Ali Gordon: Saltire Scholar and Founder of River Bank Design

June 2014-September 2014

Kampala, Uganda

Why did you choose to apply to Challenges Worldwide for your Saltire placement? What was it about ICS and Challenges which appealed to you?

I was looking to gain business skills in a challenging environment, away from the standard office type job. I was looking for something more adventurous, where my actions may have a greater impact than in a standard internship.


When you applied, what did you hope to gain from a Challenges Worldwide placement?

I was looking to gain early stage business experience in growing an SME. I wanted to gain exposure into how to build business plans, keep accounts, market and sell a product/service at grassroots level.

I was seeking to be in an environment that fostered an entrepreneurial spirit working and living with individuals of different cultural backgrounds but with a shared interest for sustainable development of social enterprises.


How did you find the pre-departure process, eg fundraising, training, preparations, and the support you received from Challenges and ICS throughout the pre-departure stage?

The pre-departure process was fairly straight forward. Challenges were helpful with vaccinations and there was plenty of support for the fundraising aspects. There was definetly a strong community with the UK mentors before we departed, this started with the two day briefing with CWW in Edinburgh and continued through groups in social media.


Can you summarise your placement and how you found living and working in another country and culture? What business did you work in, what was the host experience like, how did you find working with a national counterpart, and what did you learn from these aspects of the programme?

My placement was with Green Heat Ltd ( who are biofuel specialists implementing onsite solutions to convert human and agricultural waste into sustainable sources of energy. I acted as a business and engineering consultant, exploring enterprise avenues in developing biogas and briquette production.

Working and living in a foreign non-western culture was extremely exciting. I was motivated throughout the entirety of my programme, largely due to my personnel interest in the companies work and the openness of the company directors Gabriel Okello and Vianney Tumwesige.

Working with a national counterpart had it’s pros and cons. It was a great opportunity to be immersed into their a local community but there were differences in work ethic and academic backgrounds. These difficulties were mostly overcome after the first two weeks by dividing tasks up and setting realistic targets. We went on to become a successful little unit.


What was your highlight of your placement?

1) Researching an alternative agro-waste kilning technique and developing a business proposal that would be pitched to the carbon Bureau of Uganda for a carbon trading scheme involving 8 of the largest flower farms in and around Kampala.

2) Visiting the final school a government funded initiative with Green Heat to install 10 fixed dome biogas latrine digesters. Please see the Seed Development Award video below:

What was your biggest challenge during your placement? How did you overcome this and what did you learn from this?

My biggest challenge at the early stages of the placement was ensuring a consistent communication link between myself, my counterpart Rachael and the company directors. I could see from other members on the programme they were completing excellent business/marketing/sales plans but were struggling with their host company to get the key messages across and implement such plans.

I dealt with any potential communication gaps by organising a weekly meeting with my counterpart and company directors every Friday afternoon to do the following:

  • We would collectively work on action plans for the following week and evaluate the work completed of the week just passed. Here we could schedule events, actions, activates and communication links and update on a shared doc. Expamples are shown bellow:
  • Bring everyone together to present:
    • Research findings (e.g mostly engineering streamlining of production)
    • Enterprise opportunities (e.g potential customers/distribution networks)
    • Development of marketing and business plans
    • Summaries of site visits and meetings

To keep the meetings exciting and motivating we changed the venue most weeks and one of us organised a social event afterwards. Venues and activities included:

  • Macare University – with tour of research facilities
  • The garden of my homestay with meal and pool tournament afterwards
  • Kampala’s Rugby clubs – lively pork barbeques!
  • Shearaton Hotel – swimming pool
  • Chinease resturants – (Gabriel loved Chinese food from studying in Beijing)

These meeting and events created strong ties and were key to my continued working relationship with Green Heat upon returning to the UK.


Now that you’ve had time to reflect on your placement, what impact has it had on you and your personal development? Did the placement have an impact or benefit for your business, counterpart and /or host community?

A massive impact no doubt. Personally I gained the experience/confidence to start a business (Riverbank- see below). My counterpart, Rachael gained the marketing experience she was seeking. My host company have grown extensively now employing 40 members of staff full-time and winning numerous contracts including the following:


  1. What have you been doing since your placement?

Since graduating, I co-founded Riverbank, a creative communications business to improve the outreach of Engineering and Ecology based projects. Our first business proposal was presented by the CEO of Green Heat at the prize giving ceremony for the seed development award in Nairobi, Kenya. Riverbank have been working with Green Heat ever since to enhance the information outreach of their products and services.

Our site is not quite live but a a little more information can be found here:

When is does go live it shall be here: