The Problem with Social Enterprises, Part 1: From Fair Trade Baby Seal Clubbers to “Socially” Enterprise

“I work for a company that makes money off poor people.”

That’s how a friend of mine likes to answer the “where do you work?” question at parties.  Apparently people’s reactions are pretty entertaining.

Now let’s see if I can paraphrase it to be less intentionally provocative:

“I work for a social enterprise.”

It’s happened to the best of us.  We’re good people.  We want to make the world a better place.  We don’t want to work for baby seal clubbers or oil companies, or toil away long hours figuring out how to increase ball bearing sales by 2%.  We want our work to contribute to the greater good: solving environmental problems, fighting poverty, improving health in poor countries.  But we also know that the traditional aid approach is fraught with perils of ineffectiveness and dependency, and that the private sector tends to be much more effective at delivering results.  And we definitely don’t want to be “NGO girl,” who came to Africa on her gap year and decided to start an NGO to take care of all those cute little kids she saw, but really has no idea how to run an organization.  If only there were a type of company with the heart of an NGO but the methodologies of business…

It can also go the other way around.  We’re naturally entrepreneurial, good at starting things and making money.  But we don’t want to start just any business—after all, there are real problems in the world that need fixing.  Perhaps we even feel a little bit guilty about the idea of making a profit off the poor.  We want our business to be more… social.

And now, with the “social enterprise,” you can.  At least that’s the theory.

Only, what is a social enterprise anyway?

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The 5 Other Things You Can’t Do in Uganda

I thought that at 6 items my previous list of things you can’t do in Uganda was pretty comprehensive.  But who knew, even as I rode down the street past a boda boda whose passenger was carrying three sheep in his lap, past hawkers selling toolboxes, posters of human anatomy, and puppies through windows of cars stuck in traffic, and past butchers offering hunks of unrefrigerated meat from their small stands, it was becoming apparent that my list was not complete after all.  Thanks to the commenters for leaving their suggestions, we’ve now turned up 5 more things you’re not allowed to do in this freedom-loving country.

  1. Hold a political rally for the opposition

Poor Kiiza Besigye.  Why do you keep running for president?  You’re only going to get teargassed.

A bigger deal than Hillary's emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

A bigger deal than Hillary’s emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

In Uganda you can have an opposition party.  You can even run a campaign against the president.  You just can’t do anything publicly to support that campaign.  Uganda is set for another presidential election in early 2016.  And every day it seems, there’s another front page headline about another opposition rally being broken up, another teargas-filled police fun-fest with opposition supporters, or another opposition leader, whether perennial #2 Kiiza Besigye or former Prime Minister and now presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi, being arrested for no apparent reason.  If you put up posters for the opposition, they’ll quickly be torn down.  Always classy, President Museveni just tells it like it is:

“No one can disorganise the country. Besigye tried to disorganise Kampala, the capital city. We tear-gassed him until he cooled off. He doesn’t need bullets. Just teargas is enough for him.”

It may seem strange to view the teargassing of rivals as presidential, but some commentators have suggested that in Uganda’s own special way, many voters may actually see it like this.  In an absolutely fascinating op-ed entitled “Teargas and Beatings Show Museveni is the Man,” columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo writes:

Something strangely Ugandan is also on — the beating and teargassing of President Yoweri Museveni’s rivals.

[…]

Happening at a time when Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially, and WhatsApp is all the rage, the images are spreading fast, and if you live outside Uganda and they keep popping up on your phone, you would think the country is sliding back into the Stone Age.

[…]

However, that is not necessarily how all Ugandans see it. The threshold for political violence in Uganda is fairly high, and many locals aren’t as horrified by it all as outsiders would be… there is a method to the madness.

As an insightful source put it, Museveni’s vote in the urban areas has largely dried up, but he is still quite popular in the rural areas where most of the votes are.

To peasants and other rural folk, power is a demonstrated thing, so seeing people like Mbabazi and other opponents teargassed and run out of their rally venues is a humiliation, one that makes them look powerless against Museveni.

It works. Unlike the elites in urban areas, fellows in the rural areas who live on the edge and don’t have much power, keep a close eye on who is holding the big stick.

Thus the political violence of recent days that makes the middle class want to hide in shame, translates into votes for the man who is seen as “the jogoo,” the strongman, and in some parts may actually encourage higher turnout.

I don’t know enough about Ugandan culture to say whether this is accurate or not, but it is a reminder of at least the possibility that our western ideals of democracy and human rights are not as universally held as we think.

