TMS Ruge on Product Development

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to TMS Ruge on Product Development.

RK: Great to have you Ted!

TMS: It’s my pleasure to be joining the long line of speakers and also to spend an hour with you here.

RK: I have had the honour and privilege of interacting with Ted over a long period of time. Today it is all about Ted sharing his story with us. I will ask a completely different question from what I usually ask; according to you, who is Ted?

TMS: For correction, you are one of  the few people allowed to call me Ted. I have never loved the name Ted. And there’s a handful of people that I can fit on one hand that I can tolerate to call me that. Teddy is fine. Online everyone calls me TMS. And I am very aware that Teddy is a girl’s name. It was my father’s idea. My father’s name is Eddy. He didn’t want to have two Eddys in the family and good enough, Eddy rhymed with Teddy. So I will describe myself the way he describes me. I am a man of all seasons and he gave me that moniker very early in my childhood. He could see that I was interested in a lot of things in junior high and high school. I was in sports, politics and governance, and on the media team. My interests had nothing to do with each other. But I was so enthusiastic in a broad range of pieces of information and multidisciplinary areas. In fact there was a movie that he named me after. I forget what it’s called. I believe it was called ‘A MAN OF ALL SEASONS’.

RK: I know that RTFarms is very straight forward, it’s about moringa. Hive Colab is about innovation, tell me about Jaded Aid and Roll Kla. Describe all these ventures and how you arrive at them.

TMS: Let me start with the oldest one. Hive Colab. I believe everyone who has been in the tech space knows about Hive Colab. We were the first ones in October 2010 when we launched. Back then we used to have meet ups for all the people in the tech ecosystem in bars and cafés.  Remember internet cafes?

RK: Yes. They were always on street corners.

TMS: Yes. That’s where we used to meet. There was this American guy Jon Gosier, he spent a stint in Uganda and we got talking. What he had tried to do was to put together a company with software developers he could link to American companies. A precursor to what Andela is.

But after that we really thought that the internet café was not necessarily working. What if we created a platform where we created the magic; put all these developers in one room where we are responsible for the rent and the internet and then we see what would come out. At the time the internet was very expensive. There was no mobile internet and smartphones, it was all wired. We tried to make it easy for the developers by taking care of the infrastructure and then you bring your ideas. But it was also a gathering space where we could have events and mobile Mondays, hackathons. It was a way to introduce the tech ecosystem. We also made it a point to bring in mentors and speakers to talk to the guys. That’s how Hive Colab came about and 10 years later, we have about 10 hubs around the country. You hosted CK here sometime back and he is one of the people who have done amazingly in extending the concept. We are now also based in Mbarara and we are looking to expand beyond the major cities closer to where the talent is. Like Andela we believe that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.

Roll Kla was a restaurant concept that we came up with in 2018 to upscale the rolex; to take it off the street into a restaurant environment. That is what a rolex was known for. You’d go out at night and visit a rolex vendor next to the bar and sometimes people had issues.

So we thought we would give it a restaurant feel and also expand on it. For a long while, the rolex had not changed. It was the omelette, the chapati and that was it. But we thought, what if we took the rolex around the world, what if you had a Mexican rolex. Where you had Mexican ingredients in a rolex. We basically used the usual rolex as the canvas and the fillers came from around the world.

RK: What about Jadedaid?

TMS: Interesting. That one came out in 2015. I was in Washington DC. We were having so many beers with our development partners in the DC landscape.

RK: You guys are crazy, someone told us their ideas come when they are in the bathroom, you’re telling us they come from so many beers…

TMS: I am sure you have ever had this experience with friends making merry trying to solve the world’s problems when you are quite inebriated.

RK: Correct. When people are less inhibited in their speech, they release a few secrets.

TMS: Absolutely. We  were looking at the development landscape and at the time we had development workers who were dissatisfied with how top-down development was. We really wanted to have a direct conversation with the evils that were happening behind the scene that did not make it to the headlines. So we got a group of friends when we sobered up and asked ourselves, “Is it still a good idea? Let’s pursue it.”

