Estonians popping up in Uganda – the story of Pop Up Kampala (video)

One would not expect to find an Estonian-run café in East Africa. Yet, it turns out that there is at least one — Pop Up Café in Kampala, Uganda. A cafeteria with a small garden in Ntinda area of Kampala, where people can enjoy self-roasted coffee and delicious meals. But what makes this place more unique is the fact that  it mainly employs people with special needs — Pop Up Café is a social entrepreneurship-based cafeteria that empowers Uganda’s disabled youth by offering them their first job opportunity.

The cafeteria was started by two visionary volunteers from Estonia – together with NGO Mondo – and the start-up money was gathered from the people of this small North-European nation, donation by donation.

8l5Xc7OIVnx0Nf7lKbmsf2pKB8m4n-HclZVTZ6vAedkWe caught up with Aliine Lotman, one of the co-ordinators of the project and currently running it in Kampala. Aliine is a young Estonian with a background in social and cultural anthropology, more narrowly she has been studying the different cultural meanings of food and edibility. Her work so far has been with (global) education and development issues with NGO Mondo and the Estonian National Commission for UNESCO.


Aliine, what prompted you to move to Uganda?

The story begun almost two years ago when I was working for the Global Education Centre at NGO Mondo in Tallinn. Johanna Helin, my boss at the time, told me about a project that back then seemed more than crazy: there was some guy called Jüri Saarma who wanted to open a cafeteria in Uganda that would employ people with special needs. Johanna was asking me if I would be interested to take on the project, to fly to Uganda in a few months’ time and create this cafeteria from scratch. Of course both she and Jüri would support me from Estonia, but everything else I would figure out by myself in Kampala (the capital of Uganda).


Fortunately at the time I was still busy with my university studies so I passed the opportunity. It was fortunate because the person who finally flew to Uganda to start the project was the person exactly right for the task — Siisi Saetalu. It took Siisi nine months to start the cafeteria, to find the staff and premises and to train our staff members with regards to cooking, serving, roasting coffee beans etc. During the nine months I kept reading Siisi’s blog, following the developments and the growth of this idea that at first had seemed insane — but with time came to seem as one of the most sensible social enterprises I have heard of. So when Siisi returned to Estonia and NGO Mondo started looking for a new volunteer to take over the management of the cafeteria, it seemed natural for me to apply for the job. Three months later, here I am, sitting on the porch of Pop Up Café, working through our free WiFi connection and drinking one of the best iced coffees in town.

So what exactly are you trying to achieve?

The main idea of Pop Up Café is to be something of a springboard from where young people with special needs could acquire their first working experience in order to find work elsewhere and become independent citizens who contribute to the society as much as anybody else. Another big aim that we have is to raise awareness in Uganda — it is important for the society to see that people with special needs are able and willing to be employed and are a contribution to an enterprise, not a burden. Unfortunately in many parts of Uganda, people with special needs are treated as a punishment from God and in the bigger scale of things we aim to change this prejudice.

What are the challenges that you have come across to so far?

The main challenge is to find our own place in the competition of Kampala city to ensure a revenue that would make the project self-sustainable and enable to become independent of donations made by Estonians. At the moment we are trying to really push our marketing efforts to make Pop Up known all over the city as a place where anyone can come and relax in a cosy atmosphere, drink fantastic Ugandan coffee and support our cause.


What is life generally alike in Uganda?

Uganda is a country that is very hard to put into words. I can only say that it is a place that everyone should visit at least once. Of course the country faces many challenges and not everything is as perfect as it could be, but regardless of this, it’s a place that charms immediately and becomes almost a second home — even for cold and reserved Estonians (Aliine laughs).

Has anyone heard about Estonia over there and is there any idea or experience from Estonia that you could transfer to Uganda?

Most Ugandans have never heard of Estonia — but at the same time most Estonians would probably have a trouble to pinpoint Uganda on a map as well. However, there are still many coincidences: for example, the owner of the house where Pop Up Café is located, has been to Tallinn twice — as he was once a university student in the Soviet Union. And actually there is also a wonderful Estonian family living in Kampala who have been of great help for both me and for the project.


One thing that we have “transferred”, is our free WiFi service — when the cafeteria was started last year, we were one of the very few who offered a free WiFi connection to their customers. Although the trend has spread to other parts of the town as well, we still remain with many customers who appreciate us namely because of the possibility to just come and sit down with your laptop, without any time limit or costs to the internet — just like it is in most cafeterias in Tallinn.

There are many similarities I see between Estonia and Uganda — which means that the same amount of ideas and experiences that I “import” from Estonia, I will probably “export” back to Estonia.

What would you say to those people back home who point out that there are many unsolved social problems in Estonia — why would they want to support projects in other countries, such as this one in Kampala? 

First of all, I would say that I am very happy that people are pointing out and noticing the unsolved social problems that Estonia has. Although for a long time the awareness about these issues was very low and the society had chosen not to notice the marginalised and powerless members of society in Estonia — this trend is fortunately changing. The issue most connected to Pop Up — empowerment and inclusion of people with special needs — is also fortunately gaining more and more importance in Estonia. A very good example of this was the “Puude taga on inimene” (“There’s a person behind the tree”) family day that took place at the beginning of this month. It is good to see that the society has reached to the point where it is able and willing to stretch out a helping hand for the ones who need it most. It is also very important to see that this help has to be in the form of cooperation — that we as volunteers cannot be the ones who “empower” and “include”, but rather that we are just the tools for facilitation that enable the marginalised group of people to become empowered and included.
What we do at Pop Up is giving people with special needs the skills and opportunities to gain value in the labor market. To gain the most of it and to make use of the skills learned, is up to our staff. It is a process of learning and teaching from both sides – it’s a cooperation. In the wider picture of things, cooperation is also the key for improving the situation in another location — let’s say Uganda. Pop Up is not only an “Estonians helping Ugandans” project, but it is a cooperation between the two. The Estonians who have donated their time and money for Pop Up, have gained the feeling that they can change somebody’s life for the better, that they are able to help people who live on the other side of the equator. It brings about a personal connection — someone who has donated a chair to Pop Up and knows that in the capital city of Uganda there is a chair that bears his or her name, feels that they are part of something very positive and awesome that is making a change. And this personal connection is something very important — that a person and his or her friends will think twice in the future when hearing statements about “oh, those Africans…” or “there in Africa…”, because they know that all the countries and societies in Africa are different and there is not one “general Africa” that needs to be “saved”. And they know that well, for example, there’s this group of disabled people in Uganda who are working hard to make a change for the better in their society and that they are doing it with the help of Estonians.
I grew up in rural Estonia during the 1990’s and I remember how important the outside help was for Estonia back then. I remember making small birds out of clay to be sold to Finnish and Swedish people who wanted to support our primary school. We were small kids in a tiny primary school in rural Eastern-Europe during the 1990’s. To have a keyboard for our music lessons or a TV to watch news from, we had to improvise. So we made clay birds — tiny, tiny clay birds that we used as thank-you items for the people who helped us out. Without the help of the outside world, my school and Estonia in general would have not developed to where it is now. I just hope that Estonians don’t forget this and remember the importance of a helping hand during rough times.

What are your plans for the future?

First of all, the main goal is to get the cafeteria to earn a profit (which we can then invest in the community) and to find a Ugandan manager who would take over the leadership when I return to Estonia. Apart from Pop Up Café I’m planning to continue with food studies and maybe in the future I could also contribute to a cafeteria with similar aims in Estonia. Otherwise — revisiting Uganda is definitely a part of my future plans.

















You can follow and support Pop Up Kampala here:

Photos: Kullar Viimne

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