Uganda may have the third-highest fertility rate in the world but where there is life, death is inevitable. And it is a certainty that Regina Mukiibi Mugongo made the most of when she became this East African nation’s first ever funeral director almost two decades ago.
But in a country where a large proportion of the population associates conventional burials with witchcraft, establishing her company, Funeral Services Ltd (UFS), was not easy.
“I met with a lot of resistance, people were talking about being haunted by ghosts,” Mugongo, who has overseen thousands of burials, including many for state, religious, royal and diplomatic figures, tells IPS.
“They said ‘Oh what’s this? It is taboo, how can you bring in such a service?’ People were fighting against me,” says Mugongo.
Initially, she left a 15-year career with the former Uganda Commercial Bank to start a travel company with her late brother Freddie.
It was during their travels that they saw the services offered by established western funeral companies and the siblings realised there was a gap in the Ugandan market. They set up UFS in 1997 but Freddie passed away a year after starting the company. Mugongo has run it on her own ever since.
She now employs 35 staff members and has five branches across Uganda. And UFS is also the sole local company with membership in the organisation of funeral directors in the Great Lakes region.
Three trophies sit on a shelf behind her desk at the UFS offices. Last year, she won the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Associated Limited (UWEAL) Business Achievers Awards.
This October she was given the 2013 Phenomenal Women Trailblazers funeral services award by the US-based 100 Black Women of Funeral Service.
UFS imports caskets from the US–about 125 annually– and also makes “dignified” coffins and caskets locally in its carpentry workshop.
“The demand [for locally-made coffins] is higher since they are more affordable. We decorate them with imported ornaments and interior linen.”
Mugongo was fortunate in obtaining a $176,000 loan from a local bank to start UFS. Both her good track record as a banker and her diploma in business studies played a role in her accessing the funds and she paid it off six years later.
But in Uganda, other women are not as fortunate. UWEAL, which has 750 registered members in 10 districts across the country, claim up to 48 per cent of the country’s businesses could be female-owned.
According to Monica Malega, the body’s policy and advocacy officer, 60 per cent of UWEAL’s members work in agriculture.
She says that while women are quicker at making a decision to start a business than the opposite sex, they face more struggles, with a lack of ownership of land being their number one challenge.
“For example, you can get some land for a year but you may not be sure if you can use it the year after because probably your husband will say he needs it but you’ve planned an investment of five years,” Malega tells IPS.
“And when you are a woman and you go to the bank to ask for a loan … they ask you where is your husband to sign the document too.”
From her time as a banker, Mugongo has come to the conclusion that women are better at handling money than men.
“Men might be willing to service the loans but they have many problems, they find themselves diverting the money for other purposes,” says Mugongo.
“We women don’t own properties, so we get power of attorney from our husbands or friends. We mortgage other people’s properties. So you feel that conviction, that once I fail to fulfill my obligation someone’s property will be taken. Women fear misusing bank loans,” she says.
However, the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), a semi-autonomous government agency, is currently in the process of trying to change this.
“The UIA is finalising establishing a desk at Uganda Development Bank (UDB) to help groups of women have access to finance,” UIA senior investment executive Stephen Byaruhanga Rwaheru tells IPS.
“The barrier is that our commercial bank’s lending rates are still high [25 to 30 per cent] and it is difficult for women’s associations to borrow money from such banks,” he says, adding that lending rates should be below 10 per cent per annum.
Meanwhile, Mugongo is optimistic about the future of Uganda’s female entrepreneurs.
“I believe we can all be successful when we are innovators.”