I had a conversation with Aaron Kirunda the face behind enjuba.
At what point did you start paying attention to life?
Must have been around secondary school.
How was secondary school life, Aaron?
Humble. I went to Kakira for secondary school which was supposed to be temporary for like two years but couldn’t afford to go anywhere else and stayed for 4 years. I went to Kakira High School, a poor man’s school. There was another estate school but I could not make it there.
At my school, it was a requirement to bring your own chair where you would sit. Every student had to come with their own chair. I grew up in Namalele, in Jinja. At the time of joining secondary school, I didn’t have a school to go to. My father and his friends had started a community school which he took me to until my uncle took me up to. I was admitted to the estate school but my parents couldn’t convince the headmaster that they could afford the school fees. I went to live with my sister who was a teacher herself about 25 years old. She was the one to look after me. When I couldn’t make it to the estate school, I joined my sister who was teaching at Kakira High School.
Do you remember your first day at Kakira High?
I was wearing all white which looked like the uniform of the inmates at a nearby prison. I was referred to as the prisoner. That became my nickname. I didn’t have a uniform. The school had its own struggles.
In S4, the school was taken up by the government which improved the standards. It was an only O level school. After my S4 I had to find another school for A level. My results were not something worth looking back to. I went to Wairaka College.
While at Wairaka College , I struggled with making friends. I was joining the school later on when all the previous students were already known to each other. I was laid back. I had the worst performance at the time.
In my first term of senior six, my sister talked sense into me: if you don’t work on your results, you will end up as a failure in the village. That conversation changed my attitude to school. I paid more attention and I read. I now had a goal: I didn’t want to end up in the village. I was determined to put in the work. And the results changed.
By the time we sat mocks, I –to the surprise of the teachers and to myself – was the best. A village boy from Namalele was on top of the class and there was no turning back. By the end of my S6, I was the best student in Jinja.
I was in Mbale when our results were released, I went to the news paper outlet and I found my out that my name was on top of the front page of the newspaper. I didn’t believe it because I didn’t expect it. I thought here was another Aaorn Kirunda from Jinja who had emerged best in Jinja. My dad found out while at a funeral. Under a tent the person next to time was reading a newspaper and there was my name on top of the paper. It was far-fetched for a man from such a community, there was no chance that a son of such a man could be on the cover page of a newspaper.
Was Makerere the dream for you? What did you study?
I joined Makerere University to read journalism. Then, it was called mass communication. I was not sure of what I was doing. I was not interested in joining any of the media platforms. I was just going through the university.
I really had no idea of what I wanted to do. I was discouraged from joining law school. Someone thought it was not a good idea. I was looking for a course that was broad. I never specialised in anything.
I performed very well at university, short of a first class by a few points. My lecture and supervisor offered me my first research project where I was paid UGX 50,000. By the time I left university, I was a millionaire in Uganda shillings.
Life at uni, how was that for you?
While at university, I was so involved in university activities. This opened up many opportunities for me. I was sure I didn’t want to go back to my village. One of the activities I took part in organising was the Gulu Walk which opened up a number of opportunities.
One time while walking around the university I found a young girl of about 12 selling paper beads. She told me “I work with my mother to raise school fees.” I bought some and went to meet her mother. I was sold. I reached out to a number of friends abroad whom I convinced to buy the beads. I was thinking of selling beads and clothes with the various artisans. I want to run an online clothing company. By then I was in my third year. The name enjuba came up and I took it up. We started out as a clothing line. 2007 was spent doing product design. Our biggest challenge with the line of work was people tended more towards souvenirs, we had something with a utility value other than a donation. We wanted to work with products people would use. I ran the clothing store until 2011.
What happened after?
enjuba was at the forefront of social enterprise when the idea was still new. In 2010, we had realised that my partners in the USA were no longer at university. They no longer had the time nor the space for storage. My international business was closing out and I needed to support the artisans to keep in business.
I also needed to step out of the equation so they could run on their own. We turned to enjuba credit to give the artisans soft loans to be able to run the business on their own. I was looking at having credit through mobile money. The things mobile money is doing today, I wanted to do in 2010 but the technology was not yet ready then.
I was looking at mobile money launching us into e-commerce. I had done it before and I wanted to do it with ease. I wanted to spread the idea across the spectrum. I was into product development. I looked for two people, one to do the tech and the other with financial knowledge. We launched enjuba credit to address those issues.
When did the enjuba spelling bee come about?
In 2012, we launched the enjuba spelling bee. There were stories in the media about corruption, work ethic and so many negative stories. Together with a friend Peter Mugogo, we wanted to find a solution from the root. We wanted something that would create real net impact. We wanted to go beyond the talk. We dug deeper.
We decided to do something for the children. “Children are in their formative age and can be influenced into what he can become.” We decided to have the spelling bee. I had watched Akila and the spelling bee and it hit home. I want to do it but specially cut out for Uganda.
