When she set up her funeral business with her brother, now 16 years ago, Regina Mukiibi Mugongo was the first female funeral director in Uganda. Not only did she have to fight the taboos surrounding conventional burials, but also the prejudice against female entrepreneurs.
Uganda may have the third-highest fertility rate in the world, but where there is life, death is inevitable. And it is a certainty that Regina Muki- ibi Mugongo made the most of it when she be- came this East African nation’s first ever female funeral director almost two decades ago. But in a country where a large proportion of the popula- tion associates conventional burials with witch- craft, establishing her company, Funeral Services Ltd (UFS), was not easy.
“I met with a lot of resistance, people were talking about being haunted by ghosts,” says Mugongo, who has overseen thousands of buri- als, including many for state, religious, royal and diplomatic figures. “They said ‘Oh what’s this? It is taboo, how can you bring in such a service?’ People were fighting against me.”
Initially, she left a 15-year career with the for- mer Uganda Commercial Bank to start a travel company with her late brother Freddie. It was during their travels that they saw the services of- fered by established Western funeral companies and the siblings realised there was a gap in the Ugandan market.
They set up UFS in 1997, but Freddie passed away a year after starting the company. Mu- gongo has run it on her own ever since. She now
employs 35 staff and has five branches across Uganda. UFS is also the sole local company that is a member of the organisation of funeral direc- tors in the Great Lakes region.
Three trophies sit on a shelf behind her desk at the UFS offices. Last year, she won the Ugan- da Women Entrepreneurs Associated Limited (UWEAL) Business Achievers Awards. This Octo- ber she was given the 2013 Phenomenal Women Trailblazers funeral services award by the US- based 100 Black Women of Funeral Service.
UFS imports caskets from the US – about 125
annually – and also makes ‘dignified’ coffins and caskets locally in its carpentry workshop. “The demand [for locally-made coffins] is higher since they are more affordable,” says Mugongo. “We decorate them with imported ornaments and in- terior linen.”
Mugongo was fortunate in obtaining the 130,000-euro informal loan from a local bank to start UFS. Her track record as a banker and her diploma in business studies played a role in her accessing the funds and she paid it off six years later.