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A gloriously sunny day at the end of January ushered in the annual WMI graduation celebration in Buyobo, Uganda, which featured the dedication of the new 500-seat pavilion by guest of honor Stephen Mukweli, Managing Director of Postbank Uganda.  The graduation coincides with the annual field visit of WMI president Robyn Nietert, who is always on hand to help the borrowers celebrate their achievements.  First order of business was opening the just completed pavilion to the cheers of borrowers and villages alike, who welcomed one of the largest meeting spaces in all of Sironko District to their backyard.

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The Buyobo Women’s Association manages the loan program on the ground and hosted the event.  They scheduled two full days of cooking to prepare enough food for the seven hundred guests and then served each one.

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And, lots of food was needed to keep up the energy of all the local entertainers who thrilled the crowd with traditional dances, hip-hop and acrobatics, all to the beat set by the master blaster DJ.

WMI’s Assistant Local Director, Jackline Namonye’s, energetic master of ceremonies performance recalled a younger (female) Mick Jagger; while, WMI Local Director Olive Wolimbwa was regal in her speech outlining the loan program’s accomplishments during 2015.  Joined by Irene Wetaka, Deputy Assistant Local Director, this triumvirate sets the tone of professionalism embraced by the nearly 30 staff members (who looked stunning in their blue saris, made especially for the occasion).

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Of course no graduation is complete without speeches and there were plenty of officials on hand who wanted a chance to congratulate the ladies on their accomplishments.  But the one the crowd was waiting for was the bank’s managing director.  Accompanied by Esther Mututta, the bank’s rectly promoted microfinance chief, he expressed admiration for the ladies’ hard work when acknowledging that they have grown to become the Mable branch’s largest client and one of the bank’s 10 top clients nationwide.  When he announced the bank’s graduation gift to the ladies of a satellite dish and big screen TV (which they can use to start a movie house in the pavilion) the crowd erupted in cheers and the ladies danced in approval.

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The BWA executive committee escorted Robyn to the stage where she offered her congratulations in Ligisu and handed out prizes to the best savers (solar lamps!) and umbrellas to the graduates.

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To cap off the inauguration of the pavilion, the ladies had ordered a cake – a rare treat in rural areas due to the scarcity of ovens!  Robyn and the Managing Director did the honors cutting the cake.  Although polygamy is legel in Uganda, they didn’t actually get married that day, but did commit to continuing to expand the loan program through their organizations’ productive public-private partnership.

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As twilight fell on Buyobo, exhausted adults drifted toward home and the children took over the compound, surrounding Ashley Van Waes, WMI’s Resource Fellow, who has become a favorite with villagers young and old alike.

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The Power of Solar

_DSC7647Greetings and Happy New Year!

Our year has gotten off to a “bright” start thanks to a kind solar light donation from a WMI supporter. This past weekend WMI staff distributed a solar light to each borrower who paid her loan back in full. The borrowers were extremely grateful, dancing and singing with their new lights in hand. With this light comes a new way of life.

_DSC7676Solar lights are a crucial part to an advanced standard of living here in Eastern Africa. The majority of WMI borrowers do not have access to electricity and their days end after sundown. This means less time for kids to study after school, less time for business to remain open, shortened hours for income-generating activities, and a home that becomes less safe in the darkness. Although the solar market only demands an average of $8 per light, this is often out of the price range for families who need it the most.

Those who can afford it purchase paraffin to fuel their kerosene lamps. Although this is a solution to the darkness, it is a major expenditure for each family, spending at least 25% of their monthly allowance on lighting their homes. The light emitted from kerosene lamps is dim and dirty. Inhaling the fumes from kerosene lamps is the cause of many respiratory problems in women and children and injuries from burns. Additionally, the climate impacts of using paraffin are negative as kerosene is a black carbon energy and a major contributor to regional climate warming in developing countries.

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Borrowers rejoice 

Unfortunately, a lot of speculation surrounds the quality and effectiveness of solar lamps in these communities. Many villagers share stories of faulty lamps purchased on the street or travelling salesman who never followed through on their promises. These stories create a disillusioned populace and discourage the growth of a quality solar product market. Additionally, the price of solar lamps is a deterrence; many do not have the money to pay the up-front cost even when they will reap the long-term financial benefits. Providing authentic lamps to the BWA community will help dismantle these negative suspicions, decrease the financial burden of solar, and will encourage healthier, safer, and brighter homes.

