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On April 9, Women’s Microfinance Initiative and Spark Microgrants (www.sparkmicrogrants.org) co-hosted a networking event in Mbale, inviting contacts from the NGO, private, government, and education sectors. With roughly fifty people engaging in a panel discussion, conversation, and informal networking, the event was a success – there was much enthusiasm to potentially continue these networking events in Mbale quarterly.

1. Registration outside the conference room at Mt. Elgon Hotel

Registration outside the event conference room at Mt. Elgon Hotel

Jackie, the BWA Assistant Director, spoke on the panel along with Joshua Zimbe, the Eastern Regional Coordinator for Heifer International, and Anthony Nyungu, a Senior Business Manager at Techno Serve. Both Heifer and Techno Serve implement smallholder agriculture projects throughout Uganda.

2. Jackie (BWA), Anthony (Techno Serve), and Joshua (Heifer) on the panel

Jackie, Anthony, and Joshua on the panel

A portion of the discussion centered on how and in what capacity to involve rural communities in designing the development projects that affect them. A professor from a local university shared that his mother and cousin were both village-based and illiterate, and suggested it was the responsibility of the “elite” to design projects and come up with solutions for rural communities.

3. Audience Q & A

Audience Q & A

In her response, Jackie explained how many BWA borrowers are illiterate, yet they are still able to build successful businesses. Given the tools and support, these women improve their lives without “experts” planning for them.

4. Jackie (BWA) with Sherry from Elgon Foundation of Persons with Albinism

Jackie with Sherry from Elgon Foundation for Persons with Albinism

Both WMI and Spark approach development from the ground up, believing that rural communities have the knowledge and capacity to design projects and take the central role in rural development.

5. Grace (BWA) speaking with other networking guests

Grace (BWA) speaking with other networking guests

In todays New Vision, a Ugandan newspaper, the First Lady made national news when she encouraged women to work for the improvement of their families. Mrs. Museveni was said to have challenged women to work with their husbands to improve income and welfare of their families. She advised women to adopt a saving culture and encouraged them to ensure hygiene and sanitation in their homes. IMG_5061[1]WMI believes that women can make the difference in their families and communities. Women are more likely to pay loans and pass profits to their children – they pay school fees, buy clothing, and feed their families with their incomes. In WMI women are also encouraged to work with their husbands and families so their businesses can succeed; with the family working together the business can make more profit and the family can learn to work together to support each other. IMG_4134[1]In addition to giving loans, WMI also encourages saving. A saving culture is not so prominent in Uganda, so it is often a new concept for women. However, with a savings component built in to the new business training the women attend and incentives to save throughout the quarter (best savers receive gifts), a saving culture is emerging within the WMI loan hubs. A2With profit from the interest collected on the loan, WMI encourages the ladies to decide what services would be important to them, and to bring an organization to the village to address these issues. Women often quote health as something they would like to improve, so the ladies have had various health organizations come to address hygiene, infections, and other health issues. A3WMI is working to improve the lives of women and their families, and it is nice that the First Lady is striving to accomplish the same goals!

This past weekend, WMI staff trained new borrowers preparing to take their first loans in April. Sixteen new groups will start the WMI program, with eleven color groups graduating and recycling their loans to new borrowers, and five brand new groups receiving funding. Staff trained in a comprehensive set of topics to prepare the new women, including loan features and repayment schedules, the importance of saving, why small businesses fail, record keeping, and business planning.

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Staff trained in Buyobo, and in Buyobo sub-hubs—smaller centers managed by Buyobo staff— farther afield. Penina and Joyce trained in Kapchorwa, the farthest sub-hub, up in the mountains near Mt. Elgon. To get there from Buyobo requires a motorcycle, two buses, and another motorcycle—at least a two hour journey— which Penina, Kapchorwa’s coordinator, makes every two weeks to collect loan payments from the women here.

In Kapchorwa, Joyce and Penina trained two new borrower groups in English. The local language is Sabean, different from the Lugiso spoken in Buyobo. There are over forty languages spoken in Uganda, which makes English the main language of communication across regions. A local translator worked besides the two WMI trainers.

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When the ladies arrived, Penina and Joyce began training by explaining: “right now you are a group of forty sisters. Some of these women you have never seen before, but now because of WMI, they are your sisters. That is why I call you lucky!”

Although most of the women from Kapchorwa have never been to Buyobo (and vice-versa), they are included as part of the Buyobo family. Penina explained that Mai Olive (BWA Director) has never been to this hub, and never met you, she knows you, she has all of your names, and you are part of our family.

