get my bonus?
MN: It shouldn’t be you. There’s a lady called Claire Nanyunja. She convinced me to purchase the stall. She promised me that I would never regret the decision. And indeed she was right. Claire is the perfect person for marketing. Look for her.
At the expo, I did not make a sale on the first day. The lady next to me had bridal cars and was making sales. She looked at me and felt so sorry. She decided to buy it from me. She bought an anti-ageing butter. But after her, I made sales of UGX 1.5M.
RK: You must have been the happiest girl around town that time?
MN: Robert, all I wanted was one sale. Because if someone is willing to put money in my product then there should be someone else like here. All I wanted was one sale. But we ended up making about 2.3M which helped us to cover the costs of the expo.
Claire kept on coming and encouraging us. She told me to put up my bride and groom certificate in my shop and it really paid off.
RK: You’re still at the incubator at this time?
MN: Yes. I was. I started looking for cheaper ways of marketing my product. I had already got my product right. UIRI has its chemists on ground and they have really helped me with my product. I do not make the products myself. I prefer to work with people who have the right skill because quality is extremely important for me. And I do not compromise on that.
RK: Besides, you are dealing with people’s skins, you have to be cautious.
MN: Yes. But also remember I am an engineer. I don’t mess with quality. And I believe in science so much. If something is not researched then something is missing. Then, I am not an advocate of working in my kitchen. I prefer working with chemists who understand what they are doing. For me that was important.
When that was covered, the next thing was marketing the product. The cheapest option at the time was Facebook. We have now pushed to instagram, twitter and doing videos on youtube. Social media is very cheap and it is easy to use. There’s an eager market ready to consume information and they are also ready to buy. If someone is willing to purchase data, they are willing to purchase a product of 10,000 or 50,000. It was very important for me to focus on that. For one and a half years, we were solely focused on Facebook. We were waiting for this building to come up. I got to know the owner on Buganda Road junction. I courted for one and a half years. But that was when my first shock came in. I was told, they needed a product that had been around for some time. My product was in black tins and they didn’t want that. I was really pained. I immediately went and looked for another space which I got at Kisementi at the CUBE. Two weeks in, our revenue went up. I needed that push. Our sales moved from 2.3 million to 12.5 million in one month.
After that, we opened the Ntinda shop which had a salon. Clients needed to see that the products worked.
RK: So you realised that it was not enough to talk about your product, you gave them the opportunity to try it out? I believe that was also a good place to get feedback
MN: Yes. It was a good place to get data. And also customers help us improve and direct our growth. Our growth is based on customer experience and customer requirements. The whole set up helps us improve on our deliverables. In Uganda we have a big problem with customer service. Café Javas has done a great job and I want to be like or even better than them. And these are perfect examples to pick a leaf from and apply in our businesses. So I needed to have that experience and it has pushed the growth. We now have three salons of which one is a franchise. We have 4 franchises that are waiting to be opened. We have reached a level where our brand is being strongly recognised and people want a share in it. For me I am all about impact, job creation and giving people an experience. An experience with product and an experience with managing their product. Provided people can follow those legalities, they can own a Livara shop in a different town across the region which is working very well.
RK: Tell me something, you have dedicated a huge amount of time studying hair, how did you do that?
MN: I am obsessed with good things. Whatever I do becomes my life. I leave no room for failure. One of my worst fears growing up was poverty and not being able to achieve something I needed to achieve in life because of lack of finances. Yes when I quit my job it was by choice and I lost out on the opportunity to freely travel. However, recently, my job is giving me opportunities to travel through sponsorships by different people. So we needed to create an engine for growth and an engine that solved problems. I knew that ten years or so later, I would be able to reap out of it. I just had to be so good at what I was doing.
RK: So that is what drove you to master what you’re doing?
MN: Yes. I even designed magazines, fliers and anything around Livara. As an entrepreneur, I had to do that myself to cut costs. Things were expensive at the time. And even when we are setting up our shops, I am present. Even if it means brick laying, I know how I want them to be. Things have to be executed according to plan. When a customer comes, they want to have all their expectations met. So I need to put in the time and mental energy into what I do.
RK: A question for you. Who is your customer?
MN: My customer is an African woman preferably with natural hair because I believe in promoting a real African man/ woman/ child into her natural essence. Livara is about creating a product/ experience for an African by Africans for Africa and the world. So my customer is that African woman/man/ child because Livara is family centred. Our salons, our family salons.
RK: Up until this point, you have told the story, there are distinct lessons that I see. Hard work, principles and so on. But what has helped you achieve what you have achieved. What drives you?
MN: There are values we started with that we still hold dear till today. Our ethos are centred on community, quality, profit and Christ. I was with my sister Terry. Tereza Karungi. The way we came up with the name Livara was during a three day trip to Jinja, we went through the letters of the alphabet trying to come up with a name. We tried to forge names but things failed. We decided to come back having failed to get a name and then the name Livara popped up in my head. It means God, nature, natural, whole… it is everything that we stood for because we are a Christian founded company. For us, what has helped us grow and remain standing are the four things we stand for;
· Community: do we impact the people from whom we get the shea butter? Do we add value to our suppliers?
