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How Kayongo stitched leather into cash mint

Kayongo (C) and his team at work

Kayongo (C) and his team at work

Overall, the field of entrepreneurship is a highly competitive one in which it takes pure determination to succeed.

It requires more time, effort and constant flow of revenue to compete with the bigger businesses in the local area. Today, many budding entrepreneurs opt for business loans to start or keep their businesses afloat.

For JOSEPH KAYONGO, the proprietor of Kajo Pure Leather Products and a cocktail of other small businesses, he started with meagre funds generated from peculiar jobs. He shares his journey of hard work with Yudaya Nangonzi.

If you don’t know my background, you can conclude that I have made it in life yet it has been a real hustle,” Joseph Kayongo starts, as we saunter down the ghettos of Namungoona, a Kampala suburb.

He is a bubbly and youthful entrepreneur. As we get close to his leather workshop, he pleads with me to mind less about the ghetto in which he operates but focus on his earnings and quality of products.

Here, about nine staff have reported for work as he takes a break today to undertake this interview. Kayongo’s love for entrepreneurship was birthed at Yale High School in Kayunga during his O-level – thanks to the school director, Jingo William. 

Although he was a student, Jingo picked interest in him.

“I don’t know why Mr Jingo loved me but it seems he wanted to prepare me for big things ahead. One time [while staying at Jingo’s home], he told me to manage his bakery but since I had no expertise, things didn’t go well,” Kayongo recalls. He adds that Jingo, instead, trained him on how to go about this business.

Whenever he returned to Kampala during holidays, his father Godfrey Nsereko also often sent him to a one Leo Semakula’ workshop in Luzira to collect craft shoes. It is from several interactions with Semakula that he picked interest in the leather industry. Back at school, Kayongo sold the idea to three other friends. They would use part of their pocket money to order for craft sandals from Semakula with permission from the school’s director of studies.

Each sandal would be purchased at Shs 4,000 but sold between Shs 7,000 and Shs 10,000.

“The DOS understood and was very kind. Semakula would send the craft sandals on a taxi and we sell them on visitation days and to congregants who come for mass inside the school chapel,” he recalls.

By the time he left Yale HS in 2011, he had raised at least Shs 100,000. When he joined A-level at Emmanuel College in Kazo, his father became stricter on his education and he abandoned the business. He kept in touch with Semakula, though.


In his S6 vacation, Kayongo went on a mission to raise money and purchase more sandals. One of his friends tipped him about a construction site in Wakaliga, Nateete where he worked as a porter for Shs 8,000 daily.

He accumulated at least Shs 250,000 but not enough to buy his basic needs and purchase of crafts. He moved to town in search for any job until his last stop at a restaurant on Energy Centre building.

“The owner of the restaurant told me she had enough staff but if I can make chapattis, I should start work the following day. I didn’t know this business but I got a friend that evening who taught me everything,” he recalls. On the job, Kayongo proved his worth and would go back home with Shs 6,000 daily.

He says youths turn down job opportunities with predetermined minds that they cannot do anything yet “sometimes, it needs a small training here and there.”

After six months, Kayongo had saved Shs 400,000 in cash. Together with savings from the construction site, he went back to Semakula and bought 50 pairs of craft sandals each at Shs 3,500 and spent other monies on personal needs. He abandoned the restaurant and started vending the sandals in arcades.

“There were days I would go without selling anything and then sell like four to six pairs a day,” Kayongo said, adding that he didn’t lose hope in the business.


Eight months in vacation for Kayongo paid off. In August 2014, he joined Makerere University to pursue a degree in Social Science. He would spend time vending craft sandals and comes to campus for evening lectures. Whenever he wasn’t in town, he would go to Luzira and learn how to make the crafts.

When Kayongo attempted to sell the crafts to students, they turned them down due to poor quality. His efforts to advise Semakula to improve on the quality fell on deaf ears. Now that he had got the skill, Kayongo broke away from him. In his single-roomed rental in Bwaise, he wanted to start afresh.

Kayongo’s signature open craft sandals

His father would raise tuition and Kayongo pays his rental fee of Shs 60,000 monthly. He started with collecting dumped stinky cow hides and skins from Kalerwe abattoir and dries them under the sun at his place. He also looked for car tyres from nearby garages to make harder soles.

“In one year, I was evicted five times on different houses due to the stinky hides. Fellow tenants would raise complaints to landlords who didn’t listen to my endless pleas,” Kayongo says.

