Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Triumph over Adversity

Getting a hug from Rose Angeyango, Head of Microfinance for IFAPI

Canadian Co-operators stand by Ugandan partners in good times, bad
To escape the rebel soldiers, Ivan Asiimwe hid in a northern Uganda swamp, afraid to move for fear that he might be spotted and shot.  The soldiers were one threat to his life. The others were the crocodiles and other wild animals that he shared the swamp with. Ivan stood trembling in its cold, muddy waters so long (two weeks) – even sleeping standing - that his black skin “turned white.”

Today, Ivan Asiimwe is Head of Internal Audit & Supervision of the Uganda Cooperative Alliance which joined forces with the Canadian Co-operative Association to develop and deliver the Integrated Finance and Agricultural Production Initiative (IFAPI). Phase I of the project was carried out between 2005 and 2008 while civil war was still being waged in Uganda.

Canada stood by
Rose Angeyango, Head of Microfinance for IFAPI said CCA was the only international partner that stood by UCA during this period of political turmoil. If not for CCA, UCA would not exist,” she told our group, her voice breaking with emotion “We were able to forge ahead and (CCA) is why we are here today.”

By not turning its back on UCA, and moving forward with IFAPI, thousands of Ugandans have benefitted from this unique initiative. IFAPI links all levels of the supply chain – production, marketing and finance – and connects farmer, marketing and savings and credit co-operatives to improve the lives the rural poor.

Cross-Canada team
Our role was to gather and record the stories of members who have discovered the power of belonging to co-operatives Much like Ivan’s story, they told heartbreaking tales of death and disease, poverty and inhumanity. Julius Turyahebwa, project coordinator for IFAPI, said the war, which only ended in 2008, forced people off their land and into refugee camps, making them entirely dependent on hand-outs. “It was just life in the camps,” he explained. The violence also contributed to the spread of AIDs with soldiers raping women, even children, as a weapon of war. (A number of the women farmers and small business owner we met with were widows of disease victims. The co-ops they belonged to were helping them become self-reliant.)

Farmers had to abandon their properties, and even those that remained risked having their crops stolen by soldiers. Displaced farmers had no means to keep pace with advances in farming, and so, over the years, not only was arable land untilled, the knowledge gap widened. “In terms of capacity building they lost a lot. It was really a dire situation,” Ivan said.

Rudimentary farming
As a farmer’s daughter I admit that I struggled sometimes to understand why Ugandan farmers are so far behind in terms of their tools and methods. Their equipment is rudimentary – most still used hand hoes – and only now are they employing what Westerners would consider basic farming practices like pruning to increase their productivity and production.  However, as I learned from an earlier mission to Nicaragua, we cannot look at the pictures we see in developing nations through our North American lens. As I listened to Ivan and others, it was clear to me that Ugandans have suffered greatly from political strife. Indeed given their struggles, it was impressive to see how far they have come in such a short time.

The same can be said of the co-operative movement in Uganda. It too was devastated by war. Once a strong sector in the country’s economy, Uganda’s dictatorial governments all but wiped out the democratically-controlled network. “It was like committing suicide to talk about co-operatives,” Ivan explained.  In fact, Uganda’s “whole social structure completely collapsed” under the regimes of rulers like the infamous Idi Amin. “War was so bad we could not mobilize co-ops,” UCA manager Patrick Okello said.

Now that Uganda is no longer “under the rule of guns” and people are relatively free, the co-operative is enjoying a resurgence. And that’s in no small part due to the collaborative efforts of UCA and CCA. In fact, its IFAPI co-operative business model has been so successful it is now being replicated in other African countries.

I could not think of any better way to spend the latter part of the International Year of the Co-operatives witnessing first hand how Canadian supported-co-ops and credit unions are helping lift people out of poverty and stand on their own two feet.

It’s magic

Collins Kamakech, DEI ACE, RPO

Seeing co-ops come to life in Uganda
Here we were in northern Uganda, thousands of miles from our Canadian homes, the blazing sun heating up the tiny SACCO (Savings and Credit Co-operative) office where we had gathered, and we’re talking about building a snowman as a metaphor for creating a co-operative.

A month earlier, the SACCO board was in this same office, huddled around the manager’s computer  to watch a video Prince Edward Island co-operator Siri Jackson-Wood had made, of children rolling, shaping snow into a frosty figure that smiled at them from the screen.

