June 26, 2015

Six Weeks of Gratitude: My Time as an Intern

Looking back on my six short weeks as a Village Enterprise intern, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a team of inspiring, driven individuals all motivated by a deep passion for Africa and an overwhelming desire to change the hopes of better futures into realities. The energy and passion for Village Enterprise’s mission is tangible and contagious in each and every employee. It has been a truly unique and inspiring experience to work with a team of individuals so moved by their goal to eliminate poverty and have an impact on the future of others.

I was so drawn to working at Village Enterprise because not only is it an investment in my own future, gaining work experience and learning from industry professionals, but more importantly it is an investment in the future of others. Village Enterprise’s work in East Africa has positively impacted the lives of thousands of East Africans, in turn giving them the ability to create a brighter future for their families, their communities, and themselves. While my work in the San Carlos office was far from the villages in Soroti, Hoima and Kitale, it revolved around the stories and voices of individuals in the field who were changing their own lives. I cannot express how inspiring, rewarding, and humbling it has been to contribute however minimally to their stories and their futures, and I am so grateful to have been able to witness their progress firsthand. From the weekly field updates to the daily surprises such as the recognition in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article, “The Power of Hope is Real,” there was not a dull moment during my time as an intern.

Although my six short weeks as a Village Enterprise intern are up, my relationship with Village has just begun. I will carry the work ethic, passion, and vision of the Village Enterprise team with me forever. I sincerely want to thank the Village Enterprise team for giving me the opportunity to learn from and work with you over the past few weeks, and especially Caroline for your guidance, patience, and contagious laughter.

Asante sana for an incredible experience!

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Scout Swenson – Institutional Development Intern

    June 5, 2015

    Operation Save Saiwa: How We Overcome Obstacles in Targeting and Recruiting

    Saiwa Park is the smallest national park in Kenya covering just 2.9km² and was created specifically to protect the habitat of the rare Sitatunga aquatic antelope. In contributing to the conservation efforts around the park, we are working with youths in a village neighboring the park called Sitatunga by providing them with business and financial literacy trainings.

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    This is a pilot project specifically targeting youths to help them start non-land based businesses. When rolling out the recruitment of the youths for the project, we did not anticipate how hard it will be getting them to enroll for the program. We recruited about seventy youths and invited them for trainings in a local church but on the meeting day, only 33 turned up. The Business Mentor working in the village embarked on a second round of sensitization within the village but again the following week when we scheduled a meeting only 26 youths turned up! We thought this would get better the following week (Week 3) but again the turnout was even much lower, only 19 people!

    This became a serious concern and after brainstorming we realized sensitizing the youths to enroll for the program needed a different approach and thus, “Operation Save Saiwa” was born. Ten Business Mentors, two Field Coordinators and two office staff embarked on a mission to traverse every corner of the village sensitizing the community and in particular the youths about the program and its benefits. This was a whole day activity that brought the village to a standstill as the Village Enterprise staff walked around the village talking to the people and clarifying any concerns they had.

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    Finally the community was invited to a meeting the following day and this time round the turnout was amazing with 63 people turning up! We have had two meetings to date and the turnout has continued as expected. Operation Save Saiwa demonstrated the zeal and passion of Village Enterprise staff towards helping people living in extreme poverty improve their lives!

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    While walking around the village the opinion leaders were so impressed with Village Enterprise. Some said to us, “We have never seen an organization like VE! We cannot believe there is an organization out there that goes door to door looking for people to train and give them seed capital to start businesses with such persistence! Another said, “This is a life changing moment and day for Sitatunga village. We will live to remember this day when light was brought to Sitatunga village.”

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    All in all, as the field team, we continue to learn and stack up skills on how to deal with different communities and target different populations. We are definitely better off than we were before the start of the pilot! Our commitment to a world free of poverty will never waiver.

    Authors: Kwatoya Mike and Calistus Imbayi

      June 2, 2015

      From Hope to Dignity: Notes from a Village Enterprise Vision Trip

      “Bleeding Hearts Rejoice!” said Nicolas Kristof in his recent NYT piece about the work of NGOs in the third world and inner cities…  There is hope for the poorest of the poor. I saw it myself on a recent visit to Uganda as a part of a vision trip hosted by Village Enterprise (VE), an NGO that works in East Africa.  I was there to photograph some of their projects. 

