Entrepreneurship in Uganda: Nataliya Apanovich Turns Research Abroad into Sustainable Business

Nataliya Apanovich (PhD) has twice traveled to Uganda during her time at Iowa State: from August to December 2015 and May to November 2016. Although her trips first began as a way to gather academic research, the relationships she formed led Apanovich to invest in the Grass Roots Café and Deli, which she now co-owns. Located just west of Lake Victoria in the southern town of Masaka, the restaurant incorporates numerous sustainable practices ranging from supporting local foods to paying employees above average wages.

In starting her journey, Apanovich received a prestigious Borlaug Fellowship from the USDA to fund research that focuses on determining what types of biochar are most beneficial for Ugandan agriculture. During her first trip to the country, Apanovich interviewed more than 150 farmers in 80 different villages. On her second trip, she met with 53 of those farmers to conduct follow-up interviews, collect soil samples and conduct on-farm assessments.

“It would be crazy to estimate the number of miles I put on my car,” Apanovich said, calculating that she spent the majority of her research funds on fuel, which is three times more expensive in Uganda.

Despite Apanovich’s desire to help the country’s farmers, she said that living abroad made her disillusioned with non-governmental organizations’ ability to bring about much-needed change. In her opinion, NGOs often fail to give citizens ownership in solving problems and instead only provide short-term solutions that fail in the long run.

These discoveries led Apanovich to her interest in the Grassroots Café and Deli. Two women from London originally owned the restaurant, both of whom Apanovich befriended during her travels. Once the women left Uganda, Apanovich and another fellow agricultural researcher decided to purchase the restaurant rather than see it go out of business.

“I didn’t know I had this entrepreneurial skill in me,” she said. “But trying things out and putting yourself out of your comfort zone is so important. Owning your own business makes you feel like you can do anything.”

The restaurant incorporates many sustainable practices, in turn reflecting the diverse set of skills and values Apanovich has acquired from the Sustainable Agriculture Graduate Program. Grassroots uses fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers, offering a healthier alternative to the traditional Ugandan diet that is heavy in starch and low in nutritional value. A self-maintained garden also provides fresh greens and herbs throughout the year.

Likewise, three of Grassroot’s five employees are women, providing much needed professional opportunities in a country where women traditionally are unable to work. Another employee is a former addict who was hired in collaboration with a local treatment facility, and Apanovich and her business partner pay their employees 25% above the average wage.

“The biggest joy is to know that I am providing jobs with good incomes to people, and in the future, maybe hoping that they will use it start their own places or influence their friends and family to start eating the types of vegetables we cook in our own restaurant,” she said.

In the future, the business hopes to use 100% solar energy, as well as provide cooking classes to local residents. Rather than keep her profits from Grassroots to herself, Apanovich also plans to use the earnings to start a second Ugandan enterprise in the form of a bakery and ice cream shop. She plans to return to the country in summer 2018 to complete her business goals and conduct further agricultural research.