· Quality: are we adding science to everything that we continually do? Are we up to our SOPs that we started with? Do we have a dedicated team? No matter how qualified, dedication is what I look out for.
· Profitable: is everything profitable? Because I need money for the scholarship I am giving to the children of the farmers. I need money for research and development. I am a sucker for branding and quality. I needed money set aside for that.
· Local content: all our raw materials are from Uganda. There is a reason we are called the Pearl of Africa. This is a gem. We have something to offer to the rest of the world. Adding value and exporting is what drives us.
RK: You know, Nsimenta, these are my takeaways.
2. A very clear dream that you are pursuing
3. Passion for what you are doing
4. There is a thoroughness of doing your work
5. You go for the best
6. You master what you are doing
7. You have undivided focus of what your customer should get
8. A complete belief in yourself
With those, that’s how you have arrived at where you are today?
MN: Yes. And with those, I will go further than I am today.
RK: Wonderful/ I would like to ask you a personal question and hopefully you can be generous with your information. I was looking at this young lady who took a big risk and at that age with all those challenges still found time and even scaled up the business. How were you able to balance all these pressures and the decision making mechanism?
NM: Robert, not everything has been rosy. My first delivery was really bad. When I was 33 weeks pregnant, I went for a 3d Scan and I saw on the scan and then it was interpreted that my child had an incomplete brain formation. He had water on the side connecting to his left side. He had four fingers on his left hand. He had six toes. And it was double on the big thumb. Then a cleft lip and palate. It was a lot of information that was wrong at the wrong time. And apparently, my membranes were about to burst. It drove me into a depression and it has taken me two years to recover.
Abandoned my business for two years. But because I had invested in the right people, they held up my business for two years. So investing in the right people is very important. But for two years, Maxima Nsimenta, I left everything that I knew to try and work on myself.
I may have the energy now, but I have just recovered. That’s why I have put back all this effort into the business but for two years I was away. Unfortunately, I was in an abusive relationship. Also that was not necessarily the best. And I quickly got a second baby and it was bad. I have just recovered.
RK: Maxima, I am so sorry. I am so sorry that I asked you a question that has put you through this. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
MN: In the end we learn from our experiences. One thing I know for sure was investing in my team. They were willing to carry the brand when I couldn’t. They kept up everything from quality to the brand. It was easy for me to come back and re-invest my time in the business.
For those two years, I didn’t want to hear anything about Livara. I just needed to recover. But with therapy, help and family, I pulled through. So again, family is very important to me and having a small circle of friends who believe in you to push you forward because you will need them at a time you can’t do anything for yourself.
RK: Are you now out of UIRI?
MN: We are in the process of trying to get out of UIRI. We have reached a place where we need to have more space. We need to have our own factory. We need to expand much more than we currently are.
We need to push out of UIRI and push the brand out there. We now have new challenges. We need more (new) talent to push us to the next level. Getting bigger financing to set up our own factory. Generally, it is more of a talent, team, and factory path.
Shamim Matovu: Thanks Maxima, what exactly did you look out for in spotting the right people and developing them to the level that your business is at now?
MN: My team of highly academic people only has four members. The people who brought me to this level are the people I started with. A team of about 32 people. Like I mentioned before, when I am having interviews, I look out for determination. If they are going to work in production, it helps that they aced their books. For other things, it is the will to learn and improve on the person I want them to be. The other thing I check out is loyalty. People who are willing to go back and help their families speak a lot to me. So for me, it’s about; loyalty, determination & commitment. If I have those intact, I am sure someone will fight for me and for the business.
Moving forward, we need higher skilled labour so dynamics are going to change. I need the books now.
Lydia: How do I mentor my children to start out in things that they want rather than having to first meander? How would you encourage people who think manufacturing is only for a given group of people?
MN: Our education system right now does not develop skill in certain areas until vocational level, we are stuck into systems that were set in the colonial era. Children are not meandering. They are just venturing out in the skills they feel they are more comfortable in. I had eight months discovering myself. And had I been exposed to these things earlier on, maybe I would not have gone into the journey of electrical meandering and getting to where I am today.
The thing is, expose your children. If you are able to travel, take your children to different areas. Let them see the different things that are in the world. If you are not able to travel, use the internet wisely, don’t show them cartoons alone. Expose your children early through the different media that you can.
I have no problem speaking to people. It works well for me.
Annet: How can Livara products be accessed in the diaspora?
MN: We currently sell raw shea butter in the US. We are based in Arizona. We are in the process of getting the product to the different stores in the US to have it easily delivered online. We have also been approached by various distributors to have our products availed in other stores. That is through social media. Young entrepreneurs please harness the power of social media. Put out your products and talk about them.
RK: The only thing I can say to you now is thank you. Thank you for coming up and agreeing to share your story. There are many people out there who are struggling with a lot of things, your story is so powerful and it has helped many.
MN: Thank you Robert for the opportunity.