We had the good fortune of connecting with Monica LaBiche Brown and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Monica LaBiche, what role has risk played in your life or career?
My father was a huge risk taker and sometimes to the point of being reckless, but he was fearless when he wanted to do something. His risk-taking and need to always be on the move led our family to journey from Seychelles to Uganda and later to the United States. When I was younger, I thought of myself as risk-averse. All I wanted was peace, security, and a sense of normalcy, but that reality often evaded me. But I later realized that growing up with uncertainty strengthened my resolve – I survived, adapted, and grew through the process. It is through this lens that I approach risk, and I have taken many.
Unlike my father, I have been more deliberate about timing the life-changing risks that I take. For example, I left a marriage, moved to a new city, took a lower-paying job because I wanted to stay in the international development sector, and started a new organization. I tried to time these events to minimize harm to my family. Was I successful in minimizing harm? Well, my two daughters may one day write articles about that.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I was born in Seychelles, a small group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Before my first birthday, my parents moved to Uganda in search of better economic opportunities, and there we lived for 15 years. My father, who worked in the road construction sector, had a nomadic lifestyle that took him to some of the most remote villages in Uganda. My mother and I remained in Kampala, and during school breaks, we would visit my father all over the country. I remember the stunning rural landscape, listening to the peaceful sounds in the air, but I was also aware of the contrast between city and rural life. Unfortunately, our trips to the rural areas ended abruptly because the political situation under General Idi Amin was becoming increasingly dangerous, forcing us to leave the country.
Almost 30 years later, through my work with Water For People, I returned to Uganda and found the capital of Kampala transformed by progress and modernization, but the rural areas in the same conditions that I remembered as a child. In considering the factors that contribute to this stark juxtaposition, I found that rural farmers (mainly women) are forced into subsistence farming because of underdeveloped markets and a lack of access to land, credit, and improved seeds and fertilizer, making it almost impossible to break the cycle of poverty. It is unconscionable that rural women are so marginalized. Overall, women work longer hours. Besides farming, they have household responsibilities such as taking care of children, preparing food, and collecting fuelwood and water, leaving little time for education or other productive endeavors. How women use their time is important to their personal growth. It is in this space that I believed Africa Development Promise could make a difference.
ADP works with rural women in Rwanda and Uganda to advance sustainable business and economic self-sufficiency and has primarily focused on agriculture because it is a way of life in Eastern Africa. In addition, we promote the cooperative model of enterprise because it is an innovative, natural extension of the informal, traditional African social systems of reciprocity, sharing, and reliance that have helped rural communities survive for generations. Cooperatives offer opportunities that smallholder farmers could not achieve individually. As a cooperative, they can pool resources (money, labor, and knowledge) to create economies of scale; thus, reducing risks to individual members and instead placing it on the enterprise itself.
For the past seven years, ADP has been working to build strong, vibrant, well-managed, and profitable cooperative enterprises that serve as an anchor in the local economies, with core program practices designed so that the women and other local stakeholders are the key drivers of their economic and social growth. To date, we have supported 8 agricultural cooperatives, approximately 450 women farmers, and 2230 indirect beneficiaries, family members, buyers, suppliers, etc., with improved agricultural tools, business and management training, technical assistance, and network building.