Wednesday, March 30, 2011

update: ambc

****The following is an article that I wrote to hopefully be published in celebration of Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.****

I arrived in Kisoga, Uganda under a fair amount of uncertainty. The organization I was assigned to had been operating for ten years, and was essentially the philanthropic arm of a Catholic Parish in Italy. Over those ten years, Mirembe Maria had sponsored hundreds of children’s school fees, built dozens of buildings for both local individuals and the Catholic Church, founded several conventional and vocational schools, and funded countless other similarly minded ventures. Funding began to dry up with the global recession, and so I was brought in and given one task: better the economic well-being of the people of my community. It was straightforward enough, but still had no idea how I was possibly going to accomplish it.

As I integrated into Kisoga, I sat down and spoke with hundreds of individuals about their lives, their problems, and, most importantly, their goals. While people’s lives are as diverse here as anywhere else on earth, there seemed to be a very common theme in terms of their goals and most immediate problems: money. People needed money to feed their families, to buy their own land to farm, to send their children through school, to open their own businesses, and to pay for things like medical treatment and their other necessities.
It was not exactly a revelation for the ages. The question of, “how?” still loomed larger than ever, but it was a start. I looked deeper into my community for the solution. I wanted to know the types of things people were already doing, and to see if a fresh perspective might take a stale idea to new heights.

It wasn’t until my sister, Jenna, called me from Ohio that the project finally started to come together. She had told me that she seen a booth in her university student union selling African handicrafts for charity. When she told me the prices these items were fetching, I couldn’t believe it. I immediately remembered that I had spoken with a handful of women who used to be part of a group that made beaded necklaces out of recycled paper, but had stopped because the local market was completely oversaturated and profits had been nearly impossible to come by. It seemed that, if the right connections with people and businesses back in America were be formed, the paper beaded necklaces could make an ideal product to export.

I believe that, far from being at ends with it, the private sector is one of the best tools we can use for development. I knew that similar programs with craft sales had already been put into practice; after all, that was how I had the idea in the first place. I thought, however, that if we could draw on ideas from businesses as opposed to charities, we might be able improve upon their models. First of all, nothing would be given away. Group members would buy all of their own material up-front, pay for their share of shipping and handling, and would earn only as much as they were able to sell. I hoped that these measures would discourage corruption, infighting, and opportunism while building a base of real business knowledge and encouraging hard-work and quality products. I had also decided to encourage any retailers who would support us to make their own profits on our goods. In this, the goals were to provide an incentive to push sales of our jewelry as well as promote expansion into shops and even regions where we might not otherwise have a presence. All of this, I hoped, would combine to build a better, more economically sustainable business.

Things were slow in the beginning. While dozens of people in Kisoga expressed interest in forming the group, less than ten initially joined. Of those, perhaps only four showed anything in the way of commitment. Meanwhile, I had only found one American business that was interested in picking up our products: a salon in Columbus, Ohio that my aunt owns and operates with my Mom.

We pushed ahead anyway, and before long Ave Maria Bead Co. sent a shipment to the salon. That first package contained just a small number of basic necklaces and a flyer with a photo and a brief explanation of our group. I was terrified that the product wouldn’t sell and that these women, who had put their trust in me, would be rewarded with only the loss of their time and money. Less than two weeks later, however, we received word from the salon. The necklaces had sold out, back orders had been placed, and some of the customers wanted to carry our products and retail them in their own businesses.

Just a few months have passed since that first shipment, but Ave Maria Bead Co. has continued to grow by leaps and bounds since that point. The group grew seemingly overnight from its original nine members to now over forty. They have elected their own leadership and make their own rules and regulations. Another big development has been every member’s enrollment to their own mobile banking account. Savings accounts have long been perceived as inaccessible by so many in this area, but this new technology has changed that. It will give our members not only a safe, secure way to send, receive, and store money, but will hopefully encourage a culture of savings and financial responsibility.

