The following is a conversation between Gerald Abila, Founder of BarefootLaw, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: BarefootLaw’s mission is to make legal services readily available to 50 million Africans by 2030. Starting in Uganda, they are harnessing the power of digital technology and innovations like artificial intelligence to assure that every Ugandan has access to justice. And here to tell us more about what they do and the impact they’re having is Gerald Abila, the founder of BarefootLaw.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Gerald.
Gerald: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: What a great idea this is! What inspired this concept, Gerald, and how did BarefootLaw get its start?
Gerald: I’ll go to my childhood because I think I was a lawyer before I became a lawyer. I was born in a conflict zone in Uganda back in the ’80s, and my earliest memories were memories of wars and conflict… me and my parents hiding in corridors and fleeing from conflict. And as a child I kept wondering, how could society break down to a point where problems are resolved through conflict and violence.
And I saw my family fleeing to more peaceful parts of Uganda, closer to the capital, Kampala. But at the same time as we settled in Kampala, I was gifted as a kid. I was one of those that you would call geeks, taking apart everything from cameras to radios and stuff like that, and trying to fix them back. And I was known as an engineer back in the day– young child, about five or six years old.
And it was obvious to everyone around me, I would grow up to be an engineer. I remember once as a child, I just asked for… I built a helicopter. I think I was about 10 years old. It was on national news because there was press covering the school. But these memories of conflict kept coming back to me.
And I remember, at 13 for me was a turning point because I joined higher school. And it was there that I started getting exposed to literature. And conflict, at this point, expanded to my ancestral area as well. And it got me back to those questions I had from childhood and I guess that’s the first time I went from trying to fix machines to trying to figure out solutions of fixing society.
And that’s when I was drawn to the law as a tool to have conflicts resolved peacefully. And it was at 13 that I decided to pursue the law. And by this point, I was still torn between the law and engineering. It was then, and again, I went back to those questions of childhood, and when I look back now with hindsight, I think it was… that for me was the turning point.
And I started getting more intrigued with history and the law. And I must have been very naive. Maybe I thought if everyone could have access to the law, then they could use it as a tool to prevent conflict. And in case any conflict arises, then use it as a tool to resolve this conflict.
And that’s where, for me, the path to being a lawyer was written. I went to university; I got admitted for engineering, and I did not pursue that. Eventually I went to law school, and that’s where the idea of BarefootLaw came about. And I was always tinkering with computers and studied ad tech businesses before… not really businesses, but I was playing around with tech gadgets.
So when I went to law school, I paid myself through law school. I did everything from printing t-shirts to planning weddings, to selling flowers to pay myself through law school. And it was then that I realized there’s a disconnect between the law that we’re studying in class and society. And I started sharing the law through newspaper articles, radio call-ins, and sharing with friends things that I would receive in class that I thought the public should know.
And miraculously, I received a used iPhone 3GS as a gift, and that’s what I used to start BarefootLaw in the early stages. That was in 2012. That’s how the idea of BarefootLaw came about.
Denver: Yeah. That’s an interesting background because, again, you used that engineering which really morphed into the power of technology because it’s all related, and then the interest you have in the law. Well, you’re talking about conflict in terms of trying to resolve a lot of the problems and disputes in society. And would that be in part because, I don’t know, Uganda’s got about 45 million people? How many lawyers or qualified advocates are there to serve that population?
Gerald: The last time I checked, it was about 3,000 advocates registered to practice law in Uganda. And most of them are… about 80% or more in Kampala, the capital city, with a population of about three to four million people. So the rest of the country is left underserved.
Denver: Yeah. You can say they are left to take the law into their own hands in some cases, if they don’t have really any recourse. And that’s probably the heart of the problem you’re trying to address.
Gerald: Exactly. And the worst bit of it is that because of this number of conflicts are either left unresolved or resolved using crude methods, and nothing is worse than a conflict resolved using crude methods because that eventually leads back to a cycle of violence.
Denver: Absolutely. It’s never resolved. That would not be the word, right? It’s just beginning sometimes, and it just continues. Then again, in looking at digital technology, that presumes that most of the people in Uganda have access to mobile phones and internet? Would that be correct?
