In 2014, in his final year at university, Matovu invented vertical and micro urban farming. He trained urban dwellers to grow food in small spaces in sacks
Ritah Mukasa
Journalist @New Vision

Matovu spent his early childhood in Namungoona, a Kampala suburb with his father, a bus driver. However, after his father’s death in 1996, the then seven-year-old was taken to live with his grandparents in Binikira village, Kassanda district.

“In town, I would earn from doing odd jobs such as fetching water for neighbours. However, life in the village was tough,” he says.

In addition, life in the village taught him to work hard, be responsible and respect people. He also became passionate about agriculture.

Unfortunately, in 1998, Matovu’s grandmother died. He moved to live with an aunt in the neighbouring village, but she also died in 1999, leaving Matovu, who was then 10 years old, to look after her four children. He juggled school with cultivating food for the family. Luckily, he always excelled at school.

He attended Kyamasansa Primary School for lower primary and St John Bosco Primary School Katende for P6-P7 courtesy of his uncle, a Catholic priest who had been posted to that parish. He paid Matovu’s school fees.

In 2005, he went to St Gorreti SSS Katende for O’level and St Joseph’s SSS Naggalama for A’level.

“I scored 23 points and joined Makerere University on government sponsorship,” he says.

Matovu had applied for agriculture and music but was instead offered forestry.

During his first year, Matovu started and registered an environmental non-governmental organisation, Ideas for Uganda (IFU), with three friends.

They focused on environmental sustainability, hinging on five pillars of ecology, waste management, water, energy and food. Matovu was the central regional co-ordinator.

“My colleagues were employed and had no time. As a student, I had time to run the organisation,” he says.

He used his allowances as a government-sponsored student to facilitate the activities of the organisation.

In 2011, he started a chapter (association) based at the school of forestry. It later spread to eight other universities, where the organisation still operates. Each chapter has over 100 members, mostly foresters.

Over the years, it has brought together over 1,000 volunteers and their activities include tree planting, environment conservation and proper waste management. They have also worked with Entebbe zoo.

Here, they helped remove invasive species and sensitised masses about wildlife conservation. Their activities are facilitated by subscription fees and donors.

Matovu also linked up with Ideas for USA, an organisation which empowered his team with ideas and funding.

INVENTING THE VERTICAL GARDENS

While working with IFU, Matovu came up with four projects and among them was Youth Climate Report. He would interview professionals in the environmental sector before documenting and sharing their views on conservation.

Another project was Plant for the Planet, where he trained over 3,000 students across the country to plant trees and care for them.

Matovu making a vertical garden at his workshop. He says one can grow over 72 plants

Matovu making a vertical garden at his workshop. He says one can grow over 72 plants

In 2014, in his final year at university, Matovu ventured into vertical and micro urban farming. He trained urban dwellers to grow food in small spaces in sacks and polythene bags.

“I was very busy with projects. I delayed to submit research and failed to graduate that year,” he shares. He graduated in 2015.

Meanwhile, as a scientist, Matovu believes in experimenting, testing and improving his products. He took time to study the challenges faced in sack gardening and sought solutions.

For example, sacks are not durable and they are limited yet people need to grow more food.

“I received $1,000 (sh3.7m) funding from the solution fund of Ideas Uganda,” he says. This was his capital.

Each year, the fund facilitates 10 youth entrepreneurs to come up with environment conservation projects across the country. Youths apply and the best projects are selected.

“I spent part of this money on research, testing and piloting,” Matovu says.

He used his forestry knowledge to improve sack gardening. He replaced the sacks with high quality timber, hence vertical and micro gardening.

Despite having the idea, Matovu could not bring it to life. His friend, Ernest Baale, an artist and lawyer, helped him to design the wooden garden, also called farm in a box.

Fast forward, he was excited with the design and looked for a carpenter, who found the idea strange, but still accepted to try it out.

“I spent sh810,000 on the first garden, which the carpenter took three months to design,” he says. To earn a profit, he had to sell the garden at sh1m. This meant that garden was unaffordable for the low-income earners Matovu was targeting.

Elsewhere, Matovu also needed demonstration space for the gardens. A friend offered his undeveloped plot of land in Mengo, Kampala.

David Sentamu, another friend, offered to help out at the demonstration farm because at this time, Matovu was working with CARITAS Mityana Diocese as an agriculture extension officer for Kyankwanzi. His salary helped to run his project.

Also, around that time, he took up another project of safe drinking water in schools.

He was working with Spouts of Water, an organisation that manufactures water filters. Matovu helped them design filters for schools through which they donated and installed filters in rural schools around the country. Matovu was juggling this project with his job, all the while managing Ideas for Uganda and his vertical gardens project until he resigned from CARITAS in 2016.

