Acara meets Kampala


Over spring break, it’s not unusual to go south to get some sun, but I took it to an extreme. I spent the week a few miles north of the equator, in Kampala, Uganda, teaching Makerere University students about social entrepreneurship.

This course at Makerere University is part of the USAID-sponsored RESPOND program, in which the University of Minnesota is playing a major role. RESPOND is creating capacity to strengthen outbreak response for emerging infectious diseases from humans, domestic animals and wildlife.

The course was directed at public health and veterinary medicine students to help them identify potential opportunities and problems that may be addressed by social ventures. Starting in a few weeks, these students will be going out together on a 4- to 6-week field experience. Having animal and human health professionals going out together is a big step toward a more unified health approach, referred to as One Health. The integrated field experience alone makes this program at Makerere innovative, but adding the social entrepreneurship slant really pushes the boundary. The RESPOND program has done a terrific job in working with Makerere and several other universities in Africa to get these field experiences in place. They have done all the hard work; I just came in to teach this course.

The course consisted of about 60 students, a mix of veterinary medicine, public health and nursing majors. We met three hours a day for five days. Even though the course was held 4-7 p.m., at the tail end of a long day of classes, the students were all engaged all week. This was a shorter version of the five-day course I have taught several times both in Minnesota and India. The objectives for the student outcomes included:

  • to learn how to think about the problems they see in terms of entrepreneurship (which they already are very familiar with from daily life in Uganda)
  • to be exposed to, and understand, an existing range of social ventures in India and Africa
  • to understand customer interaction and assessment (design thinking), value propositions and social impact and how to use that in their upcoming field experience
  • to practice these on a problem they identify.

The students’ understanding of problems and context was very high, and that showed in complete empathy and context maps (in other words, very good customer understanding), but the terminology used in business models was new to them. The concepts of value and making money are not, but we had to spend some time creating “translations” from public health lingo to business venture lingo. And for the students to sort out my American accent. As I learned while teaching in India, English is a little different in every English-speaking country.

Next steps include a follow-on with these students, probably in early July, to work on ideas they developed during their field experience; and then repeating the process for a university in Tanzania in August and September.

I had the opportunity to meet with a local social entrepreneur on the last day I was there. Vincent is founder of Green Bio Energy and Briketi, in Kampala. His venture is a few years old, seeking funding, and running into many of the same challenges we have seen in India ventures.

I really had little chance to see much of the city, let alone the country. Overall, my two visits to sub-Saharan Africa (I was in Ghana a few years ago) remind me a lot of India when I started working there about 10 years ago. The one difference is the preponderance of aid organizations and non-governmental organizations in Africa. It was really astonishing to see so many trucks with NGO names on them, and it’s easy to see why there is such a flourishing debate about the effectiveness of aid (see Dead AidEnoughThe End of Poverty, and the book we require in our Acara coursesPoor Economics). This is an important discussion but a topic for a longer blog entry in the future.

Overall, I am pretty excited by the results and potential with collaboration of One Health initiatives and Acara. The goals and strategies are very well aligned, and the structure in the field experiences being developed in Uganda and Tanzania are the kind of institutionalizing that is needed to make an long-term impact.

Fred Rose is director of Acara, an IonE program that gives university students a chance to envision and launch successful social businesses. Photo courtesy of the author.