At the start of the ongoing Dubai expo, MAXIMA NSIMENTA, 35, the founder of Livara cosmetics, manufacturers of 100 per cent natural organic hair and bodycare products, voiced her concerns at how disorganized Uganda’s stall at the expo was.
Her attention to detail and devotion to ‘Africanness’ have thrust her into the limelight as a creative business personality.
Samuel Muhindo and Nkwanzi Shibba Bariyo talked to her.
At the entrance of Livara salon in Ntinda, one of the workers welcomes you and leads you to a seat. All staff are dressed in green and black uniforms. One hairdresser is fixing a weave, while another is attending to a client’s hair. Nsimenta says of the 64 staff, 54 are women, because African women carry their families on the backs.
“I want to support women since men are fairly positioned,” she says.
The business Nsimenta runs has attracted attention lately not only because of her exposé of the mess in Dubai, but also because Livara products are genuinely good, classy and beautifully packaged.
Born September 26, 1986 in Mulago hospital to Paul and Cissy Nyamare, she was named Maxima Nsimenta, meaning, ‘how can I thank God?’ because the Nyamares had experienced challenges at the start; their first-born, Gloria, was named Kaririirwe meaning ‘the one they cried for’ in Rukiga.
A proud Christian, Nsimenta is mother to Junile and Zula Maxin aged three and two, respectively. She is not married, saying she is currently recovering from an abusive relationship.
For all the Nyamares’ struggles to start their family, they were rewarded handsomely for the tears, as their children are exceptionally brilliant. Nsimenta went to Namagunga Girls Primary School, where she emerged the best pupil in Mukono with aggregate four.
For her secondary education, she joined Mount St Mary’s College Namagunga, where she scored aggregate eight in eight subjects at O-level, and 23 points in PCM/ ECON, before joining Makerere University on government scholarship for a degree in electrical engineering, graduating with a first-class degree.
Nsimenta says her parents nudged them to do their best through education, because it had helped them survive poverty.
“My mum was an economist with Stanbic while my father was the principal accountant of the now-defunct Uganda Electricity Board. My mother joined King’s College Budo for her A-level because she was a good performer. My dad tells us, he at some point wore hides as clothes. Situations were that bad, but their brains saved them," she says.
In the family of nine, all the children went to university on government scholarship. In the first year, she was one of the students that designed the Kiira EV, Uganda’s first hybrid car, between 2007 and 2008 in an Italian-funded project pioneered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students.
In her second year, Nsimenta was part of a team of students that prepared the Academic Records Management System Project - ARMS. Other universities and government bodies like police, Ministry of Health, among others, embraced the system.
She says it was in the same period that she developed, tested and approved a DC to DC converter that supplies power to headlights, radio, dash- board and other parts of the car that consume low power.
“I lived a very fulfilling life as a student and I am proud of my exploits.”
JOINING THE WORKFORCE
After graduation, Nsimenta was not sure of what she wanted to do. She took an eight-month break to discover her passion.
“I received job offers, but I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do in life. During the break, I asked myself delicate questions like, who am I? Where am I coming from and where am I going? I think I went into some sort of depression,” she recalls.
She went on a journey searching for God and it was during that period that a friend told her about the oil and gas sector and what it presented. She got interested and applied for a scholarship with Total E&P when they announced.
She was shortlisted for interviews but did not go through because the interviewer realized that it was not what she wanted to do.
“He promised to call me when there was a job opening and he did after two weeks. I was employed as a joint venture coordinator managing relationships between Tullow, Cnooc and Total,” a position she held for seven months before joining oil giant Schlumberger as an expatriate in Congo Brazzaville. She was taken to Paris for a two- week training before deployment to Congo Brazzaville, a position that paid her $10,000 a month, plus perks.
AT SCHLUMBERGER, LIVARA DREAM STARTS
“I worked on that job for two and a half years,” she says. She had travelled to Congo Brazzaville with relaxed hair, which needed to be retouched every three months. She tried to find a salon that could retouch her hair in vain, because most of the salons in the areas of Pointe-Noire – the oil district – were owned by Europeans employing African attendants.
“I moved to about three salons and the attendants were telling me the same. I was shocked! These were Africans working in Africa, and they didn’t know how to work on African hair, since they only worked on Caucasian hair. The third salon [referred me] to a salon 2km away. I decided to go and cut off my hair and head back to work. Everyone thought I had gone crazy,” she says.
Within two months, the hair had grown back. She still could not find a reliable African hair relaxer, which raised her interest in African hair and cosmetics.
“I started doing my research and five months into the job, I knew I was meant to leave. When I travelled, I couldn’t find African hair cosmetics or African-owned cosmetics. You could find a relaxer and their selling point was ‘with avocado from Nairobi’. I was seeing business and I continued with my research as I travelled.”
Nsimenta started to budget for everything that could enable her set up a completely African idea to work on African hair.
“Africans are a very gifted people. I wonder why people even bleach, yet this melanin is protecting us from skin cancer. I promote African and Africanness,” she says with pride.
To promote beauty and love for the African skin, Nsimenta says she is intentional; even her children interact with colour-neutral toys and dolls.
“My children have more animals as toys, because they are colour-neutral. A dog is a dog. Whenever I find black dolls when I travel, I buy them. I encourage them to watch robotics and other animal channels to improve them. I want them to grow up appreciating themselves with confidence.”
