Emily has so far made1000 puzzles mainly on African themes. Photo: Emily 

By Pauline Odhiambo

The human brain is a complex problem-solving tool – when it's not stuck with the regrets of the past, it is busy tackling the anxieties of the future. That's how 28-year-old Emily Banya sees and treats hers.

She should know, having struggled with her mental health for years and repeatedly tapped into the deepest recesses of her brain to challenge it into finding the answers to her problems.

Her personal trials and tribulations have also led her to founding Utalii Creative, a puzzle-making business that started as a quest to quell her anxiety before transforming into a template to tackle issues of mental health.

"In 2019, I felt like my brain was broken. I was working at a consultancy firm at the time, and it was sucking the life out of me," recounts the Ugandan woman, whose mental health challenges began during her student years in South Africa, where she often felt affected by racism and xenophobia.

"When I sought help, I was advised to give my brain something to do to avoid overthinking, and the anxiety that came with it," she tells TRT Afrika.

Heeding that piece of advice, Emily visited a games shop in the Ugandan capital of Kampala to check out puzzles and other board games known to calm the mind. She noticed that African themes were missing from what was otherwise an array of jigsaw puzzles for customers to choose from.

Emily was initially advised to try chess and other board games to boost her mental health. Photo: Emily

"I could see puzzles featuring the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon and other famous monuments, but I needed something African," she recounts.

She went back home disappointed that day, albeit carrying with her the germ of a business idea.

When she pitched to her father the concept of a puzzles company focused on African themes, he was intrigued enough to make the necessary inquiries that would guide her to the ministry of tourism. Soon, a prototype was commissioned for further development.

"My father and I picked the name 'Utalii' for our business, which means tourism in Swahili," says Emily, who had worked at one of the largest tour companies of South Africa while studying in Cape Town.

Mental mechanics

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), playing board games can boost both mental and physical health. Studies show that that doing jigsaw puzzles can enhance cognition and improve neuroplasticity, which aids in the prevention of conditions like memory loss, dementia, anxiety, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, among others.

Experts say that the feel-good hormone dopamine is released in the body when solving a puzzle, which then improves mental health.

For Emily and her father, things seemed to be moving as planned until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 stalled their plans.

"We originally wanted to order the prototype from China, where production costs are cheaper, but with the pandemic, everything stopped," she says.

Finding a Ugandan company with the right credentials presented another puzzle to solve for father and daughter. The pair did the rounds of multiple companies before finding one that was the perfect fit.

"The cost of production locally was generally up to 30 times more than the estimated amount, but we finally found a company that could do it at an affordable price. They delivered the prototype six months later," Emily recalls.

Before the prototype was made, Emily's mother, an expert in early childhood psychology, gave her inputs on how the puzzles by Utalii Creative could be designed to enhance a child's mental health.

Some of Emily's puzzles can be solved by children of various ages Photo: Emily

"She showed me how puzzles can be used as learning tools in cognitive behaviour and pattern recognition," Emily says of the building blocks for her business.

Up to 10% of children and adolescents worldwide experience a mental disorder, but the majority of them do not seek help or receive care, according to WHO.

Mental health conditions, such as childhood epilepsy, developmental disabilities, depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders can be monitored through gaming activities like puzzle-solving among others.

Emily's own professional experience and background in multimedia studies gave her a head start in marketing her puzzles.

"Tourists are one of our biggest target markets. My experience of working in a souvenir shop in South Africa taught me the psychology of tourists, who are always trying to take back home a packaged memory."

With the prototype made, it was all systems go for the father-daughter duo until a medical emergency crashed into their plans.

"My father suffered a stroke, and as a family, we rallied for his full recovery. Any money we had to invest in the business, we poured into medical bills and his recovery, which took a full year and two months," Emily recounts. "Collectively, our mental health was really down."

The pieces fit

After her father's recovery, their puzzle-company plans pulsed back to life, churning out 1,000 puzzles to date that feature African themes.

Utalii Creative also makes customised puzzles for private events. Photo. Emily

"We now have puzzles that are branded based on African destinations, and other captivating features — for instance, the Ugandan Rolex, which is a popular snack and one of the unique features of the country. We take that feature, make a puzzle out of it, and then we package it along with other interesting facts of the place," Emily explains.

Utalii currently produces puzzles ranging from 99 pieces to above 500, but these are just a small part of the bigger picture Emily has in mind for her company.

"The ultimate goal is to maintain mental health, and also boost African pride by rebranding Africa using souvenirs, media and gamification. Telling our own stories and seeing ourselves represented in various sectors is crucial to preserving a healthy mind alongside our heritage," she says.

TRT Afrika