The Steep Climb of Female Founders in Tech in Uganda

  • March 27, 2024

  • Kampala, Uganda

As this year’s International Women's Day calls for investment in women to accelerate progress, a reality emerges in Uganda's developing innovation ecosystem. While the landscape has flourished in recent years, a significant funding gap persists, disproportionately impacting female founders.

A 2023 Disrupt Africa report highlights this disparity: 90.4% of the total startup capital raised in 2023 went to Africa’s ‘big four’– Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya. Uganda, along with many others, struggles for attention. Even within this limited pool, female-led start-ups face a steeper climb. Only 20% of funded African tech startups had a female founder in 2022, and a mere 2% of debt funding went to female led startups in 2023, according to the 2023 Africa Tech Venture Capital report by Partech.

UNCDF and FITSPA Women – a community within the Financial Technologies Service Providers Association (FITSPA) – recently had conversations with Ugandan entrepreneurs in the tech space: Stella Lugalambi, Cofounder, Hamwe East Africa; Edith Kutesa, Founder, M-cash; Shamim Nabuuma Kaliisa, Founder, Chil Femtech Centre; and Josephine Olok, Cofounder, Lumjo and FITSPA Chairperson.

These eminent women who have walked this journey shared some of the hurdles they have had to navigate in a male-dominated space, and some perspectives on what can be done to make it easier for female founders in Uganda.

In this two-part blog, discover how women entrepreneurs in tech navigate the gender biases in the industry that affect their capacity to be taken seriously, operate their business, market their service, and raise capital to grow their venture.

When women founders’ credibility is questioned

For start-ups particularly in less developed economies like Uganda, establishing credibility is an essential but often challenging task. However, compared to their male counterparts, women frequently encounter heightened scrutiny and skepticism regarding their credibility.

Josephine, cofounder of Lumjo experienced this firsthand.

“When we started out, I was often overlooked and rendered invisible, considered an assistant in meetings until I was asked to present. One company specifically asked that my co-founder, a man, makes the presentation, but my co-founder told them that I was the one presenting. They were shocked by my expertise. I still recall the look on their faces,” Josephine said.

Over the years, Josephine has ‘built’ her credibility and is widely recognized in the industry, so she doesn’t have to ‘feel’ that bias anymore.

Stella, the cofounder of Hamwe East Africa, upon losing her co-founder in 2021, encountered a distressful situation. Despite clear paperwork with both her and her co-founder as signatories to their company accounts where either of them could sign, their bank accounts were frozen, and she had to get legal representation at her cost to have them re-opened.

“I had to sell personal assets to pay staff salaries for three months because the bank had denied me access to my accounts,” she recalled.

This is when Stella realized that society did not consider her to have equal stake in a company she cofounded and had given her all.

“Someone called me and asked if Hamwe was going to continue running now that the founder had passed away. One of our prospective grantees pulled out and I at some point seriously contemplated selling the company. I am glad I stayed on course,” Stella recounted, her voice reflecting the sting of societal bias. Stella’s unpleasant experience highlights the need to dismantle the perception that female founders are not capable of leading successful businesses in the face of adversity.

“Unfortunately, women must be twice as smart as their male counterparts to be considered credible. It will take a long time for us to get to the level where we are given as much space as men get to innovate, test out and fail, which really is very crucial in building startups,” Josephine noted.

The unlevelled ground: Gender bias in access to financing

All the four women concur that while startup funding overall has dwindled, it is worse for women where rigorous requirements and time-consuming processes continue to perpetuate an even tougher barrier.

Stella recounted a grueling pitch competition in South Africa for women founders, where only one of 76 participants secured funding, in a process that lasted six months. She came out among the top 10. This experience pushed her to not focus on female-centered calls and compete in open calls.

Edith, founder of M-Cash shared a disheartening reality: her startup developed a ground-breaking solution, only to have it stolen by a larger telecom with more resources. "We thought we were in business," she said, "but unfortunately, our solution ended up with a bigger player."

While systemic barriers persist, particularly for women entrepreneurs, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of this challenge, particularly for Uganda. As Josephine observed, "There is still a lack of data on women's access to financing, which perpetuates disparities".

“Majority of female entrepreneurs in Uganda don’t necessarily want to build machines to ‘flash the moon', they just want to be able to sell a product online that doesn't require too much capital, but how do they raise this capital?” she probed.

Pitching your story to audiences of male dominated perspectives

The inability of women to effectively "sell their story" in pitch rooms dominated by male perspectives remains one of the biggest barriers to venture capital. Women often struggle to "sell the story" as effectively as men in pitch rooms, particularly because they are pitching to men who may struggle or are sometimes not interested in understanding their perspective. This highlights the need for women entrepreneurs to hone their pitching skills, which they can get through mentorship.

“I was once invited to speak at an event where there was a pitching competition. Uganda was not among the beneficiary countries. I told the organizers I couldn’t speak at an event where Uganda was not represented, and a Ugandan was added. Unfortunately, she was not able to pitch as competitively, and went away with only US $30,000 while others received two million dollars,” Shamim, founder, Chil Femtech Centre, recounted.

“When you are starting out, you are just selling a story. You have an innovation that you haven’t tested out, tried, and failed or succeeded in. Men are much better at selling these stories and are given more grace to fail,” Josephine acknowledged.

According to Stella, women are more genuine in selling and do not sell ideas that do not work. This according to her could be an advantage that funders should see in women. “Women do not over sell something beyond its value. What you are promised is what you get,” she said.

Read part two of this blog here.

About the founders interviewed in this article:

Shamim Nabuuma Kaliisa

Shamim is a Ugandan medical doctor, innovator, social entrepreneur, and the mastermind behind a popular cancer screening app helping thousands of African women detect the disease. She is the founder of several companies including the Chil Artificial Intelligence Lab (Chill AI Lab), a Femtech startup that leverages AI to improve access to reproductive health cancer diagnosis.

Josephine Olok

Josephine is the Director and Cofounder of LumJo Consultants Ltd, a company established to provide consultancy services in computer solutions ranging from hardware, software to internet-based solutions in Uganda. She is also the Chairperson of FITSPA.

Edith Kutesa

Edith is the Founder and CEO of M-Cash Uganda. M-Cash is a single cashless mobile financial platform offering a cost-efficient suite of transaction processing, switching and mobile payments.

Stella Lugalambi

Stella is the co-founder of Hamwe East Africa, a company that is creating simple and effective solutions that level the playing field for smallholder farmers, giving them equal access to technologies and providing the capabilities to take advantage of the new mobile economy.