  1. Put your backpack on the ground

Cafesserie is one of Kampala’s sceniest hotspots.  Walk in past the gelato stand and glass-encased shelves of chocolate mousses, croissants, and tarts, sit down under a beige umbrella at a marble table attended by professional waiters, and you feel like you could just as easily be at a café in New York, San Francisco, or Paris.  I once found myself at a table next to Uganda’s richest billionaire.

But at such a popular spot, chairs often run short.  And if you have brought a backpack with you, this is something that may cause a waiter’s head to explode as they look for a place to put your bag.  Because in Uganda, you must never put a bag on the ground.  It must always go on a chair or a shelf.

You don’t often get the sense that “properness” or “attention to details” are metrics very often used to direct activity: as long as it works, it is just fine.  In a staircase, each step is likely to be a different size from the one before it.  Meat is not so much cut as it is chopped: there is no sirloin, tenderloin, flank steak—only “meat.”  A motorcycle mechanic once repaired the fuse in my motorbike; a new fuse only costs around $0.17, but apparently those savings were enough to justify the workaround.

Not putting bags on the floor, by contrast, is something people take seriously.  Do so at a restaurant, and the waiter will with great concern search the entire premises for an off-ground place to put your bag, all the while scolding you for your mistake.  “No, place it properly.  Put it well.  The floor is dirty.”

And hence the importance of not putting things on the ground: in a place with so many dirt roads and so much dust, too frequently storing your bag on the ground will in a short time render it a different colour.  (hat tip: Waina)

Cafesserie

Cafesserie

A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

  1. Criticize the food

When a Ugandan goes abroad, they will inevitably complain about at least one thing: there’s no matooke!  Very likely they will have avoided trying the native cuisine of that place and chosen instead to subsist on somewhat familiar fast food like chicken and chips, fish and chips, or burgers, but they will not be happy about it: if it’s not matooke, it just isn’t food.

Matooke, of course, is Central Uganda’s staple food: a savoury banana, steamed and mashed, and typically served with a stew of beans, meat, or groundnut sauce.  To a foreigner, it’s nothing special: you should try it once, but there’s really no need to try it again once that box is ticked.

So... heavy!  So... many... carbs!

So… heavy! So… many… carbs!

But Ugandans (at least in Central Region) have a love affair with matooke that exceeds the love borne for its traditional food by almost any other culture I’ve encountered.  A typical thing heard at mealtime in Central Uganda is “I don’t feel as if I’ve eaten if I’ve not had matooke.”  Not only is matooke not to be criticized, even the idea that matooke could be criticized is something that so completely defies the Buganda imagination that it almost didn’t make it onto this list: that is, you wouldn’t think to say something is not allowed if you did not think it was something that could be done in the first place.  When a Muganda sees you eating a meal made up of pasta, steak, salad, and three types of cheese, he will be too shocked to tell you to stop, but will only ask with great wonderment and much head shaking, “Muzungu, where’s the food?”

It’s in this context that three commenters on my last post critiqued my characterization of local food as “bland.”  I get it: every culture on earth has a special attachment to its cultural food, and no one likes their food to be criticized or altered in a major way.  If you give an Italian a pizza with chicken and pineapple on it, they will scream and run away.  Some cultures may indeed prefer bland food, and I’m not passing judgment on that particular taste.  But objectively speaking, matooke is not cooked with any seasoning or spices.  As a pure carbohydrate its taste is something akin to mashed potatoes—only without salt, butter, or pepper.  And the only objective way to describe that is “bland.”

  1. Eat while walking or standing

This one was suggested by a few people, and makes the list—but only just barely.  It’s something I’ve been told is generally frowned upon.  And indeed, if I find myself standing and eating, someone nearby will generally insist that I sit down, smiling incredulously that I have not already chosen to do something as nice as sitting.  (Which of course is much nicer than standing).  And if you eat while walking, you will get some stares.

But I think people are getting used to seeing muzungus walking around munching on groundnuts and rolex, so it’s not quite the faux pas it perhaps once was.  Bystanders do not rush to rectify your behaviour so quickly as when a waiter rushes to find a chair to rest your backpack on, or a bag girl rushes to stuff your single pen into a plastic grocery bag before you can refuse it.  (hat tip: Emma)

  1. Confront someone else about anything they’re doing.

Uganda was in a state of constant warfare for most of the 80s—and in the North, all the way up to 2006.  But when you visit Uganda and meet the people, you wonder how this was ever possible: it is one of the friendliest, most relaxed, most non-confrontational places you’ll ever visit.  Live and let live is not just a saying: it’s the philosophy of social organization that holds the place together and allows the country to work.

