Betty Ikalany graduated from the SE Outreach Accelerator one year ago and a lot has happened since then. She’s won international awards, worked with MIT to develop her cookstoves and increased her sales with over 500%. We had the privilege of visiting Betty and her team at their office in Uganda to talk about dreams, challenges and how to keep believing in yourself when you feel like giving up.

What has been your biggest success in the past year?

One of the big successes is that we now have our own office! We’ve moved 10 times in just three years, so in December last year we said that with the little money we have, we need to get our own office. Even if it’s small, at least it’s ours.

Also, being women and being able to run a business for more than two years – I feel that’s a success because there are so many challenges for women here. The other day I had a very big argument with a bank manager because I’d previously applied for a loan, but I never got one. Every single day he kept on asking me “where is your husband?”. I said to him “what does it matter? Do you need a husband to access a loan? I’m accessing a loan as Betty, not because I’m someone’s wife!” I told him “all I want is a loan, if you can’t give me a loan then I’ll go.” So in the end I left because he couldn’t give me one, but now after some years he’s seen us continuing our work successfully without his loan and now he’s asking if we want one. So the fact that we have been able to come to this level, as women, running a business, impacting many people and being able to give support to women – that’s a big success.

You once said that before you came to Stockholm, you were thinking of giving up your business idea to work on sanitary pads instead. Can you tell us about that?

I was getting frustrated, because I was pushing and things were not working out. I didn’t have capital and I didn’t have all the skills, so I felt like I was being drained. But once I got the skills on how to manage my business and how to differentiate my business from myself it just became simple. I now have a team. I have someone who does the accounts, I have the production department, the sales… But at that time I was doing almost everything and it was so hectic. My mentor (Karin Ruiz) encouraged me when I wanted to give up and start something else. She believed in my idea and said “this is good, you are supporting the women”. Maew (Osataphan) from SE Forum also pushed me, she always said “you can do it!”. And when I came back from Stockholm I said to myself: “this is worth it!”

What are your hopes for the future?

My vision for the future is to see our project grow and to empower many women and men to be able to lead a decent life, through the income or the services they get from us as our customers, workers or suppliers. I also want to see my team members build their own lives – either by going back to school or by starting their own business. I always encourage them to dream – not just of working for me but of doing something big! For myself, I dream of doing my Ph.D. I hope to be a doctor one day and I want to lecture in one of the universities. I also dream of my children succeeding in their education and me being a good mother to them.


The AEST team together with Annabel and Fiona from SE Forum, in June 2016.

What do you need right now in order to scale up your business?

At the moment we need a lot of marketing in order to scale the business, because our products – especially the briquettes – are new to the market. People are so used to firewood and charcoal and convincing them to turn their behavior to start using our briquettes requires a lot of work. If we can get funding to do marketing, then we’d be able to scale because we know that the market is there – people just need to be educated about the products.

Many social entrepreneurs are dealing with big social challenges as well as the challenges of running a business and managing a team. Do you have any advice on how to manage the stress levels this can cause?

One of the things I would recommend is to provide skills to your team. If your team has the skills then you can trust them to do the work. If it’s only you who has the knowledge of how to do things, then you are going to carry all the burden for everyone. You will suffer, your family will suffer and your work will suffer from this. So train your staff! And when you are hiring people, make sure you are hiring the right people. Sometimes, as a social entrepreneur, you hire out of empathy instead of looking at their qualifications. You end up thinking “let me hire my friend, she needs this”, but she might not be able to do the work so in the end it comes back to you. A social enterprise is not a hospital – it’s a business!

Solving a social problem is risky, it’s like gambling. I quit my job as a social worker and people thought I was mad. They said “you are a single mother, you have two children and you are leaving your job to make charcoal? Are you normal?” Charcoal is associated with something poor people do, so everyone thought I was going mad! But I told them “this is gold that I am holding in my hands, it’s going to save our community.” And today they understand. Social entrepreneurs need to be patient!