Member Spotlight: Michael Stromme, Social Entrepreneur in Uganda  By

Member Spotlight: Michael Stromme, Social Entrepreneur in Uganda

Michael Stromme is another member of SabbaticalHomes.com who has found trustworthy and reliable tenants for his home while living abroad.

His home has become a Sabbatical Home for others! He is a social entrepreneur currently living in Uganda working with a variety of charitable organizations that provide vulnerable children with  food, education and emotional support.

Michael initially moved from New York to Rwanda in 2017, but has since found Uganda more business-friendly. It is clear that his work profoundly affects the lives of these kids, although he would probably say that their lives have been the ones to profoundly affect him and the direction his life has taken.

Michael is currently registering two entities in Uganda, one an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization or nonprofit) and the other a handmade soap and essential oil business. Both are designed to provide direct and sustainable support to the organizations and kids he works with. Read on below for our question and answer session with Michael via email, and be prepared to be inspired by his work!

How did you become involved with this work?

Michael Stromme with a group of kids I didn’t choose it.  It chose me.  For some time I had been feeling called to be somewhere far away and exotic, though I didn’t know exactly where or why.  I needed an impactful and meaningful change, somehow.  In 2012, I met the founder of an organization called Hope Shines, which supports orphans and vulnerable children in Kigali, Rwanda through hosting summer camps, educational programming, and paying school fees.

I started an online fundraiser to go to Rwanda the following summer as a camp volunteer for three weeks.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I immediately connected with the place, people, culture, and kids and that solidified it for me. My life had changed course. I became passionately involved fundraising for the organization, serving on their board of directors, and making solo trips bringing donated goods, vitamins, and hygiene supplies to the kids.

Why and how did you decide to start a NGO and handmade soap business?

A few years later, I felt more direct and sustainable support was needed for the kids, so in 2017 I moved to Rwanda to start a handmade soap business to support at-risk and vulnerable youth with proceeds from the profits.

I spent a year there struggling to get the business on its feet, but ran into a number of problems. It was suggested by several friends to try Uganda (Rwanda’s neighbor to the north) since it’s a freer country, Kampala is a bigger city, and there are more raw materials and oils to start my soap business.  An investor was interested in not only the soaps but the oils coming from Uganda, such as shea butter, cocoa butter, sunflower oil, etc. being shipped to Japan.

The business plan is to supply high quality handmade soap (using my original recipes and available oils) to local high-end boutique hotels and spas.  The mango oil used will be pressed/processed by the business for the soap as well as being sold separately.  Essential oils are in the plan as well, since Uganda is rich in agriculture and has many oily plants.  Sustainability is key in all areas, including the packaging (no palm oil is used).  The businesses will also give back to the community by hiring and training local labor in all aspects of production.

Michael Stromme's Handmade soaps

[Uganda is] a very different place from Rwanda, but an excellent country for startups and entrepreneurs.  I’m still reaching out for angel investors for the startup costs, but in the meanwhile I’m registering my own nonprofit called EYCO Africa (Empowering Youth, Creating Opportunities).  This will allow me to collaborate with and support other NGOs supporting street kids living in the slum areas, and empower the older [kids] with skills they can apply to sustain their own lives and start building hopeful and meaningful futures.

As a social entrepreneur, I feel it’s important to leave this world a little better than how you found it.  We can all support some community in some way, and if we have a business then that business model can move things forward and create an impact, as well.  None of this has been easy…but it is certainly possible.

Will you talk about the organizations and kids who will benefit?

[One in Rwanda is] called One Help One Direction.  The organization has a small operating budget, affording only 25 out of the 50 kids’ school fees.  The bigger challenge is getting the kids fed, since some don’t eat daily.  The kids who are supported come from the poorest of backgrounds and most are living on the street. Some have been placed in homes.  They gather at a community center each Sunday for “Smile Sunday” which is where I would meet up with them weekly with other volunteers to hang out, play, and help serve a simple lunch.  The kids were always so full of life and laughter, and made me forget everything else…It really does put things in perspective!

Here is a short video describing One Help One Direction’s mission.

In Uganda, aside from my own NGO registration, I’ve become involved with another small organization called Trace Uganda, which supports street kids, mainly through reintegration back into their homes, and empowerment through programming, activities, supplemental education, and skills training.

What is your favorite part of this experience? Are there any frustrating parts?

Photo of Michael Stromme with two children

My favorite part of this experience is, and has always been, the human connection.  Ultimately, every aspect of this journey stems from that. I had been yearning for a deep and profound human connection, and I’ve found it in spades.  But with that comes a huge responsibility, and many of these kids (and adult friends) turn to me for support. A number of them call me Dad, Papa, or Father. I never had kids of my own but now I take care of so many!

This is also the most frustrating AND inspiring part.  Though I feel genuine worth, honor, and humility as a human being in serving others in this capacity, it’s frustrating in not being able to do enough.  Most expats who relocate here are brought by their jobs or organizations which support them, but I did things backwards, without any kind of safety net, relying solely on donations from friends.  But there are times you just have to jump in the deep end, sink or swim… I would never have felt prepared “enough” and had to take the risk.

What is your background?

I was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and got a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in Theatre Arts.  Afterward, I followed my heart mainly for acting and coaching, living in Los Angeles, Rome, Paris and New York. To sustain myself outside of acting gigs (ironically most of that came from Paris doing voiceover and dubbing work in English), I was also teaching and doing deep tissue massage therapy.  I worked in a spa in New Jersey for the nearly ten years I was in NY/NJ until moving to Rwanda in July of 2017.  I have some massage clients here in Kampala, too, mainly through the expat community.  Needless to say, I’m grateful for my hands!

How is SabbaticalHomes.com allowing you to achieve your goals?

I’m a big fan of Sabbatical Homes, and this journey would be far more complicated and worrisome without them.  I heard about Sabbatical Homes (SH) through my involvement with the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in New York. One of the members had used SH in the past and highly suggested I sign on with them, since the platform lends itself to responsible individuals in academia needing long-term stays.

I wasn’t comfortable putting [my home] on Airbnb or another rental site, and really needed a reliable, trustworthy renter in my home who would take care of and respect it.  I had conducted Skype interviews with those renters, and the third one is staying there currently. They’ve all been so amazing and communicative, and I’ve always felt my home was well cared-for in my absence.  I’m very grateful to Sabbatical Homes and have always given the highest praise and recommended the site to friends and those seeking a reliable renter.

If SabbaticalHomes.com Members Want to Donate, What is the Best Way?

One Help One Direction is a nonprofit for street children in Kigali, Rwanda  https://www.gofundme.com/agasaro4lovecampaign

Trace Uganda is a nonprofit for street children in Kampala, Uganda https://www.gofundme.com/traceugandastreetkidstofamilies

Support for Michael’s business registration and expenses in Kampala, Uganda  https://www.gofundme.com/this-ugandan-life

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