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Last week Lauren and I met with Sam and Tesh, two Silicon Valley tech experts of Ethiopian descent who are starting up an exciting business called 4afri. Basically, 4Afri aims to use the cell phone as a mechanism to deliver empowering information to Africans living in rural and/or low-income settings. According to Sam and Tesh, “the cell phone is the computer of the poor…we want to use it to democratize access to information.” On our travels around Uganda, Lauren and I have certainly found this to be true. One is hard pressed to find a village, even in the most remote areas, where cell service isn’t available and a cell phone isn’t ringing.

So, if Sam and Tesh have their way, people here will soon be able to use their cell phone to receive text messages with information that they would otherwise have to pay for, go online to find, or by chance get through word-of-mouth. Imagine, rural farmers could get real-time weather reports, commodity pricing indexes, and advice on organic farming methods. Expecting mothers could get important information on how to stay healthy before, during, and after a pregnancy. For that matter, nurses could get basic information on how to diagnose and treat diseases.

Their just getting started, but I can already tell this idea’s got legs…

creating recycled paper picture frames

creating recycled paper picture frames

On today’s agenda was a visit to Papula Paper, a fair trade paper making outfit that has a very special place in my heart.

Papula Paper was started in 2006 by the founder of Uganda Crafts, Betty. Betty wanted to start a fair trade project in her home district of Mpigi, and was given some startup money for a building. She chose to build a paper workshop and retail space just a minute’s walk south of the equator, a popular stopping point for tourists on their way to some of Uganda’s national parks. In 2006, my friend Muireann and I took a trip to the building site and helped design the building. We also brainstormed names for the new project. My suggestion won in the end: Papula Paper (from the Luganda word for Paper, olupapula.

Coming back to Uganda and seeing the success of Papula has been really exciting for me. So it’s no surprise that today’s trip and meeting with them was a lot of fun.

Lillian, one of Betty’s daughters and one of the managers at the Equator location, took the time to show us around the workshop and explained the paper making process. The papers that Papula creates are all made using recycled or natural materials. Farmers bring the tops of pineapples, elephant grass, and old banana fibers and sell them to the workshop. Individuals and organizations donate old printed pieces of paper. These materials are the basis for the paper, which can later be turned into a bunch of different products: stationary, greeting cards, boxes, notebooks, etc.

cute stationary in a pretty little box.

cute stationary in a pretty little box.

Papula’s products are beautiful and it’s cool to see how discarded materials can be put into use again. Papula is also notable for its commitment to the community of disabled individuals in Mpigi. Several of the full-time workshop staff are disabled, and many others from the community bring their work to the retail shop to be sold as well.

Having watched Papula Paper grow from just an idea to a successful project promoting environmental sustainability and employing dozens of local community members, I can’t help but be optimistic for its future.

lillian demonstrates for us

lillian demonstrates for us

hand loom at work

hand loom at work

Hand Loom Crafts makes gorgeous table mats and table runners.  They’re a woman-owned small business and have been very involved with the formation of the Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade.  I love this photo of an artisan hard at work over his loom.  You can learn more about Hand Loom Crafts here.


Last week, Jon and I got the chance to visit the Maganjo Progressive Women’s Group, a small group of artisans in the Kampala suburb of Maganjo. The group isn’t all women, but women definitely have a central role in the group.  Since 1993, they’ve existed as a network of about 25 active members. Together they make and market their crafts and support each other in a lot of quieter ways as well.  The group members who welcomed us to the homestead of  one of the members seemed as close as family.

Apart from their handicrafts, which run the standard gammut of recycled paper beads, woven mats, and hand loom cloth, the group has a number of little innovations which they use individually and spread to their community.  Jon and I were quite dumbfounded at all the little things this group has invented or adopted to make their lives a little better.  The house we visited seemed to be home to about a million little innovations.

