Day 4: Stories & Updates

Posted February 20, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

Sadina Inn

For years, visitors have been few and far-between at the Sadina Inn.  Dinah, a beautiful and very sharp woman with a diploma in accountancy, has no good explanation for this other than that curses have been placed on her family and their property by people who practice witchcraft.  On Tuesday morning, Mike and I walked to Dinah’s home to meet her daughter, who has since become a close friend.  During our conversation with both women, we learned that the Mayor of Kampala, Nasser Ntege Sebagala, came to visit Dinah to request lodging for 700 guests this weekend at her 9-bedroom inn.  (That was not a typo!)  The Mayor is running for election in 2011 and is visiting Mbale this weekend for the Delegates Conference for the Democratic Party, which will be held at Mt. Elgon (my hotel).  But the rest of his entourage needs a place to lodge this weekend, too.  A group of top political figures will be occupying all of Dinah’s rooms, while hundreds of other delegates will be sleeping on mattresses under large tents that spread out across Dinah’s property.

According to Dinah, “God is good!”  She and her modest staff immediately got to work sprucing up the inn, having concrete stairs installed in the beautifully steep property, setting up the tents, and bringing port-a-potty’s (the Ugandan version) for the visitors to use.

Mike and I woke up this morning and had a quick breakfast before taking boda-bodas (bicycle taxi’s) to The Sadina Inn, where we spent a few hours helping Dinah get ready for her big evening.  Though it was not much, Dinah was extremely appreciative of our help and kept thanking us.  Amidst all of her stress and excitement, I was amazed when Dinah thoughtfully wished me a happy belated birthday.  What a remarkable woman.

By the way, the political parades through the streets still have not ceased!  I wouldn’t doubt that this is now partially in preparation for “His Worship the Mayor’s” arrival.  There are men and women clapping and singing in the streets in front of our hotel (where the Mayor will be staying), and many finely-dressed Ugandans are beginning to check in at the front desk.

Mannu

I couldn’t help but smile as the women learned about the two supermarket owners with whom we spoke yesterday about hosting demonstrations in front of their stores.  Then, even more Hallelujah’s echoed across the room when one of the men told them that he received a call this morning from Sudan.  A Sudanese woman, who is a food supplier to NGOs, somehow got a-hold of an amaranth porridge sample and wants to order…in bulk…from Mannu!  She wants 6 kilos to be sent tomorrow so that she can share with the NGOs at a meeting on Saturday.  The women promptly began milling flour so that it could be delivered to Kampala and be mailed first thing tomorrow morning.

Project Status Update

I have been working very hard to develop relationships (and build trust) with the women of the bakery over the last few days.  That is a major reason for why I have been participating in all of the Mannu meetings rather than journeying out on my own; the Leeps have already earned the trust of these people and this group is a large resource to my learning.  And as one woman, Grace, put it, “Any friend of Cindy’s is a friend of mine!”

Though Ugandans are some of the friendliest, the people here, women especially, are rather quiet and reserved (especially toward outsiders).  Today, however, I finally felt like my work has begun to pay off.  The women are showing that they are more comfortable with me; not only are they open to me interviewing them, but they are ALL asking me when I want to visit their homes, be introduced to their husbands and children and orphans, and participate in daily activities with them.

Today was my first official interview, and I learned a LOT.  I interviewed Betty Kissa and visited her home while the rest of the group was milling amaranth flour.  Since Betty’s English is weaker than most, Mama Loy helped to interpret.  I will wait to share the details of our conversation as Mike and I are getting up early to be at Betty’s home at 6am to have breakfast (maybe something like tea and porridge) with her children.  I know that I will have a lot more to add to Betty’s story after that!

Until then,

Ashley

Day 3: Birthday in Mbale

Posted February 17, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

We started off the day today with a Mannu Bakery meeting at Sadina Inn.  When I arrived, I was greeted by the Women’s Group, who burst out in a happy birthday song!  After friendly introductions, Innocent led the group in a worship song.  Then the group migrated into a small building in the back, which is going to be rented out by Mannu Bakery as a workshop for the amaranth flour milling machine (arrived in August and operational as of today) as well as an industrial-sized amaranth popper (JUST arrived and not operational).

The men spent some time attaching the new milling equipment, which was designed by retired professors from _ University, to a wooden base.  Then we tested the machine; the by-product was beautiful flour that was very fine and would definitely be acceptable to the market!  The women began to praise God for the provision of the equipment that would allow them to mill their own flour rather than outsourcing the milling.  The women were now anxious to begin the discussion of porridge distribution.

Cool video coming soon!

