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From Uganda to Oxford

John Walugembe; Skoll Scholar 2016-17, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Better Livelihoods in Uganda. John shares his candid story of how he came to Oxford to study his MBA.

“It is very painful to remember my daughter”, Maria said. “She was only five years old”. “I had a lot of hope in her”. “I wonder, what I could have done better”. “I was certainly lucky that Dr. Matovu was willing to attend to her. It was unfortunate however that it was too late!” This story by Maria – a distressed mother of two living in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda – is not very different from those of many others in Uganda and other developing countries. According to a recent report by Water Aid, only 30% of Ugandans have access to improved sanitation. The situation is even worse in urban poor communities, especially slums, where children collect water from contaminated gutters or ground water. The result of this is that at least two one million and five hundred children die annually, from diarrheal related illnesses.  The contamination primarily results from lack of proper disposal for excreta.

How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma!

When I founded the Better livelihoods Uganda, four years ago, I recognised that there was a need for a fundamental shift in the way water and sanitation issues are handled. Were communities, expecting so much from their governments that they failed to do for themselves, what was in their means to do? Were some Non-Governmental Organisations fostering a syndrome of dependency and raising the expectations of communities for handouts, to the extent that they exacerbated these problems? Which market approaches could be employed to ensure that communities contributed more to addressing these sanitation challenges. From the onset, I thought it prudent to make the organisation lean and limit its dependency on external financing. As you can imagine, this was no mean goal. How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma! However, we resolved that unlike the traditional NGO, we would seek to play a more facilitating role among the key stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem.

We piloted our work in the Rwenzori region in western Uganda, particularly in the Municipalities of Fort-Portal, Kawenge, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo. Using the diamond approach (a model first piloted by Waste Advisors in the Netherlands) we have been able to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation facilitating a well-functioning system of local stakeholders that facilitate the delivery of sustainable sanitation services. The bulk of our work has involved supporting entrepreneurs and other sanitation stakeholders to build more hygienic pit-latrines. As of last year, over 1400 direct jobs have been created in the region, the amount of fecal sludge collected had increased tenfold to 4,000,000 kilograms, the costs of accessing sanitation services have reduced from $30 to $5 and over 4,000 people have directly accessed sanitation services.

I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours.

It would be great if I told you that after this, everything worked just fine and we have simply encountered success, upon success. Unfortunately, as someone whose academic background was not in business management, I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours. An MBA looked an attractive option. The more I thought about it, the more counterintuitive it seemed. If I desire to engineer, social change, why not pursue a qualification in development? In the end, it only seemed logical that if our approach seeks to use market based approaches to tackle the sanitation challenge, there is no better preparation than an MBA from a business school with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In the end, the Oxford MBA looked the best fit for me.

Did I look at other business schools? Certainly! So, why the Oxford MBA? Well, the Oxford MBA was unique in a number of respects: First, the Oxford MBA is a rigorous one year programme. This was particularly attractive for me, as it would ensure that I get back to Uganda, in the shortest possible time to continue with my work.  Second, the Saïd Business School through the Skoll Centre, places a lot of emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For me, this was the ultimate attraction. Additionally, the possibility of social entrepreneurs, like myself, benefitting from the generous Skoll Scholarship, set the Oxford MBA apart.

Going forward, Better Livelihoods like other nonprofit organisations must look for new models of generating revenue streams while fulfilling its expanding mission. One possible strategy could be to set-up a social purpose business as an innovation for both the financial and operational sustainability of the organisation. The mission of this social venture could be to offer clean water, sanitation, health and hygiene solutions throughout Uganda, on a commercial basis.

In conclusion, I look forward to this year and taking advantage of all the opportunities that Oxford has to offer!

John was recently featured on the BBC World Service, Business Daily Show, where he sat on a panel discussion on Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs. Listen to the iPlayer recording.