still the Ugandan paper bag emperor still believes he has not yet arrived. Despite all the current achievements, Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (YELI) is warming-up to future success, and is generating some buzz. It’s just a start.

Still, even with that much production, the future is what Andrew Mupuya is sniffing at. His future battles will be won, if by 2015 he would be employing 60 people and having built a paper bag making plant that would result in a cleaner Africa, whose beautiful landscape is free of the litter of plastic bags.

The hard work has already been done, since the critical part of nose-bleeding created by competition from a group from Kenya that was using machines; whilst Andrew’s workers were doing the work manually has been halted.

And let’s not overlook the fact that this business was started when Andrew Mupuya was still in his teens. For all the grand heritage, YELI is cultivating in Uganda, the successful environmental company was started with about $13.40 (approximately $18 at current rates).

The fall of the plastic bag, and the rise of the paper bag in Uganda

In 2008, the Ugandan government leaned towards imposing a ban on the use of the polythene plastic bag. Any tears from the polythene plastic bag manufacturers, should have been shed and new alternatives sort. Nevertheless, sixteen-year old Andrew Mupuya perceived this ban as a great market opportunity to start a business of environmentally friendly paper bags.

Mupuya says he started his business after gaining experience from the Junior Achievement (JA) company program that was being implemented at his school at that time. Interestingly, whilst a part of the JA Company called Quapack, where they were taught how to make envelopes and paper bags, he was a finance manager.

He christened his start-up as Youth Entrepreneurial Links Investments (YELI) in 2010. At that time, disaster had visited his family, since his parents had become unemployed and the young secondary school student was struggling to find a way to help them financially and pay his own school fees.

The start of the entrepreneur’s journey needed some creativity, in-order to fundraise the bulk of the needed capital.

He says, “I started out in secondary school after the government put a ban on ’buveeras’ (plastic polythene bags). After the ban, I decided that I wanted to create a solution. I made a business plan. To start out, I needed 36,000 Ugandan Shillings (About $13.40 at the current rate). So I collected 70 kilograms of used mineral water bottles to raise capital. But I raised only 28,000 Ugandan Shillings ($10). My fellow students and teachers thought I was mad. To meet up with the plan, I borrowed the remaining 8,000 Ugandan Shillings ($2.90) from my teacher. I sold a ream worth of paper bag every 3 weeks and from each ream, I earned 20,000 ($7.40), worth of profit.”

YELI was the first Ugandan registered paper bag and envelope producing company, and has a staff compliment of more than 14 people. The customer base currently comprises local hospitals, retail stores, roadside sellers, supermarkets, and local flour manufacturers like Maganjo grain millers and Akamai Foods.

Why Paper bags

According to YELI Paper Bag Limited’s official website, “Quite often, our progress, be it industrial, scientific or medical, has been at the cost of the generous nature. But the waste that has done immense harm is the simple, yet threatening and ever-present plastic bag.

It is almost impossible to destroy plastic and polythene bags. Plastic bags remain in the soil for centuries, defiling the soil, preventing it from replenishing its nutrients, and rendering it barren.

This ultimately results in fertile land becoming barren and turning into desert. It is estimated that the life expectancy of plastic bags is around 15 to 1000 years to break down. Imagine the damage and the consequences. Even the branches of trees on to which these bags are blown wither and die or remain stunted. From manufacture to disposal, plastic bags are a major environmental hazard.

Paper bags on the other hand, come from wood, which comes from trees, which grow in the earth’s soil. The trees needed to make paper bags are considered renewable resources. That means more trees can be planted to take place of trees that are cut down to make paper and other products. Once paper is made, it can be recycled and used to create more paper goods. Bags made from paper are bio-degradable and hence highly environment friendly than plastic bags, which pose a threat to the environment.”

The early challenges of the entrepreneurial journey

There are many pluses and minuses to starting any business venture. The traditional web of starting from nothing always guarantees victims, and Andrew was no exception. “After form six, my brother, who was my host sent me away back to the village, 3 days later I came back to Kampala. I had nothing to start with but I wanted to build my business,” he stated.