I often say that the best part about Uganda is that I can do whatever I want, while the worst part is that everyone else can do whatever they want.  What I mean is that–and quite unlike what we sometimes believe in the US–liberty is not something that can be wholly individualized and infinitely increased: when different people have different interests, one person’s liberty will eventually and inevitably come into conflict with another’s, as the first person tries to do something the second does not want them to do.  A classic example is noise complaints: the teenager’s freedom to have a massive party conflicts with the neighbor’s freedom to have a nice quiet evening at home.  Resolving these conflicting liberties is the central problem of politics.

In the West, we employ the Rule of Law to do this: resolving to live by a set of pre-agreed written codes that determine what is and is not allowed, and whose interests trump whose in a dispute.

On the other hand, Uganda, as a general statement, seems to employ a different philosophy: do what you want until you run up against someone else; when this happens, sometimes you fight it out, but most of the time that other person is expected to accept your behaviour and move on, even if it goes against their self-interest.

For example, my neighbors had a wedding the other day, and decided to set up the party just on the roadside with massive speakers blasting ridiculously loud music from 10am to 2am nonstop.  But I was not to confront them and ask them to turn it down.  After all, some day it might be me who wants to blast loud music, and then it will be their turn to sit there and take it.

Similarly, minibus taxis stop wherever and whenever they want to drop off or pick up a passenger—even if the passenger they want to pick up is just 30 feet from the previous stop and could just as easily have walked.  All these stops make the journey take much longer, but none of the other passengers complain—again, soon they will be the one needing to get off at the most convenient location, and will be glad to have everyone else allow them to do so.

In Uganda, order seems to be maintained by a system of mutual self-sacrifice, where the good of the One almost always outweighs the good of the Many.  For even if you’re part of the Many now, at some point in the future you’ll be taking your turn as the One.

(Note: many people suggested that there are certain personal household tasks that you cannot ask a housekeeper to do: making your bed, washing your underwear, or hanging your underwear outside, for instance.  I did not include these because I’ve never experienced this myself, regardless of whether I’ve been living with Ugandans or Americans, at home or at a hotel.  I know that it probably is a widespread cultural norm, but it seems to be not as universal as it once may have been – at least based on my own experience.  Also WordPress makes it really hard to change numbered bullet points after I’ve written them.)

Where the Streets Have No Name: How Africa Could Leapfrog the Humble Address and Lead the World in GPS-Based Shipping

Here is my address in Kampala, Uganda (with place names changed for security):

“We’re in Ntinda on Mobutu Road, near Fancy Supermarket – most of the boda drivers know Mobutu Road.  Two ways to get there.  (1) Go on Jinja Road to the Shell station just past the Airtel roundabout. Turn left on Mobutu road at Shell, and go 3.5km. If you get to Fancy supermarket you’ve gone about 50m too far.  (2) If you can get to Kabira Country Club you can also find the house.  From Kabira, go back on Ntinda-Bukoto Road toward Airtel roundabout, but turn left (“go down”) on the first tarmac road, at the busy intersection with 2 petrol stations, God Cares Supermarket, and lots of bars. Turn left again at Mobutu Road and go 3km. Again, if you reach Fancy supermarket you’ve gone 50m too far.  The house is very nondescript: it’s in a compound behind a big dirt parking lot.  Call once you’re close and I’ll come out to find you.”

I got a real kick out of entering that in the “address” field in my response to my 5-year reunion invitation.

Here is my address in Rwanda (again, with place names changed):

Me: “KG 335, house #23, Kimironko”

Delivery person: “where is that?”

Me: “Ok, it’s the same street as Rosty Club – new Rosty, not its old location.  House #23.  It’s 3 houses down from Rosty.”

Delivery person: “Ok”

[10 minutes later]

Delivery person: “I’m at Rosty.  Where are you?”

Me: “Let me come outside and find you.”

The key phrase in both of those addresses was “I’ll come outside and find you.”  At least in Rwanda the government has made nominal progress by implementing a system of street names and house numbers, but no one really uses them.

But thanks to Google, developing countries like Uganda and Rwanda may end up never needing to: they could skip the address and go straight to GPS.

Here’s what Google Maps shows me if I type in “Casablanca Pub and Restaurant, Bukoto, Kampala”:

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The 6 Things You Can’t Do In Uganda

If you measure freedom purely by the amount of restriction the government places on individual behavior, Uganda may be the freest country in the world.  There is almost nothing that is not allowed.  Want to open a noisy bar next to a school?  It is allowed.  Want to carry a loaded gun on the back of a motorcycle?  It is allowed.  Want to become a taxi driver but don’t have a driver’s license?  If you have UGX 5,000, it is allowed.

