Why Business?

Most organizations that work with displaced and impoverished women in Africa are non-profits. We chose a different tack: we decided to build a successful business in partnership with these women. Many people have asked us, ‘Why business? Why not non-profit?’ The answer is best presented in three parts: Benefits to our Ugandan Partners, Benefits to Us and other Americans, and Benefits to the World.

(This is not an argument against non-profits. They have a critical place in our world and often do work that for-profit companies simply can’t do.)

Benefits to our Ugandan Partners

We believe that structuring our work as a business is the most beneficial form for the women we work with. Here’s how.

1. Longevity: One of the greatest benefits to our Ugandan partners is that they can work with us for as long as they want. Since non-profit donors are typically most impressed by how many people you’ve helped, non-profits tend to cycle people through programs and ‘graduate’ them, usually with taining to become entrepreneurs. But relatively few people are wired to be successful entrepreneurs. How many do you know? Most people want a gainful, dependable job with opportunities to grow and advance. That’s just what our partnership offers.

2. Self-Reliance. The women we partner with provide for themselves and their families as owners of their own business. We helped them found NUPECA, an independent and self-managed cooperative, which we have since partnered with. Our partners’ sense of self-reliance is reinforced because they know that we’re not a non-profit. That rather than charity cases, they are partners in a successful business venture. To grasp the full impact of this, I often ask the following question: Would you rather your children be beneficiaries of a non-profit or successful business owners?

3. Competition. There is certainly competition in the non-profit world, but it usually falls on the managers and employees of the non-profit, almost never the beneficiaries. In our business, though, our partners stand with us in facing the competition of the marketplace in quality, design, service, etc. If either of us fails to meet competitive standards, our businesses jointly suffer. This competition offers our partners incentive to grow and learn new skills that they will apply in their homes and in all subsequent ventures that they might undertake.

Benefits to Us and other Americans

The benefits of business are not one-sided. Just as it’s beneficial for our Ugandan partners and their communities, it’s beneficial for us and our community, America.

1. Profit. The simplest form of benefit in a business is profit, and we certainly hope to make a fair amount. Ours is a family business, and the prospect of profit allows us to invest single-mindedly in our business, despite worrying economic times. We can be reasonably sure that if we work hard we will make some money, and we’ll be able to pay bills, put money away for future college tuitions, and plan retirements. Just like our Ugandan partners.

2. Ownership. From a business standpoint, ownership means that we’re responsible for the losses and gains, the debts and assets, and the legal obligations of the company. But from a more emotional viewpoint, ownership is commitment, pride, a sense of independence and accomplishment. Just as our Ugandan partners own their own business, so do we. And just as their ownership benefits their families and community, so ours benefits our family and community.

3. Retail. During the last couple years, as the recession battered small businesses everywhere, we had a few store owners tell us that if it weren’t for our products they likely would have gone out of business. They benefitted from our commitment to run a strong, competitive business.

Benefits to the World

The heading may sound bombastic, but I believe that businesses like ours hold immense potential for making the world a better place. Business, after all, is the most powerful force shaping our world. If we use it well, our impact will be enormous.

1. Connection. When you walk down the aisles of your local Walmart do you think about the people who actually assembled all those products, the people your purchase de facto connects you too? I sure don’t. And that’s a problem. Our economic ties to people across the world are some of the most powerful ties we have, but the marketplace has been designed to ignore those connections when we’re shopping. By building a business that makes those connections clear and beneficial in the marketplace, we help to shape consumer expectations and demands about how they want their purchases to influence the people they’re connected to.

3. Money and Talent. Perhaps the greatest challenge in the non-profit world is drawing investment dollars and talented individuals away from the business sector, where there is far, far more money to be made. It’s become common knowledge in recent years that an unholy percentage of Harvard graduates head straight to Wall Street out of college. Why? Despite the desire to do good, our primary drive is to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. By turning profitable business to the work of our common values we can offer top candidates and investors the best of both worlds: the opportunity for profit and the ability to make a positive difference in society.

2. Proof of Concept. Global business over the last 60 years has been a giant Race To The Bottom: lower wages, lower costs, lower standards. It’s been taken as gospel that this is the only way to succeed. Our business acts as a proof-of-concept that with new generations and new markets this is not the case, that a business built on our common values of fairness, compassion, and respect for the earth can and will succeed. Both wizened executives and young entrepreneurs can look to businesses like ours as case studies for building ethical businesses, and hopefully they’ll do it even better than us.

The Simmering Future

Guest post and photos by designer Emily Grace Goodrich

Whenever we come to Acholi Quarters for a meeting or for design training sessions, Christine, the manager of the bead-making program, never fails to call beforehand with the reminder, “Your lunch is here.”

Lunch is usually a small feast that the women take turns preparing and delivering to Christine’s house, and though the food is wonderful, there is only so much space in my stomach. Over the months here I’ve worked on perfecting strategies like putting only the tiniest amounts of food in my bowl so that I can make it to the obligatory third serving. But following each meal, Christine still likes to joke, “Ah, you people. You eat so little.”

After my first visit to Uganda, I was very sorry not to have learned to cook a few of the local dishes, so this time around I made certain to let the women know I wanted to learn. Acen Lucy, a younger woman with bright eyes and a contagious smile, was first to volunteer.

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Lucy lives in a small, comfortable cement home with a wide veranda. The front part of the house serves as a sitting room with a sofa, a television set, a shelf of dishes and other necessary things. Lucy invited me to sit on a bench on the shaded front porch, which she shares with her next-door neighbor. She decided to teach me to make malakwang, a type of greens that are usually cooked in a ground nut (peanut) sauce and served over white sweet potatoes.