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Once or twice a year, I lead the Africa Exchange tour to Rwanda and Uganda, where participants visit ADP programs and participate in some of the most memorable activities that each country offers. It is so memorable that some of my friends have visited more than once. The ten-day immersive tour starts with four days in Rwanda. Day 1: Full-day safari in Akagera National Park in Rwanda, where participants enjoy the varied landscape and beautiful wildlife unique to Rwanda. Though I’ve been to the park several times, each trip is totally different and never disappoints. Day 2: Travel to ADP-supported agricultural cooperatives where participants engage with the women, youth, and partners. We have lunch in the community and then visit the Nyamata Memorial Church in Bugesera that provides a poignant look into the massacre that took the lives of thousands who took refuge in the church during the 1994 Genocide. Day 3: Travel to another agricultural cooperative for a service project where we work alongside the women farmers, allowing participants to get a taste of the laborious farm life. In the afternoon, we return to Kigali (the capital), where we shop for beautiful Rwandan handicrafts made by local artisans at Capalaki Craft Village. We continue with a visit to the National Genocide Memorial and the Presidential Museum. Day 4: We head to the airport for an early 45-minute flight to the neighboring country of Uganda. I deliberately take people to Kigali first because they are amazed to see such a clean and orderly city with tarmac roads and modern buildings. Kigali is considered one of the cleanest cities in Africa. By contrast, Kampala is a chaotic city where people, cars, taxis, and motorcycles (aka boda bodas) negotiate for space on unmaintained roads. Despite the chaos and disorder, Kampala is one of my favorite cities because of its hustle and vibrancy. We arrive at the hotel and take time off to settle into our new surroundings. Late afternoon we venture to Acacia Mall, a cosmopolitan hangout in Kololo Hills of Kampala. Here walk around the mall for a couple of hours and then go to dinner at Cafesserie Restaurant. It takes time to get our meals with large groups like ours, so dinners can take up to 2 hours before we head back to the hotel. Day 5: We head to Gayaza to visit ADP’s office and training center. The staff provides a tour of the facility, and the visitors meet with participants of the sewing, computer literacy, Street Business School, and Girls with Dreams programs. We walk through the community to better understand rural life and the role ADP plays in supporting entrepreneurship. We enjoy a local lunch in the community and then head to a mushroom growing cooperative where learn the intricacies of growing mushroom. Late in the afternoon, we head back to the hotel. Day 6: We travel to Entebbe, where we take a one and half hour boat ride on Lake Victoria (the largest lake in Africa) to Ngamba Island to visit our closest cousins, the Chimpanzee, who are known to share 99% of human DNA. We have lunch on the island and then head back in the late afternoon. Most are tired after the long day, so we have dinner at the hotel. Day 6: We tour the city of Kampala, shop, and in the evening, we go to the Ndere Cultural Center, home of the Ndere Dance Troup. We enjoy “nyama choma” – Ugandans pride themselves on making the best-roasted meat. If you are vegetarian, no worries, you will enjoy a variety of vegetables and delicious matoke (a type of banana) with groundnut sauce which is my favorite. Day 7: This is the last day of the tour, and I often hear groans of “I can’t believe we’re leaving tomorrow.” After breakfast, we take a 3-hour trip up to Jinja, the cradle of the River Nile. Typically, we do a lunch boat ride up the Nile, but the more adventurous folks who need an adrenaline rush often decide to go whitewater rafting.
Overall, the trip never disappoints.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I am a firm believer in the power of collectives. As an organization, Africa Development Promise supports the collective efforts of rural women so it is no surprise that I have a group of people to dedicate my shoutout to. My journey to ADP would not be possible without the support and advice of my friends from my Water For People days – Sherina Munyana, Perpetue Kamuyumbu, Vincent Musoni, Nina Miller, Bill Brackett, Bjorn von Euler, and Ned Breslin. Initially, I was apprehensive to announce my plans about starting a nonprofit organization but once I mustered up the courage these friends showed up and showed out. The debates I had with them collectively or individually helped me refine the mission and organization’s program model.
I would be remiss if I did not thank Janice Taplar and Shona King from ERM Foundation whom I have also known from my Water For People days. They believed in ADPs vision and were our very first grant funder and have been supporting us every year since then. To my friends and family who have sometimes wondered what I was up to but continued to support me, thank you. I especially want to thank my daughter LaChance and Larc Pickett who is always by my side. LaChance has charted her path to run the Girls with Dreams program under the umbrella of ADP. I am a proud mama. I reserve my last shout-out for my husband, Dean Brown, Jr., who stood in the gap when I first launched ADP and I could not pay myself a salary. He has been an unwavering champion who lifts my spirit when I feel disillusioned, makes me laugh, and helps me stay grounded. Thank you.
One more, I thank God for his faith in me, the grace, wisdom, and strength he has given me to see this journey through.
LaChance Pickett Photography