Blind spots and business models

Marjorie, age 23, has created a project for women in her village to make and sell pads

Mention reusable sanitary pads, and most people in this country react with confusion, if not outright disgust.

Not in other parts of the world. A year ago while in Uganda I kept coming across community organisations or women’s groups who were making their own, both as a solution to the lack of affordable sanitary products and as a source of income to the women and girls making and selling them.

It turns out Uganda’s the home of one of Africa’s largest manufacturers of washable pads, AfriPads, which might be one of the things inspiring others to make their own versions. (Interestingly, the AfriPads product itself was actually inspired by a North American brand that found a market among health- and environment-conscious Canadians). Continue reading “Blind spots and business models”

Under pressure

In Nakivale settlement, southwest Uganda

The Guardian published my story on refugee policy in Uganda last week, just as grim news emerged of UN forces’ alleged failure to prevent violence in neighbouring South Sudan. More and more civilians are fleeing: 85,000 have entered Uganda since early July.

There’s a sense of solidarity here: communities agree in many cases to give up land to host newcomers. But the scale of need is hard to grasp.  Continue reading “Under pressure”

Write better #1

Michelle Obama’s recent speech at the Democratic National Convention caught attention far and wide— but what made it so good? Journalism training specialists Poynter have a useful analysis here.

Speeches are a valuable resource for learning effective writing: as Poynter’s author points out, because they’re meant to be heard, they use more rhetorical devices than stuff that’s written down. The sound and the flow and the language jumps out at you, even if you don’t know why that is.

There’s lots of good stuff in the post about choice of language and structure, but one lesson I particularly like is: express your best thought in a short sentence, preferably using simple words (“when they go low, we go high”). It’s an approach that applies to most forms of communication, and reminded me of another helpful (and helpfully brief) resource. Continue reading “Write better #1”

Making things

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”


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, 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


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


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”