How Covid-19 pushed women traders in Uganda to go online, crack new markets

Tuesday November 16 2021
Assiat Ssenteza

Assiat Ssenteza displays some of the woven merchandise she sells online at the group’s collection centre in Sheema town. FILE PHOTO | JONATHAN KAMOGA


Covid-19 has claimed millions of lives and taken a toll on the wellbeing of communities, affecting livelihoods and changing the way people do things.

Many businesses have collapsed and individuals have lost jobs, but for 48-year-old Rosette Mbabazi of Sheema district, about 300km from Kampala, the pandemic was an opportunity that ushered her into a new world of business; selling products online even when she has never owned a smart phone.

Anti-pandemic measures such as the lockdown led to a drop in the prices of the bananas grown in Sheema from about Ush10,000 ($2.80) to Ush500 ($0.10) a bunch. A source of income, away from agriculture was thus needed.

Mbabazi and other women who wove baskets and mats approached a local organisation — Sheema Development Foundation — that introduced them to e-commerce, something they barely understood.

Dedicated website

Through the NGO, rural women like Mbabazi sell their handicrafts online, opening up new markets for them from as far as Kampala and Europe.


To sell online, the women have to form groups and pass a quality test of the handicrafts they make, then these crafts are posted on a dedicated website through which buyers browse, choose a product, pay for it and it is delivered to them anywhere in the world using secondary courier services.

Dickson Kateshumbwa, who runs the organisation, said they concentrated mainly on handicrafts because it’s what many women in this area do.

Tourists and hotels to which these women sold much of their merchandise were also closed during the lockdown restrictions and therefore selling online became ideal.

“Many of the women were making handicrafts like weaving baskets, mats and other things but they had no market during the lockdown even when they had a lot of stock in their homes. So, we discovered there was an opportunity to sell online and so we set up a website,” Kateshumbwa said.

Recently, the organisation also put a mobile android application.

The women, many of whom are not tech savvy and have never used the internet, now have their products catalogued and displayed on both the App and the website.

When the goods are sold, these women receive the money directly to their phones via mobile money.

According to Kateshumbwa, there are 14 groups currently registered on the website with each group having an average of 20 members.

“This makes a huge difference because the women have been able to sell, earning between Ush20,000 ($5.60) and Ush40,000 ($11) per product instead of having to sell bananas at Ush500,” he said.

Mbabazi said that since she joined, her sales have gone higher with orders from Kampala and Europe.

“I can now get orders mostly from abroad of like 50 pieces which I send and my money comes in time and as a single instalment,” she said.

Her dream is to open up the biggest craft shop in Sheema town which will be a one-stop centre for tourists.

While some of the women who have joined this e-commerce movement see it as their only source of income, others like Assiat Ssenteza are using it to get money to inject into other projects they own.

Internet penetration

Ms Ssenteza, 60, using the resources she gets from her online sales, has now embarked on teaching her weaving skills to several women specifically widows like her and vulnerable girls so that they could use them to better their lives.

According to Kateshumbwa, their platform emphasises quality for it is what will bring and retain clients in the e-commerce space that is getting crowded by day.

The long term plan, he said, is to push quality products of the different women groups to the already established e-commerce sites like eBay, Amazon and Baidu which they hope will expose their African art to a bigger market.

The pandemic pushed many small businesses online. Young people who were recently selling products in expensive Kampala arcades shifted to cheaper rooms outside the city. Many have embraced online advertising mostly social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook.

According to official data, there were 12.16 million internet users in Uganda while internet penetration in Uganda stood at 26.2 percent in January.

The sector, however, must face up to the high cost of internet with a 12 percent tax charged on data.

A recent study by telecom regulator Uganda Communications Commission put the cost of acquiring one gigabyte of internet in Uganda at $2.67 – compared with Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda at $2.41, $2.18 and $2.18 respectively.