Race for micro-finance by Haley Block


Last weekend I had two exciting events happen. First, I successfully ran down a bus in dress flats. And two, I represented my organization at a FinTech for Agriculture event in Kampala. (FinTech = Financial technology)

I’ll start with the bus.

I found out about the event in Kampala a few days before it was going to happen. It looked like an  interesting networking opportunity for my org and after talking with my supervisor, we decided I should go try to build some connections. However, in order to go, I had to get approval from Peace Corps.

Friday morning, the day of the event, I get up thinking I’m going to have a normal day at work. As of that morning, I still had not received approval from Peace Corps. The event started at 2:30 PM and Kampala is a 5-hour bus ride from my site – it seemed like a lost cause.

However, as I am setting up my desk to begin my day, I refresh my inbox. To my surprise, there’s an email saying I have approval to go to Kampala. It’s 9:00 AM and buses aren’t exactly on demand. So, thinking I still won’t be able to make it to Kampala in time, I go tell my supervisor. He had a different opinion.

I quickly pack up my things, rush home, put on some dress pants, and throw the makeup I haven’t touched in two months into a bag. Now, looking fresh in my business casual uniform (it felt so good to be wearing my black dress pants again) I’m standing at the paved road that goes through my town asking when the next bus to Kampala is. With the help of my supervisor, we figure out that next bus won’t pass through until 11 AM. But, if I were to catch a ride to Kamdini I might be able to catch the bus coming down from Gulu.

At around 9:45 I’m in the front seat of a mini van to Kamdini. At 10:20, I arrive in Kamdini – just as is the bus from Gulu to Kampala is passing by. I toss my schillings to the driver and jump out of the car waving frantically, but the bus doesn’t stop. So, I start running. As I’m running, people are cheering, laughing, pointing, and I feel like the Macy’s Day Parade. Just as it reaches the edge of the town, the bus finally stops. I jump on, out of breath, but trying to hold it together. The man I sit next to doesn’t seem too pleased with my presence but I’m ecstatic. I’m officially en route to Kampala.

The event.

The event was called FinTech4Ag hosted by the UNCDF at the Kampala Design Hub – a swanky, restored warehouse building full of 20 something’s with laptops and plaid shirts. It felt like I had stepped back into the States.

The meat of the event was a panel of leaders in the micro-finance industry in Uganda: a FinTech startup founder, an international trust executive, a micro-finance banker, a finance software company executive, and a manager of an invoice-financing firm. What followed was a very interesting discussion about the role of each of these organizations in the industry, market trends, and how to reach the “missing middle.”

However, as the discussion continued, a few people in the crowd became agitated. Here we were talking about how best to improve access to financial services for rural farmers yet there were no farmers in the room. Nor was there anyone on the panel who worked directly in rural communities. Of all the SACCO managers in the country, (arguably the only bankers who live and work in rural farming communities) two were present in the crowd.

Continue reading “Race for micro-finance by Haley Block”


Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer

Through the series Ugandans for Uganda, Ugandans I meet and work alongside will receive the spotlight for their efforts leading, supporting, teaching, or helping Ugandans in Uganda. This ongoing series was created after being asked, in our Peace Corps reporting tool, to finish this sentence: “The one thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is…”

My immediate response was…  there are many Ugandans tirelessly working to better the livelihoods of the disenfranchised in Uganda. Ugandans for Uganda looks to bring action to this sentiment.

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset
Sharif guiding a team through a SWOT Analysis

Sharif, previously introduced as a driver is everything including a driver. At ARD and Uganda in general people wear multiple hats at their multiple jobs from their multiple income streams. The population is extremely entrepreneurial. In addition to a main career, most people also have a small business or do consulting work on the side. This leads many people to be a jack of all trades. Sharif is one of them.

To give you an idea of some of the roles Sharif played while on our trip to the field I’ll list them all before diving into a few. Driver, mechanic, translator, negotiator, student, educator, mobilizer, logistician, financial manager, cross cultural liaison, safety and security manager, advisor, colleague, and friend.

