The Social Innovation Academy (SINA) in Uganda empowers young marginalized people to take responsibility for developing their personalities and abilities in order to create a better job and life situation for themselves and their communities. Since its foundation in 2014, the main SINA community in Mgipi, Uganda, grew to about seventy young people from diverse marginalized backgrounds such as former prostitutes, former child soldiers or people having grown up in extreme poverty. The model that promotes “freesponsibility” – self-management and social entrepreneurship in order to create jobs and possibilities – spread to refugee camps and beyond borders. It even led to a SINA alumni’s handshake with the Queen of England. Clara Maier talked to Etienne Salborn, who founded the initiative twelve years ago.
Many Peaces Magazine: When did SINA start and how has the model of SINA spread to Eastern Africa and worldwide?
Etienne Salborn: In 2006 I went to Uganda for the first time. I lived and volunteered in the Kankobe Orphanage Home for one year in rural Uganda and learned that the children had no way to continue schooling after finishing primary school. By asking friends and family in Germany for financial support, I initiated the sponsorship program “Jangu e.V.” which is today supporting more than one hundred children in attending high school. Seven years later, the first generation graduated and a new challenge emerged: Neither were they able to find jobs because of an 83% youth unemployment rate, nor could they attend university because the tuition fees were unaffordable. The goal of the sponsorship program, for the youth to be able to sustain themselves, was not met.
Combined, the SINA enterprises have been able to create over one hundred new jobs in the last four years.
As part of my master thesis in Peace Studies I decided to do an open space dialogue with the affected youth, along the lines of “we need a space to create our own jobs, if there are no jobs available.” That is how SINA started in 2014: orphans and other marginalized youth would gain the skills needed for creating their own jobs, by running their own program. Scholars began to unlearn limiting beliefs, got rid of a fear of failing, expanded their comfort zones and were equipped with 21st century skills for job creation. In 2016, the model was replicated in the Nakivale Refugee camp (see article page 40) by three Congolese refugees. SINA had transformed their traumatic past experiences into the drive to improve the living conditions in the camp and build a sustainable life in Uganda. A new community is currently being started in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, while two more teams are preparing to start a SINA community in a slum for urban refugees in Kampala and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What are – in your opinion – the significant features that allowed SINA’s success story and its impact on Uganda’s development process and beyond?
The SINA model seems to work well in places of failing education and where people lack opportunities. Refugee camps are one example. Uganda has taken in over one million refugees in recent years, many of them are passively waiting for a resettlement in the global North. By managing themselves and being enabled in a SINA community, refugees are no longer passive but become an active driver for the generation of opportunities, jobs and economic growth for themselves and the host communities.
One key element of the SINA model is the self-organization. Tens of thousands of young people in Uganda, even with university degrees, are looking for jobs, yet the few employers existing are complaining that they cannot find people with the right skills. In a SINA community, leadership is practiced by actually leading a part of the academy. With full autonomy on diverse roles, scholars hold each other accountable and grow in their personal and professional abilities until their own ideas for a social enterprise emerges, and then is tested and refined until it becomes an independent enterprise. The scholars then leave SINA with their own jobs and make room for an intake of new scholars. No one is giving “the right answer,” but SINA allows the creation of one’s own solutions to local problems and to tackle social challenges with a business approach, rather than a charity mindset dependent on donations.
What kind of challenges does Uganda face at the moment and how does SINA contribute to the development process?
Uganda has an 83% youth unemployment rate and one of the youngest populations in the world, with half the country being children below the age of fifteen. Unemployment stands at the heart of hopelessness and violence. This makes job creation and opportunity the prerequisites for lasting peace. With five to six children on average per family in Uganda, thousands of youth are entering the job market each year and fail to find employment. Without solutions for job creation, the stability in Uganda, under the current president Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office for 32 years, is in danger. Combined, the SINA enterprises have been able to create over one hundred new jobs in the last four years. All enterprises are tackling challenges of the society or environment, ultimately improving living conditions through providing services or products otherwise unaffordable or non-existent. These range from solutions for providing water, food, shelter, education, health, livelihoods or protecting the environment.
Can you tell us some of SINA’s individual success stories?