One of the negative aspects that Andrew faced when starting his business was negative peer influence. Almost everyone was expressing disbelief in Andrew’s capacity to succeed in his venture. Another significant challenge was the lack of understanding of the need to first improve the product’s quality and then focus on growing the market.

On the other hand, of course, the suppliers of the paper, as he initially bought it from a supplier in Kampala was giving him trouble, until he decided to import it from Nairobi, where it was cheaper, even after the border taxes.

His dreams were always thrown into chaos as the biggest titan invaded his ambitions, as he was consistently battling with time commitments to balance his business and school work.

“Negative peer influence: everyone thought that I was never going to make it. Even my teachers told me that I was going to fail class. But I had a weekly timetable and that is how I made it,” Andrew said.

“Understanding of the market and product: when I started out, I wanted to grow the market. But then, I realized that I needed to work on making the product better. I wanted to have more clients to supply to. But then I realized that it was important that I focused on the paper bags in terms of variety, quality and quantity,” he further added.

Furthermore he remarked that, “source of materials: I used to buy paper from Nasser road in Kampala. But the suppliers were not reliable. I am now importing from Nairobi. That in itself is a challenge. The price is cheaper, but I have to pay more in taxes at the border because of corruption.”

Lastly, “competition: my biggest competition is from Kenya. It is a group of Indians who use machines. My employees work manually. So they take more time and we do not produce as much in terms of quantity as we would love to,” the paper bag king reiterated.

Ultimately, the combination of the negative vibe and herculean challenges should have left his head in bad shape; however, fortunately it was a catalyst for him to find less reason to care about his emotional fatigue and proceed on his entrepreneurial journey.

And while there was no evidence that the plan he was implementing was set for success or failure, the pull of needing advice was so powerful, as his association with the Anzisha team testifies.

While Mupuya, stated that  “following the set principles and regulations: business plan and language of money, I then started seeking advice from experts in a specific field like Anzisha team, which comes after being an Anzisha Fellow. This helped me to be more determined on what is right and achievable,” this strategy made it essentially possible for his mental strength to positively affect his company.

YELI Paper Bags Limited – the Business

YELI Paper Bags limited was among the first paper bags incorporated company in Uganda. With the plastic bag fading out of the picture, Andrew Mupuya in 2008 founded the company as a sole proprietor venture making one type of product.

A rapid rise in the demand for paper bags substantially boosted the prospects of the company over time, capturing the medium and larger markets. Also interesting to note is that YELI Papers Bag Limited because of the additional boost in market share has had to initiate new products streamlines.

The business venture was started due to the need to conserve and save the environment, by replacing the paper bag’s closest and dangerous cousin, the polythene plastic bag. At stake is the future of the environment, and the company has continuously innovated and improved its product offering.

YELI Paper Bags limited talks about having a commitment to be responsible for conserving the environment, and believes if efforts are combined towards its products and operations, the world will be protected.

Its ongoing foray into minimizing environmental destruction by ensuring the elimination of any dangerous or harmful operations to the environment should continue for the foreseeable future.

The company has declared its intentions to shrug off environmental oddities through initiatives such as; considering the environment in all business decisions and actions, creating awareness about environmental conservation both within Uganda and beyond borders, and setting internal standards to have the automated environmental protection by the final user of the product.

To ensure that YELI Paper Bag doesn’t stumble in its desires, the national and international environment standards will be religiously followed. In addition, digging a little deeper will uncover that partnerships with environmental bodies and interested Agencies to sensitize the community about the environment, is high up the list of priorities.

Putting the success pieces together

Along with Andrew’s entrepreneurial capabilities, he has continued to empower himself through studying towards a degree in Commerce at the Makerere University in Kampala – Uganda. Mupuya has also found peace in employing trusted lieutenants that are helping with daily commitments.

Reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey, Mupuya is happy to state that there are no shortcuts to success and no age limit to start, and run an enterprise. “Personal decisions, attitudes and knowledge lead to success,” says Mupuya.

2012 was a watershed year, as Mupuya entered the Anzisha Prize and walked away with the grand prize of USD $30,000 at the award ceremony which was held on August 29th, 2012 at The Venue in Sandton, Johannesburg – South Africa.

