Alumni profile: Joanita Kente Tushabe addresses the skills gap in Ugandan publishing
By JAMILLE TRAN
Global Business Journalism reporter
After earning a master’s degree from one of the world’s top universities, Joanita Kente Tushabe was disheartened by the string of job rejections that greeted her upon returning to Uganda from Tsinghua University in 2017.
“This really frustrated me,” Tushabe said. “I really wasn't getting anything."
At the age of 26 in 2017, she had one master’s degree and two bachelor’s degrees, one in international relations from the U.K. and two in journalism from China. But she heard repeatedly that her lack of work experience was the prime reason for her turndowns.
“Let’s start a company,” she told herself assertively after a few months of searching in vain. “My parents had been investing in my education. I have invested so much into my education. I need to take it further, as opposed to just looking for a job”.
Born in a big family with two younger brothers, one older sister and one older brother, she Tushabe embraces a forward-thinking, international-oriented lifestyle. She spent nine years in the U.K. when her dad took up a job at the embassy there, and then experienced six years in China for higher education. There is no denying that she is highly educated, bold, and open-minded.
“She speaks and acts like an elegant British lady,” said Julie Cao, her close friend at from the 2017 Global Business Journalism class at Tsinghua University. “You will find it hard to make her angry with you.”
Returning to her home country after many years abroad, she radiates a calmness unusual in the dynamic city of Kampala. But Tushabe still shares a common spirit with contemporary Uganda, which is her favorite aspect of the country.
“They [the young] want to work, and they want to create successful businesses,” she said, pointing to the fact that the youth accounts for more than 34% of the country’s population, making Uganda the youngest nation worldwide. “I had the idea in my head but then I really don't know how to go about it.”
She wanted to engage in a meaningful project addressing the big gap of homegrown storytelling in Uganda, where American films and Filipino TV shows were dominated. But she found very little support in the business environment there. The country of Uganda is located in eastern Africa, where the economy focuses on exploiting natural recourses resources. The region possesses nearly one-third of the world’s mineral reserves and 12% of the world’s oil reserves, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Natural capital accounts for between 30% and 50% of the region’s total wealth.
“Everyone wants to invest in oil, but no one wants to invest in people,” she said. “That inability to see people as something worth investing in is very disappointing.”
She made up her mind that one of her future projects’ core values would be to help people in Uganda. But it was not until eight months after later, when she met her like-minded friend Jedidiah Mugarura during an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uganda, that Tushabe finally developed the business plan for her publishing startup, The Hen House.
“We both fell in love with the idea of starting up a publishing company which could promote good quality content from young people,” she said.
Their first publication, the poetry collection “Waragi,” written by Mugarura himself, resonated among readers as “the spirit you brew out of pain for comfort.” The startup team compared it with a Ugandan liquor, drawing attention to the antidote of its impact on the country’s history and how it shaped the young in this African country.
“The external poison you learn to distill within, the antidote to your suffering, the fight for your country, control, the will to love beyond your troubles,” noted a post on The Hen House’s Facebook account.
The Hen House’s revenue flow came from the first 200 copies sales of Waragi. But they wanted to strengthen the content supply by expanding the Ugandan talent base in writing and producing.
“The main goals are not just to publish the next thing, but to create a flow of content creation,” said Tushabe. “These are all building blocks that allow us to become a major producer.”
To expand the business by providing more writing training courses for people, she decided to call for seek additional funding. Having joined a 6-month incubation program held by The Tony Elumelu Foundation, she managed to earn the seed capital in March 2020. The Foundation is one of Africa’s biggest non-profit entrepreneurship supporting organizations, which provides providing business skills training for a cohort of 3.000 startup groups in each batch.
But her development goal was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their plan to run the first summer training program in 2020 could not happen because the coronavirus hindered people from gathering.
“Everyone's priorities have changed, even mine,” Tushabe said.
She is now looking into other ways to get her idea off the ground. Applying technical tools to deliver online training classes is one option.
“People are interested in learning. However, learning has to be more dynamic,” she said. “If we can't do it physically, I’m thinking of how can we do it online.”
And for those people who are still questioning her ability to run a business, you might want to hear about her daily job as a field impact coordinator at Once Acre Fund. Tushabe wants to leverage her management skills via the opportunities there, where she works with 12.000 farmers in a big training project nationwide. But she is still figuring out when is the right time for her to put employment on one side and move into full-time self-employment.
“I'm still giving myself time to gain experience,” she said. “I know there's no balance, but I don't feel so bad about it because I realized that I need to gain those skills.”
Once Acre Fund supplies farmers with financing and training services, which provides Tushabe the skillset she needed in program coordination. But what attracts her more to this organization is how it is a rare program addressing hunger and poverty in East Africa.
“Obviously, hunger is one of the reasons why people are perpetually poor,” she said. “They can't develop, can't do very much for themselves and they remain at that bottom level.”
Her deep concerns about the people are reflected in both the Hen House and the Once Acre Fund.
“Everything you do in your life should be spurred on by love,” she said. “You don't have to stress so much because God loves you and God is taking care of you.”
Rick Dunham, her professor at Tsinghua University, saw that faith when they were together on a trip to Vietnam. He recalled how Tushabe sought out and attended Sunday church services in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“Her faith is inclusive, cross-cultural and loving,” he said. “She cares deeply about others and about improving society. She is a Christian in the best sense of the word.”
Tushabe’s faith and love may sustain her, but she still needs to build a successful model for her business.
“The bigger challenge now is ‘can I grow the business?’” Tushabe asked. “That is something I hope to do in the next few years.”
Name: Joanita Kente Tushabe
Hometown: Mbarara, Uganda
Occupation: Field Impact Coordinator at Once Acre Fund. Jan. 2019 - present; Co-founder of The Hen House. 2018 - present
Undergraduate degrees: B.A. in Journalism at Central China Normal University; BSc in Politics and International Relations at University of London
Graduate degree: M.A. in Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University
Marital Status: Single
Family: Parents, two younger brothers, one older brother, and an older sister