The retail side in America has grown just as quickly as the production side, meaning more profits for everyone involved (everyone except me, of course!). Volume and revenue continue to increase. There are even two regional teams now, one in Ohio and one in Mississippi, who are dedicated to sales and distribution. Our products can be found in seven retail locations, and this number is growing all the time. The customer experience has also evolved as all jewelry now comes with a tag identifying the artisan who made the piece. The card also points buyers to a web page where photos, stories, and letters from the artist can be found.

The success of Ave Maria Bead Co. has been exhilarating for everyone involved. Our retailers in America are happy to help out a cause they believe in, while still making some profits for themselves. Many of our customers have sent encouraging words supporting our products and our goals. Our group members are better off financially, but they also take immense pride in knowing that they have earned their own money and have not taken any handouts. Some have even begun to move into their own ventures, taking with them their skills, knowledge, and new found self-confidence. As for me, I am just happy to have been a part of this. To have helped create something, watch it grow, and continue to work for its future.

Monday, March 21, 2011

prejudice is bad

Growing up as a white, middle class male in the American Midwest never exposed me to much in the way of prejudice. I can’t remember ever feeling isolated or different from the people around me. The only real way I’d ever stood out was the freakishness with which my body developed, but luckily for me, a sixth grade giant who already has to shave everyday is not exactly a target for ridicule.

My days of blending seamlessly into my surroundings ended abruptly when I moved to Uganda. The communities here are so homogenous that people can tell when you are from a different region of this country. Imagine, then, how much I stick out. I am literally the only white person in my town. A minority of one in a community of 80,000. I try to treat every experience in country, good or bad, as a learning opportunity, and what has this lifestyle taught me? Racism and prejudice is bad. You can quote me on that. It’s a revelation, I know.

The fact is that no matter how hard I try to fit in, I never will in Uganda. I will always be seen as an outsider while I am here. My name is often muzungu, the color of my skin. I am asked dozens of times per day for money. I get talked about by gossiping women in the market as if I am not standing right in front of them. I am overcharged for almost everything. I am so berated by requests that I am often suspicious of anyone who approaches me. Most days I am able to take it all in stride, at least hiding my aggravation usually by ignoring rude behavior, but sometimes stopping to address things in a constructive way. There are rare occasions though, when I’m caught on a bad day and my temper gets the best of me. By American standards, it would seem pretty mild, but I’m still not at all proud of these moments.

In the past, this is the part of my blog where I would try to come full circile and explain things away, usually citing some differences in culture. While the fact that I, along with my other Peace Corps Volunteers, get treated more like tourist attractions than people probably can be explained in terms of differences in culture, I don’t think that excuses anything. Being singled out for standing apart from the majority is a terrible thing to experience. Even on my best days it is extremely hurtful and always takes a bit of the wind of sails.

I didn’t write this blog to create some kind of pity party for myself. My suffering here is miniscule, and there hasn’t been a single day when any of it has outweighed the good parts of my service. I love it here, and for the most part I love the people here (although, like anywhere else, there are good and bad). What encouraged me to sit down and write this was a conversation I had with my friend, Jake. Like me, he’s been frustrated by the prejudice he receives in his community, but he said something that really put the whole situation into perspective. He said something to the extent that even though it was obnoxious and even hurtful at times, we get treated the way we do for two main reasons: the people in our communities perceive us to be very smart and very rich, two incredibly positive things. With that said, I realized that I can’t even imagine how alienating it must feel to be a part of a people judged for being intellectually, physically, morally, or in any other way inferior. I am not advocating that we ignore all of the differences that make us unique and interesting, as is often the case in today’s overly politically correct world. Rather, my experience has just reinforced in me the notion that we should treat everyone with the love and respect that they deserve.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

back to business

I remember the first time I seriously considered becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was sitting at my desk, absolutely miserable, when I received a Facebook message from my old high school buddy, Chris, a PCV in Ecuador at the time. I decided to check it out for myself at and was immediately enthralled with the idea.