Gerald: About seven in 10 have access to mobile phones, and about four in 10 have access to the internet.
Denver: So what areas of the law are you focused on?
Gerald: We focus on what we call “frontline law.” So it’s the most basic law, and general. So it covers areas of law from land, which is a big issue around here, domestic violence, children’s issues, and commercial issues… but the most basic. Nothing specifically, or there’s like nothing in a specific area, apart from what we do with law and technology.
Denver: Right. You’re like a general practitioner if you were a doctor. It would be primary health care; so this would be primary law care pretty much.
Denver: You mentioned land, and I know about a quarter of all the cases that you try to help with are land disputes. Why is that so commonplace?
Gerald: I think it goes back historically to the land system that we had during the colonial administration. The land system that we got was from Australia. And that was mostly for land in which the colonial administration and the government then settled. And that we referred to in the old days as “Crown land.” Today about 20% of the land is registered, so 80% of the land is, I wouldn’t call it informally owned; I’d call it formally owned, but non-registered traditionally.
And that’s where most of the conflicts come from and also overlapping land laws. There’s more than one system of land registration with different rights. Some are unregistered. Some are registered. Some are registered as leaseholds customary. There’s a system called Mailo; some are freehold which give different rights and different obligations and responsibilities.
And because of that whole mix of things, in addition to the non-registered and registered land, conflicts arise.
“We realized the biggest problem facing access to justice is ignorance. And so the provision of legal services begins… or the provision of legal aid starts with the provision of legal information. So the BarefootLaw model starts by getting the law… as complicated as it is… simplifying it, a process we call “legal easification,” and then broadcasting it through the different channels…”
Denver: That’s really interesting. Do most people understand the law? I’m here in New York. I don’t understand the law, so it’s kind of a rhetorical question in some ways, but are you able to educate people who do not understand the law?
Gerald: Yeah, I think the first… and this was one of the radical things we introduced. We realized the biggest problem facing access to justice is ignorance. And so the provision of legal services begins… or the provision of legal aid starts with the provision of legal information. So the BarefootLaw model starts by getting the law… as complicated as it is…. simplifying it, a process we call “ legal easification,” and then broadcasting it through the different channels on the internet and off the internet, through radio stations, through community leaders. And then the public gets in touch with us through the same channels– all free of charge.
So I would say knowledge of the law is one of the biggest challenges, of course, in addition to literacy and illiteracy. So low levels of literacy are more challenging than our penetration of technology, actually.
Denver: Mm-hmm. And I guess ignorance of the law is no excuse. They’re not going to say, “Oh, you didn’t know. It’s just tough luck.”
Gerald: Unless knowledge of the law is an ingredient to an offense.
Denver: You talked about reaching out. You have a two-way communication system and so many different platforms for doing that: Law Online, Law Text, Law Voice, Law Connect, Law Radio, Law Outreach. Tell us a little bit about some of those in terms of how you then connect with people who might avail themselves of your services.
Gerald: Primarily, the BarefootLaw model focuses on getting the law, simplifying it, broadcasting it, and providing channels or avenues through which the public can get in touch with us. So these are a mixture of our tech-based platforms and non tech-based platforms, and I’ll explain. Tech, for instance, the SMS platform that we have, we’ll get the law simplified and broadcast it to subscribers. Something as simple as, if you’re staying on land, it’s important that you have a land registration document. These are examples of land registration documents. In case you need any other information, this is how you can get in touch with us. Send law space, your question, and send to 6115.
And so that message comes to a consolidated dashboard that we have. And then a group of trained lawyers provides a response and guides that person towards getting that document. The same process happens with voice: broadcast questions, resolve. The same process happens with radios. We have a number of community radio stations we partner with. We have recently introduced a community node.
These are taken to people in communities that have access to BarefootLaw’s platform and through which members of the public that don’t have access to technology, gadgets like phones, can go and get in touch with us through the nodes. We’ve also expanded that to partner with our community-based organizations who have a large following in communities.
