Evelyn Namara Founder, Vouch Digital | Uganda
Evelyn is the Founder and CEO of Vouch Digital Limited, a technology startup that is championing the development of digital solutions in the distribution sector. Their award-winning flagship product, M-Voucher, has been used by different development agencies to distribute seed crops, post-harvest and farming equipment. Evelyn has been widely recognized for her role as a champion for women in tech, including being named the Anita Borg ABIE Change Agent Award winner in 2012. In this interview she shares her journey of building a successful career in tech before going on to launch her business.
Excerpts below are from her interview with Eunice Baguma Ball, author of the book, Founding Women.
Invest time and energy into the process of
finding the right people because it will save you a
lot of trouble in the future.
When did you develop an interest in science and technology? I became interested in computer science around the age of eighteen when I was exposed to computers for the first time. But even long before that my father had always encouraged to me to study sciences. His dream was for me to become a doctor, but I hated chemistry and anything to do with blood so that just wasn’t going to happen! The two subjects I loved were physics and mathematics, so I focused on those. After secondary school, while waiting to decide what I would study at university, I worked at a university library which had a computer lab. This was where I got the opportunity to sit in front of a computer for the very first time.
I was fascinated from day one and I remember asking the lady in charge so many questions to try and understand how computers worked. Every single evening after that, I found an excuse to go to the lab, sometimes not leaving until very late. I researched what career opportunities existed within this new world of computers that I had discovered and went on to opt for computer science at university.
What led you to leave employment and pursue entrepreneurship?
During my career I realized I loved the process of setting up new systems. For a while I worked for a large corporation in the telecommunications sector. I joined them at a time when they were doing a lot of setup work which I really enjoyed. Later, when it became much more about maintenance, I grew bored. Having previously been with a small IT support company, I also found that I missed being on the front line, working directly with clients and making things happen. So, I moved on to join a startup called Solar Sister which distributes solar solutions and empowers rural women to better their livelihoods. This was a perfect fit because I loved the idea of using technology to make a difference in the lives of everyday people. I was also their first hire in Uganda and was entrusted with setting up their operations here. This experience made me fall in love with entrepreneurship and gave me the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of setting up a small organization from scratch. After that I knew I wanted to start my own organization.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I didn’t actually have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do exactly What I knew for sure was that I wanted to do something that involved using technology for development and I kept my mind open to opportunities as I worked with different organizations. One day I had a conversation with someone who told me about an organization they were involved with which was facing a particular challenge.They needed to make micro payments in order to provide agricultural inputs to smallholder farmers, and their current system of using paper vouchers was a nightmare. I immediately saw this as a problem that could be solved using technology and was excited by the prospect of developing the solution. I reached out to the organization and started working with them to develop the concept for a solution – a mobile-based voucher system. Things progressed very quickly and when I proposed building a prototype, they gave me only three weeks to deliver! At that point I knew there was no turning back and my business was born.
Are there any mistakes you made or something you wish you could have done differently?
I made some bad hiring decisions at the start which proved very costly. You need to be very careful to vet people before bringing them into your team. It can be difficult to identify the right people because they may have the technical skills but not the right work ethic. You have to invest time and energy into the process of finding the right people because it will save you a lot of trouble in the future. Now when recruiting, I try to create an environment where I can observe how the potential hire does things. For example,
instead of a typical interview, I will take them out for lunch and observe small things, like if they keep time or how they speak to the waiter. Eventually, I learnt what to look out for in someone who is a good fit for my organization. I’m now very happy with the team I have built. I’m proud to say it’s mostly women and they do an amazing job.
What would be your main piece of advice for young women just starting out on their entrepreneurship journey?
I would say preparation is key. Before you take that next step, be sure that this is something that you definitely want to do and if you are not sure, then invest time in finding out. Entrepreneurship is a challenge every single day, so prepare as much as you can to make it easier for yourself. Understanding the industry you want to get into is key. Develop relationships with people who are within that sector. Use LinkedIn; many people don’t realize what a great resource LinkedIn is. You can find people on there who understand how the industry works and you never know when those connections will come in handy. There are times I’ve been stuck and I’ve seen how those relationships you build over time can prove to be key when you encounter obstacles.