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Director Olive Wolimbwa explains how to use the solar lights

*Borrower Spotlight*

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Borrower of the Month, Rita Nambafu, in her hair and nail salon

In an effort to showcase the talents, challenges, and successes of our borrowers, WMI has begun to select stand-out clients to feature on our blog. The selection process is carried out by the local coordinators who meet every Wednesday. They discuss the status of their groups and nominate one borrower they have found exemplary. This borrower might have a unique idea for a business, have used her loan in a way that provided major growth opportunity, is a model for savings, or is someone that other borrowers admire and consult for advice. WMI looks for borrowers that have strived for excellence and champion our model of microfinance.

This month WMI is proud to introduce you to Rita Nambafu. Living in Budadiri, a village deep in the valley of Eastern Uganda, Rita can be found in her freshly-swept beauty salon in the middle of the town’s busy trading center. Her shop is complete with full hair and nail services and is complemented by an extensive collection of beauty products for purchase.

At the young age of 22, Rita has proven herself a natural businesswoman. After completing a nine month salon course at Uganda Vocational Training school, she took her first WMI loan and opened her shop’s doors in February 2015. Now on her second cycle of the loan program, Rita has been able to edge out her competition by diversifying her business. In addition to her hair and nail services, she also offers advice on proper maintenance and has had large success selling hair products that will ensure the freshest looking style for months to come. She has also been able to expand and hire a new employee, her sister, Annet Nambozo, who is learning the tricks of the trade.

The sister-duo offer services including hair washing, braiding, weaving, relaxing, coloring, cutting, and styling. The salon also offers full nail services including manicures and pedicures. Rita mentions that although hair braiding is her favorite activity at her salon, the weaves are the best-sellers.

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Rita Nambafu (right) has been able to expand her salon business and employ her sister, Annet Nambozo (left)

Rita attributes much of her business acumen to the loan program; she is completely comfortable keeping daily records and knows how essential customer care is to her business. She averages about twenty clients per month and is confident that they have and will remain loyal. This season is a particularly busy one as women prepare for holiday festivities and parties. When asked if she had seen a change within her community since being involved with the WMI program, Rita commented with a sly grin, “The women in my village look much smarter than before my shop opened.”

Looking forward, Rita’s goal is to eventually move her salon into a nearby city by the name of Mbale. About an hour’s drive away, this move would drastically reshape her business to involve more clientele, supplies, and employees. With an easy demeanor and an acute vision for success, Rita will have no problem achieving this dream.

_DSC6197This October marked the beginning of a new Craft Class for BWA borrowers. With the expertise of staff members Irene Phoebe Wetaka and Donata Kainza, BWA borrowers are learning to embroider and knit various crafts. They are currently creating table cloths and mats made of yarn and cotton. Borrowers meet every Monday and Friday from 4 – 6:30 p.m. to sharpen their skills and create beautiful décor to take to market. After each lesson they take their projects home to continue their work.

Met by a matching fund from WMI, the class was able to work together and raise 750,000 shillings to purchase sewing needles, embroidery hoops, and fabric. The class intends to display their finished products during graduation in January for visitors to purchase.

_DSC6174Last week Melissa and WMI’s newest fellow, Ashley van Waes, made the trek to Kampala to meet with Postbank Uganda (PBU) Managing Director, Steven Mukweli, and his colleagues Head of Credit Patrick Woyago, and Senior Manager William Alemi. This trip was to acquaint Ashley with PBU executives for a continued successful relationship between WMI and our primary banking partner.

WMI’s program is unique in that they groom their borrowers to transition to the formal marketplace after they graduate from the two year program. WMI enforces good business practices such as accumulating savings, learning to keep personal finance records, marketing skills, and loan repayment. _DSC6168

During the meeting WMI discussed the status of the pavilion and the transition process to PBU once borrowers have graduated. PBU was thrilled to discover that a room was built in the pavilion specifically for their staff to collect during loan repayment days. They look forward to filling it with good business! PBU is also enthusiastic about continuing to take on WMI borrowers and will work to gain their business.

