A Clever Mind: How an Entrepreneur Solved Three Problems At Once With Jigsaw Puzzles

By Patricia Opio

For this third edition of the Design Hustle I talk to Emily Banya, who besides her job at American Chamber of Commerce based at Design Hub, also runs a creative company of her own.

Emily please briefly introduce yourself and your company / what do you do?
Emily Banya, founder of Utalii

My name is Emily Banya, founder of Utalii. Utalii means ‘tourism’ in Swahili. It is a creative business specializing in the creation of customized jigsaw puzzles that promote (local) tourism in Africa. I started Utalii in 2020 during the lockdown season, together with my father.

What was the turning point to lead you to where you are at this moment? What inspired you?

When I was in my S.6 vacation, I started baking cakes and supplying to hostels and supermarkets. Before I knew it, it had really expanded and grown more than I could handle. However, I had to abandon the business because I was going to leave the country and go to South Africa for my university degree.
Moving to South Africa was eye opening because this was when I first experienced racism and xenophobia. I met black South Africans who could not understand why I was in South Africa. One day, at a party, this conversation topic came up and in the end we realized that we all just want a better life for ourselves. Xenophobia exists because people hate or are afraid of what they do not know. It made me think about my heritage as African.

Later on, back in Uganda, in 2019, I went through a period where my mental health was compromised. I sought medical help and as I researched more about anxiety, I found out that the brain is a problem-solving tool. Many psychologists recommended playing chess to engage the mind. This causes the brain will produce endorphins which positively affect our mental health. I decided to purchase a jigsaw puzzle. There was only one place I could find one and that was at the local bookstore in Kampala, Aristoc. What I found was a puzzle of Italy. I decided to find out if there were puzzles of African countries. The only puzzle available was of Cape Town and the pyramids of Egypt. This inspired me to create Utalii, a company that creates jigsaw puzzles that showcase the tourist destinations and beauty of Africa.

What challenge does your business or art address?

My business Utalii addresses three societal challenges. The first is that the puzzles package the tourist destinations and attractions of Uganda. I have created serveral puzzles in collaboration with Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre that depict the animals found in Uganda and at the Centre.

My business is also about rebranding Africa. It about changing the mindset of how people see Africa especially the youth in Africa. I want to showcase Africa in a different light, as a continent of self-worth. This will enable our youth to see their continent more positively and in turn see themselves differently as well.

The last is in relation to my own story of mental health. Jigsaw puzzles are a recommended way of dealing with anxiety and I through my business I contribute to creating awareness about the importance of taking care of your mental health.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to break through. How did you overcome this obstacle?

There was a time, one of the clients rejected the puzzle we had created. This was after another rejection I had received earlier. That were just too many setbacks in a space of two months. We had to re-create the puzzle which caused a financial strain but it was what was needed. I had made a mistake at the point of printing and it brought me down. I almost lost hope in the whole concept and wanted to abandon the business.

During this time, my dad, who was my business partner, got a stroke. Though he recovered fast, it was still a huge blow because he was the marketing guru of the business. My mum took on his role so we are now back on track.

What do you think holds back creatives/entrepreneurs in the industry?

The creative industry is a relatively new concept in Uganda. It’s potential is not yet fully understood in the country, thus we do not really have a fertile ground where a creative can thrive. There is always a battle a creative is fighting between her own creative desires and the society or family, who may have different expectations. A creative needs to understand that he or she is a trailblazer thus you need a certain mindset and resilience to shut out the criticism from outside world if you want to grow in your career and business.

What is the formula for your success? What is your secret?

I believe the secret for anyone in business is networking. You need to go out and meet people and talk about your products and services. For me, it has been networking with the entire tourism eco system in Uganda. Another business secret would be creating unique products. All our products are customized. We find out the story of a person or organisation and then create accordingly. This has set us apart from others.

I believe the secret for anyone in business is networking. You need to go out and meet people and talk about your products and services.

How do you motivate yourself to keep going even when things are tough?

You keep on going even when you feel down. That is how life is. Allowing myself to go through the ebbs and flows of life has kept me grounded. Indian actress, singer, and film producer Priyanka Chopra said, “Life just keeps moving. You have to keep your blinkers on. Find what you do best and keep moving.”
I also tell myself not to look at the problems from a distance. I need to see the opportunities in it and make small steps towards solving them.

It’s 2026, I turn on the TV and there you are being interviewed, what are they saying about you and your business/brand?

Utalii would have grown into an African brand. It has expanded into a franchise brand that enables people to rediscover their heritage. Many Africans and those of African descent now have spending power and want to invest into the continent. Utalii would be facilitating this exchange where people purchase the jigsaw puzzles and are inspired to come back home to Africa. I would also have a travel show on Netflix that rebrands Africa.

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