When Eliot Mugisha set out to invest and cash in the lucrative tourism business in 2019, it was no bed of roses for him.
Tourism by latest statistics from Uganda Tourism Board remains one of Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earners rising to $800m as of April, 2023, following a dip from Covid- 19 pandemic effects.
Like any young entrepreneur, the idea of building a business is an uphill task riddled with experiments, capital inadequacy, and sometimes limited support from the industry players.
It is for some of these reasons that Mugisha set out to scout for likeminded young entrepreneurs in the tourism industry to set up an association that would address the common challenges they faced.
Mugisha recounts that several startup tour companies realized that the already existing [tourism] associations were not addressing their needs even after presenting their concerns. One such challenge was the membership fee in some associations which Mugisha found prohibitive for some young tour operators.
“Quite often, as a young company, you wouldn’t have that money!” Mugisha quips. Therefore, the Young Uganda Tour Operators (YUTO) was formed out of this need with 15 founding members, and a constitution to govern the operations was developed in 2020.
Set out with a mission to nurture dynamic and innovative young Ugandan tour operators; the YUTO management still struggled to find partners to nurture their dreams.
Mugisha reasons that perhaps the association was youth-led and, “our society takes time to buy into ideas tabled by young people.”
However, opportunity struck when a good samaritan informed the association members about Innovation Village, a whose major objective is to bring ideas to life, especially for the youth.
In 2020, Mugisha and his team visited the Innovation Village office in Ntinda – Kampala and secured an appointment with the Team lead at Innovation Village, Mr. CK Japheth (as he’s fondly known).
“The meeting was a blessing as we found someone who understood the challenges of young entrepreneurs. Since then, Innovation Village has been YUTO’s biggest partner,” Mugisha says.
For the last three years, the Innovation Village has remained home to YUTO’s operations.
Like any other business, Covid-19 had a lot of impact on the youthful tour operators.
However, young people are very conversant with technology, and most of them focus on marketing in digital formats to keep abreast with clients.
“Japheth Kawanguzi and his team opened the door for us, listened to our challenges and he became our parent,” Mugisha’s face lights up reflecting on the olden days.
For the start, YUTO was offered space where its members could meet and hold monthly meetings.
The space had multiple benefits such as free internet, boardrooms for meetings, workspace and therefore the team saved on the cost of data and hiring meeting venues.
Then within the same time around 2021, Innovation Village launched the NextWave Program in partnership with Mastercard Foundation under Young Africa Works
The program identifies unique challenges faced by the youth, provides potential solutions and engages young people in the best practices that they need to successfully own different enterprises.
Mugisha shares that they have benefited immensely from the program such as having access to accelerator programs where they receive training from tourism experts, needs assessment and capacity building.
“The support we have received has given us a home, and as such, it’s easy for other tourism startups to locate us,” Mugisha notes.
By having a home, the YUTO team has also attracted grant support from reputable organizations such as the Aga Khan Foundation.
A grant worth Shs 150million was offered to YUTO after its members successfully pitcillion heed their ideas, and winners took home grants ranging from Shs 5million to Shs 15m.
The YUTO members have also engaged in lobbying by having conversations with Uganda Tourism Board to loosen some of the stringent measures.
A case in point is that it’s no longer a major requirement to own a tour vehicle as the case was before; but rather, tour companies can instead rent vehicles and still offer tour services. With the above support, YUTO has increased its membership from 15 to 72 tourism enterprises to date.
With a membership of 72, the association now faces new growth demands. Mugisha says the two members volunteering as staff require additional support and a monthly stipend, and perhaps an estimated budget of $20,000 to fully run the association.
YUTO is also lobbying for support from financial institutions where members can access affordable loans of less than 10 percent interest per year to expand their companies.
Challenges notwithstanding, Mugisha says it’s been a worthwhile journey where relationships have been fostered, lasting memories made, and is grateful for the opportunities from Innovation Village and Mastercard Foundation.