On Thursday, June 25th, WMI supervised the making of reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS) in Buyobo Primary School to help girls, most of whom cannot afford to buy disposable pads, and prevent them from staying home from school due to their menstrual cycle. Eighty-five girls in Primary 6 and 7 classes, ranging in age from twelve to fourteen years old attended, from both Buyobo Primary School and Buyobo Parents. The coordinators, WMI East Africa Finance Director, Melissa, and summer interns, Abby and Jing, prepared for several days before, cutting rolls of the material into the right shape for the girls to sew and make into their pads during the workshop.

When Melissa, Abby, and Jing arrived at the school in the afternoon, a crowd of students welcomed them and they set up in a large classroom. Soon dozens of girls were at work creating their pads while listening to Melissa and the Girls Group teacher, Susan, give a lesson on hygiene and their proper use. Abby and Jing assisted cutting the remaining materials and took shots for the video they were making about Girls Group, a WMI program that teaches girls about health and entrepreneurship, many of whose members took part in the workshop.

The girls were happy with the results and they each left with two pads; while they wear one, they can wash the other. Susan encouraged them to teach the other women in their families how to create the pads so they can better handle their periods and avoid just using old rags.

After the workshop, the interns interviewed Susan, several students in Girls Group, and the headmistress of Buyobo Primary School to ask them about their impressions of the impact of Girls Group and the pad workshop. They stressed the usefulness of the reusable pads in helping girls manage their periods and stay in school.

On July 9th, the interns, Melissa, Susan, and the coordinators held a second workshop for about forty local secondary school girls from Secondary 1 through 4, ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen years old. While teaching them to make their pads, Susan also spoke to them about family planning and the importance of staying in school. Several girls came to the front of the classroom as the workshop was ending to extend their appreciation for the workshop. Nafuna Kadija, a sixteen year old from Senior 2, expressed her thanks saying, “You have brought for us something which will help us. Some of us, we are lacking money to buy pads. We have been missing school lessons because of menstruation. Thank you very much for what you have done for us.”

Given the success of the workshops for girls and the effectiveness of the RUMPS as a cheaper alternative to already-made pads, a third workshop, this time for interested WMI borrowers, will be held in the near future.

Nafuna Kadija, a sixteen year old from Senior 2, expresses her thanks during the second workshop.

Nafuna Kadija, a sixteen year old from Senior 2, expresses her thanks during the second workshop.

Girls Group teacher Susan

Girls Group teacher Susan

Girls proudly hold up finished pads

Girls proudly hold up finished pads

Melissa and Olive demonstrate how to use the reusable pads.

Melissa and Olive demonstrate how to use the reusable pads.

sewing a button onto a reusable pad

sewing a button onto a reusable pad

Interns Abby and Jing cut extra material during the workshop.

Interns Abby and Jing cut extra material during the first workshop.

Girls in the first workshop busy making their pads.

Girls in the first workshop busy making their pads.

Monday, June 1st was the first day of work for three newcomers. Abby and Jing arrived for a summer internship with WMI and Merida came for her first day of work as the new WMI secretary. They started the morning getting oriented around the office, learning more about WMI and BWA’s loan process, and going over job responsibilities. Merida learned about how information is filed in the office, how to track loan records, and how to print and copy surveys for borrowers. Merida, also a borrower herself, was helpful in answering Abby and Jing’s questions and was a fast learner! As the morning ended they all headed home for lunch before afternoon rain began to pour.

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Abby and Jing are here for nine weeks through Princeton’s International Internship Program. They left New York Friday afternoon and arrived in Buyobo late Sunday afternoon after staying in Kampala for a night, and they got a chance to take a beautiful first walk around Buyobo and meet coordinators and members of the village before getting settled in on Sunday night. A main goal for their internship is to create some videos to demonstrate WMI’s impact with narrative.

On Monday afternoon, Abby and Jing returned to the office and brainstormed some ideas for video subjects with Melissa and Olive. They look forward to developing them over the next few months while continuing to get to the know WMI’s model and the women and community in Buyobo.

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