But every now and then you hear a word or phrase that stops you in your tracks:

“No.”

“Stop.”

“That is not allowed here.”

Excuse me?  Something is not right.  What was that word again… “no”?  You try to remember what it means.  Ah yes, I’m starting to remember that concept.  So there are indeed things you are not allowed to do.

But what those things are, are fairly surprising, and they don’t seem to follow any logical pattern.

So now, after 4 years in Uganda, I’ve compiled an exhaustive list of all the things you can NOT do in Uganda.  There are only six.

In Uganda, you cannot:

  1. Carry things not in a bag.

Once I’d gone to a party with my housemate at the time.  We’d brought a grocery bag heavy with beers and sodas, and a couple of loose bags of chips (crisps to the Brits)—loose meaning not packed in a grocery sack.  But when it came time to carry them to the party, trouble ensued.  When I offered to take the heavier bag full of drinks, offering my housemate the lighter load of chips, he looked at me with shock and disgust.

“I cannot carry those – they are not in a bag!”

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

“Man, no one wants to see what you are carrying,” he replied in a tone that suggested I had almost caused a cross-cultural kerfuffle.

So I took the chips and Ray took the heavy bag of drinks.

This was not a one-off occurrence. Indeed, it seems a cultural staple of Uganda that whatever you buy, you are to carry in a bag of some kind, never loose, no matter how small or how singular.  If you’re buying one thing at the supermarket—a bottle of water, a chocolate bar, a single pen—the cashier virtually forces a bag upon you, no matter that said item could easily fit in your pocket.  Sometimes the bag girl takes bag excess to entire new heights, packing the small item alone in a small bag, then putting it inside a bigger bag with other items.  The flummoxment of my face at seeing the bag girl instinctively put a single pen into a bag is met only by her own astonishment at my refusal of the “kaveera.”  You can almost hear her snickering with her amazed colleagues as you walk out.

Perhaps in a poor country, it is not polite to flaunt your purchases in public—even if you’ve purchased merely a pen.  Or perhaps bags, with their myriad uses (carrying things, lighting cook stoves, covering your hair on a boda ride), are seen as a nice bonus from shopping, and it would be perceived as cheap to not pack your items in a bag.

Whatever the case, carrying things not in a bag can be a cultural snafu.

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Angola Part 2: “A Land of Contrast”

Bart Simpson seemed out of place in the Model UN, but at least he got his stock phrases down.  “In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast,” he said.

It’s hard to land in Angola without thinking the same thing.  Skyscrapers next to slums, gleaming new hotels next to old façades riddled with bullet holes, Luanda and the rest of the country: the contrast is impossible to avoid.  It’s as if wealth flowed into the country so fast it struggled to keep up with its own potential.

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The Smallest Political Scandal of All Time

hillary blackberry

Perhaps we should focus on the potential badassness of Hillary’s emails?

Maybe after 4 years in Africa my bar for being phased by political scandal is just pretty high, but am I the only one who thinks the Hillary Clinton email affair ranks as the tiniest political scandal of all time?

Let’s recap what all the fuss is about.  Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, sent some work-related emails from her personal email account.  This may or may not have been against State Department regulations.

I thought to myself, surely there must be something more here.  Surely the second-biggest obsession of the political class during this year’s election cycle must take more than 2 sentences to describe.

But after reading a bit about the issue, this appears to be the entirety of the iceberg.  No one died.  No money was stolen.  There is no evidence that any information in the emails was hacked or stolen by hostile parties.  And of course there’s the simple fact that nearly every government official, including Hillary’s accusers, has done the same thing.

And this is a big deal?

Meanwhile here in Uganda we are used to actual political scandal, where government officials bully their rivals and steal millions from widows and orphans.  The mysterious death of a popular general a few days ago has raised the spectre of political assassination.  Leaders of the opposition are regularly teargassed and thrown in jail whenever they try to have rallies.  In 2012 officials in the Office of the Prime Minister brazenly stole $24 million from programs meant to help war widows and orphans, and before that officials in the Social Security administration had stolen $136 million from pensioners by transferring funds onto ghost accounts.

