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Mawejje Turns Banana Fibre Into Wealth

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At 10 years, Muhammed Dimma Mawejje started hawking clothes in Masaka town to raise school fees and make ends meet.

Today, the chef-turned entrepreneur recycles banana fibre to create jobs for youth and women. At Mawejje Creations and Eco Crafts Uganda, the 27-year-old employs seven youth directly and about 30  women indirectly.

They make and sell different products from banana fibre. He has also skilled 180 youth and recycled over 2,100kg of banana fibre.

Within two years,  he has grown the social enterprise from sh500,000 to sh37m and, in the process,  scooped local and global awards. Mawejje shared his journey with RITAH MUKASA.

Born to Faridah Nabitaka, a Village Health  Team (VHT) official and Isa Sekayebe, a driver, Mawejje is the fifth of nine children. 

He attended Kiteegomba Primary School in Kasangati, Wakiso district, Kimanya Al  Islamic and Blessed Sacrament Primary  School in Masaka, where he lived with his grandparents.

At the age of 10, Mawejje started working to make ends meet. “I would hawk shoes and clothes in Masaka town. Life was hard, but customers encouraged me and this kept me going.

Also, whenever I hit the streets, deep inside me, I vowed that one day, I would be someone great,” he recalls. 

For about three years, Mawejje was a renowned hawker in the suburbs of the town. “The hard times nurtured me into an entrepreneur,” he says.

After primary school, Mawejje moved back to his parents’ home in Kasangati and enrolled at Cornerstone High School, Wakiso, for his O’level. 

During this time, he continued doing odd jobs, including working at a stone quarry to raise school fees. 

However, one day, officials from the  International Labour Organisation (ILO) found Mawejje loading stones onto a truck. They categorised him as a child labourer and took up his case. 

He was in Senior Four at the time. After O’level in 2011, he was linked to the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDL), which trains children labourers, school dropouts and street children free of charge.

At UYDL, Mawejje chose catering after realising that much as he was interested in computer studies, there was no hope of getting capital to start up a computer business, but he would easily find a job as a chef.

After six months, Mawejje graduated and secured a job in a  hotel in Mityana district.

However, he resigned after one month. “I worked for 18 hours daily, but earned sh80,000 per month,” he explains.

Mawejje moved back to Kasangati and found another job. 

“I earned sh350,000 per month as the assistant chef and from this, I  saved to start a joint business with my mother,” he says. 

In 2014, Mawejje resigned and started Rafiki Catering Services with his mother.  “I was the operations manager and my mother was the boss,” Mawejje says.

By 2016, the company had broken even and the family’s standard of living improved. In 2017, Mawejje left Rafiki to his mother and secured a job as assistant chef at a hotel in Kisaasi,  Kampala. 

“I used to earn sh350,000, working from 5:00am to 11:00pm. I  overlooked the long working hours and focused on getting experience,” he says.

Venturing into liquid soap

Towards the end of 2017, Mawejje resigned from the hotel job. 

“I was tired of doing the same thing daily. I also felt I had gained enough experience,” he says. Mawejje partnered with a friend and started making liquid soap using their savings amounting to  sh300,000. He was trained by his mother. 

“The business sustained both of us for a year,” he says.

However, according to Mawejje,  he realised this was not the business he wanted to be identified with.  He argues that many people were already making liquid soap.  Therefore, it was no longer profitable.

He left it to his friend.  In 2013, Mawejje acquired craft skills from a neighbour who was making necklaces, earrings and bracelets out of paper.

He had even sold a few pieces abroad through a friend. He had made a profit of  sh150,000 but did not take the business far. Fast forward, when he exited the soap business, he got a bursary for a six-month course at Texfad  Vocational Centre in Mukono, where he was trained in recycling banana fibre.

At the centre, the trainees would come up with innovations and work with tutors to develop them.  Mawejje developed a passion for banana fibre once he realised it was a virgin market.

Besides, it was a  business he wanted to be known for.  “I invested a lot of time researching about banana fibre,” he says. Mawejje adds that he realised that from the fibre, one can make a wide range of products, including clothes,  jewellery and, from the banana stems, one can get thread and paper,  among others.

