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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.

We were traveling between the western Ugandan towns of Kasese and Fort Portal, flying down the road in our shared taxi car, when we noticed it. What I first saw was a pile of green clothing, which matched the uniforms worn by the students walking along the road. The heap of clothing was laying in the middle of the road, and my first thought was That can’t be a kid… no one would leave a child lying in the middle of the street. Jon said the first thing he noticed was a huge group of kids running towards the pile of clothing.

As our car neared the spot, it became apparent that it was a child in the street – a boy about 6 or 7 years old.  We stopped the car just as a woman ran into the street and picked him up.  He was completely limp in her arms, and bleeding profusely.

She brought him to the side of the road, and when she laid him down, he started to cry out for his mother.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief – I had been almost certain that he was dead.

Our driver, Billy, asked the woman what had happened, and she said that he’d been hit by a boda boda.  The boda driver had fled on his bike into the bush…a hit and run.

Jon and I asked the driver if we should take the boy to the hospital in Fort Portal, about 20 km away.  Billy said that there was a clinic much closer, in the town we’d just passed.  He asked if we minded the detour, and of course we said we didn’t.

Billy sprung into action, turning the car around and popping the trunk of his station wagon so that the woman and the boy could sit inside.  The woman sat with the boy on her lap, swabbing the blood off his head and face and trying to calm him as he wailed for his mom.  When I asked the driver if she knew the boy, he said no, that she had just been passing by, a Good Samaritan.

We rushed back to the town with the clinic, which happened to be right next to the school the boy had come from.  Billy and the Good Samaritan woman brought the boy out of the car to the clinic, which was filled with people waiting in line to be seen.  I could understand parts of what they were saying in their local language – “Emergency”, “He was hit by a motorcycle,” “someone find his teacher -we need to call his Mom”.  Clearly, the whole community assembled at the clinic knew the boy, and they crowded around him, chattering about what to do.

Finally, a nun (and evidently a nurse) came to the scene, picked up the boy, and brought him inside.  We left her with a small donation for the clinic, in hopes that it would help pay for the boy’s treatment.

We’d done what we could do, and Billy got back into the car to resume the drive to Fort Portal.

On the way back, Jon thanked Billy for not hesitating to help, even though it meant time and money to him.  “When a life is in danger, money doesn’t matter,” Billy replied.  “I just did what any other human being would do.”

A few kilometers past the site of the accident, we were pulled over by the police.  Oh no, I thought,
they’re going to give us trouble. The police here, like many other places, are infamous for being corrupt and not often protecting those whom they are supposed to protect.  I was suspicious.

Instead, the officer wanted to know what we knew about the accident, if we’d seen the boda boda driver, and if we knew anything about how the boy was doing.  The officer had heard that he was dead, and he was very concerned.  We told him our story, and he told us the police would be searching the area around where the boda driver fled, to try and find him.  I was grateful, and surprised, by the competence and helpfulness of the police in this situation.

On the rest of the drive, I reflected on all of the goodness we’d seen after such a terrible accident.  The Good Samaritan woman who took care of the child like he was her own.  Our driver, Billy, who was so quick to help.  And the police officer who was ready to do his job to help.  In a place like Uganda, where just getting by is a struggle for most, it was so redeeming to see people take care of a stranger, even at their own expense.


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