At the headquarters of Prof. Bio-research, located on second floor of the gigantic Equatorial Shopping Complex along Bombo road in Kampala, Julius Nyanzi is in high demand, just as much as the health products he sells.
When I asked him for an interview about his life, he scheduled me for a 3pm appointment last Saturday, one of only two days in a week he reserves for meeting customers and other people.
The appointment had to be re-scheduled to 8 pm in the evening as he had to accommodate overdue and urgent appointments with some of his customers. Nyanzi’s busy schedule is a sign of sweet success that has come his way at a young age of 27. It is also an indication of the continuing yearning for alternative medicines to manage the growing number of lifestyle health problems in the country.
Nyanzi founded Prof. Bio-research in 2013 while in his second year at Makerere University. His ambition to pursue a career in pharmacology or the science of drug development, was hatched while at a tender age of ten when he was still in Primary 4.
Born in a very religious catholic family to Mr. and Mrs Ben Bikolwa of Nakulabye, Nyanzi recalls that he witnessed a lot of spiritual intervention for nearly every problem that befell them including disease and death. Perhaps not accidentally, since several of his relatives were prominent priests and nuns in the service of God and the community.
He recalls: “My parents wanted me to become a priest. And I grew up as an alter server, and interacted a lot with priests and Bishops to the point that my parents thought I would become a priest.
But whenever we used to converge at our home, we would hold prayers pleading to God to save our relatives from diabetes and other lifestyle diseases like hypertension (high blood pressure). I realised that however much we prayed, it did not stop people from falling sick to the same diseases.”
He adds: “I said to myself, why don’t I try to become a doctor or a scientist so I can develop a cure for some of these diseases. We had a lot of spiritual intervention without any physiological intervention, which I thought was due to the absence of a scientist of physician in our family.”
It’s fair to say that Nyanzi has been strategically positioning himself to become a researcher and drug developer. For example, in high school, he chose to read hard for chemistry and biology as his preferred subjects and not mathematics, as a way to steer away from medicine, which was a popular choice for many science students.
During his A-levels at Maryland High School in Entebbe as well as during his vacation, Nyanzi spent most of his time in libraries and laboratories where he acquired a lot of insights into plants and their chemical attributes.
His pursuit for knowledge took him as far as the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL), at Kawanda, where he linked up with lab technicians that helped deepen his knowledge on the subject. They also later helped him to secure his first job as a consultant with pioneer tissue culture firm Agro-Genetic laboratories (AGT) owned by Erostus Nsubuga.
During his one year stint at AGT, which also coincided with his first year at Makererere, Nyanzi not only honed his skills in tissue culture breeding, but he also learnt a few other tricks in business management besides establishing contacts that would later prove invaluable to his ambition.
Unlike many students who spend years in colleges and universities dreaming of a job somewhere after graduation, Nyanzi decided he would not wait for that but instead chose to dive straight into the tough world of business.
So in his second year at Makerere, he registered Prof. Bioresearch with the registrar of companies.
The idea of pursuing a career in pharmacology wasn’t novel to him given his history and experience. But as he explains, the field he was venturing into was filled with quarks who survived on exploiting gullible members of the public often by pretending to be experts in a field in which they had little or no training.
“I thought that in order to distinguish myself from the rest, I should call my company Professional Biological Research. This however proved a mouthful. So I shortened it to Prof. Bioresearch hence the name of the company,” he notes.
He juggled books with entrepreneurship as he wrote business and fundraising concepts to banks and government departments in order to implement his ideas. Most of his fundraising efforts ended in futility as he faced frustrating demands by individuals in organisations that claimed to support youth entrepreneurship.
Using his savings and skills from AGT, he bought a pressure cooker and started to produce mushroom seeds to the nearby community in his home in Masanafu, Lubaga division. This too didn’t work out as demand was very weak.
Driven by his early desire to find a remedy for diabetes, and other diseases, Nyanzi thought of making sugar from Stevia, a wonder plant he heard read about.
To his disappointment, the plant wasn’t available anywhere in the country, at least then. His contacts at AGT proved handy. He got in touch with an American friend he had met at AGT to help him find genetic material for the plant.
Still, America’s rigid laws concerning the transfer of live genetic material prevented the American friend from sending live plantlets from their botanical gardens.
Now Nyanzi proved his expertise as he advised the American friend to pack leaves with potassium solution for preserving the material, but also to overcome the legal impediments.
Company takes off from leaves
With Stevia leaves firmly in his grip, Nyanzi now fell back on his tissue culture breeding skills to grow whole new plants from leaves he received from the American friend. And yes, this marked a turning point in Prof. Bio-research’s journey as he realised his first product for the company and launched himself into the competitive world of commerce where he had something to sell.
In his second year at Campus, Nyanzi’s business ambition pushed him to look for a market for his stevia, even though he had no money to rent space in town. He targeted trade shows and exhibitions, starting with the Uganda Manufacturers Association -(UMA) trade fair of 2014.
Thanks to pleas from his friends to the managers of JuaKali shade, he was afforded a two feet space as his exhibition area at an unbelievable fee of Ushs300,000.
He returned to his mother, who was also a wine maker to ask her to share the cost for the little space. He shrugged off the feeling of being cheated by focusing on his customers.