So members in that community, usually upcountry, rural, and hard-to-reach areas, go to these partners and get in touch with BarefootLaw, and we extend our services through them, and that’s how it works. We then go ahead to guide you towards a certain solution. And that’s when we say justice has been served.
Denver: There you go. I love the idea that you do reach out to people who do not have the technology available to them. Even do skits sometimes, don’t you?
Gerald: Yes. Yeah, we do our skits on interesting… We started BarefootLaw in Kampala, in an urban area. And then we realized, oops, about 90% of our audience was urban-based, and these are not the people we want to target, who are contributing to the problem of lawyers being based in Kampala. And so we started going out through what we call outreaches, and we went with our tech gadgets to deep rural communities in… we started off in Northern Uganda.
And so we had a place, waiting for people to come. We educate them about the law, and then we leave them tools and flyers and billboards on how to get in touch with us. But in these communities, the material, the way we have been educating people in towns was not working. And so when we consulted with community leaders, one of the best ways to do that education was through plays and skits.
And so we ended up doing role plays with those communities. And we’ve carried that on. That was about 2014. We’ve carried that on to YouTube videos and YouTube skits that we do these days. And we share this with our community partners in English and in local languages. So skits are very powerful tools.
Denver: You’ve been in any? Do you participate in the skits, or do we get professional actors?
Gerald: No, we use our own team members with members of the communities as well, but not really professionals.
Denver: Yeah. I do love your easification of the law. I went to your website, and I was reading all about contracts and the difference between contracts and agreements, and I’m taking notes. And I’m saying, Hey, this is nice and clear. How many legal matters, Gerald, do you generally handle every day?
Gerald: I need to check the latest…we are in the process of compiling last year’s impact numbers, but it’s about a hundred, 50 to a hundred, depending.
Denver: Let me ask you about women because I think we know in Uganda and in Africa and in every country of the world and every continent, women often get left behind and do not have the same rights. How have you worked to try to engage women and empower women in the eyes of the law?
Gerald: Yeah. It’s interesting that you mentioned that from…Before I come to that question, I think when I look back now, I’ve been doing BarefootLaw for 10 years, and it has given me an opportunity to study a number of cultures. And in many cultures, I feel… interestingly in some of the cultures, the rights of women are enshrined, but they’ve been vulgarized or abused as time goes on. So much of it has been abused, but we ended up using the same cultures to justify some of these abuses.
For instance, one of the communities we went to in Northern Uganda provides for the rights of women to own land, but over time these rights are being misinterpreted to disenfranchise, and being used to justify the disenfranchisement of land ownership for women. So part of what we found out and part of what we did was to engage the community about some of these things that are already in their cultures, and that made it easier for them to adopt.
And initially, we went out where usually we were engaging women mostly, but over time we realized having a bit of men, at least our traditional leaders, in these engagements was vital. So we started engaging men; about 30% of our target audience was men for desensitizations. This was one of the realizations that came about when we looked back from when BarefootLaw started. Internet usage of women in Uganda was at about 6%.
Gerald: Yeah, that was in about 2012, 2011- 2012. It was really, really bad. There’s a statistic I saw that reflected those spots. And here we were providing access to justice or legal information over the internet. Our numbers were really disproportionate in the number of women that were using our service.
And so we started engaging or carrying out initiatives to get that number up. The first one we did was in 2014, that initiative I’ve explained why we went to the community. It was called the Women Property Rights Initiative that eventually graduated to what we’re calling the Legal Empowerment of Women Using Technology and Innovation.
And that’s something that’s ongoing, and it has gotten the number of women that use our service from about 6% to 30%… about 32%, but 30% was our target.
Denver: And you’ve got a ways to go yet because in some ways it can create even greater imbalance. If the men are empowered to know what the law is, and the women aren’t, it can almost create a larger gulf. So boy, that is a great effort. And I know you’ve still got a ways to go until you get up to probably what you’re shooting for ultimately, and that’s 50% at least.
