For new Peace Corps trainees, the future is a series of milestones — and each comes with its own set of uncertainties and possibilities. After a few weeks of settling in with host families and attending language training, another key event was at hand for my cohort. Programmatic staff dispersed themselves around the country to reveal our future sites and the partner organizations with which we will be working.
Meeting future colleagues
I learned that I would be matched with Action for Relief and Development, an organization based in Jinja, a town about 80 kilometers east of Kampala near the shore of Lake Victoria. Equipped with a brief pamphlet, I familiarized myself with the organization to the degree possible before the next day’s mini supervisors’ workshop hosted at a hotel near our regional training center.
The future-site visit component of pre-service training is an opportunity to connect with our supervisors and counterparts from corresponding partner organizations. The event kicks off with a mini supervisors’ workshop that provides group training on cultural and business practices in Uganda. The workshop also serves as a space for volunteers and organization staff to become acquainted.
As volunteers arrived at the workshop, we found our counterparts and supervisors seated in the conference room waiting for us. Recalling the pamphlet I’d received, I managed to recognize the organization’s logo alongside the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) logo on a man’s shirt. I adjusted my route to greet him and introduce myself on my way to an open seat.
After meeting my supervisor, Joseph, the organization’s sole program manager, I was introduced to Dr. Nelson, who leads the Action for Relief and Development health team.
The day facilitated much discussion, and I quickly became acquainted with the organization and the two key staff members I’d be working with for the foreseeable future. With the one-day mini supervisors’ workshop complete, we went home to pack and prepare ourselves to travel with our organizations to their offices the following day. Some of us were fortunate to have organizations with cars, whereas many others hopped on half a day’s worth of public transit to reach their final destination.
Getting oriented, Uganda style
My future-site visit began with Joseph calling everyone together for an all-staff meeting at the conference table in the middle of the office. Once the eight staff members trickled in from their individual offices, we began the pleasantries, and I was introduced to the group. I gave extremely brief remarks in an attempt to keep the agenda moving so the teams could get back to their work. But the meeting proceeded in Ugandan fashion, and I received an at-length introduction about each focus area and programmatic department.
The organization can be broken down into three focus and programmatic areas:
- The child and family health area seeks to improve the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of children and their families in rural and vulnerable areas. The goal is to provide opportunity for the child and family to become as productive as possible in their daily lives.
- The family livelihoods area seeks to establish an environment that enhances social economic safety for the protection, care, and development of the disenfranchised and vulnerable in Uganda.
- The disaster management area seeks to focus on improving the ability to predict and plan for disasters, as well as mitigate their impact on vulnerable communities. This third focus area is new and reflects a scope adjustment to plan for climate change — particularly as it impacts farmers, which constitute 82% of the population — and the refugee crisis in Northern Uganda.
Each of these programmatic areas has technical aspects that require input from subject matter experts in the various fields. (Joseph applies for and manages grants in coordination with these technical experts.) Since Action for Relief and Development is currently implementing programs in both the livelihood and health sector, I received further information on what exactly they were doing and my entry point into the operations.
Working to improve nutrition and strengthen livelihoods
The child and family health team’s strategy is two-fold. The primary focus is on the community level with household interventions to prevent, identify, and treat malnutrition. Core activities include hosting trainings for proper nutrition practices for pregnant mothers and children under five years of age, preparing nutritious and fortified food, creating kitchen gardens (permagardens), and encouraging the use of “life-saving stoves.”
The second component involves advocacy aimed at influencing the district government to increase funding for malnutrition awareness and treatment at government-run health centers. Action for Relief and Development has the technical expertise to assess the capacity of health facilities and their ability to provide care for malnutrition. Funding for this issue is currently negligible. The organization will also guide the district — by providing frameworks and other tools — in an effort to change the stigma of using health facilities to combat malnutrition and encourage use of these public resources.
By the time my placement begins on August 11, a USAID grant will have hit the bank account, and the early stages of assessment and implementation will begin.
The family livelihoods team is currently an implementing partner of a WFP Purchase for Progress project in the central and eastern regions of Uganda. The project has the single focus of encouraging small-scale farmers to rethink their approaches and begin envisioning their farming work as a business. The methodology behind this vision is a tripartite.
