Last Post

So I’ve now finished with my internship at RIC-NET, and it has been an incredible experience. I’m not sure which I’ve learned more from; actually being able to work with this local organization or simply having the chance to live on my own in Africa for a summer.

 

Reflecting on everything I’ve done this summer, it’s odd to think that that I’ll be going back home, I’ve really gotten used to life in Fort Portal – something that in the first couple of weeks, I never thought would happen. Despite the obvious conveniences of the USA, there’s a lot to miss about Uganda. The people are friendly and accommodating, there’s a motorcycle taxi on every corner ready to take you anywhere you need to go for the equivalent of about 20 cents, you always know where to find fresh samosas or passionfruit juice, and the landscape is absolutely beautiful. I never had any doubt that I would miss the place, but I also had never thought about exactly what I would miss.

 

On the business side, I’ll miss all of the people at RIC-NET, they were very welcoming and eager to help me learn all about what they do. The office culture is certainly different from what I’ve been used to in the US, but I’m lucky to have the new perspective.

 

Thanks very much to Dickinson College, especially Dickinson’s Career Center for giving me a grant to do this internship, and making the entire experience possible; I’ve grown tremendously from it.

RIC-NET’s Microfinance

In my most recent post, I explained how a basic savings and credit microfinance scheme works. A large part of my work here has been to develop a plan for RIC-NET to be involved in microfinance, so I’ll describe how that looks now.

 

RIC-NET is looking to start savings and credit with two organizations originally. The Foundation for Rural/Urban Development and the Soke Solidarity Association are both cooperatives that want to formalize a savings and credit scheme, and RIC-NET wants to help them. Both of these organizations operate on a smaller scale currently, but are looking to expand. FR/UD has 50 member groups, and SSA has 5. Each group has an entrance fee of 10,000 Ugandan shillings, and a minimum savings requirement of 5,000 shillings. The two groups lend out of that savings pool, and both borrowers and lenders benefit: the former gets capital to start a business, and the latter profits from interest.

 

RIC-NET’s contributions would include extra funds to increase capital in the savings pool, access to a central standard banking account, and access to an established organization that has experience, and can broaden the groups’ business avenues as well as provide a vision for the future; since these are fledgling  groups, RIC-NET’s experience is inevitable.

 

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see the products of that plan in person, but I plan to remain in contact with the people at RIC-NET to hear about it’s hopeful success

Microfinance: Savings and Credit

The culmination of my internship here is the beginning of a microfinance program for RIC-NET, which to this point hasn’t been very involved in finance. Throughout the course of my time here, I’ve been researching microfinance and travelling to a few different organizations, to see how they operate.

 

In this post, I’ll just be describing how savings and credit works, and in my next I’ll discuss how I’m trying to implement it here.

 

The basic small-scale microfinance organization is a cooperative. Members came together, each paying a share in order to contribute to a collective pool of money, which they lend to other institutions, which then make smaller loans, at their own discretion, to individuals or companies.

 

This is a basic savings and credit scheme, but many similar organizations in Uganda have failed because they simply haven’t been able to get their loans repaid – not uncommon in the area. The solution which FORMA uses, as well as most other successful organizations, is to be as thorough as they can in vetting applicants. Important factors for a responsible borrower include positive answers to questions like this: do they own their own office premises? Do they have a safe? Has their staff membership been increasing or decreasing? Has their portfolio been increasing or decreasing? Do they have a successful business plan?

 

After the loans are disbursed, the initial lender (the cooperative) monitors the borrowing institutions to make sure the funds are being used responsibly, and ideally both groups are able to make enough money from interest to stay sustainable and even grow. Eventually, the smaller institutions become partners, and the whole system grows – getting more and more capital from cooperative members, gaining more and more recognition, making more small loans to get people on their feet, and ultimately making more of a difference.

 

 

Field Work

Hello again! While I’ve been spending most of my time at RIC-NET in Fort Portal, a key element of the organization is in the field; rural work at a local level. Since my job has mainly to do with documentation, I’ve been spending my time at the main office, but this week I went into the field to take a look at what happens locally. RICNET organizes and coordinates between several centers in smaller towns throughout the region, and the center I visited was in the town of Bwera. Bwera has a population of 5,000, but most of that number live in the hills outside of town, and there are many villagers who likely aren’t included in the tally. To get there took about 3 hours, in a variety of taxis, and when I arrived I got a tour of the center and a description of what happens at Bwera Information Centre (BIC).

 

BIC was actually founded before RICNET, started locally by a group of farmers who wanted to make information accessible amongst themselves, and the group gradually grew until eventually it was officially recognized by the region.

 

The day I was there, I went to the top of a large hill by motorcycle (on a path which people might even have trouble walking), a harrowing 25 minute ride. There we reached a school called St. Andrews, and we attended a meeting of parents and the school officials. Our goal was to encourage the parents to monitor their childrens’ progress in the schools, and to inform them about projects aimed to improve the school, which were funded and facilitated by BIC. The parents were also all eager to volunteer take part in a committee to help pay the school fees of families who couldn’t afford them.

 

While most of the comments from school officials were along the lines you would expect, there were a few moments when I was reminded of the necessity of providing access to news and information to the villages. For instance, at one point there was concern about the schools funds, which prompted the principal (completely earnestly) to urge the parents to have more children to send to school, to help raise more revenue – a request which is very much at odds with a country whose civil society is very conscious of pressing overpopulation problems.

 

All in all, the trip was certainly an interesting one, and was definitely helpful in getting a better idea of what civil society in Uganda is all about.

hey everybody

Sorry that it’s been a while, I’ve been having some computer issues which meant I’ve had to take a trip to Kampala to fix them, but for the next few weeks everything should be working fine.

