TMS Ruge is trained to think outside the box. Confronted by economic problems in his native Uganda, the Creative Communica tions graduate embarked on an offbeat path to development, blazing trails in the worlds of agribusiness, environmentalism and tech in the process. Even the White House took notice!
By Ngum Ngafor
Hello Teddy. Thanks for agreeing to speak to us. You have been making waves with alternative ideas about African development. What inspired your involvement in this area?
I had a passion to see change happen. And the more I looked at it, the less I was convinced it was going to be the case if the status quo was left the way it was. As a continent, we have become too comfortable and complacent about letting entities like the UN, World Bank or other NGOs take care of our problems instead of looking within and taking ownership of the things that are happening. To me, that is not a sustainable model of development; it is perfect if you want to maintain a dependent state. So I began thinking about solutions from a diaspora perspective. One of the things we do best is sending remittances home. Latest estimates suggest Africans send $5060 billion (2-3 times more than aid ) back to their countries. I wondered what we could do tangibly with that money beyond transferring it to loved ones. Could we invest it? Could we pool it together and be creative enough to make a much greater impact? Although I wasn’t trained in international development, I knew I could make a difference in my corner of Uganda, so I began trying various things and have learnt a lot over the years.
It is interesting you come from a different academic background. Has this influenced your innovative approach to development?
Absolutely! My degree was in Creative Communications (advertising) so I am trained to look at things from outside the box and continually seek creative solutions to problems. My background enables me to see problems as opportunities to do something great and not simply apply learned formulas. I think a lot of projects fail because current discourse doesn’t consider the fact that there is no panacea for the development of this continent. Everything needs to be contextual; from village to village, the dynamics, people, customs and economics are different. That is why I am looking to create effective rather than replicable solutions.
“Latest estimates suggest Africans send
$50-60 billion – 2-3 times more than aid – back to their countries”.
You agree with economist, Dambisa Moyo’s damning verdict on aid. In fact, you both favour a greater focus on business as a more credible path to sustainable economic advancement. What more could Africans do to make this idea a reality?
We need to have pride of self and not be afraid to challenge current dogma. Dambisa Moyo was one of the first Africans to lead that dialogue. She was taken to task for a lot of what she had to say but it needed to be said. We needed to wake up to the reality that aid is not working; the record of 50 years of applying these same old rules, which have been repeatedly tweaked, shows it. Africa has become something of a testing bed for really bad solutions from professionals and Western individuals who just want to do good. It is important for us to reclaim our agency by questioning ineffective programmes and introducing prospects for cooperation with interested external parties on more viable ones.
Africa-Western partnerships seem to be what you are proposing. Do you have any examples of such collaborations that have been successful?
Yes. I had the chance to see some Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in progress while I did some work with the UN. Despite the challenges they face, PPPs can be effective and are probably going to be the best way to tackle really big issues like infrastructure or electricity (supply). There are a lot of PPP energy programmes in Uganda. Some of the projects in the telecommunications sector – especially the undersea cable initiatives were PPPs of which African countries took part ownership and showed leadership. It may have taken a while but we are now beginning to see the benefits of this approach. Private-private partnerships also offer opportunities. Just look at the telecommunications industry. We went from Zero to boom without any aid! What we really need from governments is their creation of enabling environments in which such enterprises can thrive.
“I am trained to look at things from outside the box.
I see problems as opportunities to do something
great and not simply apply learned formulas.”
Let’s talk about your organisation, Project Diaspora. How did it come about?
I was curious to find out what other members of the diaspora were doing regarding development. While we are unified by the effort to do something for our communities back home, our projects are usually different. Although no one organisation can do something that applies to the whole continent, I thought it was important to get different groups to communicate and share ideas which could be customised to suit local realities. Since the initiation of the project, around 2007, many other diaspora groups have formed in an effort to bring about positive change either from a country or regional perspective. Thanks to social media, I am able to discover more of them. Having achieved my objective, I now focus on scaling up programmes I started in Uganda some time ago.
One such initiative is your work with the Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers (UMPG). Tell me more about it please.
It is an interesting programme which started with a group of farmers who were looking for markets for their commercial produce. The government had introduced various crops and sold the farmers seeds, with a promise to buy their products for export to the international market. However project after project, everything would fall apart and the farmers would be left with crops but no mechanism for getting them to market. There was also no value addition process toattract international buyers. So I looked at farmers in my community and the crops they were planting. When I examined the global demand for their produce, I was able to pick the best crop to commercialise. Four years on, we have done a good job of creating a business. It is very challenging to start such a venture from scratch – especially if you are working with thousands of farmers. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way especially in terms of the funding priorities of international organisations.
How did you raise funds for the project and what challenges did you face?
The money came from my remittances and a few members of the diaspora who saw the vision, believed in it and decided to invest in it. What is hard is that we sit in a strange space between a start up and a full grown organisation so traditional funding organisations are unsure of how to work with us as we are too small for them. Most want massive impact so they opt to support $3-4 million projects which could generate reports on about 50,000 farmers. I would rather have $200,000 and use it efficiently. If you wrote me a $3 million cheque, chances are within 2 to 3 years, the business would have collapsed because we would have grown too fast and faced unrealistic demands from investors. To get your money back from starting something from scratch in Africa, you are looking at at least a decade as you have to build the entire infrastructure around your business. Most investors are not that patient. So I have had to scale back my ambitions and look at what can be achieved with our current income sources, which have worked well so far. In fact, we just finished building a processing factory in the district of Masindi. This is a huge milestone for us as it will create more jobs and opportunities for us to come up with high quality value added products.
What product(s) do you export and where to?