Gerald: Yeah. And that has informed our expansion plans and our scaling plans as well because we realized if we, depending on the area you scale, you may get a different target audience.
For instance, if you scale to urban areas, you probably will get mostly men because some of the women that are the most needy are not even allowed… by many of the male figures in their lives who misinterpreted so many of these cultures to their benefit… to even tread or even come to urban areas where much of the sensitization is carried out.
So part of what we’ve done is to try as much as possible to expand to some of those areas to get in touch with the most… those that we think are most in need.
Denver: Gerald, you have a multifaceted operation here, and I’m sure it’s not inexpensive, so tell us a little bit about your business model and your different sources of revenue.
Gerald: For now, most of our income is from grants. We’ve not yet found a way to make this, I don’t want to use the word “sustainable” because that word has been misused as well.
Denver: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Gerald: So for us, sustainability is reducing on the cost of operation, of course, by leveraging technology while expanding our reach and the number of people that get in touch with us. So for now, BarefootLaw is mostly funded by grants from foundations.
Denver: How do you think philanthropy, let’s say in addition to unrestricted giving, how could philanthropy be more effective in supporting an organization like yours?
Gerald: It comes down for me to one word: proximity, because our philanthropy, I believe, goes beyond the provision of funds. It extends… and this is where we’ve been lucky with the partners that we’ve had on board for BarefootLaw…, it extends to partners that are interested in you beyond the provision of funds to an extent that they’re interested in you failing forward, I would say. Because that’s how ideas and innovations and impact is achieved, through experimenting.
So for me, the one word I would say is proximity to those that you fund, proximity to their ideas, to their dreams, to their visions, to their users, to their beneficiaries, to their operations. And that will then make the philanthropy or the funding more effective.
Denver: That is so true. You’ve been there about 10 years. I’d have to say over the last two, in particular, this has not been an easy time to be in charge and to be leading an NGO organization. Tell us a little bit about that. And how do you think the nature of leadership is changing in this ever-changing world that we’re in? …. and maybe some of the ways that you have adapted your leadership style to these new realities.
Gerald: I don’t really know how to put it. The last two years, and for some parts of the world even more, have been chaotic in that we were emerging or we’re still going through a pandemic, but we’re also now starting to see a multi-polar world emerge. So now you have a situation where our leaders have to adjust to a post-pandemic, multi-polar world, which is very different from the world as it was before we went into our lockdowns.
And I remember before the lockdown, Uganda went into a lockdown in March. A number of our partners reached out to us and provided advice and guidance from what they have observed before and how they think we need to adjust going forward. A lot of this was very helpful, and that again comes down to proximity.
For me as a leader and I did give… I think going through the past two years has made me a better leader, both from an institutional perspective, but also from a personal side of things, because I’ve seen what I think… not only seen, but I’ve experienced what role leadership can play in terms of building after crisis.
But then I’ve also seen what role misleadership can play in terms of dealing with crisis. All over the world, you could see how things were done. For me, all of these observations go beyond BarefootLaw. They go beyond… They cause us to ask as people, What world do we want to see in the future? Will we still have the sustainable development goals running? Will this leadership that we have from a nonprofit and from a profit perspective enable us to achieve our goals by 2030, or do we need to stop, pause, and refocus?
I guess… I don’t know. We can only tell when we get to 2030, but I believe leading through crisis gets us to a higher level of consciousness, but it would take us to a different discussion… But for me, it was such a wonderful opportunity to get to observe the role of leadership.
Denver: Yeah. That’s really interesting. And there is no question there’s a heightened awareness. And I think there’s no question too that a lot of leaders recognize that their leadership can be toxic, and maybe were not aware of it. They were doing the best they could, but they just were closed in, and now it’s come to them, and as you say, there’s a chance for them to really reflect and really to have some inward reflection in terms of what they’re doing, and hopefully we’ll come out at a better place. And hopefully, we’ll stay in that better place if we do and not revert back to the way it was before because that can also be a tendency.
Speaking of advice, you’re a social entrepreneur, so if it were 2012 again and you had the knowledge then that you have right now, what do you think you might’ve done differently in starting BarefootLaw?