The fourth of July  has come and gone, but Americans from all over the country actually came to Fort Portal to celebrate it (along with some Irish, Germans, and British).

My work recently has been most focused on documenting and reporting what RIC-NET has been doing in the last six months, which was the focus of the recent staff reflection, and goals that RIC-NET has for the next 6 months. One of the biggest goals, and hopefully one which I’ll be able to help get off the ground, is to get RIC-NET involved in micro-lending, which has been outside its purview so far, but there are potential partner organizations in the area which we are beginning to explore. The next 2 weeks should include some trips into the field for me, which is a chance to leave the Fort Portal office and see how information gets distributed at a more local level.

Beyond work, it’s been interesting to see and become involved in the dynamic of expats in the country. Fort Portal has Americans and Europeans staying for durations of a few weeks to years at a time, and having the chance to see how their views of the area (and even of America) have changed over that time is fascinating. The common thread among most of them (not surprisingly) is that they realize the privilege that most Westerners have, but they also generally think of Uganda in ways which, back home, they wouldn’t have expected. Every day one grows to understand the country slightly differently, whether you’ve been here 3 weeks or 3 years.

Hello again

After the last 2 weeks, I’ve settled in well to life in Fort Portal. A routine for the week has established itself by now; I work in the office from 8:30 to 5 every weekday, as well as some Saturdays.

My job still consists mainly of editing most publications from the organization, but I’ve also been able to travel around to see some of the centers and how they operate. RIC-NET is running 2 similar programs: information centers and E-societies. An information center is meant to help distribute information and assistance to rural Ugandans, and RIC-NET runs several centers, which are scattered throughout the Rwenzori region. E-societies are centers set up with computers which are available to any local who comes to the center, usually for the purpose of researching agricultural practice and defense against plant disease. RIC-NET is working on setting up plant clinics, where professionals are stationed to help identify and treat any diseases that are infecting the crops.

Last weekend, the staff went on a retreat to Kabale, in southern Uganda. The idea was to provide some time for the staff to bond and socialize in the evenings, and hold meetings during the day to reflect about the past 6 months, and plan objectives for the next 6 months. Sitting in on the meetings, I’m able to get a good idea of everything RIC-NET does, which is actually far more than I thought.

Back in Fort Portal, I’m getting to know my coworkers as well as other mzungus in the area, who consist of everything from Peace Corps workers to Europeans lecturing at Mountains of the Moon University. Fort Portal is a small town, and seems to be growing smaller, as more and more faces are familiar.

This weekend I am spending in Kampala, with plans to go on a safari. I’ll let you know how that goes!

End of Week 2

It is now the Friday of my 2nd week in Fort Portal, and the city has gotten a lot smaller.

RICNET, the NGO where I work, is one of many NGOs located on Mugurusi Road, near the center of Fort Portal. The mission of RICNET is to use technology and networking to make all sorts of information available to the rural poor, particularly farmers and small business owners. This information and these connections help farmers to know which crops to plant, how to sell them, and provides all manner of agricultural advice. They help small business owners find and communicate to their clientele, and put individuals in contact with other micro-finance organizations. While RICNET itself does not yet deal in micro-financing, it is a quickly expanding organization and aims to provide lending services in the future.

M John Silco is the director of the organization. His interest in networking began at a young age, when he lived under the Idi Amin military dictatorship, and quickly learned the value of connections. Fortunately, under a more benevolent regime, civil connections are now just as important as military or police ones, and civil networks are what  John now makes a living facilitating.

He began RICNET in 2006 with $400, and 6 years later operates with a budget of $40,000.

My role as an intern (one of several, although the only one from outside Uganda) is to help in the documentation department, where essentially all publications will eventually cross my desk. Uganda’s official language is English, and all NGO’s publish journals, reports, and newsletters in English, but I am the only native speaker of English in the organization. All the workers are fluent, of course, but I’m best suited to helping with the editing process since I have the advantage of knowing English as a first language.

I’m sure my role will change as the summer advances, but for now that is the best explanation of my role and the larger organization I can give. I think my next post will be about life in Fort Portal, after having become more familiar with it.

Hey Everybody

This is my first post from Uganda, 9 days after my arrival, in large part because an internet connection is difficult to come by unless you’re in or have been to a fairly large city. I spent my first week in the mountains of Baduda District, where basic necessities like running water are understandably higher priorities than stable internet. Now that I am in Fort Portal, however, it is far easier to stay connected.

The week I spent in Baduda served as an orientation of sorts, where I lived with other American interns learning the same basics that I needed. They’re still in Baduda, and will remain there for some time.

While I was there I worked with the Baduda Vocational Academy, which aims to give local children vocational training so they can get better jobs when they graduate, part of a grassroots attempt to educate the area and help the local economy. While there, I went on home visits to make sure that the kids that we sponsored were actually getting and using what we provided: mosquito nets, sheets, blankets, mattresses, etc., and to see how else we could help. These visits often took us to the tops of mountains or fairly deep into the jungle, but hours of hiking moved quickly because the area is so beautiful and the locals are so friendly. They don’t always greet you at first, as some are intimidated by mzungu (I’ll explain), but if you greet them first they, and children especially, light up and respond. Children often run alongside, yelling “how are you!” because it is some of the little English they may know.

Mzungu is the Swahili word used in East Africa for white foreigners. Literally, it means “aimless wanderer” and was first used to describe the European explorers and settlers in the 18th century, and has come to be used universally in the Bantu languages of sub-Saharan Africa (including Luganda, which is spoken from Fort Portal to Kampala) to describe Europeans and Americans, and derivatives of the word deal with general Western culture. If you’re as interested by all that as I am, feel free to research further: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu

I first came to the office in Fort Portal this past Monday, and I’ll describe that further later in the week. Until then!