After the milling, we sat down with the women to perform “process-mapping” under the direction of Cindy.  The women led us through all of the steps to produce 250 kg of porridge (which was set as a weekly goal at the last meeting).  There is a South African-based supermarket chain in Kampala, ShopRite, which has told the UAP Team that they would like to purchase 1000kg of Porridge per month!  While hitting this target will be a challenge, it was great to learn that the market for Amaranth exists in Kampala.

We ran into a problem, however, when we came to the ShopRite delivery details.  Because ShopRite is a large company, they will be willing to pay cash-on-delivery for the product.  But how much cash would they ask for?  3000 shillings?  3500 shillings?  We began by asking the leadership what their costs were, and they told us 2800 shillings per kilo of flour (1 kilo=1package of flour).  They had no cost break-down to back this number up, however.  It was obvious that this would have to be the next group activity; it would help us learn a lot more about the inner-workings of the bakery and provide us with enough knowledge to advise the bakery on price-setting.  It can be frustrating to run across issues like this during a development project – to learn that a business has been operational for some time but does not have concrete knowledge or written evidence of their costs (and profits, for that matter).

We spent time breaking apart the production costs (including overhead and excluding wages for the women) for 1 kilo of flour (assuming production level of 250 kilos/week) and found that the cost per unit is actually 1955.4 shillings.  The bakery was about 30% off in their number.  It is quite helpful to know, however, that we have accounted for all costs (and left room for flex) and are now ready to work on a pricing strategy.

After working through the math and showing the women how much profit they could make at different wholesale prices, we spent some time briefly discussing the idea of fair wages in Uganda.  The women are not currently making any profit from their hard work, and I believe that some sort of incentive-policy needs to be put into effect immediately in order to keep morale high after the UAP team leaves in 10 days.

We next discussed (and reminded the women of) the loan agreement that Mannu made with Partners Worldwide.  Another portion (probably 10%) of the bakery profits need to go toward loan repayment.  A final percentage of the profits (TBD) need to go toward re-investment, savings, and working capital.

All in all, a successful meeting because we made so much progress.  The women left in good spirits and seem to be anxious to keep moving forward with plans for Mannu Bakery Amaranth Porridge.

On our way back from the meeting, we ran into some children on their way to school, and Mike asked them to sing me happy birthday:)

In Town:

This all happened before lunch!  After our walk back to the hotel, Cindy, Rich, Mike and I hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up that was headed into town.  We had lunch at a local restaurant and then met Esther for a tour of Mbale.  There were more (and even bigger) post-election parades in the streets of Mbale; I have been surprised to see so much continued celebration.

We stopped in a few supermarkets to take a peak at their porridge and flour offerings and displays and we also made a point to speak with store-owners (who tend to be Indian) about Amaranth and Amaranth Porridge.  According to the women, Mannu has attempted – but not yet succeeded – to build relationships with local store owners in the hopes of selling their product in the stores in town.  At an earlier meeting, we discussed the possibility of hosting porridge cooking demonstrations outside these supermarkets and telling passersby that they can purchase the porridge inside the store.  Well, when we asked two store owners whether they had heard of amaranth, they told us they had not.  And when we proposed the cooking demo idea and asked whether they would be interested in selling our product in their stores, they said yes.

This was great news, and we started dreaming up a load of ideas.  At the same time, however, it was hard not to question the situation at hand.  Did the women really approach these supermarket owners and get turned down?  Maybe they did try and just didn’t make it very far into the conversation.  Maybe nobody was willing to speak with them because they were women (white people tend to get respect in the marketplace).  Maybe they didn’t try at all.  I think we all felt somewhat frustrated even though we were thrilled that we were able to make the contact.  I truly hope that all Mannu needs to succeed in the Mbale market is a jump start in informing the consumer about Amaranth.

My favorite part of our afternoon was venturing through the open-air market, where vendors were packed in extremely close quarters for what seemed like a square mile (but was probably much smaller in reality), selling everything from produce and fish…to beautifully-sewn skirts and garments…to watches, hand tools and miscellaneous trinkets.  Cindy says that the smell of the Ugandan market, which is rather unpleasant, is one that you’ll never forget.  I have some pictures from town that I will post tomorrow!

(live chickens!)

I have certainly had a fabulous, yet smelly, 22nd birthday!  I look forward to continuing the sharing of stories and project updates with everyone.  Thanks for reading!

Day 2: Election Day

Posted February 16, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

Today was Election Day in Mbale. I could tell from the moment I woke up that there was excitement in the air. Initially, we had been planning on having a meeting with the Women’s Group at the Bakery, but we learned early that none of that would happen today because Election Day is treated as a holiday; Ugandans get very involved in politics.