With this, he birthed Mawejje  Creations. “I launched it in 2018 as a social enterprise. I wanted to boost the livelihood of banana growers and youth,” he says.

Meanwhile, for months, before he graduated, he would produce jewellery. The school would sell them and give him commission, which he survived on.

In 2018, Mawejje got a one-year scholarship to the Social Innovation Academy (SINA) in Mpigi. “At SINA, I still focused on adding value to banana fibre, but I was hesitant to share the idea with my tutors,” he says.

However, his tutor, Ibrahim Kigozi,  loved the idea and connected  Mawejje to Sawa World – a women’s organisation. They were looking for youth with eco-friendly ideas to compete for the What’s Your Solution  2018 award.

Mawejje won sh2.5m  after emerging the best. Consequently, he also attended the Business summit 2018 in Cairo,  courtesy of the Egyptian government. 

When Mawejje returned after a week, he focused more on marketing the company. His father offered him office space at their home in Kasangati, Wakiso district, while a friend donated to him a laptop. 

“I started producing wall clocks and jewellery on a small scale;  participated in different competitions and won awards,” Mawejje says. “I started with sh500,000: 50%  savings and 50% donations from friends and family,” he says. 

Mawejje says the business is now worth sh37m.  In 2019, Mawejje secured another scholarship to Egypt on the African Presidential Leadership Programme for three months.  Soon after he returned, he was invited by KYUSA Uganda as a trainer of trainers’ facilitator.

He would train youth entrepreneurs around Kampala, especially in practical branding and marketing. All was going as planned,  but COVID-19 hit, leading to a  lockdown.  He needed a boost to increase production and thus, through crowdfunding, he raised $150 for materials. 

By the time the lockdown was lifted, Mawejje was already producing wall clocks. He also trained youth in the community.  He has so far trained 160 youths to recycle banana fibre under his annual programme – BAFETE 2019 (Banana Fiber Extraction Training Editions). 

The programme equips women and youths with extraction and handcraft skills for free.  At his workshop, Mawejje works with seven youth who earn commission on items sold and over 30 women who collect banana fibre. 

He has diversified into other ventures, including Fabrium designs that make bags and belts and in future, clothes and shoes from banana fibre.

Last year, he started Eco-craft Uganda, an arm of Mawejje Creations that delivers his products and crafts.

Getting the raw materials

How he has grown the business

Mawejje sustains his business on good management practices,  including bookkeeping and accountability. 

He is also open to feedback from customers, research and development.  He researches about his industry and has benefited from accelerator programmes and incubation awards, which have provided him with more insights on how to manage, run and grow his business.

Additionally, he relies on his strengths, ability, confidence and passion for solving problems in his community. 

He is now carrying out research on how he can make durable clothes from banana fibre. Mawejje says he values and respects all people around him and believes in working as a team, where no one is above the other.

Mawejje also supports the growth of his team and follows a business model, which he drafted while in  Cairo.

Earnings

Mawejje produces about 30 wall clocks, 1,000 pairs of earrings and 100 pen holders per month. They also produce table mats and cardholders. 

The price depends on the product, but they range between  sh2,000 and sh100,000.  He sells to households, craft-shops, restaurants and tourists.

He relies on recommendations, social media marketing and friends who live abroad.

Cost of production

“Every month, I pay sh50,000 for electricity and sh300,000 in rent,”  Mawejje says. 

A kilo of fibre goes for sh1,000- sh2,000. On average, the workers take home about sh100,000 per month.  He employs youth, including students on vacation.

Risks involved in the business

When they get the banana fibre,  they sort and grade that which can be used. They use knives and this takes time, and comes with cuts.  They have recently started using sandpaper.

“Fibre can be damaged during transportation and handling,” he says adding that this leads to losses. Mawejje has learnt to treat it with liquid soap and water to ensure durability.

A banana fibre clock made by Mawejje


Achievements

Mawejje feels fulfilled seeing the impact his business has on people’s lives, especially the youth and women who earn from it and those he has skilled.

Similarly, being an employer has made his parents and friends proud. 

