An old Chinese proverb says “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” It is brilliantly simple, and perfectly exemplifies the benefit of education over an offer of simple charity. But as much as I am fond of seafood, I don’t want to write about fish… I want to write about music and how some of the sweetest sounds I’ve heard in the past week are the result of an idea that is deeper and more meaningful than any I’ve heard in years.
What would happen if we were to take that proverb and replace the education in catching fish with apprenticeship in the craft of building guitars? Perhaps the skill of guitarmaking would mean that for the first time in his life this man could earn a wage sufficient to support himself and his family. This is exactly what is happening right now in the small village of Mpigi, Uganda.
Jay Duncan began learning to build acoustic guitars in his father’s garage, and attained the status of Master Luthier by the mid-90’s. By 1996, he was building guitars for the likes of John Larrivee, the owner of Larrivee Guitars, a world renowned and successful guitar manufacturer. Before too long Jay began designing and building his own line of J Duncan Guitars; well known in boutique circles for playability and fine craftsmanship — but apparently building and selling works of art wasn’t enough. Jay felt he had a purpose that was deeper than mere success at his craft and a profitable company — his heart for economically depressed people led him to move beyond simple philanthropy by integrating his business into an innovative real-world solution.
His creative business mind led him to an idea that would accomplish all of his goals with the creation of the non-profit Duncan Africa Society. Instead of simply sending money overseas to help those living in poverty, Jay had a vision for a self-sustaining foundation based upon the idea of giving away his life’s work: he planned to give away the knowledge and skills needed to make a world-class instrument, build a self-sustaining non-profit business, and offer opportunity where there had been none before.
In 2005 Jay and the Duncan Africa Society established a school in Mpigi, Uganda “to bring an affordable version of his instruments to a larger market,” and more importantly to effect positive change in this impoverished third-world community. Jay now travels yearly from his home in Vancouver, Canada to Uganda where the Duncan Africa Society school teaches not only luthierie (guitar making), but also English, math, computer skills, first aid and business. The guitars that are built in Uganda are then shipped to the Duncan Africa Society offices in Canada to be sold on the open market, with the proceeds returning to Uganda in the form of craftsmen’s wages.
Compare Jay’s model with a more typical one: often when we are asked to contribute to charitable causes, we donate funds and in return we are given a vague sense of satisfaction by helping someone in need. We often do not know where the money goes, if it is misspent or if it is even effective. With the purchase of a DuncanAfrica guitar the transaction involves a natural give and take. The evidence of the good work being done is as tangible as the instrument in your hands.
What I find remarkable about Jay Duncan’s business model is that he has found a way to achieve sustainability for a community-in-need by embracing an economic system that works –through the manufacture, importation, and sale of handmade guitars. I suspect that Mr. Duncan understands that the primary reason behind the average person’s decision to purchase a DuncanAfrica guitar is not solely for the benefit of an East African village in need –though that may be reason enough. Rather, DuncanAfrica satisfies an intrinsic motivation to do good in the world. This is accomplished through the purchase of a finely-crafted instrument that competes in sound and beauty with the finest guitars available anywhere – and the impact is actually measurable.
I haven’t seen a lot of charitable systems that provided so much value and natural benefit to each participant in the transaction. And this is exactly how capitalism should work – supply and demand – the gift of knowledge and opportunity, transformed by hard working people into a self sustaining system that is naturally regulated by a free market in the exchange of goods and services.
When asked about the work ethic in Uganda, Jay says, “While I was there in November 2005, I witnessed 22 local guys build a 4000 sq. foot brick church in less than seven weeks – with no electricity! And yes, there are building codes and regular inspections.” Clearly, the positive growth of DuncanAfrica guitars has been a direct result of this amazing work ethic. The members of Mpigi are creating positive change for themselves and their families.
It has been said of capitalism that “it is the only social and economic system that aligns itself with the combined human spirits of achievement, ambition, self-improvement, individualism, self-esteem, and initiative” (Matthew Burke, 2009). In all of these areas Jay is succeeding, and in all of these areas, the people of Mpigi, Uganda are succeeding as well. The success of one depends on the other.
In response, my internal-cynic might reference the famous quote from the movie Wall Street in which Gordon Gekko proclaims that “Greed is good.” I would counter with the idea that we all know in our hearts that goodness is good — thus, capitalism built on a win-win foundation is ultimately the most satisfying of all.
This past week, one of my good friends received his long-awaited DuncanAfrica guitar, and he brought it to my office and let me play it. As I was strumming this guitar, I looked at the intricate craftsmanship and thought about all of the lives that have benefited from its manufacture — the sense of purpose and the economic viability it has brought to those who had once only dreamt of such things. It made me smile and shake my head in wonder… Suddenly, the music from that guitar sounded just a little sweeter and the notes sustained a little longer. As the sounds hung in the air, I knew this was a powerful lesson: teach a man to build guitars, and the music just might change a village… a war-torn nation… maybe even the world. ♦♦♦