Necessity is the mother of invention

I am in the process of collating many of my past writings for a book I am planning to publish. The material is a heady mix of talks I gave 20 or so years ago when I was in the thick of business life, extracts from a diary I kept for during that period in London before the word blog was ever a twinkle in anyone’s eye, poems I wrote, some of the more recent ‘rewilding’ blog entries, transcripts of the ‘practical spirituality’ podcast series (you can listen to on this site) and more.

Really, it’s a kaleidoscope of my developing awareness, personal insights and epiphanies about business and the world at large, in a never-ending quest to understand the ultimate relationship, namely the one with myself. I can’t bear this information, which I held so dear at the time and which has been so profoundly important to me, to be allowed to gather dust and never see the light of day again when there is a possibility it might be useful to anyone else.

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Having sifted through all of it (no mean feat) I am in the process of getting the oldest material which only exists in hard copy, onto the computer so I can play with it and create a narrative that links everything together. In the process of doing this, I came across an article I wrote in 2003 after returning from a working trip to Uganda to see a project assisting the poorest of the poor, namely the country’s women. It occurred to me that there was a bit of a parallel to the brave new world we are entering post virus, where necessity will be the mother of invention once again in so many ways and where ingenuity will characterise the ‘new norm’. It also offers a sobering perspective. So, are you sitting comfortably?

……The day I arrived in Kampala, capital of Uganda, there was a newspaper in my hotel bedroom sporting the headline, “Kony chops off mens’ genitals”! Not only did it sink in at the speed of sound, that I really was in the third world but I became uncomfortably aware that I had arrived in a country at war and I had known nothing about this. How naive was I? Kony was, by all accounts, a ruthless tyrant and his rebels were running amok in parts of Uganda, for reasons I knew nothing about. A week later, on the day I left, the same paper carried the headline, “All-Share index launches today”. These two headlines summed up the contrasts of Uganda for me.

Much of the land is extremely fertile and green enough to rival the UK, in spite of being on the equator. This is because a substantial part of the country borders Lake Victoria. (In addition, there is almost daily rainfall.) The people are incredibly industrious and gracious, working from dawn to dusk to earn their daily crust.

Slums run almost into the centre of Kampala, as do the tin shacks and mud roads. This is a society which gives true meaning to the expression, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. I saw rubber bands holding printers together in the bank, someone driving a small motorbike with another broken-down motorbike crossways, on the saddle behind him, amongst other wondrous sights!

Yet, the poverty is breath-taking. I went to Uganda to visit the slums and their poor inhabitants to find out about the Work of Opportunity International (OI), a charity I am helping. I see a connection with my own business – both are essentially empowering women through financial independence, albeit in totally different cultures and settings.

I saw no tourists, no postcards and there was nothing I wanted to buy in the shops (to my horror) as all that was on sale were the bare necessities of life – food, clothing and household goods. The stench of meat in the market made you want to heave as there is no refrigeration, so most sell it and eat it rotten. The poorest women are usually married in their teens and have 8-10 children by the age of 30; they have to endure polygamy and are frequently abandoned by the husbands eventually. Even if they are not, many husbands do little to help them support their family. Putting one meal on the table a day is tough enough and there is little running water or electricity. In addition, virtually all education must be paid for privately. The women I met work from 7am to midnight, every day of their life just to exist.

They cook from raw ingredients (even having to extract sugar from sugar cane). They wash their clothes in a bucket, fetch water daily, look after their children and have to find ways of earning a living too. They truly are the poorest of the poor. Even so, many speak passable English as this is the business language in Uganda and I quickly observed that the word ‘problem’ doesn’t exist, they use ‘challenge’ instead. All smile, shake your hand and greet you with, ‘hello, how are you, you are most welcome’ (even to their one room shack). There is no begging or harassment of foreigners.

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OI has been doing astonishing work for some 30 years in the developing world, along with many other micro-finance organisations which help the poor to become self-sufficient and improve the quality of their lives. Their mission is to help the poorest of the poor create sustainable incomes and, in so doing, to achieve personal and community transformation. So it isn’t about hand-outs which last for a nano-second in the scale of things – to quote the terminology, it is about ‘hand-ups’. In Uganda, OI work with Ugaforde which is the micro-finance organisation on the ground (one of 75 such organisations in the country).

Around 85% of those taking loans are women and there is an incredible 98% payback rate. I visited many and saw the difference it was making to their lives. They could now put two meals a day on the table, were sending more (in some cases all) of their children to school, improving their homes and creating community projects for the good of their family, friends and neighbours.

Western bankers could learn a lot from the micro-finance process which to me, boiled down to some very basic ingredients. First, educate before lending. These people have lived hand to mouth and have no concept of borrowing or repayment, or running a business for that matter. Some are only semi-literate and many illiterate. So the first step is that they must attend 8 training sessions over as many weeks before they receive a loan.

