Dead simple innovation to save lives

For the price of a Hyundai, Yukoner Karen Smith can turn a few acres of Uganda into a village-of-the-future. Dubbed the Mother Centre, and located just outside the capital city of Kampala, it would be a showcase of innovative ideas for everyday rural problems.

For the price of a Hyundai, Yukoner Karen Smith can turn a few acres of Uganda into a village-of-the-future.

Dubbed the Mother Centre, and located just outside the capital city of Kampala, it would be a showcase of innovative ideas for everyday rural problems.

Gas energy obtained from animal waste.

Houses made from waste materials.

Solar-powered stoves.

Disease-fighting hand-washing stations.

“We’ve called it a library of ideas,” said Smith, CEO of Hungry Minds Educational Society.

From miles around, Ugandans would hike to the Mother Centre, receive a crash course in do-it-yourself village modernization, and then bring the ideas back home.

“And then you can train all the other people in your village,” said Smith.

Smith didn’t come up with the idea – that distinction belongs to nine Ugandan women who were learning to read.

When Smith co-founded Hungry Minds while a volunteer in Uganda, the initial plan was that it would be devoted primarily to literacy.

Before any development could take place, the best thing to do was to have locals hitting the books, thought Smith.

“It’s all very well and good to say, ‘Let’s go build houses for everybody,’ but the reality is that’s not going to change their lives permanently,” said Smith.

Based in Whitehorse, Smith dealt with Hungry Mind’s finances and administration.

Joyce Nairuba, Smith’s Ugandan counterpart, led classes in reading and writing Lugandan, the local language.

Soon, nine women, ranging in age from 23 to 69, were meeting regularly in Nairuba’s living room.

“Often times, when women get together in groups to learn to read and write, other issues come out,” said Smith.

As soon as the pens touched paper, the ideas started to flow.

Illiterate only months before, the women were soon coming forward with ambitious plans for new infrastructure and technological reform.

Smith initially came to Uganda as a literacy volunteer in 2006.

There, she “experienced firsthand how poverty can devastate all efforts to progress,” she wrote in the Hungry Minds annual report.

A nearby school was facing shutdown as the principal had failed to submit financial reports to overseas donors.

When Smith confronted the principal, he said he had been too busy attending the funerals of students who had died of starvation thanks to a recent drought.

Hungry Minds is strictly oriented towards women, a strategic decision.

Across Africa, women-focused projects typically yield the biggest bang-for-your-buck.

It’s a cultural issue, said Smith.

Ugandan women are at the nucleus of home life, almost solely responsible for raising the children.

Ugandan men, on the other hand, remain largely hands-off from family politics.

“It’s acceptable for Ugandan men to work, get money and then spend it on themselves,” said Smith.

“That’s not acceptable with women; women are expected to care for the family,” she said.

Teach a Ugandan woman, and the knowledge will trickle down into her family.

“Whereas if you give that same knowledge to men it often stays with them,” said Smith.

In 1997, the government of Uganda introduced free universal primary education.

“The children are starting to be addressed; the women are still being missed out,” said Smith.

Husbands were initially resistant to Hungry Minds, she said.

If women were off reading, who would be taking care of the family?

The women countered with a microloan program.

Smith put up $1,000, which was divided equally among the nine women.

The money would be used for microinvestments and a 10-per-cent premium would be paid back into a central account.

That sum would then be lent out for other projects, conceivably, in perpetuity.

If any individual woman’s project failed, the nine committed to paying back her share.

Six went into pig-raising.

Two planted crops.

One bought a cow.

The projects received unanimous husband approval.

“So the women said, ‘The proviso is; I’ve got to stay and learn to read and write in Lugandan,’” said Smith.

The literacy classes remained filled.

Hungry Minds was originally run in Uganda before the administration was moved to Canada.

It came down to a capacity issue, explained Smith.

Ugandan organizers were hard-pressed to set aside the leisure time needed to run a charitable group.

Minor expenses were out of reach.

When directors needed to take a bus to Kampala to register the organization, nobody could scrape together the 10-cent fare.

But what locals lack in funds, they make up for in zeal.

In the Yukon, on the other hand, social development typically comes with a hefty dose of bureaucracy.

When Smith was an adult literacy co-ordinator for the Yukon government, she remembers the agency spending thousands of dollars just to get people through the door.

In Uganda, Smith found “the complete opposite.”

“All you had to say was, ‘I’m interested in starting an NGO,’ and people were beating on your door,” said Smith.

Children and adults alike would stop Smith on the street asking for ad-hoc English lessons.

In October, Smith will begin her seven-month stint in the country, primarily to secure a plot of land for the Mother Centre.

Smith and two other Whitehorse-based directors contributed $10,000 each to get the project running.

“Once we’ve got land, we hope to start to interest funders,” said Smith.

Hungry Minds is still small: a handful of Canada-based directors and one on-the-ground volunteer.

But small is exactly how Smith wants to keep it.

“When you start introducing other people, then you start introducing the concept of corruption, unfortunately,” said Smith.

Africa’s capital cities are packed with gleaming Land Rovers and plush offices sporting World Vision and Care International insignia.

In the west, Uganda is often associated with the oppressive nine-year reign of dictator Idi Amin.

Amin was overthrown in 1979, but the country was beset by coups and counter-coups well into the 1980s.

Since 1986, however, a democratically elected government has maintained relative stability.

Politically on-track, and sitting on some of Africa’s most fertile soil, Uganda is rife for a dramatic surge in productivity.

“There’s great potential there,” said Smith.

For information on contributing to Hungry Minds Educational Society, contact Karen Smith at 456-4027.

Contact Tristin Hopper at