Not all Viscounts live in Castles

Paul Joynson-Hicks, founder of Tigers Football Club (Retrak), Goat Races, Wonder Workshop, Molly’s Network

If you met Paul Joynson-Hicks (or ‘Hicksy’ as his mates call him), you wouldn’t believe that he’s heir to the title of ‘the Fifth Viscount, Lord Brentford’! But don’t be fooled by this potentially pompous name. Paul lives by the sea in Tanzania, takes photos for a living and is rumored to only wear shirts with a floral design (we can testify to that!). Having founded several fascinating social ventures across Uganda and Tanzania, Paul is also a bit of a legend! From racing goats to welding metal to recycling mobile phones, he has spent the last 20 years dedicated to the pursuit of projects which give something back to Africa.

We knew nothing of the significance of Paul’s family line until we stumbled on an old black and white portrait in his home. A sketch of Cabinet Ministers from the mid 1920’s, the list of names at the bottom of the picture included Churchill and Joynson-Hicks. Embarrassed by our clear lack of research (we still don’t make the grade of journalists!) we probed Paul on his family history. It turned out that Conservative politician Sir William Joynson-Hicks, 1st Viscount of Brentford, served as Home Secretary in England from 1924 to 1929. Ooops!

A resident in Uganda and then Tanzania, Paul has lived in Africa for the last two decades and understandably sees it as his home.  Over the two days we spent with Paul, his strong sense of obligation to serve his new home nation became very clear. We wondered if this linked to his family history but Paul insisted that it was his parents who showed him the importance of giving something back.  Whilst living in Uganda in his early 20’s as a young photographer, it was his mum and dad who challenged his self indulgent lifestyle by simply pointing out: “So what are you doing for Uganda?”

“It was a very particular moment,” Paul told us, “I was hit by my responsibility.” Since then he has set up five charitable ventures, one in Uganda and four in Tanzania, making him somewhat of a serial social entrepreneur. But where does a bloke who confesses that he had his head totally stuck up his own backside, start on a journey like that? What Paul did was simple but effective. He decided to just stop, look around him and take stock of the issues. Then, in a very pragmatic way, he set about finding solutions. “It’s about recognising the need and creating an action to respond to it,” Paul told us.

For many, looking at the issues in Africa is an overwhelming experience which forces one into apathy. But Paul’s great trick isn’t to over think the situation or to look too hard. Within a week of the light bulb moment he shared with his parents, he’d decided that the first need he would address would be helping street children. After spending a few nights on the streets to increase his understanding of the situation, he invited the children to play football with him.  Tentative at first, they responded well to Paul’s genuine manner and within a couple of months Paul had 50 kids coming to weekly football sessions, followed by a community lunch. Over the months that followed the Tigers Football Club, as it became known, grew in its reach and services.

Recognising the potential of the project, and moreover his own strengths and weaknesses, after two years Paul decided to draft in some full time support to take over the club. “When things are up and running it gets boring!” Paul declared, revealing a key personality trait which keeps him moving from one project to the next. This proved to be a great decision. Under new leadership the local club grew into a registered charity (now called Retrak) which provides education, vocational training, health care, counseling and fostering for thousands of street children across Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Chasing new opportunities in his professional photography career, Paul decided to move to Tanzania in 1997.  But it wasn’t long before he got the nagging feeling that he needed to “do something”. As a new resident in Dar es Salaam, he was struck by the burgeoning number of well off people and booming businesses living and working alongside those much less fortunate. Hell bent on doing something to address this gap, he worked with family and friends on a wacky plan to get wealthy people to dip their hands into their deep pockets. After much brainstorming, their plan grew intoTanzania’s first (and only) mass fundraising event.

In 2000, the first ever Tanzania Goat Races took place (yes you did read that correctly!).  Loosely (and we mean loosely) based on the Royal Ascot, this all day event replaces horses for goats.  Money is raised from entry tickets, boozy betting and most importantly, corporates who sponsor the day’s races.  Once costs are covered, there is a significant lump of cash left over which is donated to worthy causes acrossTanzania. “It was nuts, just brilliant!” Paul told us with animation, recalling the first event they organised.  Since inception, the Goat Races have gone from strength to strength. To date they have raised over $300,000 for good causes across the country, and they are supported by headline sponsors such as Coca Cola, Vodacom, and British Airways.

