Almost always a business owner will shyly request that rather than exiting their village, we continue to provide support. Or, they might earnestly ask how we will remain in contact with them after they have completed the program. These are hard questions. We don’t take them lightly. While situations like this might seem like indicators of dependency, I’ve come to see it as something else.
Our business owners tend to be the most marginalized members of their communities. They are socially and economically disempowered when they enter our program. Through the Village Enterprise training, they are provided with an opportunity to transcend these circumstances. They see an incredible opportunity and don’t want to let go. They need to be reminded that we’ve designed our program with their future self-sufficiency in mind.
We spend the year that we have with our business owners providing them with the tools they need to lift themselves from poverty. A priority of our microenterprise graduation program is sustainability after exit. And one of the mechanisms of this is providing knowledge that lasts a lifetime.
Each step of our graduation program is crucial. By establishing savings group we provide a social network and access to financial capital, both of which contribute to a strong exit strategy. Our seed grant gives new entrepreneurs the capital needed to start a new business. Ongoing mentoring allows for support in the first fragile months of managing the business.
But what binds each step together is our training program. Each of our 15 modules is carefully crafted to ensure that business owners will be able to use their newly acquired knowledge to be lifelong entrepreneurs.. Our modules prepare participants to use their seed capital effectively, providing guidance on everything from business basics and selection to business planning and management. After program completion business mentors continue to reinforce learning and provide further insight as they follow our participants through their first year as entrepreneurs.
When I asked Sabita, a business owner in Budongo district in Western Uganda, what she found most helpful about our program, she explained that she felt that the trainings were invaluable to her as a business owner. “Money gets finished. Knowledge does not,” Sabita explained. “When you get the skills and training, it never ends, you can use it for other things.”
And this is exactly what our business owners do. Business owners often run several small businesses in addition to the one they start using the seed capital we provide. For instance, a woman might prepare mandazi (local donuts) to sell at Business Savings Group meeting or a man might buy a sack of silver fish to sell to his neighbors. In doing so, our entrepreneurs are putting their newly acquired skills to the test.
We strive to balance our mission of ending extreme poverty in rural Africa with our dedication to the success of each and every individual participant. It is from this balance that I draw my response when business owners question our exit. I delicately explain that after a year of training and mentoring, we know that they are capable of carrying on their success–and we need to continue to bring this life transforming program to new communities. We provide the tools, knowledge for a lifetime and the resources to apply it, but they build their future.