Siri, who was one of six Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) volunteers that delivered a pilot program in northern Uganda, called the Development Ladder Assessment,  used the video to illustrate the power of belonging to a SACCO.

Journey of discovery
It was a fitting start to our own journey of discovery into the lives of the rural poor.

As we saw over and over again during our study mission, there is something magical about seeing a co-operative come to life when hands and minds are joined.

As we know, the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012 presented an exceptional opportunity to tell the world about the many ways credit unions and coops are “building a better world.”

When the calendar turned to this historic year in January, 2012, never could I have imagined that eleven months later, I would be in northern Uganda, witnessing first-hand how credit unions and co-ops are helping people work their way out of poverty and bringing lasting prosperity to their families and their communities.

I have had the good fortune to participate in two missions now, the first being in 2010 in Nicaragua. My trek to Uganda reinforced my belief that the co-operative model is the best model to to bring economic democracy, and a life with dignity, to people in need throughout the world.

I returned to Canada from Uganda, along with my teammates, changed people: inspired to tell fellow Canadians about the very real difference we are making in the lives of the less fortunate; inspired to become better global citizens.   Is there any better legacy IYC 2012 could leave?

Though building a snowman may not be a perfect metaphor for creating a co-operative in Uganda, given how quickly it would melt under the hot African sun, it does demonstrate how much is being achieved by working together.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Infectious smiles

Taking photos at a Kampala arts and craft market, left to right, are: Laurie Tennian, Jim Harris, Cindy Corrigan and Lacey Chyz.

Eye-opening, life-changing experience

I found myself smiling a lot while I was in northern Uganda, infected, as our team leader Karen Timoshuk put it, by the “contagious smiles” of its warm and welcoming people.

This is despite the abject poverty that overwhelmed our senses everywhere we went, from the acrid smells of open latrines and burning rubbish to the soft cries of street beggars pleading for a few shillings.

Yet in this sea of human misery we found sprigs of hope shooting up from its murky waters. This was captured in the words and photos of the SACCO, RPO and ACE members who walked incredible distances of 5, 10 and even 20 kilometres, to share their heartbreaking – and heartwarming - stories with us.

On the last day of our two-week journey of discovery, our team of Canadian co-operators and communicators, reflected on our shared experience and its impact on us as individuals.

Cindy Corrigan, director with the East Kootenay Credit Union in British Columbia, was struck by the pride she saw in the people she met with. “That pride came to me so forcefully it rocked me. Somehow I want to bottle that and I want to take it back home. I want to stand in front of a room and share that passion.”

Rolf Traichel, director with the Federated Co-operatives Limited in Alberta, said the story he planned to tell when he returned to Canada was that Ugandans are people “just like us. They want their kids to go to school just like us. They want to build a house just like us. They want to have financial security just like us.”

Adele McGuire, an accountant with the Metro Credit Union in Prince Edward Island, was “amazed just how much they (Ugandans) believe in co-operative values. They seem to really thrive on co-operative values and really want to belong there (SACCO).”

Jim Harris, communications specialist with Manitoba Central, agreed. “The spirit of co-operation and the importance of co-operatives here (in Uganda) is something we can share back in Canada.”

Lacey Chyz, communications and member relations officer with the Lakeland Credit Union in Alberta, said the mission validated her dedication to the advancement of the co-operative movement among youth. “All along my goal has been to bring back to Canada the co-operative values I believe in so strongly.”

Both Deborah Chatterton, public relations professional with Vancity in BC and Jennifer Nelson, travel writer and representative of Saskatchewan Central, both spoke of the strides the Ugandans have made in releasing poverty’s grip under IFAPI, an innovative approach CCA and UCA have taken to rural development in northern Uganda. Though Ugandans' measure of success is small by Canadian standards, Deborah said it had changed her definition of prosperity.

With those parting words we parted ways, convinced, more than ever, that the co-operative model is the best model to help people in need provide food, shelter and well-being for their families.

We left Uganda both sad and happy. Tired but inspired. Changed people that are determined to become better global citizens.

I can think of no better way to end the International Year of Co-operatives than to have witnessed first-hand how co-operatives and credit unions are empowering people to build a better world.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On the Farm

              Justus Kasaugatu and his wife Eves Kasangaki, members of Brecco SACCO
In a Growing Business
Today we are winging our way back to Canada, our heads and hearts filled with the moving stories Ugandans shared with us – stories of how the partnership between the Canadian Co-operative Association and Uganda Co-operative Alliance has helped them to build better lives for them, their families and their communities.