For six months we sat down with Peter trying to build a product. By day we would be running enjuba credit and in the evening we would be designing for the spelling bee. We shelved the idea for about six months.
We recruited a team of volunteers to visit schools and think with us in bringing this idea to life.
A few years down the road, the credit arm was facing issues. We had poorly managed the resources. Company money found its way into personal money .
On the other hand the spelling bee was picking up and required more time and attention. We needed more time for the credit arm which we no longer had. We closed the credit arm to focus fully on education. It began as a spelling bee, to early childhood, publishing and now teacher training.
You have been running the spelling bee for a decade now, how has the journey been?
10 years later, enjuba’s desire was to create a platform to reach their full potential, a platform that could give people more opportunities to live life to the fullest. That meant more income, more education or access to both. The clothing company was focusing on a few artisans. At the peak we were with about 15 artisans. Those were the only beneficiaries. It was not getting us to impact millions of people, we were only impacting the 15 and their families.
It was easier to change that into credit and support the artisans without being bogged down with product design. To us it was just about being able to finance them but we were spreading out to support other people.
Both enjuba credit and the spelling bee came out at the same time. Education invests long term in a country. To be able to build cohesion, it requires team energy. We were not having that. Our individual demands were not aligning. It drained our energy as a team. We closed down enjuba credit in 2016 at a time we got a funder giving us up to 100,000 pounds but we were so spent to accept the money.
I was fully sold to education. If we were to spend time resuscitating credit, education would not exist today. I had to leave my partners; Moses Tusiime and Peter, behind. The spelling bee had a different approach altogether. It was all about impact not profit.
We built a key partnership with the peace corps. The US Embassy started a spelling bee in 2014 and we reached out to them to partner with them. This helped us to scale up. We got full time volunteers today, we publish some of the books and others we have a partner who ships about 60,000 books every year. Community libraries reach to us and apply for books. We partner with a book-drive volunteer in the US who conducts the drives.
How would you measure impact?
Impact is very hard to measure. We have now started enjuba pre-school. We have reached about 1.5 million kids. We work with district education officers who mobilise the schools through teachers. We have the district, regional, national and continental levels. We are co-founders with about nine other organisations where we decided to do something bigger than us.
At enjuba, we know that children are the future. We are creating a generation of responsible citizens and of authentic leaders and credible change agents. Everything we do, we make sure there are key critical skills like literacy. Africa is labelled learning poor. 80% of children below 10 cannot read and comprehend simple sentences. Once children learn to read, they will read to learn.
The other critical thing is what we call the executive function skills. These are skills that help us navigate adult life such as time management, planning, critical and analytical thinking, and attention to detail. We get easily distracted. Some things become extremely complicated. You see it everywhere.
If we help many of us to develop executive function skills, we can help people think of empathy, where people plan ahead, where people are thinking. Our education system teaches us to remember not to think. We need to think about details.
If we developed these skills we would become better people and that is what we are doing with the children.
What would you have done differently about building enjuba?
I look at my work and life as a journey headed somewhere. I am headed somewhere. I have no regrets. I look back with gratitude. Everything happens when it was supposed to happen. Everything happened to lead me to the next thing. To get where we are, it has been progressive, addressing one challenge after another.
We are not where we are not where we are supposed to be but we are going somewhere. enjuba is written with small letters because the word is the logo.
The biggest drop out rate in our schools is in P1 at 30%. I can only imagine. There is limited access to pre school education. I believe that whereas it took America about 100 years to develop, until the 1880s, they had come from the 17700s where they were an agrarian community. It took Britain a bit of colonialism to get where it is today. 30 years for Singapore and many years for china. As a country we can make noise about so many things but where there is skilled labour, we have non-Ugandans and where we have unskilled labour we have thousands of Ugandans. We need education to be able to have skilled education to attract good pay. The democracy we pursue cannot be achieved by poor education. If people cannot understand simple sentences, how are they going to be able to read and comprehend complex things like human rights and democracy? I believe that to be able to solve GBV, it is impossible to do it without education. If a child is not trained to have mutual respect for others, it doesn’t matter how many campaigns you put up, it is not going to change them as adults, you cannot straighten a crooked stick, you can only break it.
I strongly believe in early childhood education because you are dealing with a brain that is still developing. You can mould them into what you want them to be. Everything we are after eight years is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when you act on information you already know. You respond or run away to what you already know. As adults we move towards things that are familiar but they become familiar when we were children and that knowledge was stored in our subconscious, we tap into our subconscious to make decisions for those experiences we have no words for. We move towards the information we are familiar with. What kind of information are we giving to our children? What education are we giving our children? It is critical for any country to develop, it has to invest in its children, until then we cannot achieve the set targets. We cannot climb the tree from the branches.