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Making Mwanga: Fargo Startup GoodBulb Brings Light To Uganda

“Mwanga” is Swahili for “Light”

Photos By Regan Elizabeth Films

It was dinner time in Kampala, Uganda, and GoodBulb co-founder Tom Enright was preparing to order what he’d eaten every single night for the past 14 nights: a fish. By now, he knew the drill. When the fish arrives, head to tail, you pick it with your fingers and rip the meat off with your teeth. Tonight, being the last night, Tom decided to “splurge”. He bought a beer to go with it for 4,000 shillings; the equivalent of 1 US dollar.

Even still, when the beer arrived, he held it for a moment considering the money spent. How far could that money go for a family in need? What he had just witnessed the past two weeks was fresh, burning in his mind. The poverty, the intense need. And yet with it — and here, Tom shook his head with a smile — the intense gratitude, and the abundant joy. This was the first moment he had to reflect on the trip, and it was overwhelming. His thoughts drifted back to how it all began…

“It just happened.”

That’s how Tom describes the impetus of the Uganda trip. But really, the first inklings of a trip like this were woven into the very foundation of GoodBulb; the lightbulb company that Tom and his wife Tammy founded in 2015.

GoodBulb was born after Tom and Tammy experienced a life-changing medical miracle with their son — the type of experience that does not leave you unchanged. For Tom and Tammy, it was a challenge to live with purpose and to give back to the people around them in any way possible. Tom, who had spent decades in the lightbulb industry, decided to marry this passion for philanthropy with his passion for lighting: and GoodBulb was born.

Today, GoodBulb is a thriving e-commerce lightbulb company built on a mission to Be Good. What this means for the team is a commitment to ensuring good quality, offering good prices, and supporting good causes locally and around the world. As there are still many third world communities without electricity, Tom and the GoodBulb team have especially focused on using their expertise to offer better lighting to those who need it.

This path is what leads them to a GoodBulb partner who is actively bringing solar lanterns to areas of the world without electricity. Many of these communities rely on kerosene, which can be expensive and dangerous — often causing fires and smoke damage. As GoodBulb partnered with this organization, Tom was interested in getting some boots on the ground to deliver GoodBulb solar lanterns personally. So, he gave them a call.

“Are there any villages that need lanterns right now? I can go,” Tom said.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” came the answer. “There are many communities in Uganda that need help right now. We will get you connected to a group that can arrange your visit.”

And just like that, the Uganda trip was in the works. It wasn’t long before Tom was packing his bags in Fargo, North Dakota, preparing for the longest airplane ride of his life. With him, he took a videographer to help tell their story and had a contact number for a man named Gando who would be their guide in Uganda. And of course, over 2,000 GoodBulb solar lanterns to be delivered to families without electricity.

The air was still warm the night they landed in Entebbe, Uganda. After gathering their things, the small crew drove into Uganda’s capital and biggest city, Kampala. They were met by their fearless guide, Gando.

Gando laid out the itinerary for the next 15 days.

“We will spend 4 nights in Murchison, in Masindi,” he said, pointing an index finger at the map. “This is where we will stay because we cannot stay in the villages. It’s too dangerous. But each day, we will drive out to a different community.”

“They will be expecting you,” he said, nodding at Tom with a smile. 

Tom was anxious, yet brimming with excitement. This, he thought, this is why we founded GoodBulb.

“From there, we will spend a couple nights in Mbale, and travel south. We’ll finish in Jinja before we return here to Kampala.

From here, Gando leads them to their trusty steed; a 4×4 gray Toyota.

“In total, we will bring new solar-powered light to 11 new villages,” Gando continued. Then he turned to Tom and grinned. “Are you ready?”

“Everyone is so joyful.”

The air was hot and dry as the team set off in their trusty Toyota, heading on a dirt road to Masindi. In the car was Tom, Regan the videographer, and GoodBulb’s partners in Uganda, Gando and Lawrence, with Ben at the wheel. From time to time, other visitors would join in for the ride. And yes, it was a 5-seater car.

“We just all crammed in there,” Tom recalls with a laugh. “And it was fun! The only hiccup that first day was that the belt broke!”

With the issue resolved, the team soon arrived at their first stop: Murchison, a community in Masindi. From there they set up a home base at a hotel for four nights, traveling each day to the neighboring farm villages.

None of these villages have electricity.

Tom described what it was like approaching the village in his journal:

At each village, the first thing we’d see were little garage shops, selling knick-knacks. You’d see the men sitting in a group, drinking and playing cards. As we drew closer, we would see hundreds of people waiting for us. It didn’t matter if it was the hottest day — 95 degrees or higher — there were hundreds. Sometimes they had been waiting for hours.

Getting out of the car, the crowd would quickly turn into a party. People cheered, and started singing and dancing. All the children would run to stare and greet them. Some wanted to touch them — sometimes it was the first light-skinned person they had ever seen. Others fell back, shy and afraid. But everybody was always smiling.

“You felt like a celebrity,” Tom said.

Tom and the GoodBulb team quickly developed a routine for their visits. First, they were introduced by Gando and brought to a designated seating area. 

“It reminded me of an old royal court,” Tom described.