We crowdsourced ideas and made a game in the style of cards against humanity. We crowdsourced on twitter and  facebook and we put it on kickstarter to get it funded. Within 24 hours, we had raised usd 50,000 dollars for the game to get printed in China and then began distributing it around the world. We had customers around the world and the party started. And most of these systems were development workers who were jaded with their jobs and the cards provided them relief because they felt seen because they couldn’t speak up in their organisations but could anonymously send us some of those horrid situations some of them were going on in development that we wanted to comment on. It went really well. But like any other good thing, it came to an end. It is something I wanted to pursue for a little bit of time. Ending it was a perfect response to the development projects because a lot of times, development partners start a project to address a particular issue. They get to do a particular project and afterwards (they) move on. To them it’s a job and once it’s done, they are done and move on. That project morphs on but to them they have a permanent job. Ending it was our response. It was an excellent way to get the international development arena to do development better.

RK: Which brings me to the philosophy you talked about earlier of white saviour mentality, could you please talk about it.

TMS: White saviour mentality is essentially this idea that it’s the west’s responsibility to take care of us. Since independence we have had this perpetual missioncrip of building Africa. But when you dig down on these organisations, the top tier of everyone of these organizations is led by westerners. They are paid 10 times more than the local staff. They are paid hazard pay when the local staff are not. They tend to just sit around taking in oxygen in the development conversation about where we need to be as Africans. One thing that really drives me bonkers is that we (Africans) are so colonised that we allow a high school kid  from nowhere to come into our communities to build wells. What is so difficult about building a  well that we have to sit and wait for a high school kid from Texas to come and build a well. The guy has never seen a well. His water is piped. He works at a sandwich shop after school yet he has the expertise to come into our community to come and build a well. What is wrong with us?

This is what I talk about; the erosion of our local capacity to solve our own problems and the perpetual allowance of these allowances of these situations. What happened to Mugisa? Why didn’t you hire him to come and build a school?

And that kind of transposition of our talent and essentially, what it does to our communities. It lowers us into a sense of victimhood where we believe that we are perpetual victims. That we have no agency. We have no talent and no capability to build anything of value for ourselves.

I bring out this example of a high school kid because I was once in a development meeting with communities where I had more expertise on a particular project. But when I walked in, there was more reverence to the high school volunteers that were in the room, they wanted to hear from them as opposed to my expertise in that particular situation.

I want an Africa where when I walk into the room and I am the expert to be the hero of that situation. Because I am in that community. I have tacit ideas about my community. I went to school to learn how to specifically learn how to deal with that.

It breaks my heart that I start a project in a community and those community members ask me “which white person is funding this?” Why is it that I cannot have my own ideas of funding a project that I come up with? Why does it have to be a foreigner? Why can we not have our own ideas of improving our communities by ourselves?

RK: How do we deal with this?

TMS: There is only one way to deal with it in Uganda, and that is by overhauling our education system. I am sorry but I will say it as it is. Let’s look at the country’s demographics. 78% of us are under the age of 30. 50% of us are under the age of 15. We have an education system we adapted in the 50s and 60s from our colonisers. There is nothing in there that celebrates us. We are busy celebrating Queen Victoria, Vasco da Gama . We have lost our sense of who we are. And we actually  have to begin there. In order to be able to decolonise our minds and put ourselves first in any situation. I guarantee you every westerner that is coming here is putting themselves first and we are allowing them to put themselves first.

Look at the investment funding coming into the continent. Look at Kenya and the startup landscape. 90% of the CEOs there are white. And I guarantee you they were not born in Kenya. MIT Graduates are given funding to come and take advantage of the opportunities that we are not taking advantage of.

RK: We must confront this animal, there is a whole industry around the education system, how do we break it down?

TMS: First of all we have to have the political will and the pride to say that we are proud to be who we are. Our history is worth it. It’s our responsibility for us to write and to learn about our history. One of the things I learnt about my grandfather is his ability to sit down and make me laugh for hours telling me about his childhood. I learned a lot  about my culture by just listening to him. But it’s  a cultural context that I will not find in a high school textbook. We have graduates who know more about the plains of Texas than they do know about the Rwenzori Mountain. We have more people who know more about the premier league than Uganda’s local league.