Since heading to the field with Sharif was the first time I was responsible for all the activities, I heavily relied on him for assistance. As my work colleague and cross cultural liaison he was always proactive in ensuring everything always worked out for us. This meant being the liaison between me and the field staff to ensure the trainings went as logistically sound as possible, between me and the cooperative executives ensuring the training was properly translated and understood, between me and the lunch caterers ensuring timely delivery of everyone’s lunch at the trainings, between me and the guest house managers ensuring I did not pay too much for my room, between me and the office in Jinja ensuring I had the resources and support required to execute the activities. In essence, anytime I was unsure of something he was always there to provide an answer, but most of the time he was there to fix a problem before I was even aware there was a problem arising.

Continue reading “Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer”

East Welcome Weekend – Sipi Falls



A Peace Corps tradition during the first three months after swearing in is for the older volunteers in your region to throw a welcome weekend for the newbies to meet everyone around. The east is blessed to have Sipi Falls nearby, so to follow tradition, our welcome weekend was located there to hike the waterfalls.


Traveling from nearly a week at work in the Central region all the way east to Mbale for the welcome weekend felt exhausting yet exhilarating. Perhaps there is an adrenalin kick that makes constant movement exciting, or the joy of seeing new places and new people each day, or perhaps even the movement itself creates the energy, but being constantly on the move is somehow both exhausting and exhilarating.

Continue reading “East Welcome Weekend – Sipi Falls”

Ugandans for Uganda – An Extraordinary Community Mobilizer

Through the series Ugandans for Uganda, Ugandans I meet and work alongside will receive the spotlight for their efforts leading, supporting, teaching, or helping Ugandans in Uganda. This ongoing series was created after being asked, in our Peace Corps reporting tool, to finish this sentence: “The one thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is…”

My immediate response was…  there are many Ugandans tirelessly working to better the livelihoods of the disenfranchised in Uganda. Ugandans for Uganda looks to bring action to this sentiment.

Job Shadowing Patrick Sangi

Patrick leading a project overview discussion with a farmers group in Kiboga.

As I was moving into my new home in Jinja, two days after swearing in, I got a call from Joseph, my supervisor, asking if I would like to head to the field. I explaimed, “sign me up,” without even thinking to ask questions. I jumped on the offer since the idea of traveling out to our programs and learning on the job would be more enjoyable and educational than easing myself into a role at the organization by sitting around the office. After agreeing to go out to the field I was informed to pack for two weeks and to be in Kampala the following morning where I would meet Patrick to head out. The called ended and my first thoughts were two weeks? Where am I going?  How do I pack for two weeks? What will I be doing? Why didn’t I ask these questions before agreeing? but the timing of the call ended up being perfect. Rather than packing for two weeks, I put my 38L pack I had been living out of for the last two weeks back on my back and was ready to go. With packing no longer a concern, I was off.

I met Patrick Sangi briefly a few months ago at my future site visit and learned about his role as the head of the agriculture and livelihoods team within the organization, but I did not learn of his talents until joining him in the field. Joseph also designated Patrick as my counterpart on the agriculture and livelihoods program team at Action for Relief and Development (ARD), meaning he would be my entry and contact point to the ongoing agriculture and livelihoods activities. Once meeting again in Kampala, we quickly grew accustomed to one another as we chatted and I was informed of our upcoming work on the four-hour drive from Kampala to Mubende.

Mubende was our initial destination where we kick started the implementation of the project. This project spanning three neighboring districts (think of districts as states in America) in the central region of Uganda (Mubende, Kiboga, and Nakaseke) is led by Patrick with around six to ten support staff. The support staff are employees living in each of the districts contracted to help mobilize and train the organized farmers’ groups that have volunteered to participate in the pilot program.

The primary objective of this World Food Programme project, that through partnership ARD is implementing, is to mobilize and support small scale maize farmers to organize into groups and cooperatives in order to provide them trainings in the benefits of group formation and leadership, financial literacy and savings methods, and enhanced post harvest handling techniques. The end goal of forming these groups and cooperatives and providing them adequate training is to facilitate the sale of their high quality grain directly to the UN WFP.