Gerald: I think I would have been a bit more emotionally intelligent. I noticed, a lot of us as entrepreneurs… there is something in us that drives us down this path, and we get so focused on that that we fail to pay attention to what is giving… like something has to give. And a lot of time, we don’t pay attention to what we’ve sacrificed to get to where we are.
We think we’ll get to a certain point, and then we will go back and start fixing things. Everything is about fixing. We’re solving a pressing problem, so we will solve things that we let fall apart. If I was to go back, I think I would have been a bit more emotionally intelligent and dealt with things a bit differently.
Denver: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Often when you’re driven like that, you’re going to fix those things tomorrow. And once I get this done, then I’ll start. And then of course, five years go by, and you’re still driving down the road. And I’ve heard from a lot of other social entrepreneurs along those lines, we lose our peripheral vision because we are so laser-focused; we’re unaware of things that are happening to the side. And that can be, even we lose our ability to collaborate because we are so driven by the prize that we want to achieve.
Scaling– you have basically started this in Uganda, and as I said at the very outset, you hope to reach 50 million people by 2030. Tell us about your ideas along those lines and how you approach this idea of scaling this model to other nations in Africa.
Gerald: Yeah. For me, the absolute proof of concept of this model, the absolute proof that this model works is if it works outside of Uganda. We’ve done work outside Uganda before, mostly from a systems change perspective. But this year, we started off with our new strategic plan, and scaling is a fundamental component of that strategic plan.
As I speak to you now, there are two BarefootLaw team members moving around Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi, exploring ways in which we can collaborate and slowly starting to sow the seeds of scaling. And working with partners, we hope to scale these to even more countries. We’re in talks with a number of partners to try and see how the model can go, starting with Eastern and Southern Africa and hopefully get us to our vision of 50 million people across Africa.
So we’ve been working on this. And this year, things are starting to take shape. And so hopefully, it would be very wonderful for me to write to you in December and update you on how our operations outside Uganda are going. That would be a good year for me.
“…only a foolish lawyer will ignore the role that technology plays in our past, in our present, and in our future. But this technology, for you to get technology to play a role in your legal practice or in your legal service delivery or in your legal interpretation, you need to let the brain fly.”
Denver: You know what? We should make it a date. Come December, January, let’s see how you’re going because you really do believe that the future of law is going to be in technology, right?
Gerald: Yeah. I believed that in 2012, it’s not something I believe anymore, it’s something I know. In 2012, it was a belief, but now it’s something I know. I don’t know if there’s any parental restriction on the show, but only a foolish lawyer will ignore the role that technology plays in our past, in our present, and in our future. But this technology…for you to get technology to play a role in your legal practice or in your legal service delivery or in your legal interpretation, you need to let the brain fly.
Most times, we get a V8 engine and try to put it on a horse, and it’s not going fast. So technology comes with innovation. And so before you get that V8 engine, which is maybe the latest contract analysis system, if you bring it to your law firm that is still focused on doing things in the past, it’s not going to help. So technology is the past, it’s the present, it’s the future, I don’t believe in that anymore.
I know I’m finally convinced, and the pandemic reinforced it because when we went into the lockdown, BarefootLaw was not in any way affected. It felt like we had been practicing for this from about 2016 in terms of operations. The only difference was we started working from home, but the system’s already set and developed.
And I guess so many practitioners in the legal sector realized that. And my advice to them is: welcome to the world of technology. It’s going to disrupt the way you do law. But for you to maximize its benefits, you need to have an open mind. I always tell my team: Garbage in, garbage out. So what you put in is what you will get out with the technology, and be innovative in how you apply it.
I’m very convinced, and it’s not going back. I see different avenues coming up. I see lawyers who will be specifically trained to practice in the metaverse. There’s no going back.
“…I think as we are getting technology to work towards the law, or we’re getting technology to apply to the law, it would be good for lawyers to also switch the way in which they understand the law to try and get it at par with the way machines try and understand the law. Working in sync is where the magic is.”
