The influence of Rising Woman: A Journey from Academia to Entrepreneurship in Uganda’s Cosmetics Industry
Hellen Birungi is creating what she hopes will be a game-changing venture in the cosmetics industry.
From humble beginnings during her university days, she has now orchestrated a brand that’s creating waves.
A proud alumna of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), with a degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Hellen is the driving force and CEO of Herbs Organic Limited and one of the top three (3) winners from the 2022 edition of dfcu Bank’s Rising Woman business proposal writing competition.
Her company transforms mango seeds into an affordable alternative to costly shea butter. Not only does her enterprise process these mango seeds for sale to other companies, but it also employs them as the key ingredient for crafting an array of cosmetic treasures. From lip balms and glosses to lipsticks, jellies, and lotions, her creations encapsulate innovation and conscious beauty.
We spoke to her about her journey and plans for the future.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and journey that led you to where you are today as a Rising Woman winner?
During my college years, I acquired practical skills in diverse areas, spanning from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics. In my second year, sparked by research, my passion for hands-on innovation ignited. I transitioned theory into practice, embarking on an entrepreneurial path.
My encounter with Rising Woman occurred during my final year. When the invitation to defend my proposal emerged, I embraced the opportunity, and set out to be part of the pitch that took place in Kampala.
I am committed to seizing opportunities, adapting where necessary and persisting, and I believe that played a role in my performance in the competition.
What inspired you to pursue the field or industry you’re in? Were there any specific experiences or moments that shaped your career path?
During my studies, I gained skills in manufacturing various products. However, Uganda’s limited prospects in its small pharmaceutical industry, mainly dominated by international entities, posed a challenge. Conversations with peers revealed aspirations for opportunities abroad. This realization inspired me to counter the trend by creating local opportunities. I am determined to establish a venture that addresses employment generation and local potential.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them to achieve the level of success you have today?
One of the primary hurdles we faced was establishing a foothold in the market. For instance, we began by offering an alternative to a synthetic lip balm that was priced at around UGX 1,500. Convincing customers to opt for our lip balm, which offered a natural approach, presented a significant challenge.
Another significant obstacle was financial constraints. As a student, I relied on the earnings from my venture to cover personal expenses, often leaving me with inadequate funds to reinvest in manufacturing subsequent batches of products.
The continuous balancing act between my academic commitments and the demands of entrepreneurship was another challenge. While I was determined to explore the potential of this venture, uncertainty clouded my future plans. I questioned whether I’d eventually seek conventional employment after completing my studies.
However, as I approached graduation, I resolved to forgo seeking employment and instead focus my efforts on expanding the business to provide employment opportunities to others. Today, we have a team of six dedicated full-time staff members and an additional 12 part-time personnel. This achievement reflects not only the progress we’ve made but also the success of the strategies we’ve employed to overcome the multifaceted challenges that arose on this journey.
Could you share some of the significant milestones or accomplishments that you are partially proud of in your journey?
A transformative experience was a mentorship trip to Kenya courtesy of dfcu Bank which opened doors to collaborations with regional cosmetic firms.
Segmenting the business, post-Kenya trip, diversified our income streams. The networking from Rising Woman facilitated investor engagement and customer acquisition. This not only elevated revenue but fortified our brand and staff count. With Rising Woman’s backing, we also gained product certifications, notably for our lip balm and lip gloss.
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for the future? How do you plan to continue making a difference in your industry and beyond?
We intend to purchase a distribution vehicle or motorcycle for more efficient product distribution. To bolster our outreach, we’re creating a ground marketing team to connect with consumers directly.
Enhancing production capacity is another objective. From our current 1,000 tons per month, we’re targeting a production size of 3,000 tons monthly.
Do you have any last words of encouragement for any women entrepreneurs who are starting their business journey?
To all the remarkable women out there, I want to emphasize that the journey begins wherever you are. If you haven’t taken that first step, you won’t discover your potential or the opportunities awaiting you. Opportunities often reveal themselves as you progress.
I extend my gratitude to Rising Woman for the incredible opportunity to be a part of Season Five. The experience was truly enriching, and I’m amazed at what I’ve learned and achieved.
For those considering it, I urge you to respond to the current call. Apply, embrace the journey, and be prepared to be astonished at the transformation that unfolds.