#VRforGood — How VR Technology Can Be Used to Support Nonprofits

At Foundry 45, we are passionate about finding opportunities to use VR technology for the greater good. In the spirit of the Holiday Season we want to share the story of one of our employees, Dana, who is doing just that. 

Keep reading to discover how Dana used her knowledge of VR technology to bring awareness to a cause close to her heart and helped an amazing organization, Development in Gardening (DIG) share their story.

Dana’s Story: The Beginning of DIG 

November 2017, Dana attended a fundraiser event for a friend, Sarah Koch, who passionately carries out humanitarian work in Africa. Her work is founded on breaking the cycle of hunger so vulnerable communities can harvest a better future. 

After attending the local Atlanta event and becoming aware of the challenges in food security occurring overseas, Dana felt moved to do anything she could to help the organization. 

This desire sparked a conversation between Dana and Sarah about what could be done to further support Sarah’s work in Africa. On a mission to help, Dana began researching online and came across the Google Daydream Impact program. 

The premise was simple: You apply for an award and, if chosen, Google would let you borrow their equipment to create a VR experience that would help tell your story. Sadly, the program is now defunct, but it was a great opportunity at the time. 

DIG was selected to participate, and together Dana and Sarah began to cultivate the story they wanted to tell about the Batwa tribe. 

With the Yi Halo VR camera gear in hand, Dana, Sarah, and another friend Jason Drakeford traveled to Southeast Uganda to begin their work, documenting the stories of three members of the Batwa tribe:

– Bosco, Kerema and Sumaco

The Batwa Tribe

The 3-part story focuses on 3 members of the Batwa tribe. It begins deep in the equatorial rainforests of Central Africa, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. This dense canopy of The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest breathes rich oxygen into the world, stabilizes climates, and provides critical rainfall for the region.

As the first human inhabitants of this forest, the Batwa were skilled small game hunters and foragers. For thousands of years, this resourceful indigenous tribe lived in harmony with the forest, as a part of the ecosystem. That was until the Ugandan government stepped in…

Due to ecological stress from over-farming, population growth, and the illegal poaching of the mountain gorillas, the international community pressured the Ugandan government to protect the endangered great apes and their remaining forest habitat. 

At a time when humans and conservation were considered adversarial, the Batwa were forced to leave their ancestral home, and, in 1992, their long and often violent eviction became final. 

Sadly, the Batwa faced continuous trauma due to their removal from their homeland, and, in spite of the promises, no meaningful efforts were made to accommodate their relocation. While they were assured compensation, they received little, if anything, for their loss. Deprived of their skills and their culture, this highly marginalized group were now forced to live without means.

The forest’s edge is a sharply defined line that dominates the landscape. The dense, dark forest ends abruptly, playing a tug-of-war with vast lands cleared by logging and agriculture.  For the exiled Batwa, this line also divides the past from the present, a world protected from a world exposed. 

To this day, the Batwa are the only group forbidden from entering their former forest home without special permission from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Sadly, they can be arrested, fined, or even killed if found trespassing.

With little economic opportunity, the Batwa have become conservation refugees, often risking their lives entering the forest to illegally harvest green bamboo and other forest products for trade on the local black market. 

Fetishized and shunned because of diminutive stature, the Batwa people have endured physical and emotional trauma in their new surroundings. Many have been forced into begging, prostitution, and scavenging, along with suffering high rates of alcoholism. 

Making up only 0.3% of the Ugandan population, the Batwa have little recognition by their government. Disease, poverty, and malnutrition have reduced the Batwa’s life expectancy to estimates as low as 28 years of age, with a depressing 59% infant mortality rate.

Since their exile from the forest, many Batwa have died, threatening the tribe’s very existence. The tribe’s population has decreased over the years to only 6,700 people throughout Africa.

Dana brings to life the struggles that the Batwa people faced while showcasing the work that DIG is doing to help teach the Batwa how to make the most of the land they live on through a self-directed journey to plant gardens that grow health, wealth, and a sense of belonging.

How VR Technology Helps Tell the Story of the Batwa Tribe

During their time in Uganda working with the Batwa people, a story unfolded that is based on three intertwined real-life characters. 

The first story is based on a character named Kerema. This story showcases a mother learning to cultivate her garden, making a better life for her young children. 

The second is based on an elder of the tribe named Sumaco as he tries to hold onto his past life in the forest and pass his knowledge onto a teen within the tribe, Bosco.

The third, of course, focuses on Bosco. Bosco is a teen who is torn as he watches some his peers succumb to the pressures of moving away from their homeland in pursuit of a better life. He holds onto the teachings of DIG to make a richer life for his family by literally digging into the earth which has always been his home. 

The stereoscopic 360 video footage that was captured is gritty, beautiful, and almost surreal. The steeply pitched landscape adds an amazing background to these incredible stories.

Since getting back to the United States, Dana, Jason, and a former Georgia State University, CMII student, Dylan Banning have worked on pulling together the content that was captured to create a VR experience that will immerse the viewer in the life of the Batwa tribe members. Through the power of VR, this video is being edited for DIG to share with two main goals in mind:

Goal #1 – Use immersive technology to create an experience in which people can walk side-by-side with the Batwa people…an experience that would help open the eyes of people to the vast needs of this struggling community. 

Goal #2 – Use VR tech to help create an emotional connection between DIG’s supporters and the Batwa to grow their understand how their financial contributions are truly making a difference and to gain more traction for DIG to further support the Batwa tribe.

How VR Technology Can be Used for Supporting Nonprofit Work 

If you work for a nonprofit, you’re likely on the lookout for new opportunities to increase the support coming into your organization. VR technology just might be the solution.

First and foremost, virtual reality technology enables you to tell stories in ways you’ve never been able to before. This is due to immersive storytelling capabilities. 

No longer will a room full of people have to sit and listen to you read and show pictures about your cause. Instead, anyone who is interested in offering support can literally be transported and step foot into the world of the people you are helping. 

This is such a powerful method as storytelling allows you to physically show people how their money is being put to work. 

Second, this type of technology is highly effective in bringing awareness to problems that are occurring around the world. 

It’s one thing to hear about a problem that’s going on half-way around the globe, but when you can step foot and walk amongst a community of people and realize that their daily struggles suddenly become part of your reality. 

The future of using VR technology to make a positive difference in the world is bright, and we are so grateful that Dana has been able to be a part of it, alongside other great filmmakers. 

If you’re a nonprofit, we highly encourage you to look into how this medium might be helpful as you work to raise funds and grow awareness for the causes that are near and dear to your heart. 

To learn more about DIG and how they are using VR technology to further support this cause, we invite you to check out DIG and consider donating to help them further the great work they are doing throughout Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal.