Today I'm honoured to share with you an interview with someone who so totally embodies the Afri-love spirit. We're starting Uganda's independence day celebrations a day early with Ugandan-born social entrepreneur, photographer, African futurist, Africa by Africa evangelist, African digerati, connector and co-founder of Project Diaspora, TMS Ruge.
Demonstrating that out of sight does not mean out of mind, Ruge works to engage Africans in the diaspora to consider, and take action towards, charting the future path of our continent. It's about determining the quality of our own lives in the way that ultimately, only we can.
Through Project Diaspora, Ruge has set up Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers Ltd. (UMPG) that works with subsistence farmers, giving them the knowledge and tools to transform their efforts into commercial with access to local and international markets.
Ruge has also recently launched Women of Kireka, a jewelry-making co-operative providing a safe livelihood for women displaced by war in Northern Uganda.
What's your passion?
That's a loaded question. But I suppose the best way to surmise is to say I am passionate about all things that advance the Africa by and for Africans. I think that encompasses everything that I do. Be it using social media to engage with other Africans on the ground and in the Diaspora on development matters; debating technology and Africa in a panel discussion; or investing in the education of individuals on the ground. It all has a purpose and that purpose is to inspire other Africans in the Diaspora to engage the continent and each other.
What inspired you to start Project Diaspora?
I could say cubicle boredom but that wouldn't be completely true. PD started as a mission to have a conversation with other members of the Diaspora. To see what they were doing, where they were and to get a temperature on the strength of the bond between us in the West and the continent. At the time, I was investing in the higher education of my siblings and I could see how it affected their livelihoods. So I wanted to see who else was out there doing bigger and better things.
It continues to be that platform for us: where we get to have a voice on the development of our continent; share best practices on starting your own projects on the continent; engage in wide-ranging debates including the role of technology on the continent and; to showcase the projects we invest in.
What has been the greatest challenge in carrying out your work?
I would be remiss if I didn't say finding our niche has been the toughest thing for us to do. Scaling and sustaining the organization is another. The diaspora is very diverse and immense and nuanced. So much to cover for such a little team. Any of those issues are surmountable with proper funding of course – we'll get there.
How do you deal with/transcend it?
The best way I think, is to focus on what you do and use that as a lighting rod for engagement. We've decided to put our energies and finances into the projects we are investing in, in Uganda. Mainly Project UMPG and Women of Kireka. If the core of our being is to highlight the huge differences we can make in our communities, then showcasing our projects is the best way to do that. Those two projects we invest in, alone make a positive difference in the lives of about 1000 men, women and children.
Four women of Kireka. Clockwise from top left: Gloria Achan, Getrude Abo, Jennifer Achiro and Jasinta Achen. Click here to read their stories and those of the other women of Kireka.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Not quitting. The refusal to pack it in when the going gets tough has to be my greatest achievement I think. Things will get tough, all will appear lost and I'll get impatient. Tracy, my co-founder, is always keen to remind me that things sometimes take the time they are supposed to take. Not everything is going to be on my schedule. As frustrating as that is to hear, it is very true.
Where will you be in 10 years?
Physically, I hope to have a much bigger presence in Uganda and East Africa, expanding our investments and doing my part to develop the continent. I hope I'll be happy with what I have accomplished so far with Project Diaspora and would love to see other initiatives bearing fruit. But more than likely, I'll be up in a tree, shaking the branches loose of their mangoes.
How does Africa inspire you?
Africa inspires me in so many different ways, but mostly because I see the vast potential for improvements everywhere. I love the entrepreneurial spirit embodied in the informal sector in just about every city you will visit. This thriving spirit to do for yourself and provide for your family against great odds. I am inspired by the children who will laugh, sing and dance despite having only toys they've made from banana stalk. I am inspired by how youthful the continent is. Over 400 million under the age of 16 and growing up fast in a digital revolution. There's a renaissance coming to the continent, and I am inspired by what that means. I am inspired by the promise of the changing of the guards, in our political elite, as new thinking shoves the old guard "hippo" ranks by the way side and, ushers in impassioned leaders with vision and the gumption to carry them out. I am inspired by this promise and so much more…
Anything else you'd like to share?
I don't think we do enough collaboration. I think we must and should increase trade within Africa. Break down the country borders and increase regional trade. If we start here, we can go far in terms of development. And i think this also goes for the members of the Diaspora. I think social media has really made it very easy for us to connect. So extend those connections into real-life action with partnerships. If we begin to work side by side, it is hard not to be excited by the possibilities.
Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year?
Yeah, we just launched the new online shop for Women of Kireka. We'll start shipping their first batch of jewelry by mid-month. Next month we are planning on taking the TEDx series of conferences to the village level to talk about the MDGs. We are really excited about this conference because the poor that we always refer to, rarely have a voice. So we are taking the microphone to them. It is hard to foresee the turn out, but I think we'll be pleasantly surprised.
Follow Ruge's adventures, rallying cries and thought patterns on Twitter. Diaspora Africans: we have our work cut out for us – may the doing begin!
Happy weekend everybody and happy independence day to all my Ugandan sisters and brothers.
Images courtesy of TMS Ruge and Project Diaspora.