RK: And American football. People now host Halloween nights in Uganda. I don’t know whether they know how Halloween came about.

TMS: We don’t have context. We have this ability to copy other cultures and degrade our cultures. One of the things I hate is someone in an Italian made suit with a Rolex watch complaining about the loss of African culture. What are you even talking about?

RK: I am going to invite Ojok Okello (OO) to speak so that you can both have a conversation. Ojok shared with us about the work he is doing in Okere City.

TMS: Yes, that is awesome. Ojok is a great guy.

OO: Teddy, thank you for your insights and nuggets of wisdom. You mentioned the volunteers. I had this high school volunteer from Germany that I took to Okere. Three days later, he’s the King of the village. He’s sleeping in my house, eating my food and the villagers thought that perhaps what we do is attributed to him. That annoyed me to the bone. I informed them that his kid was only offering his white skin. He had not done anything. Don’t think he’s your saviour. He has only come to learn. We have to be brutally honest and have these conversations. This is a structural problem that did not start in 1962. It started with the first interaction between the black man and the white man. The white man projected himself as the saviour. From that time to date, we have to undo that. The white man ought to understand that when he is in African space, he is not the superior fellow. 

TMS: I absolutely agree. We have to be very unapologetic about our pride because they are not. So I have a professor friend Dr Laura Seay of Colby College with whom we’ve been collaborating for long. She came to me and said she was teaching global governance courses and she had first and second year students and she wanted to bring them over to tour Uganda. “Could we come to your village as well?” I said yes, but under one condition; it had to be a fully reciprocated effort. If your students are going to come to our community then our students have to go to your community as well. Like I said earlier today, travel is fatal to ignorance. And it’s not enough for a bunch of students to come to our communities because the entirety of the benefits are on them. It’s not until we go out of our comfort zones that we go to their communities to see how they live that we understand that we have a domain over where we live. For the last 6 years, we have been having exchanges. The students come here for two weeks in January and sometimes in April after winter. We send either students or members of Raintree Farms whoever can actually get a visa to go is the one we send. That is one step in the right direction.

Secondly, we talked to the community and told them these are students. Everything you see here is paid for by somebody else. Just  because they are in our community does not mean they are any more intelligent than you. They are just students coming to learn. That exchange is a knowledge exchange. We went as far as gathering the entire community and read out the things we were going to allow and those we were not going to allow. You’re not going to chase these guys around shouting mzungu mzungu give me money. You’re not going to be sending your whatsapp messages asking them for funding. And the same thing happens to our students on the other side. If you do not demand for these things, you will not change the perception of the communities.

RK: Let us agree on one thing the three of us that there will be a visit from Kikuube to Okere City and then a return visit from Okere to Kikuube.

TMS: Entirely in. I would really love to visit Okere City, I  love the model that he is using to build the village. I actually love that Ojok went as far as changing his name to embrace himself. And I guess, he got a lot of these ideas from working in the international community like I did. You get to learn of how they think of us. I have travelled around the world and there is nowhere as beautiful as Uganda but we need to understand that I live in a very beautiful country and I am going to own it, if I have nothing else, I have Uganda.

 OO: I look forward to the visits too.

RK: TMS, you said we have the talent here but suffered from a victim mentality. We feel we are owed something, what exactly were you trying to say.

TMS: I was trying to say that we sit around waiting for opportunity. We think that the grass is  greener on the other side. In as much as it is greener on the other side, it was fertilized by someone else. But you don’t know that  you just say, I want to go there. You don’t understand that, you just want to go there. What is beneath your feet is as good as it is. It is just that the other side, they have done a bit of work to make it look more beautiful. America is a shining example of lipstick on a pig. It looks beautiful from afar. When you dig down into the actual truth, you get to understand that it is a terrible place for Africans and many people. You arrive there and are immediately thrown into debt. And that’s the only way to survive in America. There’s a bunch of Africans in America who have completely disappeared. Why? Because it is so embarrassing to them to imagine that the idea of America or London that they had in their mind quickly disappeared when they reached. And it’s not the land of milk and honey. We need to understand where we are.

