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It was smiles all around in rural Buger village in the Arusha Region of Tanzania, about 20 miles from the town of Karatu. That’s because it was loan issuance day! Borrowers and the staff of our local partner, the women’s group known as GWOCO, were already standing and singing to greet us with their song: “mkopo ni mpangalio”, which translates loosely to “the loan is arranged”! It’s a GWOCO song that expresses the borrowers’ excitement to receive their loans.

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Every borrower had a big smile on her face after receiving the loan.

We started with loans for a new group that is starting this cycle. These borrowers had spent the previous week preparing. They attended a GWOCO/WMI seminar with Esther, the loan program educator, and learned about small business dos and don’ts. Then they wrote their loan applications and business plans with the help of Eliminatha, the GWOCO Secretary. After all of their training, it was an exciting moment when the women actually received the cash in their hands to launch their business!

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Receiving loans and a repayment calendar. 

The GWOCO staff read the business plans before agreeing to give out loans to the new borrowers. I was very impressed with their forethought. For example, one woman who will be buying and selling chickens put down medicine for her livestock as an expense. This kind of active planning will enable her to foresee potential costs and prepare to meet them. It will also make it easy for her to pay off her loan!

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One of the best parts of loan distribution day is everyone dressed in their best kitenge and kanga. 

The continuing borrowers in the program were excited to move on from their 300,000 shilling loan ($150) to 400,000 shillings ($200). In their follow-up applications, they gave various ideas for the use of the new funds. Some plan to branch out into other businesses, while others want to improve their stock and still others want to start selling their products regularly in town, rather than only at the bi-weekly market.

Before receiving a new loan or a follow-up, every borrower fills out a survey. This enables us to keep track of how the loans are helping them to improve their lives, communities, and status as women.

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A borrower signs the group loan agreement, which states that if one woman is unable to pay, the rest will pay for her. This group model enforces payment through social pressure rather than less savory money-collecting practices. 

In response to the question, “Has the loan had a positive impact on your community?”, many women said that it was easier to access services in the community. When service providers like health care workers and water companies learn that a community’s income is rising, they are willing to make greater investments in that community. The loan program’s impact on community development here is mimicking WMI’s amazing results in Uganda, and we couldn’t be happier about it!

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Chairwomen Seminar

“Huu ni mpango, si mkopo tu.” This is the new informal motto of WMI Tanzania, which we reviewed with the group chairwomen at a seminar this week. It means, “This is a program, not just a loan.”

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The chairwomen take notes as GWOCO Secretary Eliminatha leads an activity.

We held the seminar to emphasize the business training aspect of the microfinance program here. Many of the women see the loan as simple cash, and end up having trouble repaying because they are not improving their businesses.

At the seminar, the chairwomen learned how to train their group members in various aspects of good business. Each chairwoman leads a group of 20 women. At the loan repayment meetings every two to four weeks, the chairwomen will now be leading activities that engage the borrowers in learning about marketing, recordkeeping, budgets, teamwork and other business strategies.

 

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Esther and Leonila, from Tloma village, work together to define the characteristics of a successful businesswoman. 

My favorite activity was the one that exemplified customer service. Two members of the GWOCO staff acted as businesswomen, with one exhibiting bad customer service and the other great service, but without telling the participants who was playing which role. The chairwomen in attendance each received 9,000 Tanzanian shillings in play money, and chose which business to buy from.

The “good businesswoman” welcomed her customers to her store, proposed potential uses for her products and praised her customers’ choices. Her opponent would not allow customers to touch the items, ignored them and did not make suggestions. The good businesswoman received 94% of the shillings in the game.

Now that the chairwomen have been trained in activities like this one, they will be able to train the borrowers, disseminating business skills throughout the community.

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A chairwoman from Buger village stands to ask a question. 

The seminar was especially exciting for me because it was my first big project as the Tanzania Fellow for WMI. I did a lot of the work from home, because it involved writing a handbook for the chairwomen on my computer (we don’t have electricity at the office). I wasn’t sure whether my co-workers knew how hard I worked on the seminar, but it turns out that they did: they gave me this beautiful Iraqw necklace at the end to celebrate my work and the success of the seminar.

