May 14, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

When Calvin senior Ashley Luse told her family she was traveling to Uganda, they weren’t too happy about it. Luse, however, was determined to visit the country where the Lord’s Resistance Army has spent more than 20 years terrorizing the citizenry.

Within a matter of weeks, the 22-year-old honors business and mathematics/economics major had raised her own travel expenses and talked a friend into accompanying her. "It’s dangerous to travel,” she allowed, “but it’s dangerous to travel … from New York to Amsterdam.”

On behalf of amaranth

Luse made her African journey in February on behalf of amaranth, an herb containing large amounts of both protein and lysine that thrives in harsh growing conditions. Those qualities make amaranth an ideal staple crop for the global south. Milled or popped amaranth, which has an even higher nutritional value than the raw form of the herb, is sold in health food stores in the U.S. and elsewhere. That makes it a potential cash crop for farmers in the global south: countries such as Uganda.

There is one problem with that scenario, said Luse: “There really is not a market for amaranth in Uganda yet,” she confessed. “The version of amaranth that is native to Uganda is considered a weed.” Determined to create a market, she partnered with the Uganda Amaranth Project, an effort of Partners Worldwide, a Christian non-profit that works to eliminate poverty through job-creation initiatives.

"The Uganda Amaranth Project has three goals,” Luse said: “to build or create a market for the grain amaranth in Uganda, to generate income for local farmers and entrepreneurs, and to provide a food source that will help fight against malnutrition.”

Living the life

Luse spent two weeks in the Mbale District of Uganda, meeting people and trying to assess how amaranth would fit into their businesses and their everyday lives.

"I tapped into the anthropology side of market research and conducted what we call in-context interviews,” she said. “I would be invited into homes of local Ugandans and would spend the day with them. I’d get up at 5 a.m., and the family would be getting ready for school, and the woman would be getting breakfast, and I would be peeling plantains and potatoes right beside her—or helping to clean right beside her.”

Luse also worked to improve the customer base of the Mannu Bakery, a purveyor of amaranth flour in Mbale. She visited Ugandan entrepreneurs. She visited grocery store owners. She visited The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), to persuade the staff there to mix amaranth with the porridge they serve clients on clinic days. (The high level of lysine in amaranth is a boost to the immune system, making the herb a good food for those with HIV/AIDS.) Luse even met the mayor of Mbale—who claimed she had market tested popped amaranth on the fish in her fish pond at home.

"The first step to creating a good marketing plan is to understand the market … ,” Luse said of her many efforts. “What better way to do that, to accomplish that, than to actually involve yourself in their lives?”

A lack of infrastructure

There are serious challenges to building the Uganda market for amaranth, she conceded. The milling equipment and poppers for the herb have not been perfected yet. Also, most business owners can’t get loans from traditional banks, and the local micro-financing organizations charge high interest rates.

Nevertheless, Luse believes the Ugandan entrepreneurial spirit will find a way:

"It seemed like everyone I met was involved in some sort of micro-business … whether it was selling seeds from their gardens or selling vegetables by the side of the road or selling clay ovens,” she said.
Luse sensed something more than business sense at work in the country: “There’s a spirit in Africa; the people are spiritual and passionate about life, and I was able to take a bit of that home with me,” she said. “It’s different than any place I’ve been.”

Now that she is home, Luse is using her Uganda experience as the basis for her senior honors thesis in business. She has participated at the recent Global Health and Innovation conference at Yale University. And she has been invited to join the Uganda Amaranth Project. Luse has taken a job with First Trust Portfolios in Chicago, where she hopes to work in capital markets.

The Uganda venture was not her first foray into development in another country. A onetime president of Calvin Business Forum, Luse helped to found the Global Business Brigade, which is working to build the business infrastructure of a bakery in Panama. She also co-founded the Calvin Kiva, which allows people to invest in entrepreneurs in developing countries.

"Ashley is pretty much a go-getter. She is an entrepreneur at heart. She will go look for creative solutions,” said business professor Peter Snyder. “But as much as she’s a go getter, she’s a people person. She really cares about people … She wants to make the world a better place.”

Luse said that one venture simply led to another. “I was hungry for something beyond the walls,” she said. “I’d never done much traveling before college, and I felt like that was something I didn’t want to miss out on. But I felt with my first experience with international development in Panama that, not only was this something that’s fun to do, but it became a passion. And I couldn’t get enough of these kinds of experiences.”

Blogging Uganda

On her seventh day in Uganda, Ashley Luse climbed Mount Elgon to explore the Wanale Cave. She and her companions were on their way back down the mountain when it started to rain, and their guide cut giant leaves from a wild banana plant for them to use as umbrellas. The drizzle turned into droplets, which turned into pelting rain, and Luse and her friends struggled to maintain their footing on paths that had turned into muddy streams.

“It was raining sideways, and not an inch of me was dry anymore,” Luse recounted in "Learning to Listen,” the blog of her Uganda endeavor.

That sodden hike up and down Elgon was the high point of her Uganda adventure, said Luse: "All week, I’d been working so hard and never took the time to notice the scenery around me that was so beautiful until I hiked up to the top of this mountain.”

Luse also blogs about local elections, staying at a "cursed" inn and working alongside Dinah, Gertrude and Betty.

Popping amaranth

Watch a video, and read the story about an amaranth popper created by four Calvin senior engineers.

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