We need to have a sense of pride. Yes it is chaotic. Yes, it’s developing. But there are opportunities to make things wonderful. There are opportunities and we must own them. And I am going to be a solution in building this up. Wherever you are, do the job of being exemplary at what you are doing because you become an expert at what you are doing. You become a teacher. You create a pipeline of excellence that others are going to follow.

There is nothing worse than having a country where 78% of us are under 30, 50% are under 15 and we continue to have the same practices as the previous generation. These youths understand. We have to break the mentality of boarding the plane to leave. You can have the life you are looking for on the other side if you put in the work here, in fact you are going to enjoy it here. I was miserable for 30 years in the US. I didn’t feel like I belonged and America made sure I understood that. Going to America was the first time I realised that I was black. America makes it a point to remind you that you are not the mainstream. You are another. Every form you feel out reminds you of who you are. I had filled out African American but there was nothing American about me. There’s nowhere to say I am African.

RK: You said we are a country that just copies and pastes and that we pay lip service for home grown services but never do anything about them, say something about them.

TMS: This is an extension of the colonise mentality that we as Africans don’t have the capability to create anything of value. In the creation of Qwezi Beauty, I had nothing to indicate that the product was made in a village but I put my design muscle to make sure that when you looked at it you would wonder where was this made from. I did that to challenge the notion that nothing in this nation or the continent can match the value and prestige of what is designed in the west. And actually it is very possible when you put your mind to it. Changing those mentalities and actually putting your pride in talents and domestic ability is very important because we cannot just continue to be consumers of global production. We have to join global production if we want to develop. We have to learn to say that it was made in Uganda with a sense of pride, not “made in Uganda ” with a product sold in a Rwenzori  bottle. That’s the beginning. But I think we owe it to ourselves to dress appropriately before the world. I once went to an export symposium in town and Hon Amelia Kyambadde was there. She said “ I’ve just come back from German and am here looking at the products and how they’re packaged and I guarantee you, zero of them will ever be exported because German is going to reject the kavera. You have to think like them if you are planning on getting a market on that side.”

If we are going to change from the impossible, we have to get out of the victimhood of this is what we deserve. We deserve good products because we are Africans. That’s the mentality I want. We should be disciplined enough to know what we want for our market. This is one rule we have at the farm, we create one product. The same product we sell here is the same we export.

RK: I have watched you come up with products, what makes for a good product on the market?

TMS: I don’t believe in the fair trade narrative of buying even if it’s crap as long as you are supporting widows or boys to have a job in the village. I don’t want that. I want to create value from the get go. Any products that are created by poor people we want you to buy, you will only get that customer once. But if you create a reputation, you will have a customer for life. That’s what we want. That’s how you change the narrative. That’s how you create sustainability. Convert your customers to be your ambassadors. Qwezi customers are amazing, they love the product and they make referrals. Majority of our clients are from referrals from existing customers. And that emphasizes to me that Ugandan customers crave high quality products even if they find out they are from here.

RK: As an employer, what are those things that make you happy?

TMS: The joy of seeing a farmer get their payment is amazing. The joy of watching our employees every 1st of a month when they receive their payment through a mobile money app is something beautiful. The joy of hearing every corner of the farm breaking out in ululation because their payment has begun arriving on their phones. And it’s a loud and joyous feeling for an hour. And you know that that community is going to benefit from that payment. They empower businesses and hire other people in the community. Whatever it is that I am going through I look back and say there is something greater than the pain that I am going through and I am going to hold on that and accentuate that because if it is helping me imagine the joy to all those other people at the end of it. They don’t need to know that it was me but to me, it brings me a lot of joy.

RK: What is your sense of purpose? Are you telling us it is your lesson to us, especially many of us that are involved in day to day endeavours, are you saying to us it helps to have a much bigger purpose beyond yourself for whatever it is that we are driving towards. The driving force for what you do is that the day you don’t get the benefits you expected at an individual level, you are able to dig into the bigger effect of the thing you are having.   