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Left to right: Josephine, GWOCO Chairwoman; Me (Jess, Tanzania Fellow); and Levina, GWOCO Treasurer

 

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Relationship building at its finest!

This week was an important milestone for cementing the relationship between BWA and our primary banking partner, PostBank Uganda (PBU). In collaboration with our friends at Mbale PBU branch, PBU Kampala commemorated our successful private-public partnership with a flat-screen television! We are beyond thrilled. The gift is symbolic of the mutually beneficial relationship we have built with PostBank Uganda and will become another income-stream for BWA. Together, BWA and PBU have created a successful model for reaching village-level women – a cause worth celebrating!

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Managing Director Stephen Mukweli and top PBU executives are led to the pavilion with song and cheer

BWA plans to mount the television in the pavilion and host events including movie night and soccer match showings at a small fee per entrance.  In the past, Buyobo residents have all huddled around the village’s one small 9” television in a dark shop to view their favorite soccer matches. Our new large-screen television will allow for a more comfortable viewing in the airy pavilion as well as promote community interaction. BWA also intends to use the television for loan training programs and slideshow viewings for new and existing members alike.

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The ceremony was a blast, filled with lots cheer, songs sung the WMI ladies, a full camera crew, and of course, dancing!

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The WMI-PBU team in front of the Buyobo pavilion, where the TV will be mounted for the entire community to enjoy

Buyobo community members and BWA look forward to a long-lasting and healthful relationship with PBU. This gift is yet another exploration into the potential of the Buyobo community, the power of our female leaders, and the dedication of PostBank Uganda staff.

 

Menstruation is a universal experience – and some would say burden – for all girls and women. Over time, society has developed a variety of tools for menstrual management. For those in the western world, present day period management is likely a nuisance at worst. For females in the developing world, however, the implications can be serious. A menstrual tampon, pad, or cup can make the difference between staying home or going to school or work, between embarrassing leakage or subtle comfort, and between health and infection.

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One woman examines a Ruby Cup for the first time. 

Purchasing pads or tampons is reserved for upper-class Ugandans because of their price and accessibility. Most village women use an alternative such as cloth, napkins, newspapers, leaves, any semi-absorbent material, or nothing at all. These materials must be changed often and as there is no privacy of a bathroom or luxury of a trashcan, this causes embarrassment. There is a stigma (not unique to this part of the world) that menstruation is gross and unclean. This causes women to stay home from work and girls to stay home from school while they are menstruating. On average East African schoolgirls miss 4.9 days of school per month, adding up to 20% of school due to menstruation. That is a lot of missed writing, reading, and arithmetic that is so crucial to becoming an influential and respected member of society.

 

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Schoolgirls answer the question, “How does my period make me feel?” during the training. 

The newest in menstrual management is the “menstrual cup.” This is a small silicone cup with the ability to hold up to an ounce of liquid. When inserted correctly, it sits about half an inch inside the vagina and creates a vacuum seal to prevent leakage. The size of this cup allows a woman to keep in her cup for up to 12 hours; change it once upon waking and once before bed. It comes in two sizes – one for women who have not given birth, and one for women that have.  These cups are easy to clean and are reusable for up to ten years with proper care. It is recommended to boil these cups for 5 minutes between every menstruation for complete disinfection. One cup costs roughly $15 here in Uganda, a price that excludes most village-level women who typically live off less than a dollar a day.

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A Ruby Cup trainer demonstrates stretching methods to alleviate menstrual cramp pain.

The brand of menstrual cup available in Eastern Africa is the Ruby Cup. With the help of various individual donors, WMI was able to raise enough money to sponsor a menstrual cup project. This fundraiser allowed us to form a trial team comprised of  fifteen lucky girls and women ranging from ages 15 – 40 years who were the lucky recipients of a free Ruby Cup. These trial team members are well known in the community, comfortable speaking about their experiences (positive or negative!), and are good role models. The remaining dollars from this project will be spent on purchasing the cups and offering them at a reduced price to the community as a subsidized product. Additionally, trial team members that become advocates of the product have the opportunity to become agents as well! For every cup they sell, they will receive a small commission.

 

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Ruby Cup trainer gives a thorough demonstration on the female anatomy.