“If neighbours couldn’t stand the terrible smell from hides, how did they feel about me who stayed indoors working on my products day and night?”

Nevertheless, he managed to make an improved product from scratch and sold each at Shs 10,000. In second year, he challenged himself to make a better product.


For every business, branding is key. He needed an identity and it came easily. He coined Kajo from his name; KA for Kayongo and JO for Joseph to make Kajo Pure Leather Products Limited now registered with Uganda Registration Services Bureau.

For a better product, he needed original hides of high quality. A friend took him to an Indian dealing in hides in Jinja to buy a few materials for a start. With his Shs 1m in savings, he bought original hides and rubber and a secondhand welder at Shs 300,000 including its stand. In his house again, he taught himself how to perfect the current product on the market.

The new product came with its challenges. The welder would consume a lot of power and other tenants were not comfortable with the noise that came with it. He was evicted for the sixth time until he got a landlord who appreciated his struggles.

The product had improved and he sold each craft sandal to boutiques at Shs 10,000 and 13,000 to individual orders. By third year, Kayongo was in business and needed support. He got two classmates and taught them how to make the crafts from his room. With time, the business expanded and got more space and machinery. 


While moving around Namungoona ghettos, he found a place to expand the business. Currently, he rents the place at Shs 550,000 per month, electricity not inclusive. A few months into the new place, one customer turned his business around. This was a lady linked to him by his friend but runs a craft shop in Nairobi. She ordered for 500 sandals each at Shs 45,000.

The original price for each sandal had increased from Shs 10,000 on stinky hides to Shs 55,000 on original quality hides and rubber.

“I made profits of about Shs 6m on that order. This was an eye-opener. I had to look for shoe experts to work with me since more orders were coming through,” he says.

He got three experienced staff that have since trained others to make 25 people under his company. Of the 25 staff, 13 are stationed at the workshop, six are into delivery, marketing and taking orders are two, store and packaging three and Kayongo to complete the list. They also have five genuine boda boda men who help on transportation and are paid per order.

According to Kayongo, each staff is paid as per finished product with no fixed salaries.

“With this arrangement, someone works hard with less supervision to ensure that they finish their orders in time but maintain our quality. There’s no delivery made to a customer when I have not inspected it. Even when I am away, there are two people I trust with this job,” Kayongo says. 


At Kajo Pure Leather Products Ltd, they deal in customized open sandals, belts, wallets and handbags. All products are sold at Shs 55,000 and he insists the price is commensurate with quality.

They also make school shoes ranging between Shs 50,000 and Shs 90,000 but on orders since the demand is not constant. Once products leave the workshop, they are taken to Kawempe at the store for branding before they are delivered to clients. He also rents an office at Ham towers in Wandegeya for those who cannot come to ghettos of Namungoona.

Besides Kampala, Kayongo also has Ugandan clients in the UK, Dubai, France and London and they “really give me some good money”.

Locally, he supplies boutiques around town and individual customers and companies in search for customized items. He has worked with Majestic brands, MTN, Makerere staff and Dalausi Juice, among others. For now, he has sold more than 7,000 products and estimates his business at about Shs 45m since “serious and quality” production in 2016.


Like any business, not all is rosy. Kayongo says his biggest concern is sustainability.

“Leather is an expensive material to work with and it’s a challenge to keep your products affordable while competing with other brands. For instance, you can buy a hide of 7ft by 5ft at Shs 120,000 and the price shoots to Shs 150,000 on the next purchase. One time, I tried to raise the price to Shs 60,000 and customers reacted negatively,” he notes.

Secondly, he also gets customers who make big customized orders and don’t take them yet he can’t sell them to other customers, hence making losses. This is one reason why they set a strict deposit fee of Shs 20,000 for any product. Power is another challenge. The charges vary every month but he can use up to Shs 400,000 on yaka since most equipment runs on power. While he wants to support fellow youths, he has been let down by some who get trained and tap into his customers with poor quality products disguising themselves as his employees.


One of his biggest triumphs has been being able to start job, employ other youths and earn a living. When he looks back to houses of Shs 60,000 where he was evicted six times for his leather business to now a double-roomed house at Shs 350,000, he affords a smile.

He intimates that a house warming party will be held in November this year as he enters his personal house in Kasangati. In this same area, Kayongo also bought land where he plans to construct a home for his workshop.

“I want to employ at least 100 people and on salary, not daily payment. I want the staff to work in paddocks of five and save on renting fees in Namungoona,” says the single father to a two-year-old girl. “I want to also build a big leather brand. Already, I am in discussions with Bata to start supplying them my products.” He admits that the competition is stiff but it inspires him to work hard.