BIRTH OF LIVARA
During one of her short trips to Uganda in 2014, Nsimenta talked to her grandmother, Theresa Mbiire, because of her understanding of Uganda’s business climate. Mbiire, a decorated entrepreneur in her own right, advised her to establish her incubation center at Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI).
She promised to create time for Nsimenta and introduce her to Prof Charles Kwesiga, the UIRI executive director. “After booking the appointment, my grandmother left me at the gate and said, ‘I have helped you’; it was now up to me to decide the way forward.”
She met Kwesiga and presented her idea backed with research and concepts and he said she was too ambitious, which only propelled her towards the actualization of her dream. Kwesiga allowed her to use UIRI as her incubation center. From 2014, she put $1,500 aside off her $10,000 monthly salary, for Livara’s research and trials.
“We would buy hair from Brazil and make our experiments,” she recalls.
She partnered with a chemical engineer and made her brother a focal person for all the activities in Uganda and kept in touch with the team through Skype.
She adds: “To get an investment license in Uganda, you need $75,000 on your bank account. I was raising this money as I did other work.”
The first Livara product came out 14 months later. Having UIRI as her incubation center helped her to get the UNBS certification because the center is certified by UNBS. Confident that they now had a product, Nsimenta booked a ticket to Kampala and gave her boss in Congo notice.
Her employer advised her to opt for a one-year paid leave, instead, so that she could be able to go back should her venture fail. In just two years at Schlumberger, she had led a team that had laid two pumps in a very deep oil well. This technology was the first of its kind on the African continent and it made headlines in oil magazines.
“God was with me; for one complete year, I was receiving my salary at home.”
HOME IS BEST
Soon after her big decision to become a manufacturer, she suffered her first setback in 2015 when government reportedly diverted funds for purchasing more equipment for UIRI that she could have used for processing Shea butter, to politics.
She settled for Livara, which was a second option. In June 2015, her products launched onto the Ugandan market and she used Facebook and Instagram to market them.
The year her boss at Schlumberger granted her elapsed, but she had made up her mind; she was not returning to the oil and gas world. In December 2016, Livara opened their first salon at the Cube in Kamwokya-Kisementi.
They now have seven branches including Ntinda, Bugolobi, Kyanja, Boulevard and Mbarara. Doubling as retail shops for all the Livara products, Nsimenta’s salons have a children’s section and an adults’ section.
She says the salons are centres of excellence since each offers a different hands-on skill to their staff as determined by the managers. The Kyanja salon teaches weave-on, while in Ntinda she teaches accessories and styling.
“We believe in adding value to our staff. The last lockdown taught us to get hands-on skills. I try to ensure that someone can make something that they can earn a commission from.”
Why Livara, one would wonder. A prayerful Nsimenta says it is a name ordained by God.
“We took three days of fasting with my sister Terry to get the name Livara, meaning divine, God and goodness, truth, gift, whole and endless.”
Nsimenta is intentional with her branding, because she wants to offer Ugandans affordable but quality products.
“We are offering Ugandans a product at Shs 45,000, which they could buy at $30 (about Shs 100,000). We are solving global issues with quality at our foundation. We must be global. I quit my job not to fail this,” she adds.
Livara imports their tins from Kenya, because Ugandan manufacturers are inconsistent with quality. She expresses the same frustration with graphics designers, who she feels are not intentional with quality work.
“For the graphics I have decided to find a small person who understands what we need and we shall grow with them.”
Livara is completely organic and made from shea butter and moringa, among others. And from talking to a few people, from university students to parents that use the shea butter on their children, the consensus seems to be that Livara products are top-quality.
On a warm note, Nsimenta targets to lift the farmers that sell to her shea nuts with various incentives.
“We mostly buy shea nut from farmers in northeastern Uganda. The only way to get good-quality shea nuts is to monitor the farmers’ progress at least twice a year. So, I organise farmers into groups based on LC I system, buy shea nuts from them as a group. This collective effort ensures no one is left out,” she says.
What’s more, she also sponsors some of these farmers’ children to school.
“We want to create a system of growth internally through helping these children to study up to university. We are even exploring how we can provide them employment in the company after finishing studies. So far, we have seven children that are benefitting from this bursary. Covid-19 disrupted us a bit but we should have 12 soon,” she says.
Given that the cosmetics business requires a lot of creativity, Nsimenta says staff get continuous professional development through trainings with leading professionals.
Meanwhile, she also created a Sacco for the staff to develop a savings culture and sense of belonging.
“Our Sacco has really helped our staff through the Covid-19 lockdowns. I would like to change the narrative on how most SMEs treat their staff by showing how we do it. Maybe it will impact one or two people,” she says.
Like many local investors, Nsimenta has her grievances with the taxman. She estimates that she pays more than Shs 100m annually in tax, but says Livara’s rise would have been better had they been offered tax incentives like many foreign investors are.
She also decries the rent charges in dollars yet the economy runs on shillings. Like many businesses, the first Covid-19 lockdown pushed them into closing two shops.
This winner of the 2021 Women Innovator category of Uganda Science Innovators’ award is seeing light at the end of this Covid-19 tunnel; this year she has turned down potential investors in the business but opened more salons.
Livara shall be opening a branch in the USA in December 2021 and in January 2022 another in Nairobi before they go global with an African print.
The raw materials are harvested from Teso from more than 2,000 farmers, transported across the country to Fort Portal for extraction and then back to UIRI in Nakawa for processing and packaging before sending to the buyer.