Entrepreneur Chris Ategeka has overcome more challenges than most of his Silicon Valley peers. He was born in a small Ugandan village, where he was orphaned at a young age and spent the next decade battling extreme poverty. Then, a miracle came his way. An American family sponsored his education and flew him to California, where he graduated from Berkeley at the top of his class in mechanical engineering.
Ever since, Chris has since dedicated his life to improving the lives of the world’s poorest people. His new venture, Rides for Lives, provides locally-sourced medial vehicles that improve access to medicine and treatment for desperately underserved communities. Each Rides for Lives bus contains a pharmacy, a full-time general practitioner, and a lab. In a part of the world where 70% of deaths in children five years old and under can be prevented or treated, these are services that make the difference between life and death.
In addition to providing valuable health care, Rides for Lives is Chris’s answer to a much larger question: how do you make aid “sticky?” It’s one thing to invent a clever solution to world problem; it’s quite another to have that solution last. All too often, well-meaning organizations take a solution to another part of the world, drop it off, and then leave. But without local participation, Chris argues, aid breaks down.
IVY: What was the impetus for Rides for Lives?
The whole idea is very personal to me: I grew up in rural Uganda. Name anything that’s associated with poverty, and I have been through it. Hunger, homelessness, disease, eating out of trashcans, sleeping in flies—I’ve been a part of all of that. You’ve seen those pictures of the typical African poor kid? I was one of those. I lost both my parents when I was 7. When I was 15, a lady who started an orphanage in my village took me in. An American family sponsored me and paid for my school. I did well. Usually, people in my town are never sent to college—if anything, they go to trade school. I went to college for a bit in Uganda. Then, my sponsor family offered me a real opportunity—if I could get the paperwork, they’d bring me to America. That’s how I ended up in California. I went to community college, then I did an undergraduate degree at Berkeley. I graduated at the top of my class and went to graduate school. That’s when I started company.
IVY: What was your first impression of California?
I remember hopping in a car and getting on the freeway. There were all these clean, speedy cars, and you couldn’t see any people anywhere. Back home, there are cows and people and goats and motorcycles. I thought: who could possibly be driving these cars? Things like that are very minor to Americans but can be shocking for outsiders who come in.
IVY: What are the biggest mistakes in international aid that you see?
People develop good solutions in one part of the world, like America. Then, they bring it to Africa, drop it off, and just leave. One month later, one bolt falls off the machine they invented, and it’s the end of a million dollar project. If the local people don’t know how to use the products, it’s not going to work.
Rides for Lives is effective because it actually trains local people, gives them a skill set, and teaches them how to make products for themselves. When our products have any maintenance issues, there’s a local person who can manage and maintain them. You have to engage the local people in the design process so they can participate. That’s why aid has failed in so many ways. It’s embarrassing and painful to watch.
A lot of organizations like to spend money on accountability, so people can go online and check out some graphs and pie charts. But when you go to their sites on the ground, you wonder what they’re actually doing. The ones who don’t make the fancy pie charts are doing good work. They don’t have to false market themselves.
IVY: What is a favorite moment from Rides for Lives?
One of our products is a unit for people with disabilities. In America, we have wheelchairs that are designed for U.S. roads. There are provisions on the street for people in wheelchairs to cross. We take all of those things for granted. Where I come from, disabled people are really treated as second-class citizens. Over there, if you’re disabled, you’re useless. So, I started designing little scooters that are wheelchairs, and I gave them to people. One of the people who used one went on and built a house. I was shocked and brought to tears. This was a guy who could not move around before. Now, he goes to church, he has a business, his kids go to school, and he has a house. The very small things like that are what keep us really engaged.
IVY: What’s been the biggest entrepreneurial challenge you’ve faced?
The people who really need our service are the poorest of the poor. They live on less than a dollar a day. You can either offer a service for free, or they will take the risk of not getting treatment because they can’t afford it. It’s been a real challenge to try to figure out other models of how we can be financially sustainable. We’re making strides in that direction to create micro-entrepreneurs.
IVY: What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Love wins. My grandmother—who is actually a deaf-mute—raised me. She is one rock of a woman. She worked so hard when I was very little, selling peanuts and corn so she could support me. Still, she always showed me this unconditional love. I lost a bit of that feeling later in my life, when I was hustling and going through some hardships. But when I found this sponsor family that supported me and cared for me and showed me that I, too, did matter—and that my dreams mattered—it also really brought it home. Love wins.
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