Changed Perspectives: An Entrepreneur Asks Tough Questions and Gets Unexpected Answers (Guest Post from Matthew)

January 26, 2018

Local African street

A successful entrepreneur from Nashville joined the Just Hope leadership team on a recent trip to Uganda. We invited him to share his experience with you.

I had the opportunity to work with Just Hope International during one of their trips to northern Uganda. We were meeting with local organizations in order to assess their potential for a future partnership. This was Just Hope International’s second trip to the area following up on a broader, fact-finding trip last spring. Our purpose was to conduct deeper due diligence into the needs and capabilities of four specific organizations and their potential fit with Just Hope International’s expertise. The four organizations are each founded and run by locals and focus on providing specialized assistance to their communities. They each have an incredible story about the founder rising up from the ashes of a travesty and devoting their life to helping those around them.  

Just Hope International seeks to become a supplemental resource to their existing operations by developing a focused skill set for both the leaders of the organizations as well as the communities being served. Put simply, Just Hope International isn’t looking to become the operator or funder of these organizations, but rather to help empower the remarkable people already doing the work. The four organizations collectively serve two different groups of people: Ugandan women and children affected by the atrocities of Joseph Kony, and South Sudanese fleeing their country’s instability.

Asking Questions

As my first trip with Just Hope and first trip to the African continent, I had plenty of questions. I am an executive level entrepreneur in a successful small business, but have limited experience in the nonprofit world. As such, I can often view the world from a very practical standpoint and ask lots of “why?” questions. Prior to the trip, I struggled to understand why Just Hope would apply so much effort in a faraway location. The skeptic in me, ashamedly, asked, “It’s so cliché to be helping women and children in Africa. Why not focus on needs in Nashville?” Furthermore, there are so many existing, well-funded, international relief organizations, the entrepreneur in me kept asking, “If you can’t do something different, better, or cheaper, then why do it?” My perspectives were about to be changed.

“Their resilience and determination was unlike anything I had experienced.”

Over the course of two weeks, we traveled all over northern Uganda including the cities of Gulu, Lira, and Adjumani to meet with the leaders of the organizations. We saw their operations in action, spent time with locals, and generally immersed ourselves in the culture as much as possible. I heard heartbreaking stories of teenagers who had been abducted as small children and forced into a rebel army that committed unspeakable atrocities. Some of the teenagers were “rebel babies” born to mothers held captive by the rebels as sex slaves. They’d escape and flee back to their villages, only to be shunned by their former friends and family. Other people we spoke to were refugees fleeing the instability in South Sudan coming to Uganda with nothing more than what they could carry.  Mentally, they had written off the possibility of ever returning home.  Now they are strangers in a new country without answers to the question, “What now?” Despite their circumstances, they all smiled and thanked God for what they had; for their sparse material blessings, but more importantly for the hope that comes through knowing Jesus. In addition to their amazing gratitude to simply be alive, I was struck by their entrepreneurial and independent nature. While I had expected to be overwhelmed with people with their palms out, not one person asked me for money, not even the children. Their needs were basic and vast yet their resilience and determination was unlike anything I had experienced.

“It wasn’t the type of help they needed.”

Throughout our time there, I was bewildered by the strong international presence (literally an alphabet soup of big agencies), yet the seemingly moderate level of progress that has been made.  I learned there is a huge difference between relief work and development and that there is a major disconnect in transitioning between the two. Generally, relief work is the emergency response to immediate needs following a crisis and intended to only be temporary. Development is the longer-term process, designed to socially and economically create sustainable communities. Once stability is achieved through relief, a community must begin rebuilding in such a way that it is not dependent on continued outside support. The needs the people expressed to us were that of helping build a system in which they could sustain themselves. Surprisingly, there were countless foreigners there helping in various ways, but the overwhelming message from the locals was that it wasn’t the type of help they needed.

The “entrepreneurial edge”

Not only does their need represent a strong fit with Just Hope’s belief in providing a hand up and not just a handout, but there was a clear void in the relief/development spectrum not being addressed by existing agencies. I was astonished to so clearly see Just Hope’s “entrepreneurial edge” that I had questioned prior to the trip.  