From there, men and women from the village put on a performance. Sometimes it was singing and dancing, other times a drama; but always in their native tongue. Tom realized that the story often told in the performance was one of pain; how women are mistreated in the village, a ‘terror scene’ such as a house burning down, or a kidnapping. Sometimes the songs turned to dirge-like melodies, naming the different basic needs that are lacking in the community; food, water, safety, light.

When the performance was over, it was Tom’s turn to share his story. While the weight of what he couldn’t provide was sometimes crushing, here, he knew, was a moment to shed an ounce of hope.

And it all started with a light.

Taking one of the GoodBulb solar-powered lanterns from their shipment boxes, Tom held it up for the community to see. Then, he shared the GoodBulb story; the core values that made up that foundation years ago, the very values that brought him there to that moment.

“We believe in good savings. We believe in good education. We believe in good causes.

The solar lanterns that we have brought here today, accomplish all three.

These lanterns will save your homes from devastating fires.”

Cheers from the audience.

“They will save your eyes and your body from the smoke of kerosene.”

More cheers.

“And they will save you money because you will no longer have to purchase kerosene.”

At this the audience jumped to their feet, cheering and clapping. The boxes were opened, and the solar lanterns passed around, shared with each family. Tom walked each person through how to set up the lanterns by blowing in air, and pressing the button. The response was immediate.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom said. “Each time someone pressed the button, the lantern would light up — and their face lit up, with it. There was laughing and shouting from everyone.”

In his journal, he wrote this: “Everyone is so joyful. There is a feeling of being One.”

With their new, sustainable and safe lights in hand, their new friends waved goodbye as Tom and Team GoodBulb piled back in the Toyota. 

Then, they began again.

“Here, it’s real.”

Village after village, Tom and his team were welcomed. Village after village, they shared their story, listened to the story of the community, and shared the new solar lanterns. Sometimes, they would do three distributions in a day, Tom said. And when it was time to move to the next village, they piled in the Toyota and hit the beautiful red dirt roads to the next village.

While each day followed a pattern, there was variety; sometimes they shared meals with the elders — chicken, bananas, sticky dough, various meats and fruits (always eaten with your hands, of course, Tom said.) Sometimes they worked through lunch, dizzy from heat and exhaustion. And yet each time, Tom and his team were deeply moved by the happiness radiating from the men, women and kids as they presented the new solar lanterns.

In between distributions, the team made an effort to return to some of the villages, checking in on how the lanterns were working. Here, Tom said, is where he felt renewed confidence that the lanterns were making a real impact. Kids at school swung their lanterns giggling, sharing that now they can read after the sun goes down. They saw lanterns hanging in people’s homes and in gathering spaces. One older man they encountered had his lantern safely tucked under his arm all day long.

“I don’t want to put it down,” he shared with them, whispering. “I’m afraid somebody might steal it!”

These moments are what pushed Tom and his team through the exhaustion, through the crammed Toyota rides, through the moments of great joy — and the moments of grief, too. Because at the end of the day, Tom knew many of the hardships of the villages still remained. That was a hard reality to grasp. Sometimes, Tom shared, he found himself crying at the end of the day, overwhelmed.

“They would share their problems, their pain, and they would look at me. Praying that I could help them. That I would find a way,” he said. “It was a lot to take in.”

And yet, for an afternoon, there was something that he could do — something positive; something that would make a change. He saw it in the eyes of the schoolchildren when they saw the lantern light up for the first time. He saw it in the rejoicing, the singing, and the smiles of the men and women as they replaced their old kerosene lanterns with new solar ones.

“You can see the lanterns will make a difference,” Tom said. “You can see it had an impact on their lives.”

Fifteen days of travel later, Tom was back in Kampala with a journal full of notes and his heart raw with emotion. Gando suggested a trip to the zoo, a tour of the city. Tom politely declined.

“My friends, I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to rest.”

He rented a hotel room with a resolve to lay in bed for the day and process. That evening, he headed to a nearby market for dinner. He ordered the fish, of course. As he finished his last meal of his first trip to Uganda, he reflected on the past days. What did it mean for GoodBulb? What was he bringing home?

That night, he wrote down some final thoughts in his journal.

When I think back to the beginning idea for GoodBulb… we only had statistics about what kerosene does, about how many people live without light.

I’d only seen it on paper.

Being here, it’s real.

Tom paused. This was what, most of all, would stay with him forever. That these statistics are more than just numbers. These are men he shook hands with, women he laughed with, children he danced with. These are his friends.

It was important to see in person that what we’re doing is going to make a difference.

That’s what we’re coming home with — I am now confident, and I have SEEN, that what we are doing IS making a difference.

Yes, we realize these people need more. 

But our lanterns are impacting a small part of their lives. 

And that is a start.


A note from Tom:

You made this story happen. Each time you purchase a GoodBulb, you are supporting our mission to bring light to families without electricity around the world. With GoodBulb, you have the opportunity to buy a light, and be a light.

The need is real. While we were able to visit 11 villages and distribute over 2,000 lanterns on our journey in Uganda, there are still hundreds of more families and communities around the world in need of better lighting solutions. In fact, Gando has already contacted GoodBulb for future opportunities.

We need your help to make it happen. Consider using GoodBulb lighting to light your business and your home, and with it, light another home in need. You can browse our lighting options, here.

Thank you for being a light in this world.

Be Good.

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