Having registered much progress in the leather business, Kayongo thought about other income-generating projects. Agriculture was first priority. With support from friends, he got five acres of land in Bamunaanika, Luweero district where he rents each acre at Shs 300,000 per year – translating into Shs 1.5m for the five acres, annually.

He grows and sells bananas, watermelons, pineapples, tomatoes, beans, cassava and maize. There, he employs 10 staff that permanently stay in Luweero to maintain the gardens. None of the staff gets a monthly salary but paid according to a job accomplished.

He doesn’t stop at his produce. Kayongo is also a middleman of sorts for other farmers in Luweero.

“Whoever has ready harvests; I buy products from them or help them find market in Nakasero and Kalerwe where I know quite a number of dealers. At the end, I get tokens of appreciation or do it for free for some close neighbours in Luweero,” he says.

His thirst for another entity got him into selling new phones and mobile money. He employed two ladies to run both businesses in a shop he rents at Kisekka market in Kampala. In December last year, Kayongo bought his first car, a Toyota Wish. At 23 years then, his friends thought he would turn luxurious but he had different plans for the car. Already, he was dealing in supply of fresh beef to homesteads and restaurants and the car would help reduce on transport costs.

“I bought this car but I rarely drive it. On any day, you will see me wave bodas or negotiate fares with taxi conductors. I got a young man who I trusted with it to pick and deliver beef to my customers up to around 10am. Thereafter, he uses the car for special hire and Uber,” Kayongo says.

“When I look at my records, the car is almost recouping money I used to buy it because the driver keeps it in good condition.”

Kayongo displays some of his products

Two years ago, Kayongo launched the food business in Kawempe where he is a resident. He did enough market research to identify his current top clients; schools, Makerere University and other tertiary insitutions. He employs three females in this business that cook pilawo mixed with beef and packed in silver plates.

To add more spice to the business, he bought 17 food warmers and supplied them free of charge to his clients. Whenever the food is delivered, canteen operators keep it in warmers to give students a hot meal all time. And, he makes the money. For instance, each small silver plate is sold at Shs 1500 and big ones at Shs 2,000. He pays the canteen operator Shs 300 and Shs 400 on the small and big and plates respectively.

“For quick calculations, I buy a kilogram of Pakistan rice at Shs 4,000 daily. When a kilo is ready, it gives me 15 small silver plates and eight plates if I pack the big ones. So, there’s no way one can cheat me. A dozen of small silver plates costs Shs 2,000 or Shs 2,500. I spend less and earn more from pilawo,” he says.

With six businesses already, Kayongo brought on board the popcorn business. So far, he has popcorn machines in Kalerwe, Mpererwe, Gayaza, Bwaise and Kawempe.

Each machine is run by one youth. On inception, he bought the machines and gave them starting capital and rent for one month. Every evening, he collects Shs 6,000 from each machine.

“Whether one earns more than Shs 30,000 a day, I don’t care as long as they pay my Shs 6,000 every evening, the rest of the money is theirs,” he notes. Asked how he manages all his seven businesses; leather, agriculture, mobile money, brand new phones, supplying fresh beef, selling pilawo and popcorn, Kayongo is quick to respond. “I make rotational checks on every business.

From Monday to Friday, I move around town business and you will find me in Luweero over the weekend in the garden.” On keeping the businesses afloat, he adds: “I live a low life and whoever doesn’t know me, you can’t easily identify me. When I am at the workshop, I am working hard and the same in my gardens.”


Kayongo acknowledges that poverty is rampant among youths in Uganda but the only practical way to overcome it is “working in groups”. He says: “I started alone but it doesn’t mean you do it my way. Then, maybe, I was lucky but you can’t survive alone today.”

He believes that forming groups of about five can encourage youths to pool resources and start instead of applying for government youth loans. He explains that money picked from one’s pockets motivates them to work harder and grow the business than quick loans. As soon as the group is organised, next should be finding business ideas.

This, he says, is probably the most daunting area for people. In fact, he insists that the most common reason why youths fail to start businesses is they “just don’t have good business ideas” coupled with undermining low-paying jobs. He leaves more tips to the youth. “Please start with what you have and where you are.

“You don’t have to be so big to start. Look at the locally available resources and utilise them to full capacity. If there’s someone doing a similar business, start it but do that job even better.” While Kayongo prides in successfully running all his enterprises, he says the journey ahead is still big but the future looks bright.


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