I first found out about the Global Social Benefit Fellowship back in fall quarter of junior year. I had no idea what the Center for Science, Technology, and Society was and I definitely didn’t know what “social entrepreneurship” meant. Little did I know, this would all change in the following year.
Just from reading the descriptions online about the GSBF, I knew this was something I wanted to get involved in. The opportunity to travel to a developing country and learn the culture, meet the people, and make a difference was something I just could not pass up. Around Christmas break, I was already planning to apply and when all of my relatives were asking me what I would be doing the following year, I said, “hopefully I will be travelling to Africa, but it’s kind of a long shot.” Next thing I know, I was accepted and my journey was officially underway.
The first step was to take a class in the spring that would cover all of the basics of business, social entrepreneurship, and developing countries. I was so excited for this because I knew absolutely nothing about all three of these subjects. On the first day of class, I was a bit nervous, but more excited to see the other interesting people that had been accepted to this prestigious fellowship. Looking around the room, I only recognized a couple faces, but I knew that these everyone there had a unique story that led them to this fellowship. The class in the spring quarter was extremely useful for providing me a basic understanding of how social entrepreneurship works and the issues facing the developing country. One of the most useful/useless things we did during the class was draft a research plan for our time in Uganda. Don’t get me wrong, it was so important to have a concrete plan of our schedule, activities, and deliverables. The only problem was that 90% of this would change once we actually arrived in Africa. One of the most eye opening parts of the class was seeing how our social enterprises were portrayed in books compared to how they worked in real life.
Upon arriving in Uganda, needless to say I was surprised. I was mostly startled by how dark it was when the plane landed. Every flight I’ve ever been on descended into a very bright city or airport, but when we landed in Entebbe, I could only see a couple scattered lights. At this moment, it had fully dawned on me that I was in Africa. The first few weeks were full of adventure, excitement, and jetlag. Living and working in Kampala definitely took me outside of my comfort zone, way outside. But this allowed me to grow and it made it much easier to be going through all of this with my two wonderful teammates. It is only natural to become great friends with people when you are all thrown into a foreign situation with only each other to relate to. There was definitely some tension at times, but at the end of the trip we had all bonded. Although we shared almost all of the same experiences, I think we grew as individuals in very different ways.
We worked with three different social enterprises while in Uganda: Solar Sister, Angaza Design, and Kiva. It was a bit overwhelming to have three different enterprises to report to, but it was less stressful than expected since they all worked together for the most part. Solar Sister is a company that distributes solar lanterns to Ugandan women, Solar Sister Entrepreneurs (SSEs), which then sell the lights to their family, friends, or community. This provides solar light to residents and villagers at a low cost while creating an income for the SSEs. Kiva worked with Solar Sister by providing loans to SSEs that had proven themselves as successful saleswomen. One of our tasks was to identify and interview promising saleswomen and create Kiva profiles for them. The third enterprise we worked with was Angaza Design. Their goal was to pilot the SoLite 3, a new solar lamp, and test the viability of introducing it into the Ugandan market. The uniqueness of the SoLite 3 comes from its innovative pay as you go technology. Working with these three social enterprises was incredibly rewarding and taught me a lot about how to work productively in a developing country.
Although we did technically have three companies to report to, we worked primarily with Solar Sister. From the first day we went to the Solar Sister office, I knew I would have a good time working with them. The atmosphere of the office was so fun and lighthearted I don’t know how they got any work done. But they did. The women in the office had such a good attitude about work, making sure that they completed everything they needed to but not getting too stressed in the process. When they weren’t in the office they were out on field visits interacting with the SSEs that work under them. This is where the fun really happened.
There were two trips that I remember in particular: Gulu and Nakaseke. Nakaseke was only a day trip while Gulu was a full three days, but they are both ingrained in my memory.
In Gulu, we had the privilege of spending our time with Jayne Opito, a very charismatic and influential Solar Sister. Not to insult any of the other amazing groups of women, but I think that the SSEs in Lira and Gulu were two of the best groups we met with. The SSEs in those two towns were all very well educated and influential members of their communities. It was a really humbling experience to meet with these women (and men) that had decided to sell solar lights in their communities while still working at their busy jobs during the week.
The Nakaseke group, on the other hand, impressed me for a completely different reason. We arrived in Nakaseke at a woman’s house. Slowly, more and more Solar Sisters started showing up until there was a full group of 14 women. After some small talk and completing a few surveys, the host told us that it was time for lunch. I was expecting a small lunch, but I could not have been more wrong. They must have brought out a 25-course meal. The plates of food just kept coming until there was absolutely no room left in my stomach. It was the hospitality and generosity of the women in Nakaseke that really impressed me and made them stand out in my memory.
By the end of the trip, I can confidently say I was ready to get back home. Not that I didn’t love every day I had in Uganda, but I knew that the time had come to close that chapter and go back to normal life in America. I’ll never forget all of the experiences I had in Uganda and will definitely use what I learned from them as I continue to grow personally and professionally.