Uganda’s BarefootLaw: Legal support for consumers and SMEs

5/8/2018 1:45:35 PM

BarefootLaw is the first online legal service in East Africa. The not-for-profit organisation, based in Uganda, offers free-of-charge information and guidance to citizens to help them understand and defend their basic rights. BarefootLaw has helped hundreds of young SMEs in Uganda through the difficult first years by providing free business advice and support through its spin-off mSME Garage. “Providing individuals businesses with free legal information and advice supports both people’s livelihoods as well as the local economy”, says Timothy Kakuru, Director of Programs of BarefootLaw.

Millions of people in Africa have no access to legal information, let alone legal counsel. People who are embroiled in conflicts with land owners, employers or the government, often have no idea about their rights. BarefootLaw was founded in 2012 to make a difference in this area, with free information and support to Ugandans – especially in rural areas – that have no access to paid services.

100 questions per day

The organization (staff: 22, most of them volunteers) uses different platforms to reach its audience, such as social media, SMS, Skype conferences, and community engagements. “We receive about 10 new legal matters (cases) every day. We also do legal clinics and even radio programmes to reach our audience in rural Uganda”, says Tim Kakuru. BarefootLaw became a huge success. Every year, 450,000 Ugandans view the information the organisation has compiled on its various platforms including its website, Facebook (with up to 115,000 followers), Twitter, SMS platform and other communication platforms. A clear indication of the huge need.

Access to the masses

BarefootLaw started small, as an experiment. The founders learned that access to justice could be provided to the masses via phone and internet, at a very low cost. Today, the BarefootLaw website offers tons of important legal information. Kakuru: “We constantly strive to not only offer these formal documents, but to also provide simple explanations to enable people to understand and work with them.”

BarefootLaw’s creative and novel approach has won several international awards, such as the 2014 ICT for Development Award from the Uganda Communications Commission, the SME Empowerment Innovation Challenge 2015 by Hague Institute for Internationalisation of the Law (HiiL) and the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation’s African Development Prize in 2017. The prize money involved allowed BarefootLaw to continue providing its services and to develop a dedicated legal platform to service Uganda’s small businesses through - the mSME Garage project. Tim Kakuru: “Whether you wish to start a business, or already have your business up and running- there is some legal information that you need to have in mind in order to make decisions that will benefit you and your business. How to set up shop, how to manage it and how to hire and fire employees. These are the needs that the mSME Garage project serves.”

Support for businesses

The free business advice and support spin-off mSME Garage helps change the statistics of failing businesses in Uganda: “Over half of businesses collapse in the first two to three years, mainly because of lack of knowledge about necessary government licences and other rules and regulations, as well as financial issues. mSME Garage helps change that. Over 2,500 Ugandan businesses have become a member, utilise our online support services, asking one-on-one advices and come to our meetings in which we discuss topics like the need to carry out business in a more formal way by getting the required licences, having company or business policies, creating written contracts – hence preventing costly, damaging and time-consuming conflicts. We are proud to say we are preparing entrepreneurs for business and boosting the economy of Uganda.”

Women’s rights

BarefootLaw did not stop at supporting businesses. With support and funding from GIZ (Germany) it founded the Women’s Property Rights Initiative (WPRI), focused on equipping women, especially the vulnerable and underserved, with knowledge and skills regarding their rights to property. Now that BarefootLaw has proven its worth, its founders are looking ahead, to strengthen its IT infrastructure, to expand its services and area of reach.

Worries: funding

In BarefootLaw’s Kampala headquarters, optimism prevails. “In educating individuals and entrepreneurs, we have gained support from government agencies and have tried to engage more with them”, Kakuru explains. There are worries too. “From the beginning, funding our efforts has been our biggest hurdle. Winning prizes cannot support a sustainable future. We would like to extend are partnership with the government – for example being able to use government owned spaces in rural parts of the country for our activities – to make us more sustainable. We are also investigating ways to get support by international funders and the UN. Tech companies like Google and Facebook are among the organisations that we are hoping to convince that our work is worth supporting as we are trying to make the law digital”, says Timothy Kakuru.

You are welcome to support the work of BarefootLaw with donations via support networks

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