We began with the greens themselves, tearing the leaves from the stems while the coals heated up in the outdoor charcoal stove she keeps on the porch for cooking. As we worked our way through the basket of leaves, I asked how long she’d been in Acholi Quarters. Lucy explained that she’d been brought there from the North when she was fairly young by an organization that connected her with a sponsor to pay her school fees. Her father had died, and her mother “was not there,” so she came alone with just her twin sister. When she reached the Senior-2 level in secondary school, her sponsor stopped paying her school fees, so she left school and began working long hours in the rock quarry, until she was invited to be a part of NUPECA and make jewelry for Ember Arts.

She finished her story about the same time we’d finished the basket of greens, and she moved on to toasting the sesame seeds in a clay pot on the stove, and then the raw ground-nuts. As those cooled, she chopped sweet potatoes and put them to boil in another charcoal stove, then into another pot added chopped greens, water, chopped tomatoes, and dried fish — her own special addition.

As we worked, Lucy’s firstborn daughter, two-and-a-half year old Tracy, jumped back and forth across the gutter in front of the porch, laughing and making faces at me with the neighbor girl, Jackie. As Tracy ran around and chattered away in Acholi, Lucy laughed and remarked that her daughter is “too stubborn.” But when I commented that she also seems very smart, Lucy shared proudly that her daughter is doing very well in the nursery school that she attends.

When the ground nuts had cooled, we rubbed them to remove the papery red skins, then mixed them with the toasted sesame seeds. Lucy disappeared around the corner for a moment, then returned with a flat stone to grind the seed and nut mixture to a paste. After a few minutes, she handed the smaller grinding stone to me to try my hand at it, but after several attempts without much progress, she laughed and offered to finish the rest, grinding everything twice until it made a smooth paste.

By then, the greens had finished cooking, so she poured the cooking water into another clay pot and added the seed and nut paste to make a sauce. Tracy knew to hover around the cooking area at all the right moments and ran off with both a small chunk of raw sweet potato and the empty bowl of ground-nut paste, which she and Jackie licked clean.

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Into the bowl of sauce went some small gray rocks, “it is like salt, but it is not salt,” Lucy explained. Next she mixed in the cooked greens, then transferred the food to a serving dish. We sat down in a circle on the porch with Tracy and Lucy’s neighbor and her two daughters, sharing the meal from a single bowl like one big family under the short curtain of drying paper beads lining the porch.

Those same paper beads, soon woven into beautiful finished jewelry, will allow Lucy to continue providing good meals for her growing daughter. And they’ll allow Tracy to continue on with her education, an education payed for not by a distant sponsor, but by her own mother, a successful business woman and member of a growing cooperative. This is a recipe for dreams come true.

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Places You Might Sit While Working in Africa

Ember Arts randoms-1

1. On the back of an African man’s motorcycle, a man you’ve never met before, as he weaves you through traffic that looks, feels, even smells like chaos.

2. On a stack of mahogany planks in a wood worker’s shop, the ground soft and undulating with sawdust and shavings.

3. Inside the cavernous speeding hulk of a resurrected Chinese bus, now rechristened the “White Cock,” in a locally clear reference to poultry.

4. In the Dickensian office of the production manager of the country’s largest printing business, the large windows in every wall allowing the Indian manager clear view of his dominion.

5. On a small wooden stool usually reserved for elders, watching the gray-cloth-covered corpse of a friend be carried into a dark hut as a young girl dances and a row of happy ducklings waddle by.

6. In a house or a hut, on a wooden chair or a couch, a woman kneeling in front of you, pouring water over your hands in preparation for the meal that she has spent all day preparing for you.

7. On the hot red ground amidst piles of crushed stones, surrounded by women teaching you proper stone crushing technique, your penance for asking to take their photograph.

8. On the inflated lip of a yellow raft, being sucked voraciously down into a standing wave that has stood for all time, and will soon fall victim to hydroelectric development.

9. On a small worn white swimming dock leaning out from an island on a fathomless crater lake, your feet sending shockwaves thru a reflected perfect sky.

10. In the waiting room, or in the room waiting. So much waiting in so many rooms.

What Dreams May Come!

When you move to Uganda you get a whole new set of neighbors. When I moved to Gulu in 2006, my neighborhood was suddenly full of people displaced by war, wives who had lost husbands, children who had lost parents, most surviving various states of poverty.

At the same time I was exploring ethics and had become fascinated by the elegant, powerful formulation recorded in the Gospels: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This simple phrase seems to carry in it a vast sea of ethical instruction. The same ethic appears in religions and cultures throughout the world. This principle, it seems, is foundational.

But what does it mean? Practically speaking, what am I supposed to do?

That’s what I have been asking myself since I got all those new neighbors. Though I can’t offer you the complete answer to that question, there is one conclusion that I’m pretty sure of:

Helping people achieve their dreams is one of the best ways to love them. Maybe the best way.

Love your neighbor, it says, as yourself. And how do I love myself? I get up every morning and try to make my dreams come true. I try to build the world that I want to live in.

There is perhaps nothing more definitive of human beings than our capacity to dream, and to bring dreams to life. It’s the central human magic.

So loving my neighbor as myself means supporting her in making her dreams come true, at least in part, and as I think more about it, maybe in large part.

That’s our commitment to the women of NUPECA, our partner co-op here in Uganda. Our fundamental goal in partnering with them isn’t to overcome poverty or put food on the table or put kids in school, though those are great steps along the way.

Our fundamental goal is to help our Ugandan partners achieve their dreams. After all, we’re neighbors now.