For me, the memories include clasping a farmer’s black hand in mine and demonstrating the meaning of CCA’s “hand-up-versus-hand-out” approach to aid.

We were discussing the Integrated Financial Agricultural Product Initiative, an innovative program developed and delivered by the UCA in collaboration with the CCA that links agricultural co-operatives and savings and credit co-operatives to promote rural development.

In the rural areas of Northern Uganda where this model has emerged, farmers now have access to local primary co-operatives, second tier marketing and supply co-operatives, and SACCOs which provide all important financial services.

John Kennedy, a soya and maize farmer in Nyaravur, is among the 6,000 Ugandan producers that are pooling and marketing their produce through co-ops. “With this bulking we have a ready market for our products and we are realizing more profits.”

This is confirmed by IFAPI survey findings, which showed that in 2011-12, members of rural producer organizations increased their revenue by a combined 30 per cent.

The farmers we interviewed during our two-week study mission also reported significant increases in productivity as a result of the training they received in best farm management practices under IFAPI. In some cases the growers doubled and even tripled their yields thanks to this capacity building program.

Natural resources
The farmers also recognized that Uganda’s agriculture sector could be sustainable, even profitable, given the country’s rich natural resources, but only provided IFAPI continue to bridge their knowledge gap with training.

Indeed, Ugandan farmers have natural advantages that Canadians would envy – a favourable climate that allows for two growing seasons and the ability to produce a wide variety of crops, plus fertile soil and plenty of untilled land.

However, compared to Canada’s agriculture industry, Uganda’s is decades behind, with many of the farmers we met still using hand hoes to seed their crops. UCA officials we spoke to during our debriefing in Kampala cited two reasons for the apparent lack of progress – “politics” and over 20 years of civil war.

In some cases, farmers were forced to abandon their farms and others that remained risked having the fruits of their efforts stolen by rebel soldiers.

The war’s impact on Uganda’s agriculture sector is still very much in evidence by the rudimentary practices and tools farmers employ in production.

However, this is changing as farmers, no longer “under the rule of guns”, return to the land to carve new lives out of Uganda’s red soil, aware of the tremendous potential it holds and guided by the knowledge they have gained from IFAPI and the co-operatives it has helped to form.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The "Unbankable"

         Armstrong Abdubango, Dikiri Kabucan SACCO (micro credit co-operative)
CCA-UCA partnership promotes trusted places to save, borrow, insure

 Before SACCOS (credit unions) were formed in the rural Ugandan communities we visited, people hid their savings under mattresses, in holes in walls. They even buried them in termite hills.

Robberies were common. Some lost all the money they tucked away when fire burned their thatched clay huts. Savings were buried and never found after a family member died, having failed to disclose the money’s location. Savings were even eaten by rats, lured by the smell left on the bills by previous handlers, like fish mongers.

Those that did their banking at commercial institutions were frequently ripped off. Some were “very embarrassed”, in the words of Brecco SACCO members, to discover that their meagre savings had disappeared due to high “service” charges on their accounts. Often they were refused loans, being part of the rural poor that were deemed “unbankable” by the private sector banks. In addition, the distances that separated them and the banks made it too costly for most to do anything but make sure their money was well hidden from thieves and rodents.

Olivia Mugisa, Brecco SACCO treasurer acknowledged “you can’t do your banking at home.” However, the rural poor had limited options when it came to savings and loans.

 That changed 10 years ago when the Uganda Co-operative Alliance, joined with the Canadian Co-operative Association, to design and implement a program that would help to build sustainable livelihoods and reduce poverty in the sectors of agriculture, finance and micro, small and medium enterprise development (MSME).

Trusted places

One of its main thrusts was to encourage the formation of SACCOs, community-owned savings and loans institutions that provide poor and middle class households with trusted places to save, borrow and insure.

In the decade that has followed the launch of IFAPI (Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative), the number of SACCOs has increased from eight to 22 in northern Uganda. These democratically-controlled, member-owned centres now play a significant role in the socio-economic development of the communities they serve.

“Now we know how to sell our products,” said Brecco SACCO member Stella Kannyege. “We know how to save money and pay it back. We know how to control our businesses. And we know how to build groups.” 

