I've just got back from a very humbling, fun and inspiring trip to Uganda, in East Africa. Along with 12 other socially-minded young entrepreneurs from around Europe, I was taken to a very rural part of the country, about a six hour drive West of the capital, Kampala. As well as being a very beautiful part of the world, it is where Ben & Jerry's source their Fairtrade vanilla; the reason for our trip.
As longtime pioneers of values-led business, Ben & Jerry's source all of their ingredients through Fairtrade. Although i'm not naive enough to think that Fairtrade is a perfect system, having seen the difference it makes to the communities involved, I can say that it is certainly a big step in the right direction.
As well as learning about Fairtrade, we spent time working with local Ugandan entrepreneurs on trying to move their business ideas forward. I was working with a group of entrepreneurs who plan on selling jams, honey and fruit baskets, as well as making environmentally friendly briquettes (an alternative to charcoal) from waste materials.
I found myself welling up talking over dinner about their dreams and ambitions, realising that if I had happened to have been born there, I would probably be in their shoes; struggling to get a business off the ground because of the circumstances around me.
I felt incredibly honoured to stay in the home of a local family. Before our visit, Ben & Jerry's had paid to install a small solar panel on their roof, which powered a light bulb. Before that, they had lived in darkness (it was actually still so dark that we couldn't see our food at dinner time). Needless to say; they still continue to draw water from a well, washing themselves with buckets of cold water and their clothes by hand. Their pride and joy is a cow tied to a post in their backyard.
It is difficult not to be struck by how much stuff we in the West have. In fact, what is striking is that we have too much of most things; food, medicine, cars.. we have so many possessions that we spend most of our time stressing out about them. We get fat, we're drugged up to our eyeballs and we work every minute of the day to pay for loans taken out to pay for crap we don't really need. Here I was with people asking me what it's like to fly on an airplane, what the sea looks like and even what cornflakes are all about.
But perhaps what I had the hardest time with was, after a few days of experiencing their lifestyle, trying to explain to my hosts that there were actually certain things that they have that we don't; a sense of community, time to play with their kids, fresh air and even fresher food.
And so, I think what I learned was that our world is partly unfair, that there are some evil forces at play, but actually, that it is just wholly absurd.