“I divided my time between Kyankwanzi, Spouts, Mengo and Makerere. A year later, schedules became tight and I resigned from CARITAS,” he says.

He also withdrew from Ideas for Uganda management to concentrate on Spouts and his project. He worked four days at Spouts and spent three days at the demonstration farm. Meanwhile, around this time, he focused on how to bring down the cost of production and make the farm affordable.

With funding from IFU, he subsidised the price for five gardens and sold them to the community at half-price.

In 2017, Matovu registered his business and even scooped an innovation award (popular choice) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That inspired him to work harder.

GARDENS PRODUCTION

After winning the award, Matovu decided to look for money and buy his own machines to bring down the cost of the garden.

But he also needed space because then, he had been evicted from the demonstration farm in Mengo. He spent six months operating online.

Using his savings, Matovu later rented space for his workshop in Kakiri, Wakiso district at sh400,000 per month.

He did not know the equipment he needed, so he researched about it and discovered that the imported ones would cost sh100m. He chose to fabricate them in Katwe, Kampala.

“I hesitated to take a loan and decided to fundraise online,” he says, adding that it took him a year. He needed $5,000 (about sh18m), but was able to raise $2,000 (about sh7m). He decided to start with that.

In 2017, after finding a fabricator, Matovu embarked on setting up a workshop. Sadly, the fabricatortook him through hell. He ended up paying sh16m for a machine he quoted sh8m and he kept on extending the deadline to six months.

“I did crowd funding. You simply go online and create a group,” he says. The fundraiser should present a well-packaged idea and good write-up. This kind of fundraising attracts mostly those abroad. They donate to causes aimed at uplifting communities.

Meanwhile, Matovu had anticipated the four machines to cost sh20m, but ended up spending sh50m, which he raised from successive fundraisers.

After installing the machines, another hiccup of getting power to his workshop awaited him.

“I needed a three-phase line at sh7m, which I did not have yet I was desperate to start production,” he says.

He secured a bank loan and got the power but the machines failed to work. He had to hire expert engineers to fix them. He also bought new motors at sh1.5m each for the four machines.

“I spent another year working on the workshop. I was agitated but I did not give up,” he recollects.

Matovu continued working with Spouts while injecting his salary in the business.

In 2018, he started producing his gardens and the cost reduced to sh260,000.

“It was a long process that took me years — from 2014 to 2018 when I started selling these gardens,” he says.

Up to 2019, Matovu had only sold 45 gardens, but in 2020 alone he sold 300 farms and he has never looked back. Currently, he produces three farms a day at sh260,000 each.

COST OF PRODUCTION

Matovu employs 11 permanent workers including gardeners, extension workers, an accountant, sales and marketing personnel, administrator, machine operators and manager.

He spends between sh500,000- sh1m on power, depending on the orders. But he also puts aside sh1m for machine maintenance. Office rent is sh700,000 and sh400,000 for workshop space per month.

GROWING THE BUSINESS

Before making any decision, Matovu seeks counsel from his mentors, including Leo Hedges, the founder of United Social Ventures. He has been training him in business management since 2014.

Matovu (second-right) with some of his team members

Matovu (second-right) with some of his team members

Matovu has also worked with Design without Borders, an organisation that helps to design brands.

Matovu has also been patient. He appreciates the process through which businesses grow. He waited four years for his to take off.

Another reason for business growth is paying attention to quality. Matovu ensures that his farms are made from durable wood and can, therefore, withstand harsh weather conditions. For this reason, he gets recommendations from his clients. The farms are conducive for domestic and commercial purposes.

“The international media has marketed me globally. I have featured on CNN and BBC, which has helped me win over 10 awards,” he says.

Matovu also respects business management practices. For example, he keeps records, pays taxes and encourages teamwork and accountability. The extension services he offers bring in revenue and help farmers to get value for money.

On the other hand, partnerships have helped Matovu. For example, he got free space for his demonstration farm from Multitech Business School. In return, he trains the students in urban gardening. They also offered him subsidised office space. He pays sh700,000 per month inclusive of water, power and Internet. Matovu also got full year training at the Royal Academy for Engineering in the UK after being selected for Africa’s prize for engineering innovations in 2019. Subsequently, he received £15,000 funding for his business.

“The training helped me install an accounting system on which I monitor business production, orders and sales,” he shares.

Owing to the international media coverage, Matovu has so far attracted 12 volunteers from across the world. These are people with different skills that have dedicated their time to grow his business. He works with them remotely. They are divided in three teams; strategy, fundraising and marketing. They include Russians, Germans, Britons, Americans and two from Singapore.

Through the volunteers, Matovu secured a loan of $25,000 (about sh90m) at 5% interest from Unconventional Capital, a German firm which also connected him to a university that does business research. He works with six of their master’s students to sustain his business. They help him understand business hindrances before coming up with solutions. The students have created an online shop for Matovu so that clients just order for the gardens and he delivers them. Another student developed a mobile app that will in a few months connect different farmers to share experiences.