Challenges

Mawejje faces a challenge of thriving in a competitive market yet his production is limited because they use hands which are tiresome. He is saving to buy machines. 

“Our other challenge is inadequate capital. I need funds to buy materials and machinery. For example, a decorticator machine at about sh15m.

“It is hard to market our products since many people are ignorant about banana fibre innovations,” he says.  To change this, Mawejje has embarked on marketing his business on social media. 

He also believes that creating more awareness about the products will boost sales.

Plans

Mawejje envisions being a well-established social entrepreneur and investor. 

He also looks at recycling over three tonnes of banana fibre annually. 

What you need to start

Mawejje says passion is important for one to start a business like his as this will guide the entrepreneur. One also needs training and research on adding value to banana fibre,  the target market and how to get there.

Accolades Mawejje is a fellow at Readers to Leaders 2019, African  Presidential leadership programme batch three 2020,  Young African Leaders Initiative cohort 38 Fellow and Alumni 2020. 

In 2019, he scooped the  Innovation award under ATCG (Africa Tech and Creative Group) community fund and in the same year, he became a world youth forum delegate, African changemakers fellow, Visionary Leader Award nominee and African Younger Leaders Award finalist.

He is also ATCG Innovation award winner recipient 2020,  Global Environmental award nominee 2020, Pursuit Incubator Fall cohort 2020 and Ignite  Innovation Lab 2020 fellow. 

Jewelry made from banana fibre



About banana fibre 

Banana fibre, also known as musa fi bre,  is one of the world’s strongest natural fibres. Biodegradable, the natural fibre is made from the stem of the banana tree and is incredibly durable. The fibre consists of thick-walled cell tissue,  bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose,  hemicelluloses and lignin.

Banana fibre is similar to natural bamboo fibre, but its spin ability,  fineness and tensile strength are said to be better.

Banana fibre can be used to make a number of different textiles with different weights and thicknesses, based on what part of the banana stem the fibre was extracted from.

The thicker,  sturdier fibres are taken from the banana trees outer sheaths, whereas the inner sheaths result in softer  fibres.

Impact of COVID-19

“During the lockdown, I  managed to work on most products, while aligning them with customers’ needs.  I also got more clients online,” he says.

During the first lockdown,  he crowdfunded the company’s post-COVID-19 practical skills training. 

“Preparation is important in all aspects. I am now preparing more raw materials than before. I am also maximising what I have to get what I don’t. I  create room for research,  development and innovation to prepare for eventualities,” Mawejje adds.

Mistakes made and lessons learnt Mawejje always landed into trouble when he under-looked his bosses and tutors. He used to think of himself as a  fast thinker who was above everyone else.

He realised this mistake when he was in Cairo. One of the professors taught him the greatest law of power: Never outshine your master.  He stopped being argumentative and disrespectful and this change helped him grow his social capital.  “I learnt that learning is a process.

You can learn from everybody,” he says. Relatedly, while starting his business, Mawejje did not know what it entailed. “I did not know what it means to employ  people, look for capital, while growing the business.”

In the process, Mawejje learnt that whatever one prays for comes with responsibility and never to give up.  “I have also learnt to be patient and determined to complete whatever I lay my hands on,” he asserts. 

About banana fibre 

Banana fibre, also known as musa fibre,  is one of the world’s strongest natural fibres. Biodegradable, the natural fibre is made from the stem of the banana tree and is incredibly durable.

The fibre consists of thick-walled cell tissue, bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin.

Banana fibre is similar to natural bamboo fibre, but its spin ability,  fineness and tensile strength are said to be better. Banana fibre can be used to make a number of different textiles with different weights and thicknesses, based on what part of the banana stem the fibre was extracted from.

The thicker, sturdier fibres are taken from the banana trees outer sheaths, whereas the inner sheaths result in softer fibres.

Counsel to the youth

  • Understand the heart of God and who He is in every generation  
  • Be open-minded, define your WHY critically and get good mentors and researchers to support you along the journey  
  • Look at what is around you and find a way of maximising it  
  • Also, respect, consult and listen to people around you, especially elders 
  • Don’t blame people for the challenges you encounter, but find a way of getting better using what you have

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