The ripple effect of these micro credit co-operatives has spread throughout northern Ugandan society.

Impact on women

Louis Odhur, a widow and farmer in Omoyo, said her SACCO’s promotion of gender equality has had a positive impact on the women in her community. “They do not fear things now. When there are meetings they attend. It has given them courage.”

 Robert Parmu, loans officer with the Erussi SACCO, said women are now borrowing money to pay for their children’s schooling, independently of their husbands, resulting in greater “harmony in the homesteads.” Other outcomes have been a reduction in domestic violence, substance abuse and crime.

“People can now take care of their lives and control of their own destiny,” Chegere SACCO manager Peter Aceny said. “We say no more going back. We are moving forward. We are continuing until reach our destination – sustainability.”



Sunday, December 2, 2012

African Safari

As the old saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. So I will let the photos I shot today from a simple point and shoot camera to tell the story of my African safari and boat tour. We are staying in the Murchison Falls National Park, the largest park in Uganda for some R&R before returning to Kampala tomorrow for debriefings on our Canadian Co-operative Association Study Mission.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bridging the Gap

Sister Mary Atimango and MUWOGORO member Paula Atimango stand before group's harvest of maize

Co-operatives helping the disadvantaged

The mothers spread blankets across the green grass and cradled their infants under the leafy shades of Itek trees.  Laughter filled the air as the women talked and their older children played with news friends. It looked like they were enjoying a picnic. “It’s screening day for AIDs,” Sister Mary Atimango said as we strolled past the village’s health centre. We were headed toward the garden and fish pond her organization created as part of its mandate to help disadvantaged women become self-reliant.

Sister Atimango heads the Mungudit Women Group (MUWOGORO, which means “God is Good”). It  has undertaken a number of initiatives to build the capacity of its membership through skills training and ultimately reduce poverty in Eurussi and surrounding area. MUWOGORO has a bakery to produce bread, cakes, mandazi and hosts for Catholic masses and a small mushroom farm. Members also receive training in home economics, food security and nutrition as well as reading and writing. Plus they receive counselling on HIV/AIDS and other health-related issues.

Not far from this mountaintop village, young men like Brian Ouuku are learning to become self-sufficient through the Boda Boda Association. The Boda Boda is a term that refers to fare-charging motorcylists, similar to cab drivers.

Until Ouuku, 22, joined this group of young entrepreneurs the future looked bleak. “I was idle. I had nothing to do.” He had limited education, having dropped out of school when his father died 10 years ago. Ouuku worked on his family’s subsistence farm to keep the household fed. Today he has ambitious goals for the future. “If I work hard I plan to get a motorcycle and God willing, in the next few years, to get a taxi car.” He will turn to his local SACCO, a savings and micro credit co-operative, assisted by the Canadian Co-operative Association in partnership with its Ugandan counterpart the Uganda Co-operative Alliance, for the loans.

“My life has improved,” Ouuku, who is youth representative on the Dikri Kabucan SACCO board said. “I can now earn a living, but I have not yet reached my expectations.”

When asked if he is a role model for his peers he replied, “Yes, it is obvious. There are some that encourage me, some that admire me. But there are some that discourage me,” he added added.

Life is very difficult for youth in Uganda, Ouuku acknowledged. “There are few job prospects, even for young men and women who hold university degrees. Their situation can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, and even crime.  “You find the youth in the video halls. You find them in the trees smoking and drinking,” said Nyamutoro Sophie Prosper, SACCO manager, who had joined us to translate our interview.

The stories that we have collected on our Canadian Co-operative Association mission have been both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  They are stories of organizations like SACCOs, Rural Producer Organizations and Agricultural Co-operative Enterprises uniting through the joint partnership of the CCA and UCA, to raise the standard of living for the rural poor.

In northern Uganda, this alliance is responsible for the development and implementation of the Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative. The strategy’s main elements are to improve skills, to raise productivity, lower poverty and to increase access to financial services.

It is making a difference for the young men that belong to the Boda Boda association and the women that are members of MUWOGORO.

Right now the 40 members of Boda Boda group shares two motorcycles but plan to acquire a third. And they have used the proceeds from fares to purchase 16 goats. Their goal is to increase the association’s membership, just as the goats will multiply in offspring, for the mutual benefit of all.

And some members, like Ouuku will learn and earn from this joint enterprise to become self-employed and self-sufficient.