Our main product right now is a highly marketable crop called moringa. Its leaves are usually harvested for powder which is used as a nutritional additive. We found markets (in Kenya, Germany, Ghana, Canada, USA, South Africa and Finland) for the powder and oil pressed from moringa seeds. I think we have hit a really good niche because both product lines are constantly sold out. Our main challenge is that it takes time for the crop to mature once planted.As the market is not that patient, we are trying to expand as much as possible.
You are a champion of environmentally sound development in Africa. Why does it matter and how can we achieve it?
I worked in partnership with various UN organisations and the World Bank on an initiative called Connect4Climate. It involved us engaging youth on the continent to find out what climate change meant to them. We also looked at Africa’s role in terms of sustainable development. One of the major issues – and it is one thing that I also struggle with as a businessman – which arose is the importance of access to energy. The West used dirty energy to power development at a cost to the environment. But as we work to improve our economies, we need to redefine what it means to be developed. Clearly, we can’t do some things as they used to be done but that is ok because we have an opportunity to be creative and grow cleanly. Therefore it is important to look for alternatives in solar, wind and nuclear energy sources.We also need to improve our infrastructure. In Kampala, for instance, we have about 5 million boda boda (bike) taxis. Could we replace them with a rail system? We could create jobs by placing the drivers in a rail yard instead. I know it sounds huge – especially when we face basic challenges such as keeping the lights on – but we have to be ambitious enough to be able to take on these massive projects. Otherwise, we will never catch up.
“We need to redefine what it means to be developed.”
Hive Colab, Uganda’s first tech incubator is another interest of yours. What inspired its creation?
I got into tech on the continent while writing about the diaspora. One of the things that has made our connection with Africa so much easier has been the emergence of mobile phones, and faster and cheaper connectivity.Technology has been at the core of understanding how we as members of the diaspora are engaging with the continent. But what about the flip side? We have a continent that is fast getting connected to the internet. 50% of its population is under the age of 15. I wondered how these young people who were growing up with smarter phones and cheaper connectivity were using these technologies. A friend and I also came across young developers who were hungry to create something but lacked a suitable space, so we set up Hive Colab as an incubator/coworking space where techies collaborate and create great products. It has been fantastic seeing the kinds of things that they can come up with!
Give me an idea of some Hive Colab highlights.
We have had a lot of participation in regional competitions. One of them was Apps for Africa, in which we had a couple of winners. The World Bank also had Apps for Dev a couple of years ago; we had winners from Kenya and Uganda. Our techies also designed various apps that tapped into the World Bank database. A Hive Colab member also created an award-winning version QuickBooks. The software enables local entrepreneurs to easily manage their businesses online using either a mobile, smartphone or desktop. I think it is a great product because many business owners find things like accounting and doing projections challenging. Such issues can inhibit good financial planning. Another advantage is that Quickbooks helps to digitise the economy and therefore provides a tool for gathering small business data, which could facilitate the Uganda Revenue Authority’s tax collection processes and ability to track activity in the informal sector.
The White House gave you a Champion of Change award in 2011. How did it feel to gain that seal of approval?
It was quite a surprise because one toils away and doesn’t think anybody is noticing. For them to recognise me and a group of my friends for the work we do to make our continent better really legitimised our efforts and pushed us forward. Also, such an acknowledgement inspires others who want to do something to act on their ideas.
Your Villages In Action Project was unique in the sense that it included ordinary Africans in the development debate and empowered them to improve their circumstances. How did you come about doing this and how has the project progressed?
It started out as a twitter conversation where a group of us were commenting on a 2010 gathering in New York and (Washington) DC over the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). One thing I noticed was that nobody brought the microphone to the poor. Everybody talked about the things they were doing for them but no one asked these people what they thought about their own development. I saw too much of Bono, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates talking about their efforts but failing to recognise what aid recipients were doing to help themselves. I thought that was wrong. So through a series of fortunate events, a team of us was able to put in an internet mast in a village (Kikuube, Uganda) and have our own Clinton Global Initiative type panel discussion. Everybody was a panelist and got to contribute to the conversation. We all learned something. The event was globally broadcast. I think it set a precedent in terms of inclusive communication and development. Now we are looking at making it replicable so more communities can join the conversation in 2015 when we celebrate the culmination of the MDGs.
That sounds amazing! Now let’s Imagine this: you bump into Bono or Clinton in a lift. How would you advise them to improve their strategy?
[Laughs] That is really tough because we are in an area where some things are needed while others are not. You could say Bill Gates is doing a fantastic thing in terms of his efforts to eradicate polio but I don’t think he listens very well. He sets his mind on something and just throws a whole bunch of money at it. My advice to him would be: listen more. And write smaller cheques! I think we have had enough of Bono and his speaking for us. So to him, the one sentence would be: thank you very much but we will take it from here.
To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work,
please go to : www.tmsruge.com
Follow him on twitter via:@tmsruge For information on UMPG,
Get regular updates via: @umpg_ltd
African development: 5 reasons to think again
• According to the World Bank, money sent home by migrants in 2012 exceeded foreign direct investment gained by most African countries.
• (Homegrown) businesses such as Celtel have boosted African economies and quality of life. Created by Sudanese, Mo Ibrahim, the company proved a gateway to the mobile explosion which has revolutionised business in areas ranging from agriculture to health care and financial services.
• Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, highlights bond markets as a “real opportunity for Africa’s governments to be serious about financial discipline and transparency—and to escape from the yoke of aid.”
• In 2013, the African Development Bank noted economic growth to be faster in Africa than any other continent.
• Africa-Africa trade presents enormous but untapped opportunities.
To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work, please go to : www.tmsruge.com