I began learning how pure handouts, while born out of love, can often create a counter-productive culture of dependency. The locals understand the well-intended but failed initiatives of Westerners to implement change. Just Hope’s philosophy revolves around the belief that long-lasting, sustainable improvement is possible through locally championed entrepreneurialism. The key to recovery already exists and is in place: the local people themselves. Just Hope believes the world is full of remarkable people capable of amazing things, such as pulling themselves out of tragedy or poverty. It is the entrepreneurial spirit of using one’s God-given talents that can break the cycle of dependency and lead to sustainable success. Just Hope focuses on finding these people and empowering them to overcome their community’s challenges.

The path to success

Specific to Uganda, Just Hope has identified the path to success in their dirt. The country has some of the most fertile soil in the world, and farming is the backbone of their economy. Surprisingly, at the local farmer level, they are not very good farmers. I say this very lovingly, but the soil is so good, even poor farming techniques can work. Additionally, years of war have created such disruption and displacement that farming skills, traditionally taught by a parent and honed from years of experience, have become somewhat of a lost art.  David Reeves, head of Just Hope’s agricultural program, has extensive knowledge in farming both from formal education as well as years of experience. He lived and farmed in Africa for 10 years and has a unique ability to connect with the locals. The curriculum he teaches is simple yet astonishingly powerful. Through a basic, yet thoughtful and disciplined process, locals can quickly increase their yields. Crucially, the method is not dependent on any outside resources (tractors, fertilizers, or chemicals) but rather reliant on God and the things He has already provided around us.

In shadowing David, I heard stories from several locals who had taken this system (taught during Just Hope’s first trip) and applied it. They had significantly increased their crop yield such that they had enough to eat as well as excess to sell. One of the ladies, Deborah, had begun teaching other women who had noticed how well her crops were doing. When she heard we were coming back, she made sure to find us so she could ask about next steps. It was Deborah’s follow up questions and thirst for knowledge that allowed me to understand how Just Hope’s impact goes far beyond better farming techniques.  

After becoming a good farmer, one must then understand how to do it profitably. Once profitable, one must think about what to do with the money. My perspective quickly opened up to see how Just Hope’s mission naturally extends teaching farming as a business into personal finance, entrepreneurial skills, local savings programs and a comprehensive set of life skills. Crucially, success relies on identifying the right locals: people with a Godly heart selflessly helping those around them; people who understand they must pull up their boot straps and conquer their own challenges. I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony in that if Just Hope is successful in teaching their entrepreneurial skills, the communities will outgrow the need for help, thus running themselves out of business. But that is exactly the point.

Reflections with a changed mindset

Since returning home, I had plenty of time to digest and reflect on the trip. Having previously experienced a wide range of suffering both domestically and internationally, I was surprised at how much my perspective changed. The fundamental need was more basic and widespread than I had imagined. I was very surprised at the disconnect between the legions of foreign aid workers and the lack of a longer term solution. The opportunity is unbelievably ripe for Just Hope to make a profound, lasting impact. With Just Hope’s backing, the four targeted organizations will have a significantly larger ripple effect.  

The businessman in me also admires the financial stewardship I witnessed with Just Hope. The level of change they implement is astonishing, especially when considering the minimal financial investment required for each project. Equally impressive to their operational cost-efficiency is how Just Hope has structured itself to enable every dollar I donate to go directly to the project costs. This is extremely rare and achieved through an endowed gift sufficient to cover annual operations.  

Just Hope has inadvertently raised the bar for the other charitable organizations I support. I struggle to think of any organization that can take my donated dollars so far and leverage it in such an impactful way. Additionally, the experience has brought a refreshed attitude toward my otherwise boring business dealings. I now have a tangible understanding of how I can generate profits to be charitably donated to organizations like Just Hope International that are making a profound impact in the lives of God’s children all over the world. For anyone seeking ways to increase the impact of their giving, I highly encourage you to have a conversation with the Just Hope international folks.

If you’re interested in learning more about Just Hope or traveling with our team, contact Andy at andymarkham@justhopeinternational.org or 615-454-5260.