This past summer, student Michele Hallemans did an internship in Uganda through Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs (OVO). It brought her new perspectives on sustainability.
"It was the 'School of life'.I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Michelle Hallemans left for the Ugandan capital Kampala at the beginning of May for three months. There she went to work at Rena Beverage and Vertical Micro Garden, two companies that are supported by OVO through the SustainableTechnology4Africa program.
Michelle set off on an adventure to complete her master's degree in sustainable business and innovation, a course in Berlin. "There I studied with people from all over the world. I learned a lot about themes like sustainability and inequality there, but it remained theoretical. That's how the idea grew to look for an internship in a place where people have little to nothing. Eventually I ended up at OVO and they offered me the chance to do an internship in Uganda," she says back home in Limburg.
During the first month of her stay, Michelle joined the team of Rena Beverage, a family business that had already received a loan from OVO for a machine to produce tea bags. Among other things, they make soft drinks from hibiscus flowers, tea and coffee substitutes. "They have quite a well-known brand in Kampala by now," Michelle says.
The idea was that she would start a sustainability department within the company. "The first week I tagged along with the family to get to know the company. By helping out and meeting customers I immediately picked up a bunch of ideas, for example to replace the coal in the production with electricity. But it soon became clear that it was not possible to invest for such a long period. They don't have the money for that. Projects have to pay off immediately, because they are mainly concerned with the survival of the company. So my knowledge was not immediately useful."
Then Michelle enthusiastically threw herself into an export plan. "The production is completely artisanal. The bottles are filled by hand and even the etiquette is stuck on manually. Here in Belgium, consumers would pay a premium for this. In its home market, Rena has to compete with the industrial production of multinationals like Coca-Cola and the products certainly shouldn't be more expensive." Unfortunately for Michelle and Rena Beverage, exporting also proved impossible in the short term, mainly due to strict regulations.
Eventually, the 24-year-old student was able to throw herself into a project to increase the company's impact while still remaining financially sound. Specifically, Michelle helped set up training for farmers in the cultivation of Hibiscus, a plant full of vitamins and antioxidants. Twenty or so farmers learned to grow flowers for Rena Beverage in addition to their usual corn. The farmers in turn receive a higher and more diverse income. "Hibiscus is a high-value crop that has the potential to lift people out of poverty," says Mr. Hibiscus. The project is still ongoing, but it was very interesting to do," says Michelle.
Vertical Micro Garden
With her first experience under her belt, she spent another eight weeks at Vertical Micro Garden, which makes racks in which people can grow vegetables on their walls. "There was a very different dynamic there," Michelle now looks back. "Vertical Micro Garden was clearly still a startup. They were really still looking. How to sell and to whom? Their business model was not yet on point."
Unfortunately for her, at that moment fate named ‘corona’ strikes mercilessly in Kampala, which imposes a strict curfew and goes into partial lockdown. Michelle herself is not spared either. At one point, she finds it difficult to breathe. Fortunately, she receives good care from her host family. Nevertheless, a difficult situation. "We lived with eight families around a courtyard. Above all, I didn't want to infect anyone," it sounds. Still, Michelle manages to spend her time usefully. "I worked on their website, took care of their social media and made the design of their vertical gardens more sustainable."
Vertical Micro Gardens still has some work to do. "The plan was to sell the gardens to the poor, but they've had to abandon that strategy. They are now targeting the middle class, restaurants and possibly larger projects." Michelle already believes in it: "There is definitely potential. Vegetables are expensive and prices are volatile, so it's interesting to grow them yourself."
Today she looks back on her internship with satisfaction. She received advice and support from the coaches who, as volunteers for OVO, assist Rena Beverage and Vertical Micro Garden. And Thierry Deflandre, head of Team Investments at the non-profit organization, kept in close contact. "It gave a secure feeling to know that the companies were linked to a Belgian organization. That way there was a place I could always turn to."
What will stay with Michelle above all is the broader view of sustainability. "With us, sustainability is mainly a progressive and a somewhat hip concept. There, many people don't even know the word. They are mainly concerned with survival. Environmental awareness is much weaker there. In Kampala there is plastic everywhere and you come across scattered landfills. But the social side of sustainability is ingrained in the projects. Helping each other is a matter of course there. Paul's mission at Vertical Micro Garden was really to help people grow vegetables. And at Reno Beverage, the motivation of the mother of the family was really to offer healthier drinks to the children in the slums."
"I'm grateful that OVO made this possible. I would do it again anyway," Michelle concludes. "It may not have been the streamlined internship as I could have done in Germany. But I got to know very different perspectives on sustainability. That is much more valuable. This was the 'school of life'."