The Anzisha Prize is managed out of African Leadership Academy’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which was established through a $1.6 million multi-year partnership with The MasterCard Foundation. Through the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, African Leadership Academy and The MasterCard Foundation seeks to provide a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship among young people across the continent.

When talking about the Anzisha Prize- the premier award for Africa’s young entrepreneurial leaders- Mupuya says he found out about this life changing opportunity on television news.

So eager was he to participate, that he attended the Anzisha Prize presentation in his country. “Anzisha Prize was an opportunity for me to finance my business of which it was in great need. The opportunity also contributed to fulfilling the market gaps, acquiring required equipment like machinery, access to more markets, access to better business tips, more opportunities and reference.”

Core values, the relationship between product development and market development, presentation skills, time management, team work, creative thinking and acting are some of the vital lessons Mupuya learnt at the Anzisha Prize workshops.

“Anzisha Prize is to be honored and respected by applicants. It’s a prize that is honest to you and your

business, it’s not a prize to enter just because of the need for finance but to be dedicated to business and have passion to create change. The prize should help you focus on transforming your community. Start creating impact and be a change agent to others. Be knowledgeable and have a will to develop your business. Being an Anzisha Fellow is an exceptional opportunity, it’s a world of transformation and inspiration,” he said.

“The $30,000 grand prize is a great honor for me,” remarked Mupuya then. “With this money I plan to expand my production capability and also build a paper recycling operation.”

Social Entrepreneur of 2012

The Ferd Award for Social Entrepreneurship, is a worldwide competition which aims to celebrate current or past participants of Junior Achievement  entrepreneurship programs from anywhere in the world, who through their JA enterprises have created a positive social impact in various fields of activities. 

FERD and Junior Achievement – Young Enterprise Europe, announced Andrew Mupuya as the winner for the 2012 edition.

The jury was impressed by his company’s promotion of sustainable packaging whilst creating job opportunities for people in need.

The Jury made up of Johan H. Andresen, Chairman, FERD, Oscar Lundin and Benjamin Kainz, FERD Award

for Social Entrepreneurship Winners 2011 and Jarle Tommerbakke, Senior Advisor, JA-YE Europe made the following remarks about Andrew Mupuya: “You have shown a great strategic insight, and the fact that you spread your idea for others to use and then capitalize on the market created, to the benefit of local communities and the environment says a lot about the social impact created. You are a true entrepreneur with a great mindset and a big intellectual capital. Focus on your growth strategy and keep your mindset of sharing the idea!”

As a necessary distraction, in 2011, Andrew Mupuya was a recipient of 2.6 million Ugandan shilling ($1,000) from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Youth Employment Network, and the Danish government business plan writing competition. This is what he used to buy furniture.

From his earnings, Andrew has been able to pay for his bachelor’s degree in commerce, pay salaries for his staff, and support his family in Mbale by opening up a distribution outlet of bags and envelopes for his mother to sell.

In addition to managing his growing enterprise, Mupuya has also trained over 500 young people, on how to make paper bags through which 16 other projects have been set up. “I love to share my skills and information. So far I have trained over 500 people in making these paper bags and writing business plans. Some of the trainings I have done via Skype. I have trained people from Norway, Ghana and Zambia. I have done trainings in secondary schools and so many other forums,” he excitedly said.

Nevertheless, training other people is a noble initiative which shouldn’t be perceived as counter retrogressive to your own ambitions, an excited Mupuya said, “It has taken me a lot to build this. I give them skills; the how to. But I do not give then the entrepreneurial spirit. That is what is important. There was a time a journalist came to me for training because he was amazed at how well I was doing. 3 weeks later, he called back asking how I did it, because he had failed.”

Andrew is currently collaborating with the Ugandan Research Institute to develop a way of recycling the materials that are usually left out in the paper bag production process.

“I hope to start using recycled paper next year. When making the paper bags, there are a lot of cuttings that we do not use, the bits and pieces that are left out in the process. I want to start recycling those

and create more paper. I am currently doing a training program with Uganda Research Institute to that effect. But to do that, we will need a bigger premise. So I am working on building bigger premises before I embark on that project as well,” remarked Mupuya.

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