The major political party in Uganda is the National Resistance Movement (NRM), which has dominated parliament for years. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was formed in 2004 by ex-NRM members and has been the main opposition party in Uganda. Today’s election was a big deal for Mbale because the people have had much hope that their parliamentary vote would finally be represented by the FDC.

Uganda Amaranth Project (UAP):

We started off the cool and rainy day with a meeting with the major decision-makers on the Uganda Amaranth Team: Francis, Innocent, Alex W. of the Sironko Farmers’ Association (SFA), Mama Loy & Bob from Mannu Bakery, and Rich & Cindy Leep from Grand Rapids.  The meeting opened in prayer, and then we heard status updates from SFA and Mannu Bakery before going onto a discussion of future plans for both groups. We tried to lay out implementation steps before closing the meeting in order to set an agenda for the week and goals for the next 6 months.

The general theme of the meeting involved marketing; both of the groups are worried about selling to a market that is slow to accept amaranth grain. The present issue with the farmers right now is that their market for amaranth (the Mannu bakery women) is not dependable. Mannu (“Manna”) Bakery is still assessing its market for both of its product-lines: ground, packaged amaranth for porridge (to be mixed 1:1 with a more inexpensive grain like maize or millet) AND traditional baked goods such as half-cakes and donuts (which – typically only upon request – use a 1:3 ratio of amaranth to regular grain flour).

The largest factors affecting the traditional baked goods are quality (a major issue) and standardization of product as well as product distribution. When asked about the quality of the product, one of the bakers responded “not bad,” and another responded, “we don’t have too many complaints.” (This is not exactly what we’d like to hear.) Regarding distribution, many of the salesmen that the bakery could hire are either untrustworthy or inexperienced, which certainly inhibits Mannu’s ability to make a profit.

For the purpose of maximizing effectiveness, the UAP Team has decided to focus on the market and operations for Amaranth Porridge this week and next.

Quality Issues (amaranth flour not fine enough):

The first quality issue worth mentioning deals with one of the first notches in the value-chain: during the harvesting of amaranth, sand particles can sneak their way into the grain, and the seed is hard to clean because it’s so tiny. The small seeds also are an issue during milling as the final product often is tainted by whole seeds passing through the filter. The technology for amaranth milling is improving every day, however, but for the time being, Mannu will satisfice by washing the amaranth very carefully and then putting the flour through the press a second time to ensure a smoother texture.

Distribution Issues:

Distribution costs are high, and channels are currently scarce. Bakery porridge sales average 7 kilos per week, and the main distribution channel is through 4 local supermarkets. Mannu uses credit terms with the supermarkets and does not profit from the sale of porridge until it leaves the shelves. There are recognizable issues with product placement and differentiation on the shelves that must be further studied. There are also issues with small rats in the stores; rats are known to chew holes in the packages, which requires either re-packaging or disposal of the product. When this happens, the bakery takes a large loss. The other distribution issue involves selling: Mannu is only in its testing phase for amaranth flour and has not yet determined the best way to approach supermarkets or other potential buyers (schools, orphanages, and other institutions).

We talked about many potential vehicles for promotion and ideas for growing the market and navigating the competitive market. Many ideas were tossed around, but in the end it is the bakery women who know their own market the best. They have developed a lot of ideas, but something seems to be off in their execution, though it will be difficult to put a finger on such an inhibitor without first learning more about the culture and the market.

Looking forward, a production goal has been set for Mannu to sell a minimum of 500 kilos of amaranth flour per month. This will be a challenge, but the UAP team is anxious to help the bakery meet its goal.

Finally, an industrial-sized amaranth popper has arrived (after 6 months of waiting) in Mbale for the bakery’s use. The popper was delivered to its final destination – a production space owned by a friend of the bakery – but is not assembled, so a mechanical engineer needs to be found to put the popper together as well as perform quality tests. It would be ideal for the popper to be up and running within 6 weeks, but Mannu has many other pressing items on the agenda that will likely take precedence over diving into production of popped amaranth.

Sadina Inn:

Mike and I walked down the road to visit an inn, which was inherited by a woman named Dinah after the death of her husband. We wanted to meet Dinah’s 19 year-old daughter, Esther, who is a high school graduate headed to Kampala for medical school in August. The relationship-building began over a few games of cards (both American and Ugandan card games) with Esther and her cousin, Amos. Then we found ourselves having a great discussion with Esther about our schools, families, businesses, and politics (remember, it’s Election Day). Of all of the young women Mike and I have met here so far, Esther is the brightest and also has the best English. We are planning a trip into town tomorrow with Esther as our guide. We are hoping that she can work with us for much of our time here as a “cultural interpreter” while Mike and I conduct our interviews.

