Judith Bakirya: She abandoned A Government Job; Now earns millions in hundreds
Although she was born and raised on a farm in the Busoga region of Eastern Uganda, farming was not a profession Judith Bakirya ever imagined for herself.
“Despite that 80% of women work in agriculture in Uganda and land ownership is still an important resource for survival and status, farming is despised as a profession. I want to change that. I love being in the garden. I can be there the whole day, talking to my plants. I love introducing myself as a farmer,” she laughs. “Even getting up at 4 am is not a chore if the garden awaits me.”
From a young age, Bakirya helped out on the family farm, rising early to dig vegetables for meals, fetching water from the village wells, and collecting firewood from the forest. But unlike many girls from her district, Bakirya and her sisters were sent to school along with the boys.
“I talk continuously about the low status accorded to women in our society, women’s lack of land ownership, our lack of access to education and the domestic violence which is so rife. Slowly but surely, the attitude is changing after many witness how women-owned businesses are succeeding and how women in leadership have performed so excellently.”
“My father, a chief during his times, told all of us that our inheritance was education. I did well at school and qualified for a scholarship to a prestigious girls’ secondary school called Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga, something no other primary student in the school had achieved. I also qualified for university on a government scholarship. These opportunities opened many doors because I started interacting with girls who went on to become influential ministers, members of Parliament, doctors and so on. Indeed, my education has truly been a gift.”
With a Masters in health and development from Birmingham University in the UK, Bakirya worked for some years in both the non-profit world and for government. But she was never entirely fulfilled by the path her career was taking and one day found herself signing up for a course enticingly called Finding your Passion and Talent in Life to Generate Wealth.
“When asked to recall childhood memories that were important to me, I remembered I had a piece of land on the farm where I grew my own vegetables, beans, and maize for sale. I also fondly remembered my grandmother who shared with me her knowledge of herbal medicine and the importance of preserving and multiplying a climbing bean, Nsala Kayindi Yindi. I knew then that farming was my future. One year later, I quit my job in the city used all my personal savings, got a small loan from the village Savings and Loans Association, and started Busaino Fruits & Trees.”
Busaino Fruits & Trees (BUFRUIT) is a family-run agro-heritage fruit farm located on 1064 acres in Eastern Uganda. Today the farm has an annual turnover of US $90,000 from the sale of herbs, fresh fruits, and seedlings in addition to agro-tourism and education. BUFRUIT applies environmentally friendly principles on the farm and works with local schools to introduce the same concepts to students. Realizing that it takes a village to succeed in business in rural Uganda, Bakirya collaborates with smallholder farmers in the surrounding areas to improve their methods of farming and organized them into a savings and credit association to access financing.
“I had the dilemma of whether to take a loan from commercial banks to invest in what they termed ‘a risky business with a very long gestation period’ or build my agribusiness slowly from personal savings. It’s not easy to invest everything into a business with a payback period of five years minimum. In the meantime, I still needed money for daily survival, food and school fees. I wish I had known then what I know today and organized my farm as an agro-heritage farm incorporating agro-tourism, education, and cultural heritage. I also wish I had reached out to collaborate with the village earlier … I would be at another level today.”
Bakirya’s turning point came in 2014 when she won a national agriculture award as the 2nd best farm offering innovative solutions. And while the accolade has opened big channels for funding, Bakirya has used the attention for other purposes.
“The president was the guest of honor. I was the headline on all national media and given a trip to the Netherlands. For the first time, I became a celebrity in my country. The coverage energized me to speak out about women’s rights. I’ve always admired Mrs Miria Matembe [former Minister of Ethics and Integrity and Member of Parliament] who says she ‘uses her big mouth to reach out to the cause of women’ and so like her I talk continuously about the low status accorded to women in our society, women’s lack of land ownership, our lack of access to education and the domestic violence which is so rife. Slowly but surely, the attitude is changing after many witness how women-owned businesses are succeeding and how women in leadership have performed so excellently.”
Together with the support of her husband and children, the 47-year-old Bakirya has plans to evolve her agri-heritage fruit forest into a learning model, inspiring other Ugandans into agriculture. She’s focused on getting funding to develop the training component and agri-tourism aspect of the farm. She has plans for a training hall, new equipment to improve productivity, Bandas for visitors, and a strategy to strengthen the smallholders network and increase the number of climate-smart schools, but all is pending due to limited financing as commercial banks’ interest rates are too high and not friendly to farmers.
But it’s not just the success of the farm that motivates this woman. Thinking of her mother who rose early to work the farm, always gave her last coin as pocket money to her children, and cut her only good pair of bedsheets for her daughter to take to boarding school, Bakirya is driven by other considerations.
“My mother struggled to fend for us. She was an inspiration and so I work hard in life to bring honor to women farmers. I’m encouraging other women to succeed in agriculture but also in business. Women hold the future for the development of Uganda and Africa if they have the opportunity to realize their potential. That’s why I’m paying the school fees of six poor but promising girls. As women, we have the responsibility to support and mobilize those who come behind us.”
Now that’s surely a sentiment more of us could adopt.
Tips from Judith Bakirya:
- Listen to you heart, seek information and go after what you want … the rest will fall in place.
- If you believe in what you are doing, stay determined and persevere. You never know when the tide turns and indeed it turns!
- Starting and running a business is not an urgent project. Let it evolve as you internalize and learn from it.
- There are many resources and technical know-how out there to help you. Until you seek, you will not find!
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