Uganda is an east African country just a bit smaller than Oregon, and odds are you didn’t think of it the last time you geared up for a hike.
That’s about to change.
More than a million refugees have crossed the border into Uganda. Most are Sudanese and Congolese, and their journeys to Uganda are rife with torment. The majority of the refugees are women and children, many of whom flee across the border alone, under an unrelenting sun, hiding from gunmen, hungry, thirsty, and scared. When the rainy season comes, their needs are compounded by flooding, food shortages, and disease.
They commonly arrive in Uganda, which has an open border policy and is widely considered the world’s most refugee-friendly country, weak and malnourished, unsure of where or how to find sustenance or who to turn to for help.
Apparel company GoLite, set to relaunch to the consumer in spring 2019, equips Ugandan aid workers in high quality uniforms through an initiative called GoAid, and in turn, upgrade the way aid work is done.
“Our key brand impetus, GoAid, was born from the inspiration to go beyond making great products and integrate humanitarian initiatives directly into the business model,” GoLite Brand Manager Josh Clifford said in an interview with SNEWS. In other words, GoLite wants to change the way a modern outdoor apparel company operates. Good gear is ubiquitous, so what a company stands for provides an intangible value.
GoLite wasn’t always in the humanitarian business. I first discovered GoLite in the pages of Backpacker Magazine in 1999. Ray Jardine, inventor of the modern camming device (an essential bit of rock climbing equipment) and early PCT thru-hiker had written a manifesto of sorts about how to lighten your load while backpacking by creating “systems” of gear (and making much of it yourself).
A young entrepreneurial numbers-geek and outdoorsman named Demetri Couponous (or “Coup”) was so enamored by The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook and what came to be known as the “Ray Way,” that he reached out to Jardine to ask about starting a company together. They did, and GoLite quickly became one of the most beloved brands of core hikers across the country, imagining the vast possibilities of a smarter trail life, unencumbered by unnecessary weight and doodads.
GoLite had a good run but eventually faltered under an altered business model and closed its doors in 2014. Today, the reborn company (under new leadership)—which hasn’t sold a single piece of gear or apparel to mainstream consumers yet—has focused on establishing themselves as a humanitarian and environmental company (their other brand initiative is called GoResponsibly) that happens to produce earth-friendly apparel. It will ship a consumer line in early 2019.
The GoAid journey began in 2017 when the brain trust behind the soon-to-be-reborn GoLite, contacted David Carlson, senior philanthropy advisor at Medical Teams International. MTI is an NGO based in Portland, Oregon, which “provides medical and dental care, humanitarian aid, and holistic development programs to all people in need, regardless of religion, nationality, sex, or race.” MTI has a big presence in Uganda.
“It’s an amazing story,” says Carlson. “GoLite reached out to discuss an in-kind gift to help with our Uganda-based field staff. They said ‘Do what’s best for you and don’t worry about cost.’ …Can you imagine?”
Then, Carlson and Andrew Hoskins, MTI’s director in Uganda, got to work assessing the needs of their more than 1,400 field staff, mostly Ugandans or former refugees themselves. They needed clothing, uniforms really, that quickly and easily identified them as aid workers. They also needed the clothing to breath, to allow unrestricted movement, and ideally, to deter mosquitoes too. All the better if they each had a few sets to rotate through. MTI aid workers pull long hours in harsh conditions for weeks at a time while providing medical care to more than 5,000 patients per month.
“Now, our field staff has had uniforms. Most were produced in-country, which was noble, however they were ill-fitting, hot, and not the most durable. I wondered: Can we create something that functions better, protects better, helps the aid workers do their jobs better?” said Carlson. “We decided on scrubs for medical use, collared shirts for the office, and light long-sleeve shirts for the field, which include Insect Shield treatment. Malaria is a dire concern, and most of our field staff have had it many times. Allan Obore, our HR and administration manager, has had it 14 times. Bed nets are the most effective preventative, but if you can protect during the day too, even better. Plus, our staff performs midwife work at all hours of the night. So we asked for 14,000 garments.”
The news brought “great jubilation” to MTI’s Uganda team. “I don’t know the exact market value, since GoLite has never produced scrubs and things like that, but it’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s an absolute blessing for our staff,” said Carlson. “They were just gaga, grinning ear to ear.”
GoLite Changing the Game
GoAid is a blessing for weary refugees too, who run from violence with little more than the shirt on their backs. They escape to Uganda because the country is so welcoming. Every refugee gets a small plot of land, food rations, medical care, and a hut in a settlement. “They’re welcomed with open arms into the country,” said Carlson. “The only thing they can’t do is vote.”
Given the opportunity that lies within its borders, it’s easy to imagine how chaotic a refugee entry point might be, with an influx of displaced humanity with an array of difficulties and ailments to address, all clamoring for something better. If a refugee can’t tell the aid workers from other refugees, the result is further turmoil. It really can be as easy as a bright red shirt to create order.
Inside a Ugandan refugee camp
“We have a lot of great staff—Ugandans working in very remote locations serving their communities and the refugees they’re hosting,” said Andrew Hoskins, Uganda Country Director for Medical Teams International. “GoLite has allowed us to outfit these staff with standard uniforms so they can do their job, stay safe, and look professional, even in very difficult and demanding working conditions. It gets hot here, and we need something that breathes well, dries quickly, and can be worn day in and day out without falling apart. As they say in Uganda, ‘Thanks for making us look ‘smart’!”
As many as 10,000 refugees have crossed the border into Uganda on a single given day. “We witnessed several hundred arriving at a South Sudanese Border Collection Point. As we walked alongside them “There was a palpable sense of peace,” says Janine Robertson, GoLite Marketing and PR Director. “Not rejoicing, but exhausted relief. They’re no longer fleeing war torn areas and famine. They’re no longer terrified and can finally rest and receive food and medical attention. With such issues, you’d think a shirt wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.”
There’s the on-the-ground, immediate benefit to aid workers and refugees, but there’s also a huge benefit to the organization as a whole. “Our revenue is largely driven by donations,” said Carlson. “GoLite’s in-kind gift ensures that 80 percent of every dollar donated to Medical Teams International goes straight to the mission. The gift helps lower administrative costs over time, lowers overhead, and evens up our financial ratios. GoLite should be proud. What they’ve done directly impacts our ability to save lives in Uganda. It's a direct correlation.”
And, should you throw on a piece of GoLite kit when they’re finally available, odds are, you’ll probably think of the good work happening in Uganda, and you’ll have something to be proud of too.
The GoLite GoAid Uganda project is just the first of many humanitarian initiatives already in the works.