Editor’s note: part of DH’s mission is to model for Haitians and Haitian-Americans, the best efforts/practices of diasporas worldwide. Introducing the first in what will be a regular series:
TMS (Teddy) Ruge is on a mission to mobilize the African diaspora to invest in Africa. That’s not a hard sell these days, considering some countries’ annual growth rate hovers around 10 percent. After living in Kenya and then the United States for 18 years, Ruge now spends half his time assisting indigenous farmers and women refugees in his native Uganda. He spoke with DH via Skype one Sunday afternoon about his entrepreneurial venture, Project Diaspora, partnering with the Ugandan government and his diaspora-led vision for Africa.
DH: What are you up to in Uganda?
A: At the moment I’m managing two pilot projects—one deals with helping 19 refugee women in Kireka get their products to market, the other, we’re organizing 1,500 farmers to produce agroceuticals. Hopefully the pilots will teach us a few lessons about the in’s and out’s of community and economic development from a social entrepreneurship angle. And … within a few years, we can show the results of what can happen by thinking broadly … instead of simply relying on remittances to your family.
DH: Tell me about the larger project.
A: We’re organizing a group of about 1,500 farmers to plant, cultivate, process and export agroceuticals. [For example,] the moringa plant can be processed for use in many industries like pharmaceuticals, beauty products, food, fine watches. When you have something as lucrative as that it’s worth looking at as an economic development tool. When you can mobilize farmers within a community to produce that, it certainly can change the fortunes for an entire community.
DH: That sounds quite involved. How is the Ugandan government assisting you?
A: We started out by reaching out to the Ugandan government. With something like [UPMG] … you have to partner with the local government because they provide services like registration, access to government-funded capital as well as resources for community mobilization that will help the project go along.
Q: How is the partnership with the government working out?
A: I’m one of those who is on the fence in terms of working with government. The Ugandan diaspora is quite dissatisfied and impatient with how the government is run. We have the mentality that we need things to happen now-now-now, as opposed to waiting on a slow governmental process to effect change.
Q: So why go through the government at all? Why not by-pass it?
A: There are systems that need to be in place in order for a lot of the work that we do as members of the diaspora to stay sustainable: registration of businesses, easy access to land titles, assistance in transitioning from the informal to formal economy. We can’t continue to operate extra-legally because that doesn’t help the country.
It’s much easier to say, “I’m going do something and just get it done without going through the red tape of government.” But at the same time, does that really help another member of the diaspora who wants to do [a similar project the next time around?] Does that set a precedent that shows, this is how something is supposed to be done? Does that pave the road for other members of the diaspora to do a better job?
DH: So the idea is that once you have the structure, the system in place, then people don’t have to keep resetting the wheel.
A: Exactly. They can have something to see. For those of us that have the drive to be pioneers [in community economic development]… let’s build a road and network for other members of the diaspora—Haitian, Ugandan, Kenyan, whatever—to actually make it better for them to also invest and contribute to the effort.
DH: Ugandans abroad can have dual citizenship and the government has set up a diaspora office—is there more that the government needs to do?
A: The diaspora office is one step but I also think the policies to invite members of the diaspora to participate are not there yet.
One of the big things that we would like to participate in is, better governance. However our diaspora laws forbid us from, for example, taking a role in direct government jobs…. If you’re going to open the road you really need to welcome back your citizens and say, “Sure, come transfer that knowledge to every sector, as opposed to saying you can do this, this, this … but you’re not allowed to take a leadership role in government.”
That’s a little disingenuous especially when you’re benefiting from our $500 million a year in remittances.
It’s kind of like, taxation without representation.
The diaspora is inputting all of this [money] but we’re really not getting anything out, in terms of participation. Full participation has to be enacted.
DH: What about diaspora participation? Who’s returning home these days?
A: I’m actually seeing quite a young age group, between 25 and 35 years old. As an example, Kenya’s diaspora has really taken a huge role in coming back home to do really big things.
If you look at the digital space in Nairobi, the majority of the innovation is driven by members of the diaspora. Their chances of making a lot more money in Nairobi are wide open. If you’re an entrepreneur, an innovator, an out-of-the-box thinker, Kenya is exactly the place you want to be.
DH: What do you think is behind this impulse to return home—especially among the young?
A: The mental discourse had been that, people left because they were dissatisfied with government rule or, opportunities for economic development were not available. Now, the conversation on the continent has changed from dissatisfaction to possibilities.
Every report that’s coming out shows Africa growing, in some areas up to 11% annually. … Everyone is seeing the same picture and is starting to come back. I hope that it’s a sustained effort [and] whether you do it full time or part-time, just the beginning of that reverse migration is great for the continent.
DH: How did you become interested in not just going home but in joining this ‘Reaspora’ movement?
A: I had just finished helping my brother pay for his undergraduate degree at Makerere [Uganda’s oldest university] and I was about to start paying for my sister to do the same. And I was looking at how my assistance affected their livelihood. I could tell the difference from when they first started university to the time that they finished.
And I thought, If I’m doing this and making such a huge difference in their lives, how many other members of the diaspora are out there doing the same thing? Why don’t we try to find them? Perhaps they can spread the word and find out what others are doing. Maybe people are doing things that are much, much more effective than what I’m doing. So, that’s how Project Diaspora began.
DH: Does Project Diaspora partner with the international aid community in Uganda?
A: No. Project Diaspora’s mantra is definitely not to perpetuate the aid community. Now, with that being said, aid has its place. For example, right now Haiti needs a lot of aid for emergency help and to rebuild systems. But there will come a time when that aid needs to transform into economic development. So, no, we don’t have a relationship with the aid community because we spend our time promoting the need for more trade versus aid.
DH: When you look back at Uganda’s turbulent history and why Ugandans left the country, what lessons do you take away?
A: You have to look at the varied reasons why different age groups left. In Idi Amin’s time a lot of members of the diaspora left because of that conflict. [His] expulsion [of Asian communities] was really destructive. Very few people actually consider them members of the diaspora but they were a huge, huge reason why Uganda’s economy was humming at that time. … A majority of them have decided not to come back. When you’re expelled from the only country you know, so violently, it leaves an emotional toll on you. That post-colonial generation that left because of conflict reasons [usually carry that] mistrust [of government] today.
I’ve learned a lot, as well, from attending the Ugandan North American diaspora conferences. When older members of the diaspora come to these meetings and meet government officials and air their grievances, you can see and feel the hurt in their voices. So there’s still that gap with those who don’t trust the government and will never ever come back—but they will send back remittances to family members because that’s the least they can do.
But then we have a much younger diaspora that left voluntarily. So those guys are much more open to coming back because they didn’t leave because of fear or grievances. So we have that separation between the generations.
DH: What advice would you, as a young entrepreneur who’s returned home to Uganda, give to the Haitian diaspora?
A: I would say, let’s begin a new conversation. Fine, you’re hurt or afraid or left for whatever reason and you’re not willing to come back. If all of us did that, though, where would our country be? Sure, the government might be bad but the people there are still struggling to make a living
If you don’t want to come back or, you don’t want to engage with the government the least you can do, the most impactful thing you can do, is invest in someone’s education.
[That is critical, especially] in this digital age, in this very small digital village that we’re in, where everyone has access to information, please invest in education because that’s the biggest difference you can make. An empowered nation is an educated nation.
DH: What will be the mark of success for Project Diaspora?
A: When the conversation of economic development in Africa can be pegged directly to members of diaspora, and the systems that Project Diaspora puts in place over the next 3-5 years can be catalysts for our development.
Editor’s note: The above interview was edited for clarity.