Through the entry point of an individual farmer, the organization encourages the formation of farmer groups of 25 to 50 farmers who had previously only farmed for subsistence. Once the farmer groups are established, they are provided mentorship and training on building a successful business, establishing bargaining power, and becoming technically knowledgeable about post-harvest handling methods.
Post-harvest handling is extremely important since there are no price controls on maize. Instead, maize prices are subject to the daily market forces of supply and demand. The national harvest and supply is at its highest point at the same time each harvest cycle, which means those that can dry, store, and subsequently sell their maize at the latest point after harvest, when supply shrinks, are able to receive the highest price out of their production.
Farmer organizations, more commonly known as cooperatives, comprise the leadership for large numbers of farmer groups. As part of the Purchase-for-Progress model, Action for Relief and Development encourages farmer groups to work together — and advises them on creating coops with the power to acquire and provide storage facilities, create and execute marketing plans, develop a distribution point for the product (dried maize), and advocate on behalf of the entire organization.
Village Savings and Loans Associations
Savings and investment is a critical component of farming as a business. The Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) model is introduced to farmer groups as an opportunity to promote small-scale savings and lending amongst association members. With collective money acquired through individual savings, groups are able to disperse loans among colleague members at manageable interest rates. Whereas a VSLA is able to provide a one-month, 100,000 shilling (approximately $30) loan with 5% to 10% non-compounding monthly interest, a retail bank or microfinance institute would issue the same loan with greater than 30% compounding monthly interest. VSLAs encourage savings because the profits received through interest payments on loans and other miscellaneous fees are distributed proportionally to all members based on their savings within the group.
The three points of this tripartite work in unison, encouraging farmers to band together to sell their product at the highest rate, invest in themselves and their colleagues, and recognize the untapped value of their farming activity.
Understanding my role
At first glance, the goals, activities, and ambition of Action for Relief and Development seemed right up my alley, but I was unsure of where my role would fall in the scope of the organization’s work. Once the formal introductions and in-depth briefings of programmatic areas were complete, Joseph retook the stage to outline for everyone how he sees all of this coming together, my involvement included.
Although I believe my background skews towards the ongoing work with the World Food Programme project in livelihoods, Joseph was excited to explain his thoughts on how I could also support the health team to accomplish their activities.
Health team assignment
Alongside the health team, I will lead trainings to guide and support farmers in establishing permagardens to grow nutritious food for household consumption and produce ingredients to create fortified foods to prevent and combat malnutrition in children under the age of five. The health specialists will then come in and provide training on how to extract and use the nutrients from these foods so families can create fortified food for their children.
Although the fortified food training component of the program is extremely technical and way over my head, I will support it by exploring potential business opportunities for households that are able to produce excess fortified food. The permagarden component of the health project is the area I’m most excited for because it provides a holistic approach to well-being by meshing nutrition, food security, and livelihood all into one activity.
On the livelihoods programmatic side, I’ll be involved in the development and execution of trainings at the farmer group level with the goal of sharing financial literacy knowledge and explaining the benefits of saving and investment.
Once group members understand how they can improve their financial success, leadership of these groups will, with encouragement and guidance, begin creating a VSLA. Each association will establish its own constitution and bylaws as part of determining how they will save and lend money amongst themselves.
Additionally, I will help Action for Relief and Development develop trainings for leaders of the famer organizations and coops. Our goal will be to ensure they have the leadership skills, knowledge, resources, and tools to properly form, manage, and operate the coop.
Through this project, successful small-scale farming operations are provided an entry point to bargaining power, distribution efficiency, and the benefits of saving and investment. In the end, hopefully, farmers will have their own aha moments in which they recognize the potential of farming as a business versus focusing solely on subsistence.
Learning about the work that Action for Relief and Development is currently undertaking, along with the initiatives it has in the pipeline, provided just the excitement I need to make it through the final stretch of pre-service training. In the meantime, I’ve asked the staff to share any documents, materials, or proposals they have developed. I hope to decrease the amount of time required for upfront training so I can hit the field at full speed on August 11.