Each woman was advised to get to know their new friends very well during the training, as these women would be their support in growing their business, and every last member was accountable for paying back the loan in order for anyone to get a follow-up loan in the future.

Penina used a physical demonstration to describe the clusters of five neighbors who form a support group, having four other women stand with her, hold hands, and help pull her up from the floor when she was struggling and fell down. These groups are support systems for women, both sharing advice in making their businesses successful and overcoming challenges, and also helping solve health problems and personal issues.

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As the coordinator here, Penina explained that women at this loan hub are up against a lot. It is the custom here for men to sit and talk, while women do most of the work, farming, caring for the animals, and taking care of the children. She says there is a cultural stigma against family planning, and men do not like using it, so women have many children. Indeed, many women brought their babies to the training. Penina says that even though it is far, she thinks the WMI loans have a huge impact here, and it is worth the effort.

A woman graduating and completing her fourth loan in April told how she started a tailor business with her WMI loans. A widow, she had moved back to live with her parents, and although her brothers were very wealthy, they did not help her. Now, she has a successful business, and has built her own house, able to care for herself and her children.

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Back in Buyobo, the WMI staff was in full force, alternating teaching the topics they liked best. Whether “budgeting” or “destroyers of money”.

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A WMI training would not be complete without many songs, and the trainers stand together to sing and teach them: “How wonderful is a woman!” and “Where WMI found me.”

Every Thursday, the Buyobo leadership, including Olive (Director), Jackie (Assistant Director), Grace (Operations Manager), and Agnes (Assistant Operations Manager), meet with Melissa (East Africa Finance Director), to review the BWA operating budget. They have been learning the function of 32 tabs, and the computer skills to create each tab from scratch.

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During her first year in Buyobo, Melissa concentrated on the finances for Buyobo Women’s Association, making sure all transactions are properly tracked on computers, and creating a detailed operating budget. This year the focus is on sustainability, making sure that everyone in the BWA leadership team is familiar managing the budget, and will be able to create a new one in 2016.

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With four bank accounts, four quarterly loan cycles, and over sixty loan groups depositing both loan payments and savings twice a month, it is no simple business to track! The budget is also separated into three major categories– loan hub operations, ancillary village programs, and reimbursable expenses from WMI for Buyobo staff to establish and support the other loan hubs across Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Recently, budget lessons have focused on creating account registers, identical to PostBank bank statements at the end of each month, to make sure each deposit and withdrawal matches BWA records, and to check that neither bank or loan hub made any mistakes.

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This week, ladies created an Operations Account register, combining all loan deposits, withdrawals, and fees for the month of February in a single table. As Olive transferred all February deposits and copied the equation to keep a running balance total, Melissa asked her: “When you took your first loan in the Blue group, did you think you would one day be doing all of this?” Olive sat back and shook her head. “No, I did not!”

Penina’s School

Along with running the WMI loan hub, all Buyobo Women’s Association staff are also teachers in Buyobo or nearby villages. It is a requirement for BWA Coordinators to be literate in English, and this targets the local teacher population. These women teach, coordinate loan groups and office operations, while also running businesses and raising their families. They are an impressive group of women!

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Penina, one of the Local Coordinators, founded and directs her own primary school in nearby Budadiri: Ambassadors Preparatory Nursery & Primary School. She started her school in 2011, teaching four kids out of her living room. Four years later, another 130 young students have joined the original class, and the school has expanded to nursery through Primary 3.

Before starting Ambassadors Primary, Penina had been working at a school that honored her for her teaching but did not pay her for a year . She says it is much better to work for yourself!

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In order to expand, Penina used her four loans from WMI to rent a few shops in a row, construct a wall to close them in from the road, build an additional classroom, and buy desks.

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When Melissa and Karen visited it seemed that all the students and teachers adored Penina, and that she ran things with a mixture of kindness, confidence, and enthusiasm. In each classrooms students sang for the visitors. Favorites included “Shake, shake, the mango tree. One for you and one for me…” As well as songs in Lugiso. After visiting each classroom, students gathered for a full assembly to dance and sing some more.

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Songs are built into the daily routine. After a break in the courtyard, kids move off to their respective classrooms singing “class, class! We go to class, class, class! We go to class!” If a student volunteers or answers a questions correctly, the teacher has her/him stand up with hands on hips, and do a little dance while classmates clap and sing: “Lovely, lovely, nice, a very good girl/boy!” Alternately they might give their classmate “flowers,” reaching their arms towards the student and waving hands for a few seconds in recognition. To remind students to sit still, teachers have them sing “I am sitting like a boss, boss, boss. I am a boss, boss, boss.” With their arms and legs crossed, they sit back in their seats and look silently all around them, like the big person in charge.

