Abel Kato, 63, is earning a living from growing herbs and extracting oil from them. The director of Nambirigwa Herbal Farm in Ssisa, Nakawuka, cannot help but grin when he talks about his business.
He is one of the farmers who supply oils to Amagara Skin Care, a new local cosmetics line. He shared his story with Harriet Birungi
Idid not go far with formal education. I studied up to P4, but I can read and write.
All my life I have been a farmer.
I tried growing every crop I thought had potential of bringing in money.
But at the end of the day, the money was just not adding up. I struggled for long until six years ago when I borrowed a book from a friend entitled Herbal Garden. I have never looked back since then.
I read about different herbs and their uses. This inspired me. My entrepreneurial skills came to play.
I zeroed my research down to aromatic and medicinal herbs. I was sure that even if I failed to get money out of it, I would gain from the health benefits that the herbs would provide.
I started by growing parsley, a herb that is used for making spices. Seeing how well it did on our soil, I diversified into growing other herbs that the book talked about. Finding the seeds was not easy, so I resorted to asking people I knew that travelled a lot and they brought me seeds from Europe.
I planted the seeds on tiny plots of land just to try and see if they would grow. Peppermint, a major ingredient in the making of sweet-peps and toothpaste, thrived best.
Next was lavender, whose oil is very much sought after by massage parlour owners and also used in mixing different medicines for cough and skin care cosmetics. With those established, I knew I would succeed if I included other herbs and fruit trees.
I grew up around whites and I had seen how they liked their food. They liked pure, nonadulterated products. I wanted that too. But I wanted their money more than anything. I wanted to be paid in dollars and transact in dollars.
Even when I earned in shillings, I would ask around for the exchange rate, just to know my money's worth in dollars. To be honest, it was my childhood dream to do a business that brought in foreign exchange.
With what I know about Uganda, I realised essential oils were lacking, yet there was a ready market.
Once I had a substantial piece of land with herbs planted, I consulted Dr. Nambatya Kyeyune, director of the National Chemotherapeutics Laboratoty. She taught me how to make oils from plants. I even managed to make a machine that distils oils.
The biggest consumers are doctors, especially those who use herbal medicine in treating patients. I also sell to manufacturers, who add it to cosmetic products and beauticians, who use the oils for massage.
The greatest challenge is the weather changes, particularly limited amounts of rain. I need an irrigation system if I am to continue well with the production.
lso, sometimes, our clients are not trustworthy. Some do not pay for the products they take from us. This slows down business.
I can make up to sh3m a month from selling oils. My older children did not go far in education as I did not have money to educate them, but the younger ones have had a chance to go to school. I can now afford to pay for their education.
My family and I use the products and we look good. We do not spend a lot of money on medical bills.
The business leaves me with some money to meet home demands, unlike before when I did not have any income.
I have bought a plant drier for easing the drying process and I am working on setting up a laboratory, where I can produce more oils with less hustle.
Advice to young people
They should try to researchon how best they can get work and earn money other than sitting and waiting for white collar jobs.
Land owners should not sell their land, but use it creatively, as the products we make are on demand in developed countries.
For example, in Zimbabwe, essential oils are among the top 10 commodities that bring in foreign exchange. We, too, can make it as our soil is better. I am ready to teach Ugandans who want to learn how to grow and produce essential oils.