Gerald Abila is the Founder of Barefoot Law, a social enterprise expanding legal innovations to provide access to justice and law throughout Uganda. Abila is a visionary of legal futurism and has pioneered Barefoot Law as a leading initiative of technology-enabled legal support that provides the Ugandan public with free legal information and assistance. Barefoot Law aims to reach 50 million people across Africa by 2030 and envisions a world where every individual has access to the legal information that allows their communities to thrive. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Gerald ranged from the unwavering support of his parents to how Barefoot Law promotes women’s rights throughout Uganda.
Read on to learn more about this GroundBreaker’s inspiring work and be sure to check out Barefoot Law!
What motivated you to start Barefoot Law?
I was motivated to start Barefoot Law because of the challenges in accessing the justice system in Uganda and throughout other African countries. Barefoot Law’s mission is to highlight access to justice and the law in Africa. We believe that access to justice and law for everyone is fundamental for a just, equitable, and thriving society and is necessary to build a prosperous economy.
When we started, the world was still under the Millenium Development Goals and we always thought that access to justice should have been included in these goals. We were happy to see that access to justice is covered in the new global goals framework under the Sustainable Development Goal #16.
You started Barefoot Law as a student yourself — what advice would you give to young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?
My message to young people is: do what you do, do it well, and do it on time. Stay resilient because being an entrepreneur in many African countries sometimes feels like being an orphan.
The ecosystem that supports your enterprise or your startup is not as strong as in other parts of the world regarding needs like venture capital, mentors, and professional networks.
How do you adjust to the many different languages and cultures in providing these legal services around Uganda?
Barefoot Law operates primarily online but we also go out into rural communities because we realize the limitations of technology. If not properly harnessed, technology has the potential to create a digital divide in addition to a development divide. We believe that technology has to be harnessed with our traditional means and this means that our work in rural communities has to be creative. For example, we carry out interventions in Northern Uganda in Apache District and Soroti where people speak different languages. When we go out into these communities we translate the laws and get people that speak those languages to help carry out our work there. We’re also opening up a call center which will have different language services to cater for those who speak different languages.
“My message to young people is: do what you do, do it well, and do it on time. Stay resilient.”
How do you envision the Government of Uganda providing these same legal services?
The Constitution states that the Government of Uganda is responsible for translating the law into different languages. However, this has not yet happened. Like in many other Sub Saharan African countries, legal aid is provided and the law is only translated into different languages for capital offenses — those crimes that are punishable by death. Translations for all other offenses currently rely on the partners of Barefoot Law and other legal service providers. As part of our work on systems change, we are encouraging the adoption of laws that will provide legal aid as a right not only for those who have committed capital offenses but for everyone who cannot afford the services of lawyers.
“The Barefoot Law model is able to enable access using the most basic technologies like SMS as well as more complex technologies like machine learning. The future of law is in technology no matter what part of the world you belong to.”
Who are some of the mentors who have supported you on your social entrepreneurship path?
My parents are some of my greatest mentors. My Dad built his family in a way that we were allowed to fly. He never restrained us and really advocated that we get a good education, boys and girls alike. My Mom always used to bring home books that enabled us to dream. The Barefoot Law team has sacrificed so much to see an idea come from one iPhone to a team of close to 30 people now and has been a great support.
How does your work involve promoting women’s rights? Could you speak more on your involvement with the Women of Uganda Network(WOUGNET)?
When we first started, the percentage of women that were using our services was significantly lower than men. We then researched around the country and saw that the percentage of women using technology in general was significantly lower than men. If not tackled, this would end up not only creating a bigger digital divide but a development divide as well, especially for marginalized segments of the population including women. We carried out further research and conducted surveys that found that the problem was not only a problem of gadgets and technology, but of society. Our society does not put women’s rights at the forefront.
For example, if a woman is not allowed to own property, then she won’t be allowed in some cases to own a mobile phone or computer and that will hinder her access to the internet and other online-based services. We then worked with partners like the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), who have a strong network around the country, especially in Northern Uganda, and came up with interventions that fused technology and the law. These programs were designed to help women not only understand their property rights but to also educate the men in those communities and to provide channels through which the women can enforce their property rights.
We then launched the Women Property Rights Initiative and at the end of the intervention we had managed to target 70% women and 30% men, which was a reversal of our normal statistics. We are currently in the process of expanding this initiative to other regions outside of Northern and Eastern Uganda where we first started. Anyone designing an intervention that is tech-based has to be alive to the fact that the technology must be used as a tool of inclusion and inclusive development. Anyone working to tackle any problem in society has to be alive to the fact that rights for women have to be tackled to increase their access to vital services.
“My parents are some of my greatest mentors. My Dad built his family in a way that we were allowed to fly. He never restrained us and really advocated that we get a good education, boys and girls alike. My Mom always used to bring home books that enabled us to dream.”
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you always see yourself as a social entrepreneur?
When I was growing up I actually saw myself as an engineer. I used to play around with things and gadgets when I was young. I was locally known as the engineer and would repair computers. Like any child I dreamt of being an astronaut and a scientist and never really saw myself as a lawyer.
What early memories do you have of the legal system growing up that influence your work today?
Uganda is a country with a turbulent past. I was born into turbulent times in the 1980s when access to justice and the rule of law were absent on the national level. The legal system was restored as I grew up and conflict was resolved in different parts of the country. These events got me thinking as a young child — why is there conflict between groups? Why doesn’t society grow prosperous? Why does everyone have to fight? Looking back now, these are questions that motivated my interest in the law and access to justice in general.
“Anyone designing an intervention that is tech-based has to be alive to the fact that the technology must be used as a tool of inclusion and inclusive development. Anyone working to tackle any problem in society has to be alive to the fact that rights for women have to be tackled to increase their access to vital services.”
What is your vision for Barefoot Law? How would this model work in other African contexts?
Our vision for Barefoot Law is to reach 50 million people across Africa by 2030. In scaling beyond Uganda, the advantage is that many African countries experience similar development trends and patterns, so an idea that could work in one place could work in another after being modified to the local context.
For example, the laws in East Africa are based on the British common law system because of our colonial history. With a slight modification, the same interpretations of the laws in Uganda could also could be used in Kenya and Tanzania. These countries face similar problems that we are also facing here in Uganda.
Can you elaborate on the concept of legal futurism and how you view the intersection of law and technology?
We believe that the future of law is in technology. It was difficult when we started in 2012 to talk about the intersection of such concepts as the law, innovation, and future technology coming from a country like Uganda that relies on a common law system set by precedent. In this system, the law has to go back into the past to understand cases in the present and use them to determine cases in the future. Here we were telling people that the future belongs to technology and there is no precedent in the past, so it was a bit difficult when we started.
The problem of access to justice is not just an issue in Uganda but is experienced worldwide. One of the largest challenges in the Global North is the the cost of legal services. Technology, if harnessed property, could reduce these costs and we’ve seen significant advancements in that area including in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other automations. For us in the Global South, access to justice is about enabling access. The Barefoot Law model is able to enable access using the most basic technologies like SMS as well as more complex technologies like machine learning. The future of law is in technology no matter what part of the world you belong to.