Gladys Kalema Zikusoka is an entrepreneur from Uganda. She is the Founder and CEO of Gorilla Conservation Camp, an award-winning social enterprise that protects gorillas by improving the livelihoods of coffee farmers living around the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and other gorilla habitats. To sustain this activity, she has launched the Gorilla Conservation Coffee business, that buys premium and specialty coffee at above market prices from local farmers, then processes and sells it as raw green and roasted branded coffee. A donation from every bag sold goes to support the community health and gorilla conservation programs of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).
Growing up with many pets at home, at the age of 12 Gladys had already clear in her mind what she wanted to be her job: she wanted to work with animals. This inspired her to study to become a wildlife veterinarian. Moreover, being so passionate about animals, she has always had a great attention on themes such as endangered animals. That’s why she decided to enroll in the Global MBA in Impact Entrepreneurship in Nairobi (Kenya): she wanted to acquire the skills needed to open her own business and, therefore, to be able to concretely contribute to the condervation of gorillas.
“The Global MBA in Impact Entrepreneurship has allowed me to take my business to a whole new level. Thanks to the MBA we managed to register Gorilla Conservation Camp as a for profit social enterprise, thus making it more attractive to investors.” she stated.
But let’s learn more on her activity.
1.How was your Business Idea born?
We established Gorilla Conservation Camp as a social enterprise with the aim of building a high impact global coffee brand that could also save gorillas one sip at a time. This idea was born because of experiences I have had as founder of Conservation Through Public Health, a grassroots NGO that improves the health of people, gorillas and other wildlife and livestock who share a fragile habitat with each other. While checking on the gorillas, I often came across coffee farms and realized that those farmers were not getting a steady market or a fair price, and it was driving them into the forest to poach animals in the forest and collect firewood to meet their basic family needs.
2. How can your business improve the life of the beneficiaries of your activities?
Gorilla Conservation Camp received a loan from World Wildlife Fund for Nature Switzerland (WWF CH) and used it to hire an Operations Manager, to train farmers and purchase coffee from farmers to make a viable company. We have built a market for the coffee using networks involved with conservation, public health, and tourism agencies, while looking for more financing to have enough working capital to meet the current market demand.
Gorilla Conservation Camp pays above market prices for good coffee to coffee farmers living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park increasing their income, and reducing their dependence on the gorillas’ habitat to meet their basic needs. This in turn helps to protect the endangered gorillas and their habitat. We helped to establish Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative for farmers in subcounties bordering the park and train the farmers in sustainable agricultural practices including agroforestry, post harvest handling, record keeping and conservation ethics. We have so far engaged 500 farmers through 25 model farmers and bought coffee from 30% of them. Coffee farmers have already reported that the training has improved their crop yield, and the premium prices have improved their way of life reducing their dependence on the gorilla’s forest habitat.
Secondly, for every bag of coffee sold, a donation is made to Conservation Through Public Health to address conservation needs of the mountain gorillas by improving community health, gorilla health and conservation education, providing sustainable financing for conservation and diversifying the NGO’s revenue sources from only grants.
3. What has been the main challenge you had to overcome in your entrepreneurial experience?
The main challenge we’ve had to face while setting up Gorilla Conservation Camp was looking for financing to start the business. The next challenge was finding a niche market for the coffee amongst Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumers, who are mainly tourists traveling to Uganda and other countries in East Africa, expatriates, and coffee drinking Ugandans. Another challenge has been determined by the lack of consistently good coffee, which we overcame through training the farmers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when travelers stopped coming to Uganda, we faced a new challenge, as our main customers, who were tourists, had disappeared over night. The lack of sales prevented us from buying coffee from the farmers, at a time when poaching increased because tourism had ground to a halt. Fortunately, we managed to get a new buyer in the UK, which enabled the Bwindi coffee famers to earn an income in the absence of tourism. We also obtained a buyer from Safari Lounge in Kenya who sells the coffee in Carrefour, a high-end supermarket in Nairobi. In 2021, our first international distributors in USA and in New Zealand placed new orders. In 2021 we have also obtained new distributors in Australia.
4. In your opinion, what are the main qualities an entrepreneur should have?
An entrepreneur should be focused, passionate and persistent. I have always had passion to work with animals and save wildlife since my childhood, which has been the driving and motivating force to pursue a career in veterinary medicine and to promote my country, Uganda, through my passion for wildlife.
5. Is there a person you are inspired by, i.e. an entrepreneur or a particular mentor?
My greatest influence in business is the late Anita Lucia Perella founder of Body Shop, a cosmetics company producing and retailing natural beauty products that prohibits the use of ingredients tested on animals and one of the first to promote fair trade with developing countries. I am really drawn to her because she greatly believes in preserving nature and animals and supporting women in developing countries through the selling of their products.
6. What would you suggest to a new-born entrepreneur?
New-born entrepreneurs should find a business idea that they are passionate about, because when it gets tough, it will be easier to stick to it. They should stay really focused and determined even when the times become difficult. It is important to remain creative and build a team to achieve lasting social, environmental, and financial impact.
7. Could you tell us a particular satisfactory moment you had in your entrepreneurial activity?
I was elated to become an Ashoka Fellow in 2006 for merging Uganda’s wildlife management and rural public health programs to create common resources for people and animals and to build upon this by establishing social enterprises to develop sustainable financing for conservation through the Gorilla Conservation Camp in 2008 and Gorilla Conservation Coffee in 2015. Through the E4Impact MBA and Ashoka network, I met Joseph Nkandu, founder of NUCAFE, who have helped us to train the Bwindi coffee farmers and roast their coffee at his factory built through the business plan he developed in the MBA.
I was so excited when Gorilla Conservation Coffee won 92 points on Coffee Review in USA, and was amongst the top 30 Arabica coffees that they sampled in the world in 2018, which enabled us to sell the coffee at a higher price making it a more viable social enterprise.
This year, I was pleased to realize the potential of Gorilla Conservation Camp when we were able to buy coffee from as many as 150 farmers during the pandemic, because of influencing conscious consumers internationally to protect gorillas by purchasing coffee even when they are not able to visit them due to travel restrictions during global lockdowns.
8. Could you tell us how the MBA has helped you and your business?
The MBA was highly energizing and through it I learnt to develop a robust business model using the business model canvas. Though I had challenges in Basic Accounting, I realized the need for business owners to master it, to be able to evaluate the financial performance and sustainability of our social enterprises. I enjoyed networking with my fellow students and was inspired by their businesses and have kept in contact with some of them up to this day.
I managed to segment our customers better, which enabled us to market to them more effectively. The business plan I developed through the MBA gave me confidence to seek funding from one of our donors, Population Connection, to build a guest house, which greatly increased our bed night capacity, enabling the business to become financially viable and help to sustain our community health, family planning and gorilla conservation programs.