Making things

Bottles
Sand-filled bottles are stronger than bricks – and supposedly bullet-proof

After an intense few days inside one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, I’ve stumbled upon two slightly different (and a bit more uplifting) movements.

On the way back to Kampala, I stopped for a night at the Social Innovation Academy, created about two years ago to address the desperate lack of job prospects in the country.

60+ young people aged from 18 to late 20s live in dorms and traditional African huts and new constructions made from sand-filled plastic bottles; several more buildings are in various stages of completion, including new housing for volunteers and a huge hall. Hand-painted signs are dotted around: “Do something every day that scares you”, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it”.

Scholars get free rent and board, and training for as long as they need it to develop business ideas that will benefit themselves, the community, the environment, or all three. Continue reading “Making things”

Businesspeople

10350466776_23b2e3e368_zI’m back in Uganda, this time with funding from One World Media, researching a story about refugee businesses.

Here’s the premise: 86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Uganda, a relatively stable nation in a rocky region is now home to over half a million people seeking refuge from South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It now hosts the third largest refugee population in Africa.

But what makes Uganda intriguing is its unusually open door policy: all refugees are granted freedom of movement and the right to work; in rural areas they get allocated their own plot of land. So while most countries try to contain refugees in designated zones set apart from cities and towns, and to stop them from competing with locals for jobs, in Uganda refugees can (and do) become traders, workers, employers, entrepreneurs.

Indeed, an Oxford University research project in the country in 2014 found that 60% of refugees were self-employed, 39% employed – and only 1% not working at all.  Continue reading “Businesspeople”

Youth project: Identity

I recently finished working on a first project with the youth media charity Exposure – helping them produce a range of materials around the topic of identity. All the articles and images in the magazine, below, were created by teenagers (with a bit of chasing and tweaking from us). The print version will be  distributed to schools and youth centres in north London – and a short film on the same subject is coming soon.

How the other half live

mumbai
Mumbai, India

One of the exciting things about the current sustainable development goals (SDGs), agreed last year by governments, UN and citizens, is that they really are global – they apply to the rich world as well.

It seems obvious now. But the SDGs’ predecessors (agreed in 2000) were focused on the developing world, aiming to push them towards certain benchmarks of progress: primary education enrolment, maternal health, daily income, and so on.

It was us and them, and responsibilities were divided according to which half of the world you inhabited. Rich country governments: cough up the cash and make sure your taxpayers see that their aid is working. Poor country governments: introduce policies, enforce laws, make wise investments.

The SDGs, however, recognise that rich countries fall far short on many standards of sustainability — meaning they have to do some of the ‘doing’ as well. Continue reading “How the other half live”

Good business

RBweek

It’s Responsible Business Week in the UK, which aims to get all sorts of enterprises to share what they’re doing, and all of us to demonstrate how we’re working together “for a fairer society and a more sustainable future.”

As blog editor at London’s newest Impact Hub in Brixton, I’ve persuaded three of our members doing business differently to take time out of changing the world to explain what goes on behind the scenes.

First up, it’s Mighty Good Undies, whose super-soft underwear ticks all sorts of ethical-sustainable-eco boxes. Continue reading “Good business”

Stories from Uganda

Homeward

Photos: Busembatia, eastern Uganda (©Anna Patton)

Here’s what came out of my trip to Uganda, late last year:

The Guardian published my story – Uganda is a land of entrepreneurs, but how many startups thrive? – on the reality behind a recent report claiming the country is the most entrepreneurial in the world. It’s easy to start a business, and many people – even those in a full time job – do so, but few manage to grow or even continue their venture.

I explored the “growing and thriving community of social purpose businesses in Kampala” in a piece for Pioneers Post magazine [paywall]. Continue reading “Stories from Uganda”

In the jungle

Impressions from a fleeting visit* to the notorious refugee camp of Calais

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Their tents and shacks and shops are built on sand.

We’re almost on the coast of course: the camp, just outside Calais, sits among low dunes and scrubby vegetation – but I hadn’t pictured there’d be sand, and it adds to the transience of this place: a departure point, a stopover. Continue reading “In the jungle”

More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes

Popeye
We don’t need another hero

Do social entrepreneurs think they’re better than ‘normal’ businesspeople?

Speaking at last month’s Big Social, a London gathering of those working in or supporting social businesses, Dr Margaret Mountford suggested at least some of them do. Watch out for a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, warned the former sidekick from The Apprentice.

At the same conference, a session on branding for social enterprises touched on personal brand. How you come across to others can be particularly important, the facilitators said, because social enterprises are often associated with the small teams that run them, and are often founded by individuals whose personal story is wrapped up in how the business came about.

In an age that encourages (or even demands) all of us to develop a personal brand, the social entrepreneur is surely no more to blame than the rest of us for feeling that their profile, their story, really matters. Meanwhile, those of us writing about social enterprise (including me) find an easy way in to complex problems and business models by talking, instead, about the personal journey behind it all. How they struggled, how they failed, what they learned, how they triumphed.

But has it got just a bit too personal? Continue reading “More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes”

When mobile money means business

Beyonic by Mike Koch
Dan and Luke working with One Acre Fund in Uganda. Photo by Michael Koch

I recently interviewed the founders of Ugandan fintech venture Beyonic, a finalist at this year’s Sankalp Africa Awards for sustainable enterprises. Launched in 2013, they aim to eliminate dependency on cash by helping businesses quickly set up and manage mobile money payments.

Cash doesn’t allow people to become part of the formal economy; it’s also insecure and costly, explained cofounder Luke Kyohere. And while mobile money for person-to-person payments has massively taken off, businesses have yet to exploit their full potential. That’s where Beyonic comes in: making it easy for a business to pay people using existing mobile money systems. They’ve landed some big clients (including Save the Children), but also another social enterprise, Educate!. For them, paying wages and expenses with cash meant time and money spent on travel to/from Kampala, plus risk of muggings and holding huge amounts of cash on site. Educate!, when I met them in Uganda, said getting mobile payment systems in place is one of the things that’s helping them scale up.

Read more from Luke and his American cofounder Dan Kleinbaum below. Extracts of this interview were featured in this Pioneers Post article, What the world needs to know about African enterpriseContinue reading “When mobile money means business”

Trust me, I’m a microentrepreneur

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A bit less public than Tripadvisor

The age of the public review prompts some extreme behaviour – like the hotel that got ridiculed for charging £100 for posting bad reviews on Tripadvisor.

But it’s not surprising that the hotel management took Tripadvisor so seriously. Public ratings matter (and it’s worldwide: travelling in Uganda last year, every place we stayed at asked us to write them a review).

Customer feedback carries even more weight in the sharing economy, where services and resources offered by fellow citizens aren’t guaranteed by industry standards and where getting a refund is difficult, awkward or impossible. And it’s unbalanced: one bad review can outweigh ten good ones. Negative feedback can ruin the reputation and even livelihood, of the driver, DIY-helper, graphic designer, dog-walker – anyone who has decided to make their living as a microentrepeneur. Continue reading “Trust me, I’m a microentrepreneur”