Guests discuss grassroots development

On October 19, the College welcomed Milly Businge, LCI chairperson of Kikuube village, and her son, Teddy Ruge, the founder of Raintree Farms, remit.ug, and Hive Colab, both from Uganda. Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay, who is currently on sabbatical, organized the event. Many people attended the talk, attracting a diverse mix of students and professors, including students from classes that Businge and Ruge had already spoken to earlier in the day.

Ruge and Seay initially met over Twitter, where they bonded over their shared dislike of New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and his focus on the white savior in Africa. Their friendship grew when they discovered that they both had roots in Texas, as Ruge attended University of Texas and Seay grew up in the state. Eventually, the pair began to focus on the concept of “decolonizing study abroad.” Professor Seay elaborated on this idea at the talk, saying, “we can be better partners, rather than saviors”. 

Hundreds of thousands of college students, including almost 70% of Colby students, choose to study abroad. Some of those students choose to study abroad in developing countries. However, very few students from these countries get the same opportunity. Ruge and Seay decided to start an exchange between Colby and the village of Kikuube, starting with ten Colby students spending JanPlan studying economic and political development in Uganda, including a weeklong homestay with families in Kikuube. Jenner Foster ’17 said that the trip “provided hands on knowledge and a dual focus in that you were learning from the villagers and they were learning from you.” Seay and Ruge had plans of bringing a delegation of students from Kikuube to Colby this year, but were only granted two visas.

Milly Businge, the LC1 chairperson of Kikuube village, spoke on a variety of topics, discussing the food, security, and sustainability issues that face her village, as well as the struggles of being a woman in government. Before the election to her current position, local leadership was entirely male and was unwilling to let a woman into office. Businge, frustrated by the system, remarked to the audience that she remembers asking herself, “What can I do as a woman, since we are not allowed into leadership?” Her persistence paid off:  when a seat on the committee opened up, she was given the opportunity. When asked about her decision to remain at the local level of politics, she responded that she had been asked several times to run for office at the parish or sub county level, but prefers to work at a  grassroots level where she can see tangible impact. She views her most significant achievement as increasing the educational opportunities available to children, especially girls. The village is home to two schools, one public and one private, with the private school ranked in the top ten out of 70 in the region.

Businge also spoke at length about the issues of food security and sustainable farming in Kikuube. In the past, a majority of the agriculture in the village was sugar cane, but growing sugar cane lead to significant cash shortages during the growing season and food insecurity across the village. Multinational corporations dominate the region’s sugar cane industry,  so very little of the money is being invested back at the local or even national level.

Ruge, who had watched this cycle for years, decided to solve the problem by introducing a new crop to the area with his company Raintree Farms. Ruge and Raintree farms decided to start growing moringa, a plant whose powders and oils are a popular nutritional supplement that is high in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin C. The plant thrives in tropical climates like Uganda and requires less upkeep than sugar cane. Most importantly, it takes only three months to fully cultivate, ensuring food security and a regular income. Raintree Farms employs twelve local women, and has placed a heavy emphasis on ensuring that they are paid regularly.

A majority of Raintree’s moringa products are sold locally and nationally, ensuring that the money remains in the Ugandan economy. The business is expanding rapidly, with construction of a larger facility underway and plans for an even larger building  under consideration for 2017.  When asked about competition and conflict between the sugar cane companies and Raintree Farms, Ruge remarked, “if you get the community on your side, they are the best police,” speaking to the popularity of moringa and Raintree’s business practices throughout the village.

Businge and Ruge’s talk highlighted issues of social entrepreneurship and grassroots leadership that are not often addressed Colby’s academic departments, where many speakers discuss creating change at the macro level. Businge and Ruge are agents of change whose grassroots work has the potential to help end food insecurity in Uganda and nearby countries.  The concept of decolonizing the study abroad experience and beginning an exchange program between Colby and Kikuube is unique and promises to reinvent the way we think about the study abroad experience.

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