Paul Joynson-Hicks launches groups that empower Africa's poor and disabled

Photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks has a second vocation: He founds nonprofit organizations in Uganda and Tanzania that serve the needy.

Jonathan Kalan
London-born serial good Samaritan Paul Joynson-Hicks launches organizations – he’s now on his fourth – that empower and employ disadvantaged citizens.
Jonathan Kalan
A Wonder Welder's employee puts the finishing touches on a metal pig in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Paul Joynson-Hicks isn't very good at giving money to beggars at traffic lights. He finds it "awkward and slightly demeaning," he says. Instead, he finds out who they are and where they're from, and treats them like real human beings.

Then he starts a group to help them.

That's how Mr. Joynson-Hicks founded Wonder Welders, a welding-and-crafts workshop in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the East African country of Tanzania.

Since 2004, the organization has trained and employed one of Tanzania's most disadvantaged populations – people with physical disabilities – who have few alternatives to begging at intersections for spare change.

At Wonder Welders they make "hip, recycled art" out of everything from donated bottles and cans to scrap metal. It provides income and a sense of purpose for the disabled people, whom most employers in Tanzania consider "unhireable" because of their physical limitations.

Magdalena Kombe, one of the workshop's 35 employees, says the work has given her hope. "I am able to support my family, pay school fees for my nephew and niece, and I've learned valuable skills – how to recycle waste and turn it into something that people want to buy."

Joynson-Hicks's history of finding creative solutions to empower and improve lives doesn't end with Wonder Welders. In 15 years he's gone from being just another commercial photographer to having a second career as a serial social entrepreneur.

Driven by a "deep sense of injustice when people are being treated badly through no fault of their own," as one friend of his puts it, Joynson-Hicks has founded three other charities, earned a Member of the British Empire medal from Queen Elizabeth II, and changed thousands of lives across East Africa.

Born in London in the early 1970s, Joynson-Hicks grew up the only boy among four children. His mother was raised in Kenya. Led by her Christian faith, she helped build AIDS hospices across Britain and Uganda, earning an award from Queen Elizabeth II for her work. His father, a lawyer, served on the boards of several nonprofit groups.

After a "relatively normal upbringing," as he puts it, Joynson-Hicks skipped college and landed a job as a photographer's assistant in London, where he built a successful career in commercial photography.

In 1993 he moved to Uganda to work on his first book of photos. After its successful publication, he went on a safari with his parents, who gave him a new perspective.

"So now that you're here, you've got your book, you've got a nice life ... what are you doing for Uganda?" they asked.

"They opened my eyes to the possibility that I had an opportunity to make a difference, and saw in me characteristics I didn't realize I had," Joynson-Hicks recalls.

He spent several nights on the streets of Kampala, Uganda – sleeping curled up behind trash cans and talking with street children – to see how he could help.

The answer turned out to be simple.

"We'd like to eat and play football [soccer]," the kids said.

A week later, Joynson-Hicks, a friend, and 10 "boisterous, smelly" street kids piled into his Land Cruiser and headed out with a soccer ball and a feast packed.

"They still had glue and gasoline sticking to their clothes ... but they were full of great character!" Joynson-Hicks says.

The Tigers Football Club became a weekly occurrence, growing to serve hundreds of street children and providing entertainment, empowerment, and even basic health care to disadvantaged youths.

The ragtag group managed to win Kampala's Kadya Youth Trophy, beating established youth groups and schools while playing barefoot. "It's still my proudest sporting trophy," Joynson-Hicks says.

Andrew Williams, a social worker who helped support the organization financially from Belgium, agreed to move to Kampala and take it over full time. Under Mr. Williams, it grew to become Retrak, which today serves thousands of disadvantaged youths across Kenya and Uganda.

Joynson-Hicks has "a big heart, and a big vision," Williams says, "but he also had humility and wisdom, realizing that he wasn't the best person to run it full time."

Joynson-Hicks later moved to Dar es Salaam and formed another charity, the Goat Races. This annual event (which does involve racing goats) has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities.

"There's so much need, so many people who need help in [Tanzania], it's a bottomless pit," says Adam Fuller, general manager of the Southern Sun, a luxury hotel in Dar es Salaam, who has helped at Joynson-Hicks events over the years. "Yet Paul just always seems to pull all the right people together to become cheerful givers.... He's got the right recipe for doing good."

Joynson-Hicks now is on his fourth endeavor, a company called Molly's Network that helps accredit small nonprofits and connect them to resources, networks, and local and international donors.

But Molly's Network won't be a full-time job either.

Photography, still his passion, continues to fuel his charitable work, both emotionally and financially. "I love this kind of altruistic work ... but I don't think I'd be good at it full time," he says.

Part time seems to be good enough.

[Editor's note: The original version of the headline on this story misidentified the countries that Mr. Joynson-Hicks works in.]

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