I had strived my entire life to put myself into the position I was in, working as a consultant in the big city of Chicago. I was just out of college and only three months into my job, but my thoughts were already straying toward the idea of leaving the corporate world behind forever. I wanted to experience something different. I wanted to help people, and I felt compelled because to be in a position to do so. I wanted to do something that I loved, and just as importantly, that I believed in. Peace Corps would give me the opportunity to do all of these things. Finally, after about a year and a bit of a winding road, I found myself out from behind my desk and bound for Uganda.

Despite the 27 month stint I had committed to, I still got a lot of questions from people about what I wanted to do after Peace Corps. I knew there was plenty of time to consider my options, but I told most people that I would probably end up returning to school for a master’s in some form international development or economic policy and then try for the State Department. Here I am now, though, more than a year removed from my courageous escape from corporate America, and I am set on getting an MBA and rejoining the business world (after I finish my service here, of course). What’s more, I am sure this is what I want. Absolutely positive. If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that I studied my ass off for the GMAT (just finished Thursday!), and this has got to be something that no human being would put themselves through unless they were convinced that they wanted to go to business school.

I know what this looks like. You must be thinking to yourself that old Dave sold out. The truth is, I still believe in all of those things that made me want to leave my desk job. I still believe in doing what you love and believe in and I still think that people who are lucky enough to be in a position to help others should do so, I just see the methods a bit differently now.

When I look around me, I see thousands of NGOs in Uganda dumping millions of dollars in the country. The intentions are almost always good, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are countless examples that I could point to in Uganda alone to emphasize some of the failures of gifted aid, but I will just use one here. The clean-cook stove was developed to replace the more traditional three-stone cooking fire (literally just three stones that hold pots slightly elevated over burning firewood). Clean-cook stoves burn a fraction of the wood that three-stone fires do reducing deforestation and the price of fuel, they cook things faster, and they minimize the smoke and ash that young girls and women are subjected to inhale three times per day. Countless NGOs have installed these stoves in homes all over Uganda, but I have yet to see one being used in my year in country. At my first site in, while I was still just a bush baby, I proposed the idea of installing these stoves. I figured the people as well as the park we neighbored would greatly benefit. The people were ecstatic about the idea. Everyone wanted a stove. I went to the first house to have one installed, and was shown a great place for the stove. It was so great, in fact, that there was already a clean-cook stove installed, tucked neatly behind the three-stone fire the woman was making lunch on. The next three houses were the same thing. All the members of the group had clean-cook stoves that they didn’t use, and every single one of them, without a trace of irony, wanted me to install another one for them. I still think that the clean-cook stove is a fantastic idea, but the way in which it has been implemented to this point has utterly failed.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique example. You see things like it all the time, and it used to give me a sense of hopelessness, but now I can see that changes are coming. There are actually some great things that are starting to happen in the developing world. I am seeing ideas that are lifting people, slowly by slowly, out of poverty, but perhaps surprisingly to some, they are mostly coming out of the private, for-profit, sector. Products and services such as micro-loans, mobile phones, and commoditized solar energy have already changed the face of my village. These ideas work not just because they are good for the people who consume them, but because it is in the best interest of the people who produce them to make sure the consumers are well-informed of the benefits and uses of their products.

Even my own project, Ave Maria Bead Co. has benefited greatly from using the models of the private sector. Tying the earnings of the group to direct sales and profits ensures that they stay motivated and focused on quality assurance, while allowing profits to be made by the retailers and distributors we sell to has helped us grow larger in a few short months than I thought we ever could. Ave Maria will also soon switch from cash-based transactions to mobile phone banking, another private sector idea. Within the matter of minutes that it takes to sign up, all 41 members of the group will have their own savings accounts, something few have had access to and even fewer have an understanding of its benefits. Only one of the 41 members has previous experience with banking (Sylvia’s husband has an account).

In my opinion, private business, not aid and government, is the best tool for fixing some of the pressing issues of the world. This is why I decided to return to business and get my MBA. Business school, I hope, will allow me to be a part of these solutions and be surrounded by a culture that thrives on innovation. The same ideas about making the world a better place that motivated me to leave corporate America do still exist, I am just going about realizing them a little differently now.