By 1993, Uganda’s economic indicators were a far cry from what they are today. The East African state was, by then, just emerging from a string of civil wars. The infrastructure lay in ruins and unemployment was startlingly high. The banking sector was one of the few that offered enviable job opportunities. But here was Regina Mukiibi Mugongo, who had diligently worked with the now defunct Uganda Commercial Bank for 15 years, desperate to throw in the towel so as to become an entrepreneur.
Mukiibi rose through the ranks from a banking assistant to an accountant. She sought early retirement to enter into the travel business. But her request was turned down by her employers, who increased her salary, for they thought it was all about the money. Barely a year later, they learned that they were wrong when she submitted a second retirement request, this one was granted.
Mukiibi joined her brother’s travel bureau and it was on one of her numerous trips abroad that she discovered a business idea that would see her forge a new way.
“It was during these many trips to Europe that me and my brother [Frederick Katamba Mukiibi] thought about starting a funeral service company to offer professional send-offs for the deceased, just like we had witnessed,” she recalls.
Little did she know that it would take years before they would see a cent. In 1994, they registered the Uganda Funeral Services (UFS) and pioneered its service across the African Great Lakes region. It took three years before operations kicked off in 1997, mainly due to differing cultural beliefs and practices within the region. Traditionally, nobody left the responsibility to handle and prepare the dead for burial to people not from the deceased’s clan and family.
“We risked the wrath of society and indeed they called us all sorts of names for our innovation. Most people interpreted our venture as taboo,” says Mukiibi.
Sadly, things would become harder before they became easier. Her brother, who was also a renowned lawyer in Kampala, passed away on a year after the company started operations, leaving her the mantle to carry on with the challenge of undertaking.
“For two months, I didn’t think I would be able to carry forward the business. Society was vehemently against what we had initiated that I even thought about going back to the bank to plead for my former job,” Mukiibi notes.
At the time, the communities around Bweyogerere, a Kampala city suburb on the eastern flank, were up in arms against the new funeral home she had established using part of her retirement package. It was the first of its kind in the country and a cultural shock to most. Nothing seemed to petrify residents more than learning that the funeral parlor was used for the embalmment of bodies, keeping vigil for the deceased and as a preservation room for cadavers.
She sought refuge by joining numerous national investor networks. Besides the support and protection the organizations offered her, they also held several events during which Mukibi created awareness for and marketed her services.
Mukiibi was forced to take on several jobs at no cost for demonstrational purposes and as a survival tactic. It was with relief that Mukiibi learned that similar services were being introduced by the Catholic Church in Uganda. Church leaders gave her hope and counseled her against giving up. When a priest passed on, the church enlisted her services. Soon after, elite citizens and the state also joined her list of clientele, as did foreign embassies in Kampala that need to repatriate bodies of the deceased.
Soon her business took off and she applied for a credit facility from a local commercial bank to boost it. This came easily given her good track record in the banking service. The funds helped her procure a permanent home within the precincts of Kampala.
Today, UFS’s offices are abuzz. Clients are constantly seen walking in and out. On the day that I conduct this interview, six families are processing a dignified goodbye for their departed. Mukiibi juggles between responding to my questions and playing her part as director in approving clients’ paperwork. She has to interrupt our interview to answer a few telephone calls with pathologists, clients and her team. It is then that I reflect on how Mukiibi has successfully transitioned from being a seasoned banker to an individual who stands side-by-side with bereaved families.
“When a departed family member is sent off in a dignified manner, in a way it reduces the trauma and agony that the bereaved family suffers,” she says.
It was at Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences and Embalming in London that Mukiibi undertook professional training. Today, she is the proud proprietor of the only company in the African Great Lakes region to be a member of the National Funeral Directors Association based in Brookfield, Wisconsin, in the United States. She is also a council member of the International Federation of Thanatologists Association (IFTA) and FIAT-IFTA – the world organization of funeral operators headquartered in the Netherlands.
To date, she has won various international and local accolades in recognition of her outstanding service, the latest being the 2013 Phenomenal Woman of Funeral Services Trailblazer Award, which she picked up from the US-based 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, during their convention in Austin, Texas in October. Other accolades include the Best Ugandan Innovator in the senior category for the year 2004, Best Woman Entrepreneur 2007 and Regional Entrepreneur. She was also recognized as one of the top 50 brands when Uganda celebrated 50 years of independence in 2012.
With a fleet of over 30 hearses and a large team, Mukiibi stands out as a preferred service provider in a field that has since attracted about a dozen similar entities.
An expatriate from Thailand helps make customized coffin designs and other high-end furniture in the carpentry workshop she has established. Because Mukiibi understands the value of skills, she occasionally flies in professionals to train her staff in handling funeral services.
Her venture into neighboring Rwanda was short-lived due to what she describes as “non-commercial viability and unfriendly investment environment”. Regardless, she is happy with the breakthrough made in her home country.
Although in Uganda, like in many other African countries, most people rush into funeral arrangements after losing a person, Mukiibi says there is a growing trend to plan ahead for terminally-ill clients. Others have walked into her office to plan their own funerals. Her business has even transcended religious barriers as she has handled funerals for Muslim clients.
“People come in when they are completely shattered but they leave with a smile. Some have given us awesome gifts in appreciation,” she adds.
Her 10-year goal includes establishing a one-stop funeral center with a well-equipped morgue, modern crematorium, a cemetery and a funeral service institute affiliated to the US-based Mount Aida Funeral Training Institute.
Mukiibi bore the death of her brother and opposition to her business, but from her conviction sprung new life in a services industry that was unexplored in Africa.