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      A Bit of History

      Uganda is at the intersection of some of Africa’s most well-known but conveniently forgotten travesties in my lifetime. Idi Amin ravaged the country in the 1970’s with his dictatorial rule. Amin’s rule was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement. The number of people killed as a result of his regime is estimated to range from 100,000 to 500,000.  After Amin came the AIDS epidemic that is thought to have infected 15% of the Ugandan population at its peak in the early 1990’s.  Most recently, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, ordered the abduction of children to become sex slaves and child soldiers.  An estimated 66,000 children became soldiers and 2 million people were displaced internally from 1986 to 2009.  To give a bit of perspective, Uganda’s population is similar to and has grown at a similar pace as California’s over the same time period.

      This tragic history wiped out not only a large portion of the population, but also it’s collective memory related to nutrition, hygiene and business.  Imagine huge pockets of people who are starting from scratch, living in mud huts, with no sanitation (nor any understanding of its importance), no knowledge of farming or keeping animals, and no means to move to the distant towns that promise to provide some basic services.  Even if they could move to the nearest town with education, water and sanitation, there is no work and no social services to feed them.  And if they did, that would mean that 90% of the rural population would descend upon the small towns and cities. 

      What I saw

      Entering the first village that was in its early stage of engagement with Village Enterprise, we were greeted with cheers and welcome smiles by the community.  I could see the beginnings of hope in the eyes of the people.  They had planted their first crop of sesame.  The elderly spokesman who spoke through a tracheal device in his throat told us about the recent difficulty he was having with a white mold that was developing on the leaves.  Their VE business mentor suggested a chemical solution that is available in the nearby town (50 km away, 2 hours by motorbike).  The old man had no means of getting there and not enough money to buy the chemical solution.  Although he needed a much smaller amount for his field, the quantity that was available for purchase was 10x what he needed.  The business mentor reminded him that a loan from their community’s business savings group (a part of the program) would help him to get the chemical to save his crop, and would enable the other neighboring farmers to get it as well if they pooled their resources.

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      That first village and then the subsequent villages in various stages of training with the program illustrated how the “graduation” program works, why it works and what makes it sustainable long after Village Enterprise moves on to another needy remote community.

      What I learned-

      Village Enterprise selects its target village by speaking with the neighboring communities and individuals within those poorest villages to target the very poorest people.  If they have a cow, they are too rich.  VE works with each group of three people to determine which business is right for them and their community, without relying on external buyers or supporters for success.  Not every business in a village can raise chickens and have all be successful. VE provides a small two-part grant to launch the businesses on their way.  It’s used to purchase, seeds, a cow, chickens, a sewing machine, etc.  Each person in the group of three plays a different role in the business.  Each group is a part of a village business savings group that acts as a self-run savings and loan.  Businesses grow through loans from within the community, keeping all members responsible to each other.  The grants are only about 25% of the VE cost per business.  Most of the budget is invested in the mentors who spend one year training the business groups in community relations, business, finance & book keeping, hygiene, sanitation, nutrition, family planning, and writing a constitution for the savings group. It is all a part of a graduated approach that leads to understanding and the will to succeed as a family, a business and as a community. 

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      VE Business mentors learning their craft

      Evidence of Success
      In April 2015, I was privileged to witness human beings move from subsistence farming/gathering with a mere glimmer of hope at the sight of VE entering their village to full blown growing businesses whose proprietors beamed with dignity.

      A woman in a remote part of northwest Uganda was asked by a member of our travelling group how her life has changed in the two years since village enterprise came to her village.   She said that her stomach ulcers have disappeared thanks to better nutrition.  Now she has more physical strength to tend to her children, to work and have a clearer head to learn more.image4

      Children in the first village had none to threadbare clothes at best.  I saw a constant stream of yellow mucus running from the noses of many of the children in that first village.  Their faces were dirty and their bellies distended from malnutrition.  As we travelled through the many villages, I began to notice that the children were better clothed, healthier and cleaner in direct correlation to their engagement period with VE.