CHALLENGES

Apart from the troubles he went through to have the workshop functional, Matovu was also faced with a challenge of crafty workers. They would in his absence take on personal carpentry work at the expense of his machines and power. He made losses in the first five months until he installed cameras and trapped them. He also recruited a manager.

He could not afford to sit at the workshop because he had to work elsewhere and raise money to inject in the business.

Similarly, Matovu’s production stabilised, but he lacks funds to market his work. He mainly relies on his social media platforms.

Also, Kakiri is quite far from Kampala, where most of his target clients are and the demonstration farm is about 2km from the main road. Matovu is working to buy land near Kampala.

Sourcing for high-quality timber is also not easy because it is rare and the prices fluctuate.

Matovu plans to change to wood plastic composite; a product of recycled wood and plastic. He also supports tree planting projects.

Aside from timber, power is also not reliable. The workshop can spend days without power and this affects productivity.

RISKS INVOLVED

This business involves bad debts if one sells on credit. However, to mitigate this, Matovu takes 60% of the payment on orders and the balance is cleared upon delivery.

The garden can also be stolen if not secured well. Sometimes clients place orders and before the garden is delivered, they change their mind for something else. Others keep postponing deadlines for clearing the balance and this comes with budgetary issues.

Matovu has learnt to plan for such disappointments, which is why he diversified into soil and seedlings selling.

ACHIEVEMENTS

Matovu feels fulfilled seeing his business change people’s lives. He says the farms and the extension services have so far impacted over 1,000 homesteads.

Besides, he dreamed of mentoring youths and employing them. This he has achieved. He also pays taxes to the Government.

“I have built my profile and company to a global face,” he notes. Matovu adds that he has been to many countries, facilitated at business and innovation conferences and won international awards, all the while expanding his social networks.

“I have learnt a lot of things and skills to help me succeed in life,” he says.

MISTAKES AND LESSONS

At the beginning, Matovu did not separate business and personal finances. He later learnt that for all sales made, money has to be banked on the business account. This is important when soliciting for funding because funders look at the bank statement. From that they know the entrepreneur’s revenue and expenditure. It also helps with accountability.

He has also learnt to grow his business organically and whatever he spends on has to be adding value to the business. For example, land or a vehicle.

“I regret opening up the demonstration farm because I injected a lot of money in maintaining it. That money would have multiplied elsewhere,” he argues. Matovu learns from other people’s mistakes and this has helped him avoid some business and life mistakes.

For example, he learnt from his former workplaces that procrastination and delays affect business. He has adopted a system of solving issues there and then.

MATOVU’S ADVICE TO YOUNG BUSINESS OWNERS

  1. Have a starting point for your business and package it well to attract funders. Be conversant with the idea you are selling.
  2. Do not limit yourself to Uganda. The world is a global village. Many universities and individuals abroad are waiting to offer help for free, mostly those who have retired.
  3. Be mindful of the money you make vis-à-vis your expenditure. Spending carelessly brings the business down.
  4. It is good to start a business while you are still employed. But do not be fast to resign your job because the salary will give the business a big push. Quit when you are sure the business can sustain itself and pay you as well.
  5. Value those friends and organisations that believe in you. Be truthful and trustworthy in whatever you do. Know your clients. For example, I was targeting low-income earners, but my first garden was very expensive for them. I had to find a way of bringing down the cost by producing my own gardens. I sometimes subsidise.
  6. Be patient and control your expectations. Give the business time to grow and since this is a digital era, maximise the internet in all ways.

PLANS

Matovu plans to spread his wings to the region and beyond. He gets orders across Africa, US and Europe, but exporting there is expensive.

He plans to form partnerships with people in those countries or sell franchise to companies.

He also plans to shift the workshop to a bigger space to impact over 4,000 people in the next three years.

LOCKDOWN CHALLENGES

On the onset of the lockdown last year, Matovu’s business boomed. People were confined home and many embraced backyard gardening. However, in the subsequent months, the demand fell. People would express interest to buy but they had no money.

Worse still, in June, Matovu was diagnosed with severe pneumonia and was admitted for three weeks in critical condition.

“I was hospitalised with COVID-19 patients. It was traumatising seeing people around me die,” he says. Besides, his lungs were badly affected that to date, his body is still weak. This forced him to resign his job at Spouts because his concentration span reduced greatly.

When the lockdown was lifted last year, Matovu started getting orders from organisations which wanted to help people grow food at home.

Among these was a co-operative in Kasubi that bought 100 gardens for the members.

“COVID-19 has taught us to look at selling business to business. We now focus on getting orders from groups and organisations other than individuals,” he says.

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