A bigger deal than Hillary's emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

A bigger deal than Hillary’s emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed (source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13240554)

Turning the mirror on ourselves, it seems not so long ago that a certain hero of the conservative movement sold arms to Iran to fund terrorists in Nicaragua.  ExxonMobil has known about climate change since the 1970s, and has since then been funding fake think tanks to spread misinformation about the role of CO2 in damaging the earth’s climate.  And who can forget the made-up evidence that was used to justify the war in Iraq, resulting in the loss of $1 trillion and the lives of more than 4,000 American servicemen and women (not to mention destabilizing the Middle East, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and enabling the rise of ISIS)?

These are scandals.  Hillary’s emails are a snafu – maybe.  At the very least, the media’s insatiable attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails is the surest proof yet that there is no liberal bias in the media – otherwise they would have let such small potatoes subside months ago.

So the next time you read some new minutiae revealed about these emails, just keep calm, carry on, and thank God you live in a country where the government works so well that a Secretary sending emails from the wrong account could be considered a scandal.

Why is the world’s best rock climber setting up a solar project in Angola?

It's alive!  The first SMART solar system in Southern Africa

It’s alive! The first SMART solar system in Southern Africa

Every good expat aid worker loves nothing more than filling in new countries on their travel map: new visas to stick in their passports, new local cultures to teach the locals about, and new characters to write home about.  The past two weeks in Angola certainly did not disappoint; the best part of this job is still the fascinating places you get to go and ridiculously interesting people you get to meet: guys who climb the hardest rock faces on earth and in their spare time set up solar projects, de-miners (as in people who go out into fields of landmines and blow them up), Vice Media producers and incredibly skilled freelance photographers, like-minded off-grid solar professionals, and some of Angola’s top business and government leaders.  And after two weeks, it appears the solar revolution is safely under way in Southern Africa.  Plus there should soon be a pretty rad Vice Sports documentary about the whole thing!

Waku Kungo, Angola

Waku Kungo, Angola

I found out I was going to Angola about 5 weeks ago when Laurent, one of BBOXX’s co-founders, approached my desk and asked in his deep Belgian voice, “so Andrew, do you want to go to Angola to help set up a Vice documentary?”

Angola?  Vice Media?  That sounds like something I’d say yes to.  But tell me again, why are we going to Angola again?

It turns out that one of the world’s best rock climbers wanted to set up a solar project in rural Angola, and we’d been selected to do it.

I didn’t see that one coming.

Alex Honnold is known for doing incredible—some might say incredibly dangerous—feats that no one else does, like climb El Capitan with no ropes.  I don’t know if it quite compares to riding a motorcycle on Entebbe Road in terms of danger, but it’s still pretty hardcore.  Alex has sponsorships from The North Face and many other companies, but still lives simply (he lives in a van, for example, so he can travel the world climbing).  As a result, he earns more money than he actually needs, and has used this money to set up a foundation in his name.  But while you might expect based on other athletes’ charities that this foundation would be focused on setting up climbing gyms in inner cities, the Honnold Foundation has its sights set on bigger things—indeed, the biggest issue facing mankind today: climate change and the urgent adoption of renewable energy.

This looked really hard

This looked really hard: Stacy Bare belays Alex Honnold who seems to enjoy climbing upside down like this

To this end, the Honnold Foundation had given BBOXX a grant to lay the seeds of a solar business in a country far from anywhere we’d tried to do business before: Angola.  At a minimum we’d be able to get solar energy into 100 or so homes.  But in the best case scenario, the project would help kickstart a much bigger business that could bring solar electricity to millions of people.  And a bit of this, hopefully, would be captured on film to bring attention to the issue to the world.

Why Angola?  It turns out that one of the other key members of the climbing crew, North Face athlete and Sierra Club ambassador Stacy Bare, had formerly worked for HALO Trust removing landmines in Cuanza Sul Province – he knew the need, and coming to Angola was his idea.  More on the energy need in Angola in later posts.

Angola is not a country you just walk into and set up shop – it’s almost as hard for a European or American to get a visa to Angola as it is for most Africans to get a visa to Europe or the United States.  (Interestingly, I hear these restrictions have been put in place fairly recently because so many Europeans have been fleeing austerity and seeking opportunities in Angola.  How ironic!)  You can’t get the visa on arrival, but you also can’t get a visa in Uganda or Rwanda since there is no Angolan Embassy in either country.  Instead I had to fly to Nairobi to apply for the visa.  It took five days, but with assistance from the surprisingly helpful consular staff, I finally got the visa—the first step (and biggest project risk) was out of the way.

Visa in hand, I arrived in Luanda on a Sunday, with a suitcase loaded with a BB17 SMART and ready to find someone willing to set up a solar shop somewhere in this vast country.

Check back soon for more updates.