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.