Bath MBA Alumni on hairdressing in Uganda

Dr Janet Fernihough PHD and Bath Business School MBA, and previous Malawi volunteer consultant talks about her experience on the Uganda600 team and the importance of clean water for customers in a hairdressing salon.

10 steps to entrepreneurial success in Uganda!
It sounds like one of those dreadful self-help books doesn’t it? As it turns out, I have helped myself a great deal with my 10 steps, but that’s not the point. My 10 steps were made with the Grow Movement as a volunteer consultant for Uganda600 and the point was to help Sulaina Nantale and her hairdressing salon

Through this process we have become friends, but that’s the least of the story of how a modest scientist in the UK and a wonderful business woman in Kampala have, together, increased the turnover of her business five-fold using nothing more technical than Skype and Whatsapp.

The Grow Movement tries to match clients to consultants as closely as possible in terms of industry, but I admit to feeling out of my depth when Sulaina’s hairdressing salon fell into my inbox. Reviewing my experience of the hairdressing business as “having hair” I was very tempted to back out. However, the Uganda600 project is backed by the London Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to evaluate the impact of virtual consultancy on entrepreneur performance in Uganda. Backing out of such a high profile project and turning it into the Uganda599 project, didn’t feel like an option.

So, Sulaina and I took our first step together in July, assisted by the amazing client manager Emmanuel, who provided Skype on his laptop. Having volunteered for the Grow Movement before, I knew that the first sessions are all about relationship building, so I started with questions about family rather than finance. Sulaina informed me that she is the mother of four children, and her husband is dead. She then asked when we were going to start talking business. Sulaina clearly wasn’t interested in small talk and wanted results. Results for her meant increasing her income so that she could extend her salon. It was clear to me that she needed to improve her marketing, starting with building her brand. Once again I reviewed my experience of strategic marketing and brand management and came up with the answer “two MBA modules”. Admittedly, the brand management module was totally brilliant, for anyone who knows Professor Mike Beverland, but with a background as a PhD scientist, marketing is not my strong point.

Session 2 was upon us though, with the shiny new Project Management System up and running to report progress. So I discussed with Sulaina what she has that her customers absolutely love. Here’s where the cultural divide became obvious. One of the things that Sulaina’s customers love, apart from her wealth of experience and friendly nature is the fact that she has clean water. This isn’t always available from hairdressers who work out of their homes. It’s certainly a benefit, but I couldn’t quite see the business cards with “Clean Water” emblazoned across them as the key to Sulaina’s future success.

Sulaina’s concerns were at the front of her mind at this early stage: client-friends who don’t pay and a salon that is too small to work in effectively. When she talked about the cost to extend her premises it was in the same breath as she mentioned school fees and it was clear that with around 5 paying customers a week who nearly all turn up at the weekend, an extension was out of the question for a while yet. However, as Uganda’s inflation rate has recently hit 16% I feared that Sulaina will be forever chasing her tail, saving up for an extension that becomes more costly almost daily.

Baby steps were made between sessions 3 and 6, which was not surprising. It’s hard to trust a stranger in a very different world from your own, who calls you up, once a week, pretending not only to understand your business concerns, but also telling you what to do to fix them. Sessions were frequently rescheduled and when they did happen, Sulaina’s conversation was dominated by ongoing, daily problems. The problem of working in your business rather than on your business is clearly universal. Printing her new business cards was also taking time, delaying the point when she could send these out to targeted groups such as local businesses from where clients could come during the week.

Sulaina was also still selling handbags in a somewhat confused attempt to increase the income from women who came to her premises. It was so obvious from the pictures of stunning brides that she sent me on Whatsapp that her passion and extraordinary skill is in the hairdressing. It can take many, many hours to create the incredible styles she does, this is not the UK high street world of hairdressing. I asked her to ditch the bags, to remove a source of income from her salon, and she did it. Make up now occupies the space as she vertically integrates her services to include beauty as well as hairdressing.

Eventually, seven steps in, I had the inevitable breakthrough and the words that made me smile and cry at the same time, “I want to set up a training school”. After session five I had logged a very different story onto the Project Management System to indicate progress to “Stage 2”. We had been discussing how to move clients from Saturday to mid-week appointments; nothing about training. My data was now likely to be “scattered” to say the least. Well, that’s for the business schools to worry about, I was smiling that Sulaina had let me in on her dreams. No going back. She took her newly printed business cards to local schools to advertise scholarships and in the process got more customers. They came to her small salon, with no bags in the way, and they paid.

For sessions 8-10 we consolidated the topics we had discussed, but always only once we had asked each other how our kids were doing. Family is very important in Uganda. Sulaina also told me about the impact I had had on Nantale Beauty Salon, “Your ideas are working for me. I put the ideas into practice and I get more customers”. It’s as simple as that. When I presented my work to the Grow Movement at the Ugandan Embassy in London, I was advised that this fluffy “I’m so grateful” crap won’t wash with my fellow business consultant audience though. We want numbers, and for Sulaina the numbers include around 25 paying customers per week now. Word of mouth will no doubt increase that soon.

The impact on my business is as significant. I have a CV that says I can increase the turnover of a business five-fold, over the phone. I have branding and marketing skills that are not reflected in my marketing assignment grade, but I know they work. I have huge admiration for Sulaina and an increased awareness of her culture and the harsh Ugandan environment in which she works.

Now I will let you in on a secret. The Grow Movement asks all its consultants to do 12 sessions, not the 10 steps I alluded to. So what did we do for the last two sessions, apart from swap the Christmas lists that our kids are forever extending? Well, I couldn’t let the business advice drop by the wayside completely. When Sulaina extends her salon, which is now just a matter of time, I advised her to have a massive re-launch party, at which she should start a loyalty card scheme. Sulaina’s ambition is to be known throughout Uganda for her hairdressing. She deserves this, and in my dreams, representatives from magazines such as Bride and Groom attend her party and write an article on her success and involvement with the Grow Movement. For now, she has all her children at home until after the national elections in February. The country is longing for a new leader after nearly 30 years of the existing regime. It is not just Sulaina who is restless for change for the better.

Finally, I have an invite to a salon re-launch party next year in Kampala, and what a celebration that will be.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

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