Over the course of Brice Aarrestad’s several trips to Uganda, he has been impressed with what the local carpenters were able to accomplish, “often with just a hacksaw,” he said.
To promote their talents, while also supporting Ugandan schools – and putting his own skills to use – Brice has founded Help Desk Furniture Co. The company setup: furniture made in Uganda, from sustainably sourced African hardwoods, will be sold to customers in the U.S., with profits funding Ugandan schools.
All of those areas have challenges, and the company is not fully functioning as yet – for one thing, Brice needs to finish his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota, where his anticipated graduation date is May 2015 – but he has putsome aspects in place and is taking advantage of opportunities such as social venture funds available through programs at the university.
Brice’s first trip to Uganda occurred in 2009, when he participated in a two-week volunteer trip with Engineering Ministries International, acting as a designer and construction manager. He participated in another two-week trip in 2010; moved to Jinja, Uganda for a year and a half stint in 2011; and spent another five weeks there this past summer.
This summer’s work included finding potential local workers with whom to partner, and building some prototypes. “There are workshops throughout the area, kind of like a warehouse, where carpenters will rent a corner of space. I went to those and asked around,” as well as getting some recommendations from the expatriate community, Brice said.
The local carpenters Brice found to work with for the prototyping, as well as other Ugandan woodworkers, do a lot of their work with hand tools, Brice said. “It might be old Stanley #5’s they got from the Brits who colonized the area. Antique tools are in regular use.”
The Ugandan carpenters do have power tools; again, “Some are relics from the imperial times of the Brits. They keep them working as best as they can,” Brice said. “I found one that was basically a motor on one end with a shaft connected to a drill chuck; they were using it as kind of a mortising machine. Then there was a table saw on a hinge: you lift the table up at an angle, and that’s how you get shallow cuts.”
As he and the local carpenters were making tables this summer as a prototype for Help Desk Furniture products, “The guys I was working with; it was the first time they’d seen a tapering jig. They wanted to know ‘Why don’t we just hand cut everything?’ After passing a couple of legs through, they realized pretty quickly the benefit of using jigs.”
The prototype tables are built in a mid-century modern style. “I think it works well with their skills – it’s simple to build, but the key is in the details,” as well as his own personal design preferences, Brice said. Eventually, more designs for products may come from the Ugandan participants, but “right now, the Ugandan style seems to be locked in to a Victorian sensibility,” Brice said. “Every guy seems to be making the same design as the guy next to him.”
In part, that’s due to demand. For the most part, in Uganda, woodworkers are not hired for the quality of their work. “If the locals want a bedframe, they want to pay as little as possible,” Brice said. “The market isn’t there for quality work – but the desire is there,” on the part of the carpenters. “They realize we’re paying for quality, and they’re excited about that.”
Brice does plan for many of Help Desk’s products to use the same types of woods that the Ugandan carpenters are likely to use for their local commissions of chairs, tables and shelves. Mvule and mugavu are “both pretty dense woods. They’re a little more difficult to work with, but they’re gorgeous,” he said.
Sourcing them sustainably, however, is another challenge of working in Uganda. The forestry officer in the Jinja region is one person overseeing an area the size of a several-county metropolitan area in the U.S. “It’s a manning issue, and that officer is underfunded. For him to go out in the forest and verify” that harvesting is taking place in a sustainable manner, “you need somebody to pay for the fuel,” Brice said.
So, for a while at least, it’s likely that Help Desk Furniture will be working with private landowners who have timber resources, as well as with the forestry officer, with every effort made to document that the wood is being harvested in a legal manner.
Brice also wants to provide stable jobs to Ugandan carpenters. Currently, “the guys I worked with in construction, they’re going project to project. There might be a good solid job for three months, then they go six months” until something else comes along.
The payments do get a bit complicated, though. “The hard thing about working with local labor is, you can pay them pretty well, but if you pay too well, it can cause inflation in the community,” Brice said. Other methods of compensation – like paying for children’s school fees, or making sure family members are up-to-date on immunizations, may be options.
And a portion of the profits will also go to supporting Ugandan schools. While funding is out there to start new schools, Brice said, “If you’ve got an existing school that needs maintenance, there’s not a lot of funding. They might have 40 students in a class and enough desks for 10, and the desks that are there are probably 30 years old.”
It’s in some of these areas where the skills of Brice’s wife, Meredith, may come in particularly handy. Meredith is a nurse, also from Minnesota – whom Brice met in Uganda. “She was working in an orphanage I was doing construction on,” he said. They both attended the same university and had “a bunch of mutual friends, but had never met.”
At the point where a production facility is set up in Uganda, both Brice and Meredith would likely move back to that country. For now, however, as Brice concentrates on finishing his degree, he’s also moving forward on the next steps for Help Desk Furniture Co.: “It’s securing investors and funding; finding individual retailers to pick up the line; and finding advisers interested in helping me shape the future of this and bringing things to market,” he said.