Though Paul’s vision and drive set this incredible fundraising initiative assail, he phased out his involvement once things found their groove. After a few years his heart was no longer in it and his head had been turned to another nagging need – disability and unemployment.  Every day on his drive to work, Paul would stop at the lights and be approached by disabled people begging and asking for jobs. Less judgmental than most, he found himself always thinking about how he could help them.

By chance, one afternoon he picked up a welding kit belonging to his neighbor and started “messing around with metal” (as you do!). Harnessing his creative flare, he managed to knock up a few artistic creations and surprised himself at how easy it was. Putting two and two together, he considered whether people with disabilities could learn metalwork as a trade and make some money out of it. So Paul being Paul, he invited a few people together to experiment with welding and within months, a new project had been formed.

Founded in 2004, Wonder Workshop employs 38 people with disabilities to make incredible art out of scrap metal. They have other creative trades too, including gifts made from handmade recycled paper and glass bottle beads, but the metal work is by far their biggest seller. Suppliers for all the best tourist boutiques in town, their business turns enough revenue to break even every year and provides a decent wage for people who would otherwise be unemployed.   Paul’s first venture in social business however, hasn’t come without its challenges. Like so many others in the sector, Wonder Workshop has now reached a scale where their growth is being limited by lack of profits. The demands of the business have outgrown the capabilities of one site manager and in order to realise their vision of exporting overseas, they need more money to come in through the door.

For a man who likes to grow something and then get gone, Paul was very honest in telling us that he’s not relishing this latest obstacle. Never the less, he’s got some innovative ideas for how to solve it. If he can get around the fact that Wonder Workshop is currently a registered NGO, he wants to value the organisation and then sell it. Paul is clear that he would only sell to the right buyer who would be able to guarantee their ethos, provide long term sustainability and galvanize their growth.  If this ambitious plan works (we’re sure it will) it will be a healthy sign that charities can convert to become commercial.

Though Wonder Workshop has required a lot of Paul’s input over the last few years, he’s continued to kick off new initiatives. Phones for Africa, his most short lived project, provided school fees for girls through the sale of refurbished mobile phones, recycled from the UK. Only running for a year, it was quickly priced out of the market by low cost mobile phone providers. Phones for Africa is the kind of social venture that NGO bashers love to criticize – short sighted, small scale and unsustainable. But Paul, unphased by its failure, adored this “brilliant little project!”.  For us this typified Paul’s slightly eccentric approach to development but we chose not to fault it. One idea always leads to another with Paul and his most recent endeavour has the potential to engender change on an international level.

The idea behind Molly’s Network had been rattling around in Paul’s cupboard of social schemes since he headed up the Goat Races. Perplexed by how tough it was to find reputable beneficiaries for the funds they raised, he wanted to fix the issue. But a lack of time and energy, coupled with a fear of taking on something more sensible, caused Paul to shelve his idea until a tragic turn of events gave him the motivation required to make it happen. When Paul’s young daughter Molly died in 2009, it caused him to deeply reflect on his own life. “My life has to mean something, otherwise there’s no point” he told us.  The grandest of Paul’s schemes so far, Molly’s Network was named in memory of his daughter and launched in 2010 on the 1st anniversary of her death.

Molly’s Network has been set up to broker relationships between Tanzanian charities and donors. To join the network organisations have to pay a fee and pass an accreditation exercise. In return they will gain exposure to donors as well as other support services. On the other side, Molly’s Network will connect donors with high impact causes (also for a fee). Most crucially they aim to build a suite of corporate clients by offering a comprehensive, outsourced CSR service. Though Paul is a little unnerved that Molly’s Network is verging into “quite grown up territory”, he has a big vision for its future, seeing it expand across East Africa within five years. Though the concept remains unproven, Paul’s track record and incredible networks suggest that it will grow into a huge success.

Though we debated the exact fit, it feels right to define Paul as a social entrepreneur. Has he driven systemic change to address social problems? No. Has he set trends, worked with entrepreneurial zest, nurtured best practice organisations and changed lives? Yes. For us that’s more than enough. Paul would have you believe that his achievements are actually a result of the string of gorgeous young women he’s employed to handle the daily grind. Though this might be partly true, this die hard charm is another quality which adds to our convictions that Paul qualifies as a social entrepreneur! And, though he’s yet to be recognised by any of the official bodies for social enterprise (like Ashoka or Schwab), we’re pleased to confirm that the Queen agrees with our esteemed regard of Paul. Recently awarded an MBE, Paul now has another title which as well as recognizing his works for society, fits very nicely along with his long string of names!


The Goat Races:

Wonder Workshop:

Molly’s Network:

 Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011