When recent high school graduate Charles Morgan Kisitu was working as a driver in Uganda in 2007, he was also trying to save up some money to potentially begin his college career. So when the man he was assigned to drive and guide for a few days who was in Uganda for a conference asked if he was in school, Kisitu told him his plan.
That man happened to be then-president of St. Thomas, Father Dennis Dease.
“He ended up offering me an amazing scholarship to St. Thomas,” Kisitu ‘11 said of Dease, who for decades has led education and health care efforts in Uganda. “I didn’t know much about Minnesota, and I never thought before I would come to the United States (for college).”
It’s safe at this point to say the chance encounter was truly serendipitous: Kisitu has taken the skills and passion for giving back that he cultivated at St. Thomas back to his native country. There, he heads a successful safari business that puts more than half its profits back into the community, and he leads a nonprofit, See Them Grow Foundation, dedicated to transforming communities through education, sustainable agriculture and vocational training.
“The culture here is amazing. I learned this from St. Thomas and ... from Minnesota and that it makes you feel good, giving something to someone who will not pay you back,” Kisitu said. “That's one of the best feelings I have ever had in my life.”
Building the plan
While Kisitu has now dedicated his life to that giving, in May 2007 he arrived to a school and state nearly 8,000 miles from home. While his roots continued to grow here (he still has several family members in the Twin Cities area), his thoughts were never far from Uganda.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that as he started dabbling in entrepreneurship classes in the Opus College of Business' Schulze School of Entrepreneurship that he began thinking how he could develop a business to run in his native country. So it was that he began doing research – including over several trips abroad to Rome, London and Uganda – on how he could run his own safari company.
“I started to write my business plan, which I kind of kept on tweaking whenever I would get more ideas,” he said. “I shared it a lot with my classmates at St. Thomas and my professors and mentors. It turned out to be the perfect business plan for me.”
Kisitu started working for Best Buy after graduating in 2011, but after just two years knew the passion he had developed for this company was his true calling. Kisitu returned to St. Thomas for a business contest and ended up securing the financial support he needed to begin; in 2014 he returned to Uganda and launched 1,000 Shades of Green Tour and Safari Company.
Even as Kisitu developed his business plan, the idea of directly supporting local communities was always there. After more than a year of research Kisitu settled on the Luuka District in eastern Uganda as an area to focus efforts in. The community is grounded in sugar cane production, and the majority of residents lease their land to companies for extremely low fees; more than 85 percent of children, Kisitu said, do not attend school because they are expected to work at the sugar cane plantations.
Kisitu grew up an orphan and gained an intimate understanding of education’s transformative power.
“Education was crucial. After receiving my bachelor's from St. Thomas, my life changed,” he said. “Through that I've been able to reach out to more people, so I thought education was the right thing to focus on and be able to help out children in Uganda.”
So it is that education came to be the heart of the See Them Grow Foundation: For more than two years the nonprofit – funded mainly by Kisitu’s safari company – has fully supported 130 students’ education. Kisitu was recently in Minnesota for a fundraising event to support the construction of a permanent school facility; classes now in the district take place outside, at the mercy of the elements.
More recently, Kisitu and See Them Grow Foundation has expanded their focus to include sustainable agriculture, providing training and financial backing so families can start using their land to grow their own crops, instead of leasing their land away. Beyond that, vocational training gives people skills in carpentry, welding and craft making; Kisitu said the construction of a community center to house all these efforts is in the works, too.
“We developed a model which is called SEE, which is sensitize, educate, empower. We've been using this model to transform that district and already seeing great progress,” Kisitu said.
Throughout all this Kisitu has maintained his close ties to St. Thomas and Minnesota; he returns two or three times a year and nearly half of 1,000 Shades of Green’s visitors come from Minnesota, he said, and more relationships have continued forming to support See Them Grow Foundation.
“It has all been very exciting and also fun. I get to meet people from all over the world,” Kisitu said. “ It’s been a lot of sleepless nights, but I don't complain. We’re helping.”