First, there was the solar cooker.  This little contraption dries food using just the heat of the sun.  Inside they had tiny eggplants (which are a bitter, but much loved, food here) that get mashed up into a paste.  I also had the chance to have a little bit of dried cabbage, which they also use as a condiment.  Mmm. 🙂

solar cooker

solar cooker

Next, the refrigerator.  This was a small box with charcoal walls.  There were banana stems on a small shelf inside near the top of the box.  Sitting atop the box was a plastic basin filled with water.  Apparently, to keep the contraption cool, you just pour water into the box from the top.  I have no idea how this has a cooling effect… but it does!



To improve sanitation, the group invented a sink using a jerrycan and some wood.  Now when people are done in the bathroom, washing hands is simple and clean.



This group did not stop there.  They even came up with their own form of coffee or tea… crushing small seeds from a local plant and then adding hot water and sugar.  They let us try this too… and it was quite delicious!

seeds for tea

seeds for tea

Jon and I left feeling quite energized by the ingenuity of this group.  Not only have they come together to do craft work and market their products, they are constantly innovating and sharing ways of making their lives better.  This kind of “development work” hardly gets any play… local, smart, inexpensive development happening under the radar so that it rarely is seen.  It made me wonder how many other cool, innovative things I’ve passed by in my time here…

Our dear friend Alex (and Jon’s pledge son and usher in our wedding) has been really making a name for himself as a big leader in the Obama campaign and now the administration.  This is not the first article about him, but it is a good  one.  We’re proud of you, Alex!

There are two major English language daily newspapers in Uganda. The New Vision, which is in some part government sponsored, and the Daily Monitor, which is independent. Oftentimes they’ll have the same lead article, and both try to showcase a few different points of view in most issues. But sometimes, their spin is completely obvious when the two papers sit side by side on the newsstand, announcing totally different things.

Today, for example, the difference was nearly unbelievable. The Daily Monitor announced that “Peers Pin Museveni on Bad Governance” in huge letters on the front cover. The article goes on to discuss the findings of the African Peer Review Mechanism report which essentially grades the country on how it’s doing on a number of factors. The report basically says that Uganda has done well in terms of keeping the AIDS rate down, and has decreased the poverty level significantly. But the report calls out Uganda’s president for holding off real democracy during his 23 years in power. It criticizes his handling of the constitutional amendment abolishing term limits (he paid off the MPs making the decision), and the unchecked power of the executive branch, among other things.

The New Vision, on the other hand, didn’t want its readers to get that message. Instead, its main headline is the overly sensationalistic “Homosexual Admits Recruiting Students“, in huge, bold lettering. [Sidenote: homosexuality here is extremely taboo… and for that matter also illegal. So a lead story like this is clearly designed to get readers’ attention. The issues around homosexuality could also be a whole other blog; take a look at the story to see some of it for yourself.]

In smaller print, on the lower right hand corner of the front page, the New Vision spins the African Peer Review Mechanism report to be a little less damning: “Poverty, Democracy Challenges for Uganda“. The article does make note of the report’s criticism of president Museveni, but it spends most of its time outlining all of the things Uganda’s done right.

In instances like this, it seems pretty clear to me what’s going on. Media which is not free from government interference can be a powerful force – and can send a lot of mixed signals to citizens trying to inform themselves about their country.


Every Wednesday a small trading centre called Mugusu, just outside of Fort Portal, plays host to one of the biggest open air markets in Uganda. Last Wednesday, Lauren and I took the opportunity to check it out.

Mugusu market is hard to describe to someone that hasn’t seen it. Basically imagine the craziest flea market/county fair jammed into a tiny space without any of the rides, buildings, or cotton candy.

When we arrived hundreds of people were roaming among the endless sea of vendors and stalls. There is a meat section where you can literally buy pieces of goat that still have the hair on them. There is a used bike section, a matoke section, and a “food court” of sorts where people take a break from shopping to enjoy a cold drink. But, Mugusu is most famous for its second-hand clothing selection. Endless piles of unsorted clothes sit on tarps throughout the market. Shoppers get down on their hands and knees and swim through the piles in search of that great deal. Lauren and I joined in and walked away with two shirts and a jacket. (I’m particularly proud of the jacket—a good-as-new Land’s End windbreaker that would easily go for $50 in the states, but that I got for 7,000 shillings…about $3.50).