Moreover, we have spoken to the local pharmacist, Sylvia, about stocking this product. Sylvia is about 30 years old and a new mother; she is well respected in the community and is enthusiastic about being a trial member and learning more about the cups. She is an essential part of this project as she has a storefront within the village. This means if any customer has any questions, concerns, etc, she can go to Sylvia for assistance. If Sylvia decides to stock the cups, she will be provided with all of the support and marketing materials she needs to effectively sell the product.

The project kick-off started this past Saturday with the help of two Ruby Cup trainers. Because the product is not immediately intuitive and requires proper care, a training was in order for the trial team and interested members of the community. The training involved a thorough discussion of the female anatomy, cultural stigmas, and proper usage of the Ruby Cup. There were more than 40 attendees who were either there for personal interest or for the benefit of their daughters and family members. We are thrilled with the turnout and product interest. We will be updating you on the status of the project in the next few months, but hope that in the near future girls can go to school twenty percent more often, women can spend more time on income-generating activities, and Sylvia and sales agents can make commissions.

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The Buyobo Trial Team! All of these women and girls were the lucky recipients of a free Ruby Cup and will be spokeswomen of the product. 

WMI issued nearly 100 business loans last week to rural businesswomen in Tloma and Gongali villages outside of Karatu, Tanzania. The two loan distributions were energizing and encouraging for the WMI loan program staff, which spent weeks preparing. 

In Tloma, where we have 63 borrowers, loan issuance took an entire day. Many of the women brought children who were too young to stay at home or go to school, and at times the meeting felt more like a pre-school party.

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This little girl is growing up watching her mom work as a confident businesswoman.

The most exciting part of the day was giving out the best saver gifts. The woman with the most savings in each group received a scarf from the loan program staff. 

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Pendaeli, the best saver out of 63 borrowers, receives her gift from Josephine, the loan program chairwoman (left) as Eliminata, the program secretary, looks on smiling.

Most borrowers save for emergencies and household expenses. But Pendaeli, who had the most savings overall, is quite old, and she is planning for her retirement. Pendaeli’s achievement is quite remarkable considering that she never learned to read or write. The loan program has helped her develop business skills without the benefit of a formal education.

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Happy borrowers who have just received their business loans pose along with loan program staff and WMI Fellow, Jess Littman

The borrowers in Gongali have embraced the group aspect of the loan program and are community-minded. They are inspired by the Tloma women’s project to pay off the local school’s water bill, and plan to use the interest from their loans to start a similar community project. 

Before distributing the loans, the borrowers were surveyed on how their lives have changed over the last six months. The most common response to the question, “Has the loan improved your life as a woman?  was “Yes – I now have a voice in my community!”

 

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A woman receives a cervical cancer screening from a trained midwife on the RAIN Uganda staff.

It all starts with health. A healthy woman can run her business, she can feed her children and send them to school, and she can make decisions that will better her community. Here in rural Uganda, health is too often overlooked until it becomes an emergency. This is due to lack of access to healthcare – the nearest clinic is 15 minutes away and often the prices are too high for clients to afford them.

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Men, women, and children come to register for free health services.

For this reason, WMI makes it a point to reach out to local health organizations and form partnerships. One such partnership is with RAIN Uganda, an organization based in Mbale, Uganda, that makes it their mission to reach areas that have very little access to quality healthcare.

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A RAIN Uganda volunteer administers an eye exam. 

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One woman reads the eye chart to test her vision. 

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One examiner checks the eyes of a WMI borower. 

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Ladies try on different pairs of spectacles to see which ones are right for their eyes. 

RAIN Uganda’s team of nurses, counselors, volunteers, and a medical officer take the day to come out to Buyobo and offer services to those most vulnerable to harsh conditions. Services offered include HIV tests, breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings, eye tests with provision of spectacles, and counselling services for before and after the HIV test is taken.

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Two RAIN Uganda medical volunteers check blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

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One woman receives a breast cancer screening. 

This year RAIN Uganda was able to service 300 men, women, and children in the WMI community. We are so pleased to have worked with this dedicated team to offer these vital healthcare services. In fact, we have already planned another RAIN Uganda visit to Buyobo in June!

 

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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