In 1996 In 1996 two siblings Freddie Katamba Mukiibi a lawyer and Regina Mukiibi, a banker made history when they registered a funeral service management company, the first of its kind in the country. It was registered as an investor by the Uganda Investment Authority in 2003.

At the time, management of funerals as a full-time occupation was considered rather odd. That however did not deter the siblings as they registered the country’s first professional funeral management company. Incidentally, it is the only company in the Great Lakes Region with a chair at the World Organization of Funeral Operatives based in the Netherlands. It is also a member of the National Funeral Directors Association based in Washington DC in the US. Perhaps even the Registrar of Companies at the time, had no idea that 20 years down the road the industry would blossom and attract more than a dozen other players.

According to Regina Naluyima Mukiibi, the Managing Director of UFS starting the company was a very risky venture.

“We took a financial risk, which is taken by any investor; but investors usually calculate their financial risks based on past experiences of similar investments and the reigning economic environment. We had no earlier reference point to bank upon; neither did we have any idea as to whether the environment for such a service in Uganda was good or bad at the time,” she notes.

“Today as we mark 20 years of the venture into the unknown, I believe God had been on our side,” she says. The idea of starting the service was a result of their many travels abroad.

“During these travels people get interested in various aspects of life. We were impressed by the dignity with which people abroad celebrated their funerals and the hygienic way they handled and buried their dead, and we wished it could be mirrored back home in Uganda. That was the spark,” she says.

Filling a health sector gap

Mukiibi notes that the other aim of the business was to fill the public health sector gap in sensitizing people with regard to the health hazards in mismanaging human remains. She says they also wanted to highlight and lessen the risks associated with some of the cultural and religious norms involved in traditional funerals.

“We wanted to transform the ugly and traumatic face of death into a more friendly and bearable event in people’s lives, and to relieve the already stressed bereaved members of the extra responsibilities of managing the funeral. We wanted totry as much as possible to preserve the God-given dignity of the human body even in death, to turn funeral management into an enviable, respectable and professional service to the community,” she explains.

Considering those noble aspirations, the advent of Uganda Funeral Services should have been a welcome development.

“Several dignitaries, Religious leaders, Government officials and widely travelled individuals who had witnessed similar services abroad, applauded the innovation, were very supportive, encouraging and openly asserted it was long overdue,” she says.

However a section of the community called the siblings all sorts of names. They were insulted and persecuted, but remained resolute and stuck to their vision.

“UFS has endeavored to team up with Insurance companies in an effort to design products that assist our clients to prepare for the inevitable funeral expenses in good time. Several organizations and individuals have gradually embraced these pre-planning programs, and many have already benefitted from this arrangement,” Mukiibi says. 

Challenges

Mukiibi explains that the first major challenge they faced was the death of her founder brother Freddie, barely a year after they had launched the service.

“I was devastated and this could have meant the end of this venture had it not been for the encouragement of religious leaders, Ministry of Health officials, embassies, my former employers at the bank, my siblings and friends who made several logical arguments against my abandoning this noble industry,” she explains.

She adds that later on, she came face to face with objections from the area where she had invested to start the service. “They feared ghosts of the dead would come at night and haunt them. (I have never been attacked by any ghost in the 20 years of our operations). Well-wishers advised me to change location and helped me to find the current appropriate alternative location,” she explains.

Mukiibi adds that recruitment for such a unique industry was another big challenge, “Since I could not do this work alone, I had to recruit staff. Here I depended heavily on the youth who seemed to have a more liberal mind-set. Since there was no funeral science training Institute in Africa, I had to pay heavily to bring in expatriates from the US and Europe to train our initial staff,” she explains.

She adds “we were called names by several people, and that almost knocked me out! But prayer, and encouragement from friends, people who had seen these services abroad plus people who sympathized with our investment, kept me going,”.

Mukiibi says funeral management is still a very young industry which needs support to grow. The heavy taxes imposed on their services, she says have stunted growth of the industry. The need for people to bury their loved ones with dignity has grown but they are still crippled by the heavy taxation.

“The cost of funerals is relatively high because in Uganda burials are done at ancestral burial grounds rather than in organized cemeteries. This culture is not about to change. The cost of transporting the remains is significantly high,” she explains.

“The absence of approved regulations has also led some industry players to engage into bad practices.

Secrets of success:

Mukiibi attributes most of their success to friends and sympathizers. “It should be recalled that I had initially invested all my retirement benefits in this venture; so it was a do or die affair; and then, I felt I had to keep our grand idea alive at all costs. But above all, I devoted myself to very serious prayer,” she explains.

For Mukiibi funeral management is not an occupation, but a calling or vocation.

“If it had not been that, we would be doing something else. It is like attending to the sick for the medical professionals or going to war for soldiers. Our joy and our sustenance is in seeing the end result of our positive contribution which helps our clients in such a distressing situation,” she notes.

“We have succeeded to convince several investors that there is a gap to fill in the management of funerals. We now have close to 15 funeral management companies in the country. We have made funeral services much less traumatic, convinced several people to realise the need to give decent funerals to their loved ones and our services have received local and international accolade,” she adds.

UFS has won a Phenomenal Woman of Funeral Service Trail Blazer Award 2013 - presented at Austin Convention Center – Austin Texas, USA. In 2013 it was also honoured as one of the top 50 brands that have had a tremendous impact on the lives of Ugandans since Independence.

Due to her work, Mukiibi bagged the Uganda Investment Authority Best Woman Entrepreneur award (2007), Investor of the Year National Award 2009, Sustained Growth National Award 2009 and UWEAL Best Woman Entrepreneur 2004 (Senior Category).

 

 

 

 

 

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