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”

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”

Truly enterprising

Posters
Just enough budget for posters

The bizarre and wonderful Wakaliwood is making ripples around the world.

The morning we visited the “studio” of Uganda’s homegrown action movie industry, the team was expecting a group of French and German reporters. The story has been picked up by the BBC, VICE magazine, Al Jazeera, and national Irish television. The films have a cult following, with fans in Russia, Guatemala, China. In the rehearsal space – which doubles up as a bedroom for some of the actors and storage space for props and equipment – there’s a wall with foreign names scribbled on it.

“Are these all your visitors?”, we asked.

“No”, we were told, “just the ones we ‘killed’”. Continue reading “Truly enterprising”

Giving time

It was Volunteers’ Week here in the UK (as well as Women’s Sport Week, in fact – nice profile of boxer Nicola Adams here on role models). It doesn’t seem to make many headlines outside the charity sector – yet the scale of volunteer work in this country is much larger, surely, than most people realise. 15.2m people in the UK (nearly a quarter of the entire population) volunteer each month; 0f the 164,000 registered charities, an amazing 90% have no paid staff, not to mention an estimated 150,000 further, non-registered organisations, also run by volunteers.

It’s not only the actual work these people do that matters, though. It’s also how they do it, according to research recently published by VSO (my current placement): by giving time for free to help a good cause, volunteers are expressing values of solidarity and citizenship that can prompt knock-on effects on others. As a headteacher in Nepal said, according to the research, “when the volunteer came to help, the [local community] think if someone can come to help us, we can help each other”. Continue reading “Giving time”

Social enterprise: halfway to mainstream?

The UK arguably leads the world in its support for social enterprise – and is keen to position itself as such, from putting social investment high on the agenda of its G8 presidency in 2013 to inviting other nations to learn from what we’re doing.

I covered the latter – during a British Council-hosted visit for EU policy-makers – for the Guardian’s social enterprise hub last month, and heard how countries like Croatia, in the midst of finalising its own first social entrepreneurship, are hungry to learn from UK policy-makers’ 15 or so years’ experience in this area.

In this country, social enterprises employ over 2 million people (more than the financial and insurance industries combined!) and contribute at least £55bn to the economy; this is also birthplace of the world’s first social impact bond, an innovation that’s spreading slowly further afield. Continue reading “Social enterprise: halfway to mainstream?”

Images of India

Belatedly, a selection of images from travels in Kerala, Goa and Mumbai last month.

 

In Mumbai, I also met with the ‘incubator’ for social entrepreneurs, UnLtd India – you can read my interview piece published by Devex Impact here.

 

Working with uncertainty

There’s a satisfaction in ordering the disordered, making sense of the scattered.

We’re halfway through the first of our six-month OnPurpose placements, and before breaking up for Christmas we reviewed what each of us found challenging / interesting in our work.

Our cohort of 18 are a fairly diverse bunch (backgrounds in law, finance, consulting, life sciences, business development, fundraising, etc.). And our current workplaces range from tiny to global, from start-ups to household names, from pushing profit to donor-driven – organisations across the whole spectrum or even on the edges of social enterprise. Drawing general conclusions from our experiences, then, might be a stretch….  I can’t resist trying, though. Here’s the summary. Continue reading “Working with uncertainty”

Going big, with purpose

I’ve gone from a tiny organisation – my last employer had just one part-time staff member – to a huge one: the British Council is the UK’s largest charity, works in over 100 countries, and employs some 7000 people. Another change: my stint at British Council is part of a one-year programme, run by On Purpose, that aims to ‘develop leaders’ in the social enterprise sector.

(What’s a social enterprise? Good question. Simplest of the dozens of hazy definitions: a business for social purpose – think the Big Issue magazine.)

The idea behind On Purpose is that there are loads of start-ups with noble intentions, and plenty of funding and schemes to support the entrepreneurs behind them, but a weak spot still in terms of the managers and professionals needed to keep those new businesses going. And, of course, to make those initiatives broader and better, since scaling up the successful models is one of the big challenges right now. Continue reading “Going big, with purpose”