Prize-winning Ugandan woman entrepreneur grows juice business

Julian Omalla produces one of Uganda’s most popular fruit drinks, sold under the brand name “Cheers” and boasting a loyal customer base of over 5 million people.

Affectionately known by many as “Mama Cheers”, the 56-year-old founder and chief executive director of Delight Uganda Limited is one of the east African nation’s foremost female entrepreneurs.

And thanks to her long-standing experience and runaway success in the industry, the Ugandan government awarded her company a $4 million grant in February to construct a fresh juice factory in northern Uganda.

The government also allocated her another $6 million to procure equipment, with 50% of the funds repayable by her company in 10 years.

Another feather in her cap

The grant is the latest feather in Ms. Omalla’s cap. She’s one of the most decorated female entrepreneurs in Uganda, having bagged several local and global business awards.

Last year, she won a special prize during the 7th edition of UNCTAD’s Empretec Women in Business Awards for her dedication to empowering other women through her inclusive business.

The honours recognize the contributions of inspiring women entrepreneurs trained by UNCTAD’s Empretec programme and celebrate their success in business.

The award was sponsored by the Inclusive Business Action Network, a programme of the German development agency, GIZ.

Ms. Omalla also received a fellowship to participate in an executive education programme by the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Empowered and mentored

“Empretec empowered and mentored me to be who I am today,” Ms. Omalla says.

When she started her company in 1996, she didn’t know much about running a business.

In 2000, Empretec equipped her with the skills to become a successful entrepreneur. “The training helped me realize that I was born an entrepreneur,” she recalls. “It helped me develop and execute my business growth plan.”

In subsequent years, she continued to learn from Empretec trainers and honed her entrepreneurial skills as her business grew. “I kept asking questions to help me improve my business, even during weekends,” she says.

For over 20 years, Charles Ocici, Empretec director at Enterprise Uganda, has trained and guided Ms. Omalla on how to be a better entrepreneur. “It’s been a delight to support her through many milestones in her entrepreneurial journey,” Mr. Ocici said. “She’s made a huge mark in Uganda.”

Ms. Omalla says Empretec improved her self-confidence and other competencies such as goal setting, bookkeeping, marketing, setting targets and working efficiently to meet them.

12,000 litres per day

Equipped with the skills from Empretec and imbued with dogged determination, Ms. Omalla grew the company from scratch to the point of possessing 60% of market share during its peak, having built a processing line producing 12,000 litres of fruit-flavoured drinks per day.

Ms. Omalla defied many odds along the way, including having to start over from scratch after a business partner disappeared with part of her capital. “I always learn from setbacks and failures. I never let them put me down,” she says.

Raising funds to expand her business was an uphill task, as she, like most women in Uganda, didn’t have the collateral that banks needed to finance her venture. She had to rely on her savings and invest her profits back into the business to finance its expansion.

She also diversified into other business activities, such as poultry farming, maize-feed production, a flour mill and a bakery.

Turning a dream into reality

Until 2011, Ms. Omalla produced “Cheers” based on imported juice concentrates, partly due to the challenge of sourcing high-quality and locally grown fresh fruits.

Then she started turning her long-cherished dream of producing fresh juice into reality by acquiring 1,700 acres of land for cultivating fruit trees, such as mangoes, guavas and citruses.

She established a nursery seed bed to propagate clean fruit planting materials and organized under a cooperative an orchard with 5,000 contracted fruit farmers (locally known as outgrowers) in the northern district of Nwoya.

Of its 5,000 members, the Nwoya Fruit Growers Cooperative has 3,750 women growing fruits for Delight Uganda, benefiting over 100,000 women directly and indirectly.

Ms. Omalla, who chose the name “Cheers” for her brand because it portrays positivity, is an inspiring and empowering leader, mobilizing and employing people from diverse backgrounds, especially vulnerable women who struggled to contribute financially to their households.

To help improve their financial security, she ensured each woman in the cooperative would have at least one acre of fruit orchard intercropped with short-term seasonal crops for income and sustainability. Each farmer can earn up to $1,850 seasonally from an acre of land, she says.

Giving back to the community

“Mama Cheers” also transferred requisite skills to the community through her Delight Farm Institute, helping create new and decent jobs and offering livelihoods to many.

With better fruits and oil seeds came improved nutrition in the community. This was followed by infrastructure development, such as better roads, which improved the farmers’ access to markets.

When COVID-19 induced a lockdown in Uganda, it coincided with the ripening of fruits in the orchards, leading to massive losses because the fruits could neither be transported to storage facilities nor to the market.

Nevertheless, Ms. Omalla used the opportunity to improve farm management practices for higher productivity to prepare for the post-lockdown period. She also distributed fruit and coffee seedlings and cassava stems to the community.

New factory, new horizons

The $10 million grant from the Ugandan government will enable Delight Uganda to build a modern fresh juice factory that will add value to the fruits grown by the local farmers, opening new horizons for them.

“With the new factory, we hope to expand our market to all corners of the world,” Ms. Omalla said. Her long-term plans include meeting growing market demand for dried fruits, particularly mangoes.

She’s also set her sights on making her farm and institute a centre of excellence, where people will learn to grow the best produce, and investors will come to add value to the fruits.

“Mama Cheers” also aims to increase the number of direct “outgrowers” to 80,000 farmers and indirect beneficiaries to 432,000 women in the next three years.

This will ensure a sustainable fruit supply for the new factory to meet local, regional and international demand.