The first loan then equates to around £150. It might buy seed and tools to work the land, build an extension to their house so they can work from home perhaps making crafts, fund a shop (usually a small cubicle on the side of the road) to sell their produce or buy a dilapidated old sewing machine. Basically, mico-loans for micro-businesses. Once repaid, most then take out several bigger loans over 2 or 3 years until their business becomes self-sustainable and as loans are repaid they are lent to others, so the money is constantly recycled.

When a loan is agreed, the lender supports the borrower in a variety of ways. There is a weekly meeting of the group of loan-holders in a particular area with the loan officer, where they discuss business issues and make repayments (along with a small amount of savings, which is mandatory). Failure is not an option as all in a group cross-guarantee each other to get over the problem having no collateral.

Proceedings are conducted in a business-like fashion sitting on the grass outside someone’s house. There is a self-appointed chairman, secretary and treasurer. Minutes are taken, repayments and savings logged in a ledger and lodged with the treasurer who must bank them. The loan officer frequently uses these meetings to provide additional training on other key subjects such as HIV/ Aids. Education, support, commitment and starting small are the key ingredients to successfully banking the poor, certainly principles which could benefit us in the West too.

The women I met were a complete inspiration. One group of single mothers had their own small businesses and had decided to start a secondary business together to add another income stream to ensure income all year round. They decided on a fish farm, something new to the area. In their non-existent spare time, they spent 3 months digging an area the size and depth of an Olympic swimming pool which is now bearing its first crop of fish. Their ages ranged from 20-75.

To these women, the loans are a lifeline which they grab with both hands as it is their only chance. As a result of their business, many are now sending a child to university. I met two women who even had a child doing a Masters degree. The children know their best (probably only) way out of poverty is education and their biggest wish in life is to go to school. Doesn’t that put our society to shame?

I was as fascinated by their life experience as they were by mine. They couldn’t understand why someone as ‘old’ as I was (a very young 43 in my eyes) wasn’t married, didn’t have children or didn’t want any. ‘What on earth did I do with my time?’ they asked. Or ‘was I a prostitute’ perhaps? In turn, I was horrified at them having so many children without a second thought and having to share their husbands. We all laughed at the absurd, fixed positions of our respective societies.

OI and its partners are passion-driven organisations, or should I say compassion-driven? Actually, they are both. They are rooted in Christianity, so the word God does come up from time to time. However, it’s not in your face and they are not missionaries. In fact, if you take the G-word out and just use a few of the principles by which they run their businesses, you will find some leading edge practises that we could all learn from. Their faith means they believe it’s their calling to serve the poor. It gives them a common outlook, a commitment to each other and to their clients. My experience of spending time with Ugaforde is that they do what it takes to get the job done and relish in making a difference to peoples’ lives. They have a vision, mission statements and core values though passion comes first.

Each day begins with a group ‘devotion’ where psalms are read followed by a discussion relating them to current happenings in life. Then a few hymns are sung (we are talking rhythm, clapping and spontaneous harmony which definitely gets the energy up first thing in the morning). The group closes by deciding who and what needs ‘divine’ help and they send prayers to many and varied recipients including children taking final school exams, a client having trouble repaying a loan, a woman who went into labour early, treacherous roads in the capital Kampala and so on. They also express gratitude for everything they have.

If you don’t believe in a divine creative force, then you can call this positive affirmation which is now being talked about at the leading edge of management science, or coherent group thought which is being investigated by science. It’s about setting up strong intentions for your wants and needs and those of others, along with unwavering belief that there is a solution for all things. Expressing gratitude is already known in science to be an important part of well-being.

At a personal level, I have been working on exactly these ideas for the last few years. After having done things the hard most of my working life, I have been searching for a way to ‘work smarter’ (I’m not just talking time-management or delegation). I have found that lining my focused thoughts and beliefs up before taking action is the quickest way to create more of the outcomes I want in life.

What do I mean? Firstly, you need to find your passion as this is the engine for action. Then make sure your belief system fits with what you want, ie. that you truly believe you can be it, have it or do it. Belief is about trust in the unknown and this is all we have when the way is unclear or outside our experience and knowledge. When desire and belief and not matched, the result is stress and progress is likely to be ‘stop-start’. When you are lined up at an energetic level (you with you), you experience amazing synchronicity guided by your instinct which takes you where you want to go, in ways you could not have imagined. It’s such fun working this magic and it’s what the people of Ugaforde do naturally as they tackle the challenges they face in the business of helping the poor.

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Pics: Talisman and me ready to ride; enjoying the warmer weather in the garden

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