Walking around Mugusu, it becomes clear that this weekly tradition is a much-anticipated gathering for residents of the area. Everywhere small groups of friends were engaged in discussion, probably chatting about the antics of their children, the fate of the crop, and perhaps some politics. There was something special in the low-tech expression of community and commerce…something that is all-too-rare at home. It made me think that maybe I’ll start a weekly “open air garage sale and gathering” tradition somewhere in the Midwest. Heck, maybe I’ll call it Mugusu Market.

The main purpose of our trip west was to meet with two fair trade farming cooperatives that have been participating in the Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade (UGAFAT). As part of our research for Assetmap, we wanted to know how these two groups use technology, how they access markets, how they form partnerships both within Uganda and abroad, and a host of other things.

The two groups we visited were called “Mubuku Vanilla Farmers Association” and “Mpanga Tea Farmers Cooperative.” Both are located outside of Fort Portal.

Mubuku Vanilla is comprised of over 1,000 farming families located in the Mubuku sub-county. 14 primary societies–or groups of farmers–come together to form the larger organization. Many of the farmers grow an array of different crops including banana (matoke), maize, cocoa and coffee, but all commit to harvesting at least some vanilla, which the organization then sells to a processor in the area called Ndali, which in turn sells the processed vanilla on the global market, both to conventional buyers and “fair trade buyers” (such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, we discovered) who pay a higher price.

During our visit to Mubuku we chatted for a little over an hour with the General Secretary (Israel) and Sales Manager (Andrew) of the organization. After the interview, Israel and Andrew took us on a tour of a few of their members’ farms to show us how vanilla grows. Although Mubuku is a young organization (2 years old) with modest resources (headquarters is a small one-room office with two wooden desks and a bookshelf), its clear these guys have their act together. On the day we came, Andrew was sorting through piles of material about how to get their farmers certified organic. The walls of the office are covered with organized charts, timelines, and plans written neatly on butcher-paper.

Mubuku’s key challenge, as is the case for most of the groups were meeting with, is the lack of a sufficient market for their product. Currently, Mubuku sells about a third of its total vanilla crop to Ndali, who is their only buyer at present. The rest lays fallow and basically goes to waste. The challenge of finding additional buyers isn’t helped by the fact that they have very little access to technologies that would help them connect to the outside world. Israel just recently started an email account, but has to travel about an hour to Fort Portal or Kasese Town to use the internet at unreliable and costly internet cafes. But, with their dedication, strong organizational skills, and unique product, it seems that Mubuku has a bright future–or so we hope.



Mpanga Tea, in contrast to Mubuku, is a twenty-year old organization located on a large compound complete with its own tea processing plant. About 800 tea farmers contribute to the Mpanga cooperative. Mpanga has established customer relationships with large fair trade buyers, such as CafeDirect, in addition to doing regular business on the conventional market. And, as you might expect, access to internet is no problem for them! It was interesting to talk with Mpanga’s General Secretary Rogers and imagine what 20 more years of development might do for the Mubuku people. Rogers explained in detail how tea exporting works–a complicated auction system that, for African tea farmers, takes place in Mombasa, and is largely a relic of British colonial creation. Our meeting with Rogers was especially encouraging for the Assetmap project, because he spoke emphatically about how it was important for different groups around Uganda to share information and skills with one another for the purpose of national development. After the meeting, Rogers took us on a short walk into the beautiful tea fields where we also saw a clinic Mpanga has started for local farming families to sue, paid for by the “social premium” provided by CafeDirect as part of its commitment to fair trade.


For me, these farm visits were particularly enjoyable for a few reasons.

