Race for micro-finance by Haley Block

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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”

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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.

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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.

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Surprise, you’re going on a field trip!

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Denis, ARD Field Coordinator, giving closing remarks at the WFP Grain Store in Kito, Nakaseke

Action for Relief and Development (ARD) is preparing to implement a health and nutrition program in the Busoga/Eastern region of Uganda and because this preparation is an all hands on deck situation, I was asked to go on a solo mission back to the Central region to prepare the newly formed farmer cooperatives for handover of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores. A grain store is a warehouse and office space provided by the WFP for each cooperative to manage, store, and sell the grain from as well as manage the operations of the cooperative. This activity is part of our livelihood project in partnership with the WFP where we are assisting small scale farmers to increase the value of their maize harvest through better post harvest handling practices and facilitating the creation of farmer groups and cooperatives, so these farmers can work collectively to sell their harvest at a premium directly to the WFP. Ring a bell? Hopefully!

ARD has just completed the profiling phase of the project and has submitted data on the 1025 participating farmers, from 111 farmer groups represented by three Farmers’ Cooperatives located in three different geographical districts. The next step in the project is to provide trainings at the farmer, group, and cooperative leadership level. The mission I was sent out on was to fully prepare each of the executive teams, from the three Farmers’ Cooperatives, to properly manage their cooperative and grain store. It seems like quite the task, but when given to me at 2pm on Friday with the expectation of providing a budget and lesson plan for review by 4pm in order to begin these trainings on Monday, I didn’t have much time to worry and had to get to work. Being given this task with such little time to execute ended up being one of the many surprises to come.

Within the two hours I was able to submit my budget for approval and write a general outline for a half day management lesson. In hindsight, I grossly underestimated the expenses that I would incur throughout the week and the lesson plan was too long for the anticipated training timeframe. Surprisingly, everything still worked out.

Once the budget and lesson plan got cleared I managed to get on the phone with each of our field coordinators from the three districts including Mubenda, Kiboga, and Nakaseke to ensure they could get the executive teams from their respective district cooperatives and key governmental district stakeholders to the trainings. Since I have never dealt with mobilizing farmers and government workers, I was anxious and nervous that a training scheduled this late notice would be poorly attended. Surprisingly, that was not the case.

After working through the weekend, Sharif, a driver for ARD, and I left on Sunday morning to head to Mubende to sleep before the first training there on Monday morning. Our 11am departure scheduled us to arrive at the guest house just at dinner time, which would give us enough time to eat, pick up last minute items, and prepare for the training the following morning. Roughly halfway into the road trip the car broke down. The car was fixed by 11pm and we made it to Mubende at 1am. Sleep came right away with lesson prep and last minute material pick up really becoming last minute happened early in the morning before the lesson. Surprisingly, on Monday morning I felt rested and we were prepared for the trainings.

Each of the three trainings went in similar fashion logistically. The training scheduled to start at 9am promptly started at 11:15am, which was not a surprise. The number of executives budgeted to show up at the training was significantly higher than anticipated, which was a surprise. Since ARD was reimbursing travel expenses and providing lunch at the half day training, the incentive really drove up the attendance rate and the subsequent costs. The training was long and exhausting, yet the executive teams were extremely participatory and engaged.

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Chairman of the Madudu Farmers’ Cooperative working on their business plan.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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