Our time at Sadina Inn ended with an entertaining display of political pride by the community after news spread that the FDC had won the election today. A parade of men and young boys ran by waving tree branches and shouting, “F-D-C!” There was also sad news of a number of shootings in town during voting today, but everyone was celebrating in our neighborhood. I have a feeling these parades and celebrations will be continuing throughout the night.

Introduction to the Uganda Amaranth Project

Posted February 16, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

YouTube Video narrated by Cindy Leep

Day 1: The Road to Mbale

Posted February 15, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

After a long 24 hours of airports and planes, Mike and I finally made it through customs at the Entebbe Airport, where we were greeted by Selly, our driver, and were transported to the Hotel Fairway in Kampala.  The drive took just under an hour and was quite exciting as we passed through the downtown area of Kampala and saw a bit of the lively night life.  From what I could tell, the people were very dressed up and many women happened to be wearing red.  Our cab driver began describing a special day for husbands and wives, a holiday for people in who are in love.  I felt silly then, of course, because it hadn’t occurred to me all day that the date was Feb 14!

The Fairview hotel was comfortable, and it was pretty easy to fall asleep.  Monday morning came very quickly, when we were greeted by Francis Ssennyonjo, a Partners Worldwide in-country contact who so kindly helped arrange all of our accommodations and transportation.  After picking up a few items as well as one more passenger, we were headed to Mbale!  Joining us for the trip was Innocent, an Agriculture University student from Kampala and a team member of the Uganda Amaranth Project.  We were able to learn a few things about the project and the culture from Innocent during the drive; I have a feeling that I’ll be glad more than once or twice to have him as a resource while we’re here.

The four-hour drive was a pretty straight shot.  There is only one paved road that goes from Kampala to Mbale; I hadn’t even been expecting so much.  On a road trafficked by public busses and mopeds, we passed through many, many towns that all resembled each other.  We saw strands of fruit stands and textile shops; microfinance institutions that serve as banks to the poor; fields and fields of sugar cane and other crops; women carrying baskets of bananas (among other things) on their heads; and uniformed children playing ball in the schoolyards.  Right before lunch, we crossed over the Nile River, and Francis mentioned that we were only a few miles away from its source (and some beautiful waterfalls)!  I hope we have a chance to go to these falls on the way back to the capital.

We finally made it to Mbale and saw that the Mt. Elgon Hotel is within walking distance of the town.  I could not believe my eyes when we got out of the car.  The hotel grounds are beautiful, and the rooms are nicer than I pictured – far different from my hammock and bucket bath lodging just two weeks ago in Panama!  I almost feel sinful for staying in such nice accommodations.. We were greeted by Rich Leep of Grand Rapids/CNFA in the lobby, and he joined the rest of us for dinner down the road – fresh tilapia!

After being in the country for about 24 hours, I am anxious to begin work tomorrow.  We have plans to be introduced to the town of Mbale as well as a few facets of the Uganda Amaranth Project.  I feel that I’ll have a much clearer picture of what the next two weeks might look like and what kinds of conversations we might be able to have with local people once we’ve spent a day in town.

Pictures to come later!

Thanks, Mike!

Posted February 13, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

When I found out about this opportunity through Partners Worldwide, I couldn’t wait to tell my parents…but let’s just say they weren’t thrilled by the thought of their daughter traveling to Uganda by herself.  You can imagine how excited (and surprised) we all were when Mike Munger so quickly accepted the invitation that I reached out to him with.  My parents are glad that I have such a nice, tall travel partner, while I’m glad to have found a great teammate.  I’m feeling pretty lucky because Mike started a full-time job in Chicago just two weeks ago; he is taking two weeks off for this trip!

Mike graduated from Purdue University with a major in Marketing and Sales.  His classroom knowledge and MANY international experiences make him a perfect partner for this research project.  Because of certain coursework at Purdue, Mike also has a deeper understanding of African history and the current political state than do I.

In this case, two heads are definitely better than one.  I know that there will be much value and SYNERGY resulting from our teamwork, especially while we are hosting interviews with local people.  It will also be great to debrief with Mike after each day of work.

Research Abstract

Posted February 12, 2010 by Ashley Luse
Categories: Uncategorized

I am completing my honors thesis this spring on the topic of Human-Centered Design.  I will be traveling to the country of Uganda in February to interact with and live alongside local families, farmers, and micro-entrepreneurs as I conduct Ethnographic Market Research.  This research will allow me to further develop a micro-franchise business model for the distribution of Amaranth, a high protein grain that is grown in many developing countries in East Africa.

By taking an anthropological approach to this research, I will be able to ensure that the design-process of the business model will remain focused on the needs of the end-users and relevant constituents.