I want to give two examples of young female social entrepreneurs, who are very close to my heart because I first encountered both of them over twelve years ago in the Kankobe Orphanage Home.
Ruth Nabembezi (picture below) grew up in the orphanage because her parents and her sister passed away because of AIDS. After finishing primary school in the orphanage, Ruth joined the “Jangu e.V.” sponsorship program and after finishing high school joined SINA. For the first time, she began to share her traumatic experiences and work on a solution. Frustrated by the lack of sex education in Uganda, ,the fact that it was such a taboo topic, she created “Ask Without Shame”. The social enterprise is providing emergency mobile sex education via to improve and promote sexual health through giving accurate information. It is a free and anonymous service to answer questions regarding sexual matters without judgment, via an Android App, SMS, WhatsApp and a toll-free hotline. Medical experts are available to assist young people with the right information, whatever emergency they are facing and whatever question they have regarding sexuality. Today, “Ask Without Shame” has over 100,000 users, is employing ten staff members, and because Ruth has transformed her own difficult past into the strength and basis for the social enterprise, she has won several international awards and was also personally recognized by the Queen of England in 2017.
Ruth has transformed her own difficult past into the strength and basis for the social enterprise, she has won several international awards.
I got to know Joan Nalubega (picture below) twelve years ago, when she was still a shy young girl in the Kankobe Orphanage Home. She suffered many times from recurring malaria, one of the leading causes of child mortality in Uganda. After primary school, she was also supported through a sponsorship for high school and joined SINA in 2015. Joan founded the enterprise “Uganics” in SINA which is selling organic mosquito repellent soap in rural Uganda at the same price as ordinary soap through a social business model. Soap is an everyday product even extremely poor families in Africa use almost daily. This project helps mothers with children in rural communities to prevent mosquito bites. Since tourists also fear malaria, Uganics sells its certified soap to price-insensitive resorts, lodges and hotels with a high profit margin to be able to then cross finance and subsidize sales to price-sensitive rural mothers at the exact same price as ordinary soap. The business is still in development and has potential for huge social impact. This is also why Joan has recently been featured on different international news agencies with her innovation.
What were the challenges in establishing this NGO and how did local society and politics react on SINA?
After initial registration as an NGO in Uganda and a quite complicated process, we tried to stay away as much as possible from the government, bureaucracy and possible corruption. In spirit of Buckminster Fuller “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete”, we found out about our “right way” through experimentation and self-learning. In early 2018 the government approached SINA, because they saw that something is working well, which could contribute on a larger scale to tackle youth unemployment. We have already signed a partnership with the local district of Mpigi and the government body responsible for refugees, and are exploring how to work together to scale SINA. There have been thousands of challenges, but we have learned to accept and work with them. The biggest ones have been around procuring land and construction projects with external contractors to set up the infrastructure in SINA.
What are your wishes for SINA, Uganda and the region?
Our goal is to enable up to twenty new communities in the next five years to replicate and adapt the model into their local contexts, to be able to create solutions for themselves in the form of social enterprises. For that, we are currently in the process of codifying the essence of the model and are taking in scholars from new areas (e.g. a refugee camp in Kenya), who wish to potentially replicate the model. However, we will not be going to a new community to prescribe our solution.
Interest has been expressed from the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Pakistan and West African countries to potentially explore if SINA could be replicated there.
If community members wish to replicate the model by themselves and make it their own, we will support them in these efforts and collectively create new SINA communities. Interest has also been expressed from the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Pakistan and West African countries to potentially explore if SINA could be replicated there as well. In five years from now, my wish is that we have become a global network of local communities, who are tackling the root causes of social and environmental challenges through social entrepreneurship.
Etienne Salborn is a social entrepreneur and changemaker-maker, German by blood and Ugandan by heart with a Master’s in Peace, Development, Security and International Conflict Transformation from the University of Innsbruck. In 2007 he started the German NGO Jangu e.V. and in 2014 the Social Innovation Academy (SINA) in Uganda. Etienne is also part of the Ashoka Changemaker Community and previously mentored enterprises for the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Social Impact Award, ampion and the Startup Cup. In 2018 Etienne was recognized as MIT D-Lab Innovation Ecosystem Builder and Evolutionary Leadership Fellow.