Village Enterprise often conducts its programs in villages where no other nonprofit organizations operate. Working in rural areas for Village Enterprise is a challenge as well as an opportunity.
We recently entered into the Kigorobya subcounty of Hoima, Uganda. The village is named Kyabasagazi II. It is 39kms (24 miles) away from Hoima town and home to 300 households. It borders Budongo Forest Reserve in the south of the forest, which is why it is part of our conservation and poverty alleviation program. The area is home to many ethnic groups, including Bagungu, Banyoro, Ukebu, Lugbara, and Alur tribes.
To give you a picture of the extremely poor conditions these households live in, 98% live in grass/mud huts, 90% are illiterate, and most children only complete school at the 4th grade level. To these villagers, a moderately wealthy person owns one goat. Senior Director of Operations and Programs, Konstantin Zvereff comments, “This village is the poorest I’ve ever seen in Uganda.”
Village Enterprise was the first NGO to operate in the area and the first organization to work with the poor through business training, seed capital provision, and the Business Saving Group program. Being the first organization, the community was skeptical about Village Enterprise’s mission and motives, even after community introduction meetings and multiple visits to the area. In order to be part of the community, we worked with local leaders. Even with their support and optimism about the program, many potential business owners were skeptical. They were confused about why they should be given “free capital” in the form of a grant instead of a loan. Additionally, there was a history of land grabbing and eviction in the region, so the program participants were fearful that Village Enterprise was here to take their land.
Many efforts were made by Business Mentor Mildred and the rest of the Village Enterprise Hoima staff team in order to calm these tensions and dispel false assumptions. During this time, some business owners like Margret Falayi appointed herself the group Spokesperson to voice the village’s concerns. We held a special meeting run by Senior Director of Operations and Programs Konstantin Zvereff, Associate Country Director Winnie Auma, and Hoima staff members. Konstantin reaffirmed how Village Enterprise works and how it gets funding from donors and foundation in the United States. Business owners asked key questions about timing and planning. After Konstantin’s answers, they became hopeful and happy. Some even called themselves Village Enterprise Ambassadors.
On March 1st 2013, the grant disbursement finally took place. The disbursement was led by Anne Olson, Director of African Operations. Community members are now happy with Village Enterprise, believing the program deals with the root cause of poverty and conservation. Business Owners, after receiving the grant, started laughing and there was lots of excitement and fun.
Reflecting upon this experience, I have realized a few things. First of all, it is vital to have passion and hope in everything we do. Working with the ultra-poor requires a lot of patience, understanding, and commitment. It was a learning experience working in such an extremely rural community and we faced more challenges than normal. Nevertheless, the excitement and hope the business owners now have is a great reward.