Side note: The UN WFP has been known to respond to humanitarian crisis with food aid around the world, but this program is looking to also support development by sourcing their food aid from within Uganda to respond to the refugee crises in northern Uganda.

Continue reading “Ugandans for Uganda – An Extraordinary Community Mobilizer”

From trainee to volunteer

Swearing in ceremony

The language region fabrics and clothing items were stellar. The event ran perfectly on time. The speeches by officials were quick and meaningful. The rain started and the A/V manager turned up the volume of the microphone proportionally to the heaviness of the rain. The speaker continued her speech without even acknowledging the downpour. The three cultural dances from some of our language regions were presented just as the rain stopped. All things considered, it was a flawlessly executed gathering at the ambassador’s residence in Uganda.

Language region fabrics: Andrew (Luganda), Garland (Runyankore Rukiga), Derek (Lusoga)

The Ambassador to Uganda had a conflicting appointment with President Museveni, so our oath to office was administered by the Deputy Head of Mission. The traditional oath was followed by a Peace Corps tailored oath administered by our Peace Corps Country Director.

I, Derek Smith, promise to serve alongside the people f Uganda. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding with the people of Uganda, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My mentor, informally known as RPD, welcoming me to the Volunteer life

The following day my supervisor and I traveled from Kampala to Jinja to move into my home. That same Friday afternoon my counterpart helped me purchase a mattress and sheets for the place. I slept for 12 hours Friday night. On Saturday I met a bunch of volunteers in a neighboring camp site for a little live music and celebration. I slept less than 12 hours on Saturday night.

Now it is Monday, August 14th and I’m in Mubende, five hours away from my home in Jinja, on day two of a 14 day “field trip” to shadow Patrick, an employee at my partner organization tasked with leading the implementation of our World Food Programme (WFP) project.

Volunteer life comes at you fast!

Homestay Part III – Family Bonding

Homestay Part III – Family Bonding

Jinja Trip – Busoga College Visitation

After my first weekend in Iganga, Maureen asked if I wanted to head to neighboring Jinja to see the city and visit Joel at his boarding school. I jumped on the offer to join primarily to shake things up in my daily routine but also to get a glimpse of Jinja, which I had been hearing about from current volunteers since arriving in country. After class ended early on Saturday, Maureen met me at school and we headed to the taxi stand to hitch a 45 minute ride out to Jinja.

In Uganda, a taxi is a public transit carrier van, called a mutatu, that shuttles people all around the country with usually 12+ people filling the van. There are no scheduled departures for taxis between major cities, but the constant flow of vehicles creeping by taxi stages with the conductor hollering the destination out the open door while simultaneously ushering on and off passengers creates a near on demand service.

A taxi stage is a stretch of road along side the main transit roads where taxis stop to drop off and pick up customers. In larger cities there are taxi stands located in different areas for different departure destinations, whereas between destinations there are marked areas along the road where people commonly get on and off the vehicles.

Each taxi is operated by two individuals, a driver and a conductor. The driver is the core operational component of the service and is responsible for safely or quickly driving passengers from their pick up stand to their drop off stand along the taxi route. On the other hand, the conductor is the finance, sales, marketing, and customer service team all in one. He is responsible for collecting payment, fielding complaints, hollering the destination out the door to attract more business, and ushering clients on and off as the taxi stops at its many stages along its route.

Each ride in a taxi is a new adventure. You never know what a customer is bringing with them, nor how many clients the conductor will boldly try to squeeze into the vehicle. For this reason, my sister, Maureen, did not want to be squished four across in a back row so we jumped into the front of an empty taxi and waited for the van to slowly fill before taking off.

Continue reading “Homestay Part III – Family Bonding”

Future-Site Visit with Action for Relief and Development: A Preview of my Purpose in Uganda

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.

Left to right: Derek (me), Dr. Nelson, Joseph (from another organization), Joseph (my supervisor)

Continue reading “Future-Site Visit with Action for Relief and Development: A Preview of my Purpose in Uganda”