For one, I’m am learning a ton about the world of ‘fair trade’. Up to now I had a surface level understanding of why it is important, but I left the details to the expert in the family–Lauren. But, walking vanilla and tea fields as Israel, Andrew, and Rogers explained the miniscule prices paid by transnational corporations, and the opportunity fair trade offers for achieving a sustainable livelihood as a farmer made it come alive for me.

Secondly, walking those fields turned on the part of me that longs to retire at 40 and spend the rest of my days tilling a few acres in the quiet company of a few good thoughts. I like to think farming is in my blood, even if I have been a city/suburb kid for my entire life.

Lastly, I gained some new confidence in the usefullness of our work with Assetmap. In virtually every instance, the groups we have visited with testify that the people who buy their products found them through informal, social means…person X knows person Y who knows about organization X that makes so-and-so product. By simply mapping out fair trade organizations and some basic information about them, and posting this information online in a dynamic searchable format I think we will have done a great deal to improve the ability of fair trade producers and consumers to connect with each other and advance the cause….or that’s the idea, at least.

Our dear friend, Adva, gave us a really cool wedding gift way back in June: A weekend getaway at an island retreat in Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.

Lake Bunyoni is near Kabale, and made for a perfect two-night stopover between our fair trade visits in Masaka and Fort Portal.

The place turned out to be absolutely incredible. We stayed in a “geodome”, a dome hut made out of natural materials with one open side facing the lake. We had a lovely sitting area in front of it, and could read, chat, and take tea while watching dozens of birds fly around. We were lucky enough to see a bunch of Grey Crowned Cranes (Uganda’s national bird) during the trip, including a few close fly-overs. Additionally, we saw an African otter (LAURA!) from our porch, which was awesome!

our view of the lake from inside the geodome.

our view of the lake from inside the geodome.

In addition to birding and admiring our view, we hiked around the island (escorted by the friendly island dog, Jimmy), went canoeing, ate some delicious food, and played a lot of gin (the card game! And I won, by the way).

jimmy loves every inch of his island.

jimmy loves every inch of his island.

sun setting over lovely lake bunyonyi

sun setting over lovely lake bunyonyi

The last really cool thing about Byoona Amagara is that it’s a non-profit working really closely with the local community, especially those who live on the other parts of the small island. They run some educational programming and maintain a really good library and mini-movie theater for guests and locals alike.

All in all, an amazing time. Props to Adva for sending us here!

After our weeklong radio silence, it’s time we get back into writing. We just returned back from a trip through western Uganda, mostly for work but also for a little play. We had a hard time with internet, so excuse us as our many stories from the week trickle onto the blog, probably in no real order.

Stop one on our trip was to Kakuuto, just a dozen kilometers away from the southern border with Tanzania. Kakuuto is the home of Ostrich Eco-Tours, a small ecotourism outfit that has been a part of the newly formed Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade since the beginning.

Ostrich Eco-Tours is the only place in Uganda which has ostriches – 9 of them, in fact – and in addition to visiting with a peacock, horses, guinea fowl, etc.,  you can ride the ostriches if you are so inclined.

Obviously, this was the chance of a lifetime for me, and for a mere 15,000 Uganda Shillings ($8), I went for a ride.



Jon decided to take a ride as well…

holding on tight...

holding on tight...

Apart from running the eco-tourism center, the project makes crafts and sells them onsite. In addition to some of the more basic Ugandan crafts, like barkcloth items and woven mats, they make Ostrich-related products, such as feather dusters made from ostrich feathers and painted ostrich eggs. Unique stuff, and admittedly a little strange, but we did buy a feather duster in the end!

After ostriches, we took shared taxi cars back to Masaka. During this 70 km trip, we were crammed into the car with the most people I’ve ever seen in a little sedan… ELEVEN total. On one occasion, there was the driver sitting on someone’s lap in the driver’s seat, me, a mother and her two children in the passenger’s seat, and 6 people in the back seat. The second time it happened on this journey, it was Jon and I in the passenger’s seat, the driver on someone’s lap in the driver’s seat and SEVEN PEOPLE (!) in the back. Unbelievable… and lucky to be alive. 🙂


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