As you might or might not know, Safe Waters Foundation has been working in the Lake Victoria region for a good decade aiming at lowering the number of people drowning. Already in 2005-2006 we started local life jacket production in the villages where we were present, engaged local seamstresses, tried to establish a supply chain to the remotest of places. The set-up worked, the life jacket as such did the job, and we saw a subtle change in the safety awareness starting to take place. We had however one major problem, the cost of material and transports made it hard to financially sustain the operations without external financial support. We realized that it is easier to get life jackets donated than getting the support to produce them locally. A very sad fact really as it leaves out the local job creation, the larger business case. So, how could we build a sustainable model based on donated life jackets, that saves lives, that employs people even though the production stays in China, that becomes an embedded part of everyday life at the shores of the lakes and waterways. And, not to forget, is cheap enough to enable the lake farers to take the necessary precaution.
Call it a revelation, a strike of genius, a “eureka” moment! We had it! We would establish a rental system! Each landing site should have a “life jacket kiosk” where transporters could sign out the necessary number of jackets and provide them to their passengers for a few shillings. Where a fisherman could rent a life jacket for a day or two of fishing. A low profit system that solved a huge problem, that ensured that when a life jacket had come to the end of its life, another one could be bought and take its place in the system. A system employing quite a few people, making safety work valuable on a grass root level.
So we got hold of a few lifejackets and started a pilot just around the corner from home, on Ggaba landing site outside Kampala. We engaged the local “youth investment club”, boda boda drivers with ambition to do more. They loved the idea, and with enthusiasm started to sell the idea on the landing site. The enthusiasm faded when they were met with:
YOU GIVE US! We don’t want to pay – you GIVE us!
Where did this come from? How was it that these young entrepreneurs were met like that? The answer lies in misdirected good intentions based on pitying rather than helping. A year earlier a local university had launched a project giving life jackets away – several hundreds of them – at that very landing site. All of them were gone, no sign of any, and no-one knew where they had ended up. The lesson learnt from this story is STOP, THINK, and REFLECT on what possible consequences your action will cause. DON’T give things away without trying to start something sustainable. If you’re a do-gooder think in business cases rather than donations. How can my spare resources start a process that will live on and prosper rather than deteriorate at the end of the resource life span. Just saying, THINK, and THINK AGAIN!!!!!