Florence Okot: What’s a Little Debt Financing After The Ravages of War?

With the equivalent of USD$23 in her pocket, Florence Okot took one of the biggest risks of her life. With her husband studying abroad and money in short supply, the then 29-year-old mother of two small children traversed the notorious Gulu-Karuma road to reach a market in Northern Uganda. With the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, waging a war with government forces, nothing moved on Gulu roads without a military transport … nothing except desperate but determined people like Florence.

“I took everything I had, all the savings from my job as a social worker for the Uganda Episcopal Conference to buy 70 kg of millet that I hoped to grind, package and sell with my mother in the capital where supplies were low. We sold out immediately and visions of where this could lead quickly quashed any fears I had so I went back, again and again, ploughing all the profits back into what was the beginning of our family-owned business,” she recalls with some disbelief at her own boldness.

For someone who risked her life on a regular basis avoiding rebels on the Gulu-Karuma road, becoming the market leader in food production is frankly a walk in the park.

That was 1997. Yellow Star’s history as a food processing business began simply as one woman’s effort to overcome poverty for her family but quickly evolved into a means to create employment for others as Florence encouraged rural war-ravaged women to grow grains and becomes suppliers for her expanding business.

What started with three natural organic products – pure millet flour, soya millet for porridge, and roasted millet with cassava for food – has since grown into a diverse line of foods ranging from rice and soya beverage to peanut butter and honey. Yellow Star boasts more than 250 clients, including major supermarket chains like Shoprite and Shoprite, Game, and Nakumatt, hotels, and schools across Uganda, and has a turnover of about US$250,000 with a goal to double that this year.

The company employees 20 mostly female workers and works with over 3000 farmers and women’s cooperatives. The supply chain is supported with initiatives such financial literacy classes, education on seed and grain quality, post-harvest strategies on how to protect crops, and even sales tactics to avoid middlemen taking advantage.

“Building the capacity of those we work with is key for our business. As a social worker who’s been involved in community development programs for more than 20 years, I’m committed to bridging the economic success of Yellow Star with support for the war-ravaged women of Northern Uganda, enabling them to gain knowledge and develop a fair market for their produce. The onus is on the woman to improve the standard of living of the entire household. My goal is empower them with training, skills and materials so they can move beyond pure subsistence farming and create a more sustainable economy for themselves and their families.”

The turning point for Florence came in 2015 when she received a grant from the IFDC, a global non-profit that aims to improve sustainable agricultural productivity, to build a food processing plant. Up to now, Yellow Star has been renting its processing, packaging and storage facilities. Construction on the site has started, but Florence is seeking additional funding in the range of $100,000 to complete and power the factory, buy machinery and more trucks and cover initial working capital to for capacity-building efforts with her suppliers.

“We faced a number of challenges stemming mostly from insufficient capital to run the cost of activities but also delays in supply and payment from buyers who have differing credit arrangements, but I’m undeterred. All these hurdles have been more like milestones, as we get over them, we get a step closer towards achieving our vision of becoming the leading producer of quality organic, nutritious products in East Africa,” Florence says with confidence.

For her achievements thus far, the 49-year-old was nominated as the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs’ Association’s Women Entrepreneur of the Year. On the horizon, her plan is to penetrate other markets in the East African Community, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and thereafter the larger and more competitive Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). It’s ambitious, but for a woman with Florence’s grit, it’s a challenge she relishes.

And for someone who risked her life on a regular basis avoiding rebels on the Gulu-Karuma road, becoming the market leader in food production is frankly a walk in the park.

 

Florence Okot’s startup tips
  • Discover your talent – mine is getting results – and find your dragon – in my case it’s boldness.
  • Invest in business skills and training, read as much as you can about business.
  • Network and partner with like-minded individuals and organizations.
  • Surround yourself with a great team, especially when it comes to financial management and planning.