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In nursery students practiced shading letters. Top Class was adding “objects to objects,” counting pictures of cups, chairs, and books. Primary 1 students formed English sentences with new vocabulary of household items. P2 had progressed to adding three-digit numbers together. Finally, in their religious studies class, P3 was having a discussion about the qualities that make a good leader—including respect for others, being humble, loving one another, and sharing.

These are the leadership qualities that Penina exemplifies. She says to a fault she is slow to talk about her achievements. She prefers to let parents tell their neighbors about the school, and has expanded through word of mouth about the quality of education. Indeed, Melissa knew her for over a year before she first mentioned directing the school casually during a training.

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Humble she may be, but Penina is ambitious too! She says her next steps are to own the land she rents and expand over the next seven years to a full secondary school. She wants to teach the original students all the way through up to college.

A roughly 45 minute drive from Mbale, Buyobo Women’s Association (BWA) is one of the largest operations and employers in the Mbale area, with over 20 staff, and 1,460 women borrowers this year. From Buyobo village, BWA manages its own substantial loan program and oversees other WMI loan hubs throughout Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

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Animals, central to village life, pass each day in periphery of loan hub operations and even make their way inside the office. One day Grace, the operations manager, removed a goat that snuck into the main office room and dragged a power strip across the floor. She grabbed its two front legs, slid it back out to the hall and ushered it out the door.

Chickens and chicks roost outside, and wander in to ruffle through scrap paper and bins on the floor.

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Geckos observe work from the ceiling and walls.

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Outside the office window, cows and goats graze between the building and road.

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Last term, the BWA’s Girls Group chose a turkey entrepreneurship project, raising baby birds to sell, and learning about businesses.

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From a young age, children learn to care for their family’s animals. On a recent walk home, Melissa (East Africa Finance Director) and Karen (Spring Intern) passed their neighbor Wataka trailing a family member’s cow.

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Another evening, Peace proudly showed how she guides her goat home in the evening.

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A neighbor’s dog recently had puppies, who will find new homes as watchdogs in several months.

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Less common in the village, the BWA guesthouse, home to Melissa and interns throughout the year, recently saw the addition of new a kitten. GNut (or “ground nut/peanut”) has a mind of her own and quickly made herself at home in Buyobo. She gets lots of attention and provides some entertainment to the neighbors, also catching spiders and flies.

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In the WMI model, development happens from the ground up, creating change at the village-level. It is fitting that WMI bases its East Africa headquarters in Buyobo village, and with the oldest partner community organization. Some sizeable operations happen here in the middle of village life.

On Tuesday, February 24th, the Daily Monitor, one of Uganda’s national newspapers, had an article featuring a woman, Adoa, who built a number of schools using loans. She first started with loans from friends in England, where she studied education management, then later pursued larger loan from banks in Uganda. The article on Adoa raised many issues that are prevalent throughout Africa, such as the inability to pay school fees, feed children, and the education of girls.

Adoa is determined to help underprivileged children; growing up she feared that if she quit school or didn’t keep busy with work that she would be married off (she believes that the government needs to step in and create measures to reduce the high drop-out rate for girls). This is one reason she is inspired to help financially challenged children – she wants to give them hope by helping them receive an education. She has had many challenges, which include parents not paying on time, or at all. She claims the ability to pay school fees has worsened due to escalating poverty. Another challenge has been the instability of food prices; the price increases in many food products has led to an increase in the cost of operations.pic 1

Despite the many challenges of running successful schools, Adoa is determined to keep improving her schools. She said she has learned that the best way to use a loan is to put all the money in its intended use and not be tempted to keep it.

As the issues noted by Adoa are prevalent throughout Africa, WMI has also noticed these issues and has worked hard to partner with the ladies in Buyobo to improve conditions. Through the loan program, women have said that they are able to generate income, which allows them to pay school fees for their children, feed them more than one meal a day, and help pay for school uniforms and supplies. The ladies have learned that all the money from their loans should be invested in the business, and not kept at home.

WMI/BWA also helps children by paying for some meals at the local primary school. In addition, a teacher from the Buyobo Primary School was trained to teach entrepreneurship and health education classes to girls, in an effort to boost their self-confidence and give them tangible knowledge and skills that will help them in their lives.

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The women in Buyobo have many different businesses. One of our ladies, Penina, chose to take the same path as Adoa. She also cares about the future of Uganda’s children. In 2010 she started a school out of her house. In the past few years she has grown her school from a few children to many classrooms. She used her WMI loan to buy desks, materials, and build a wall around the school compound. It is because of ladies like Adoa and Penina that the children of Uganda will have a brighter future.IMG_3843

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