Though some of the visitors who stepped by his bench expressed huge interest in buying the stevia plants, many actually wanted ready-made products that they would consume right away – the way someone picks a packet of biscuits off a supermarket shelf.
A couple of months later, he attended the CBS-organised Pewosa Trade Show, and this time he made sure he had Stevia powder. In addition, he devised a technique to vaporise fresh-smelling aromas around his stall in order to attract customers.
It worked magic. “Everyone was asking where the fresh smell was coming! As they came to find out about the smell, I told them about stevia,” Nyanzi recalls: “Then people started asking for more products.”
Since then, Nyanzi has not looked back. His company’s range of products has expanded exponentially from Stevia powder to now over 30 different products in different categories such as perfumes, herbal remedies, natural sugar, mosquito repellents, cholesterol and weight management products.
Nyanzi has mastered the distillation technique to produce oils from nearly any plant you can thing of. But he points out that his choice of plant, form of introduction as well as the level of concentration are informed by research basing on published clinical studies about efficacy.
Nyanzi’s powerful aroma’s have attracted guests as important as the Queen of Buganda Sylvia Nagginda, Uganda’s Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the U.S Ambassador Deborah Malac to name just a few. To put it politely, hardly no one has missed Nyanzi’s table in any exhibition he has participated in, largely on account of the pulling power of his unique fresh-aromas.
The exhibitions including Pewosa, UMA’s annual trade fair and the Amcham fairs in addition to several weekly markets have not only brought him fame and money, they have exposed him to different tastes, opportunities and challenges that have forced him to diversify and do more research.
In 2015 at the first American Chamber of Commerce Uganda (Amcham) exhibition, Nyanzi was spotted by an American who was working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Impressed by his creations, the WIPO fellow invited Nyanzi to Geneva – Switzerland to attend a workshop on copyright protection. The meeting opened more doors to many other study opportunities in Egypt, Senegal, South Africa and Botswana.
The trips were not in vain, as he recalls: “I learned that you can earn a lot of money if your work is protected by a patent. I realised that we lose money because we are ignorant about intellectual property (IP). Besides individuals and nations can earn a lot from copyrighting and branding their products.
For example, Ethiopians makes a lot of money simply from being able to brand their coffee and sell it to the final consumer as Ethiopian Coffee, no where else can you find Ethiopian coffee that is not made by Ethiopians.”
In Uganda’s current turbulent economic environment witnessed since 2011, its difficult to think of an enterprise started from scratch by a young man or woman in a space of three years that is as successful as Prof. Bioresearch.
Without stating his financials, indicators such as being able to employ up to 15 people including graduates, buying airtime on at least ten radio stations every week and being able to expand his outlets to other parts of the country beyond Kampala, is no mean feat.
Three years ago when I met him at the Amcham exhibition, Nyanzi exhibited exceptional intelligence, resilience and determination. His ability to explain the science behind the functioning and benefits of the various herbal remedies as alternatives or complements of western medicine, and backing his arguments with literature, has earned him respect among the diplomatic community, the elite and ordinary folk.
But besides his apparent hard work and dedication towards his company, Nyanzi espouses grandeur ideas of self-sufficiency, prosperity and a community living in harmony with nature. In this regard, he has focused his research efforts on Uganda’s rich heritage of biological diversity not only as raw materials but also as vital tools for ensuring ecological balance.
He has also started several initiatives that seek to empower farmers, the youth as well as his colleagues in the herbal remedies industry. Nyanzi for example encourages and supports farmers to set up gardens for the high-value medicinal plants including giving them advice on management and marketing.
He has also started importing and selling machines that can be bought by the large scale farmers as a way to increase the production of oils which he argues can be a raw material for so many things such as perfumes, medicines and inputs of other manufactured products.
He has also started a skills development programme for young people as well as his colleagues in the industry with the aim of raising their capacity to add value to their products.
Among some of his achievements, Nyanzi is proud of the 2015 KCCA young innovators award.
As he continues his quest to deepen his understanding of herbal medicine and its interaction with our bodies, Nyanzi, believes however that the industry cannot develop without active involvement of the government.
“We need an enabling law to regulate the sector. That law would create standards and guidelines regarding the development of herbal remedies. Such an intervention will go a long way in reducing the confusion in the industry, reduce quarks and unprofessional practices,” said Nyanzi.
Such a law would also help to crate a clear distinction between the biomedical power of herbal medicine from the spiritual power that is currently being peddled.” Today some can claim that he can heal someone using spirits but they go ahead to administer herbs.”
Nyanzi also believes that a proper institutional arrangement that recognizes rather than demonise the power of herbal medicine is urgently needed not only to promote Uganda’s hugely untapped potential, but also to help build synergies among the different stakeholders.
“We need a platform that can bring together all stakeholders in the health sector including the ministry of health, National Drug authority, National Chemotherapeutic laboratories, herbalists and the academia to devise means of promoting herbal medicine, protecting our intellectual property and generally promote our economy and health.
The rapidly growing size of the company, coupled with rising customer demands mean that Nyanzi will have to think of other issues beyond scientific research in order to keep the company alive and growing.
Fortunately, it appears that Nyanzi’s superb managerial abilities as seen from the way he prevents collusion and conflict among staff in the young organisation, combined with constant mentoring, interaction and communication with staff and customers, will continue to guide the company’s operations and progress in the future and possibly be able to outlive its founder.