Grace Nanyonga: Chicken Girl’s Thriving Business

By Elaine Pirozzi

At school in Uganda she was called Chicken Girl. Her fellow students thought Grace Nanyonga did “dirty work” selling roasted chicken by the side of the road. In reality, the 13-year-old was struggling to support herself and her six younger siblings, all of whom found themselves orphaned after the unexpected death of their mother, less than a year after their father had died. Grace didn’t care about the nickname; she owned it. She made Chicken Girl her brand name, and sold it throughout high school.

Grace says she had “the spirit of business”. Later, after high school, she switched from selling chicken to smoking and selling fish, turning it into a successful venture. She named her company Grana Fish Supplies Limited – Grana being a combination of her first and last name. Though Grana, which operates in the Mukono District of Uganda, started as a very small operation, by 2012 it was a fully registered business. Today, Grana Fish − smoked and seasoned tilapia and silver fish (mukene/omena) in snack, powdered, and sundried form − is sold in grocery stores, schools, and markets, as well as to individual customers. The firm employs over a dozen staff.

Grace’s business was primarily self-funded. Because she initially had little money to put into it, the company grew organically. “Even though I put most of the profits back into the business,” Grace explains, “it grew slowly due to inadequate capital. Fortunately, due to the high quality of fish we process, it’s now one of the leading companies in its sector in Uganda.” Still, there is additional equipment and technology she’d like to invest in when she has the money available. For instance, rather than using electronic dryers, Grana depends on sunshine for drying fish, which results in reduced production during the rainy season.  

“Personally, I have been supported and mentored by many and now I, in turn, am mentoring others, from university students to my fellow women in fishing villages. I encourage them to not to give up despite the odds.”

Much of what Grace now knows about both fish and business in general she learned as she went. “I did not know about vacuum sealing as a way of preserving fish to increase its shelf life. I learned it along the way through my food quality control training at Walmart in Arkansas in the United States where I was sent through the Fortune/US State Department global mentorship programme. I also did not know about filing tax returns with the government but that, too, I learned along the way.” 

What she did have from the beginning was an innate sense of business and customer service. “You must make your product unique and never compromise on quality for any reason. Our fish is smoked and seasoned to make it unique and oil-free. Also, you must remember that your customer is your boss. We have had some of the same customers since 2005.” And sometimes, she knows she must strategize to keep those customers. “Most people get their smoked fish from local markets, but in this day and age not everyone has time to go shopping in local markets, so, in addition to being in markets, we do local deliveries direct to people’s home.” 

Further, she recognizes the need to be careful with her money. “Sixty percent of my profits go back into the business, and I keep separate accounts for business and personal savings. I prioritize my expenses. For instance, my children’s education is not compromised, but I will only shop for new clothes infrequently. I am so careful with my needs and wants while spending, and I make sure that I am spending more on needs compared to wants.” 

Grace has also benefitted from a number of groups and individuals who have been inspired by her story and offered various types of assistance, including monetary. Back when she was still selling chicken as a young girl in 2001, the organization Female for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), a local NGO, gave Nanyonga a bursary after hearing of her plight. With that, Grace was able to finish high school and then, with the profits made from Grana, she earned a two-year diploma from Makerere University. “There are many successful business women who are willing to mentor their fellow women. Personally, I have been supported and mentored by many and now I, in turn, am mentoring others, from university students to my fellow women in fishing villages. I encourage them to not to give up despite the odds.”  

In spite of her many accomplishments, Grace has never forgotten her past. For instance, while she now travels frequently, including to Washington, DC, where she spoke at the White House, she can still remember a time when she was chased out of taxicabs because she was carrying smelly fish. “I am proud of my journey so far, from Chicken Girl at 13 years old to a successful company today. I have chosen to openly share my journey so that I can inspire and motivate young people who are struggling. I want to give back to the needy people with whom I share a common background. I would not be who I am today had I not been constantly mentored and encouraged by people who didn’t know me but believed in me.”

This story is one of many in Women Creating Wealth: A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from Across Africa.

Grace Nanyonga’ startup tips:
  • Respect your employees and view them as your business partners. Keep them motivated with fair and timely salaries, consistency in your words, and interest in their views.
  • Focus on your long-term goals work towards them slowly. One step at a time helps you keep growing your business. 
  • Celebrate every achievement of your business. This is because many people start business with lots of capital but their businesses never live to see their first birthday. 
  • Your business is unique. However, keep studying your competitors so that you are always aware of the trends. 
  • Value your customers and take their feedback positively, using it to respond to their needs which will lead to business growth. 

Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington DC.

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