TMS: There is always something greater than the minuscule problem that we are going through. My perspective on life is extremely wide to the point that when I feel really defeated or in a hard situation I pull completely out. Pull out of the village, the country or the continent. I completely pull out of the planet and I say my problem is tiny compared to the planet. Then I turn to the universe and say my problem is insignificant to where we are as a people. I expand my perspective and say “you’re irrelevant”. I always know that this too shall pass. Nothing is permanent. However dire your situation is, nothing is permanent. And you as a person have the power to put that in perspective. Always pull yourself out of that darkness, look at yourself and see how tiny you are and how much tinier the problems that you are going through are. And that helps to ground you that this too shall pass. Sit in the pain and allow it to do its work for you. Because all of us are driven by pain. We are either running away from it or creating it.

Sometimes it is worthwhile to sit in that pain. Ask yourself, what is it in my life that I need to focus on to make this pain go away. Because eventually, I will rise up from this pain but what will I have created? What will I have to show for it?

RK: Either you destroy yourself or use it as a fuel to become a better individual.

Comrade Otoa: How do we manage to make all these efforts sustainable beyond you?

TMS: We have to remember that we are accountable to each other and we are all interconnected and how we build each other determines what our future is. On sustainability, this is something endemic to us. How many businesses have we seen where when the founder dies, the business follows? We have the mentality that everything depends on me. That everything begins with me. One of the things that annoys me is when I go to a business or even a government office and I can’t get attended to because someone is not there.

Nothing is guaranteed. My company can fail when I am still alive and it has tried to multiple times. And it can fail even when I die. But if I build the right systems in place then at least it has a chance to survive beyond the personality. And that is something we need to do. We need to hire correctly and allow those systems to mature in and around themselves. It is a rule at Rain Tree that there should be a chance that something fails to get done because someone is not there. There should be a system that that activity gets done no matter who is at the helm of that division. We get into a sense of ownership where everything is mine, mine. ‘ I don’t want to share it’  I have also seen it in the start-up space where startups don’t want to share their ideas because they fear someone is going to steal them. Ideas are one in a million. The only thing unique to an idea is how you execute that idea. There could be a thousand people executing the same idea. There will only be one person who will execute like you. It’s about execution. Whoever executes better is the winner. And that is how I think about legacies in terms of survival. The better your systems, the longer you are going to survive

Arao: There is a diaspora saviour mentality, what is your advice to those Ugandans like me on how not to exhibit that saviour mentality?

TMS: I think we have an opportunity to leverage our talent. We are bridge figures between cultures. Between how the west executes and the realities of what is at home. Humbleness is extremely important in your ability to come and be embedded in our cultures. If you are unable to come  from New York city and be able to survive in your village, your village where you came from then you have a lot of unlearning to do. To humble yourself and be able to do it. There is a reason why diasporas who come home are called mzungus. When they come they stay in their hotels in Kampala or find the nearest hotel near home for various reasons. They can’t see themselves going to a village and squatting on a toilet or washing themselves with a bucket. It’s amazing. The thing I love about washing yourself with a bucket is that last bit that you pour over yourself. It’s an awesome experience. If you can’t do that then I guess, you have a lot of unlearning to do. You have to discover who you are.

However far you go, whenever you come home, you need to be that person who left. The people that loved you, those who made sure you went on to have a good life don’t shun them because they live in the village. Be humble enough. These are your people.

RK: The Bakiga have a saying that however much the water boils, it never forgets it comes from a cold place.

TMS: Anhaa! And just because it boils, it doesn’t make it better than cold water.

RK: Thank you for engaging with us for the whole day.

TMS: Always a pleasure, Robert.  

One thought on “TMS Ruge on Product Development

  1. Thank you Teddy(TMS)for your candid space with Robert (RK).
    I particularly liked your response to the Diaspora Saviour Mentality. The humbleness required of us not to think that we are above our support network from whence we came from. Asante

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