Denver: Yeah. I love your metaphor too because I think what a lot of organizations do, legacy organizations in particular, they look for the latest technology, and they try to plop it on their existing structure. And the only way it’s going to work, hearing what you say, is that if you put technology at the center of the NGO, and the platforms have to be built around it, you just can’t glom it on like that V8 engine on a horse. You really have to make it central to your theory of change, or otherwise it’s just never going to work. It’s just going to be a misfit.
Gerald: Exactly. And I think innovation is a mindset, and I hope…and this goes even beyond lawyers, you don’t just innovate. One analogy I like using is: Imagine or think of your organization has a house, let’s say a family house. You have the living room where everything is orderly; the family portrait is on a table somewhere, the TV somewhere, the…
Denver: Don’t forget the piano.
Gerald: The piano is nicely placed in the corner, dusted every morning. But then you have, you have the living room. You have the bedroom where things are; the bed is there, it’s nicely done, the TV, but not as organized as the living room. And then you have the children’s room. Everything is chaotic, but that’s the most innovative room in the house. It’s the most creative room in the house. That’s exactly how organizations are; always have a children’s room in your organization where everything goes.
And then figure out how to bring those things to the bedroom, whatever works, and then figure out how to make it a policy, an organizational system in the living room that everyone can see because at the end of the day, your users won’t give a hoot, whether you’re using AI on the backend or the latest machine learning or the latest contract analysis software. No one cares, especially from a legal perspective.
Dealing with lawyers is like dealing with neurosurgeons. No one goes to a neurosurgeon for fun, I want a brain operation… just operate on me for fun…. No, someone comes to you as a lawyer when they have a problem and they need a solution. And you as a lawyer, give them a solution. Don’t give them your AI contract analysis software. They don’t come for the AI contract analysis software. They’ve come for a solution.
And one interesting thing is for the… I don’t know, some have likened it to the fountain of youth. Let’s say they’ve been chasing the fountain of youth, which I think for me is an AI lawyer like me, and you come sit down, talk to a lawyer in a language you understand and engage in a formal conversation, and it will give you legal advice like a normal human being lawyer… won’t probably be even sentient or with a certain level of consciousness to factor in many different surrounding things.
I’ve been chasing this since 2016. I’ve moved all over the world to try and find it, and we’ve made some baby steps towards this. It’s a system that we’re developing called Winnie, an AI lawyer that we would try and use on the backend.
One interesting thing… and I hope there’s a lawyer listening, in trying to teach my understanding of the law to a machine, I’ve inadvertently taught the machine’s understanding of the law to myself. And it’s something that came to me a few weeks ago, and I think as we are getting technology to work towards the law, or we’re getting technology to apply to the law, it would be good for lawyers to also switch the way in which they understand the law to try and get it at par with the way machines try and understand the law. Working in sync is where the magic is.
And for me, the law firm or the legal entity that works in sync with that, is the one that will take over the legal space. Of course, it comes with a mindset, but that mindset starts by trying to reprogram your understanding of the law.
Denver: That is really interesting. So again, and as you say, the future of the law is technology, so the more you can get simpatico with the technology, the further ahead you’re going to be. And to your point about innovation, innovation is messy, and be comfortable with the mess, or otherwise it’s not going to happen. For listeners who want to learn… Go ahead.
Gerald: Don’t take a piano to the children’s room and expect it with a family portrait on it.
Denver: Oh, no, no, no, no. But sometimes… there are a lot of people who are comfortable with that order, and it makes them feel safe. And sometimes with mess, you just feel that things are out of control. But as you say, that’s where the magic is.
For listeners who want to learn more about BarefootLaw or financially support this work, tell us about your website, Gerald, and what people can expect to find there.
Gerald: The website is www.barefootlaw.org. You’ll find a link to a donate button, and any donations are welcome. Help us to reach 50 million people by 2030. Help us achieve these dreams.
Denver: And pull out your calendar. We got a date, come December or January. You’re up for it?
Gerald: Yeah. I look forward to that.
Denver: Me, too. Thanks, Gerald, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Gerald: Thank you and thanks for hosting. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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