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      Where early stage villages may have had a small goat or a pig, later stage villages had cows, chickens and healthy (e.g. pumpkin and amaranth) & varied crops growing in their fields.  I even saw an old motorbike that was shared by the entire community to take its members to a clinic, pick up needed farming materials, or deliver crops to a local marketplace.

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      Early stage villages were simply a smattering of small crumbling mud huts.  The people sat on the dusty ground for their two-hour training sessions.  Later examples had clean beautiful huts with new straw roofs, separate toilet facilities, showers and a tippy-tap (a simple hand washing station made from sticks, a plastic bottle and a bar of soap on a string).  The people wore shoes and sat on clean mats during the training.

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      When asked what is the most valuable part of their experience with Village Enterprise, each and every villager who replied said that the most valuable aspect was the training they got from their local African VE mentors.  The mentors speak their language (of which there are many in that part of the country), understand their culture, and live in their regions.  The mentors travel far, yet visit weekly to train, mentor, and check in on their villages.

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      Village Enterprise Business Mentor

      When wondered if the knowledge they learned and experience they gained from Village Enterprise was shared with their neighbors; we heard that often villages who aren’t a part or don’t fully qualify for the program (perhaps because they own a cow), often sit in on the mentor visits to benefit from the training.  Others say that they are now training other community members with what they’ve learned during the course of the program.

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      Curious young village boys

      We met Helen, a single mother who began with nothing.  Thanks to VE she now is in her 17th year of a successful sewing business and has opened a clothing store in town.  To share with others what was invested in her, Helen now pays the school tuition and mentors seven girls: a friend, two daughters and several nieces to keep them off the street and not pregnant.  They are learning her craft while making a little money of their own and helping her to grow her business.

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      Helen and her shop

      How is this not a sustainable, organically growing success story that inspires ‘Bleeding Hearts to Rejoice’?  It is for this bleeding heart!

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      Success!

        May 28, 2015

        A Place Called Hope

        Bibian Musunjaji, two years shy of celebrating her jubilee years of living and 1 year in the program, has kind words to say about Village Enterprise. Her’s is a story collected as part of the “Most Significant Change” evaluation approach recently deployed by the Monitoring and Evaluation team. This is what she had to say about how the Village Enterprise program has changed her life:

        “Before joining the Village Enterprise program, I used to do casual jobs for my neighbors barely making enough to feed my family and cover the daily expenses and the hospital bills of my children when they fell sick.”

        Her children did not perform well in school due to lack of regular meals and were being sent back home every now and then for exercise books and pens. Her children are now well dressed and attend school forging ahead with building their future. She also said now that her children feed better their performance in school has significantly improved.

        She goes on: “Village Enterprise taught me about record keeping from differentiating from income and expenditure to tracking the expenses thus determining the health of my business i.e. making a loss or profit and make the necessary decisions. Every day I compare the actual funds in possession with what the record books has and make sure the funds match.”

        Mrs. Bibian Musunjaji has opened her own bank account with a local bank and saves regularly.

        “Any profits I generate from my business of retailing sheep are re-invested into the business, a part kept for the undetermined future and some used on the daily expenses. Moreover I contribute to an emergency fund in our BSG (Business Savings Group) to plan for any unforeseen incidents. As the chairlady of the BSG I have gained invaluable experience on how to mobilize people to a common cause, run meetings and solve disputes that arise.”

        Bibiana Musunjaji

        At the moment Bibian is constructing a permanent house from the savings and profits generated from her business.

        We are truly inspired by Bibian’s story and will be sharing more of the “Most Significant Change” stories from the field to show glimpses of change through the lens of business owners.

        “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”

        – Desmond Tutu

          May 27, 2015

          The New York Times References Village Enterprise

          Nick Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, has published an amazing column in the New York Times, “The Power of Hope is Real”, specifically mentioning Village Enterprise.

          The column addresses the just released six-country study in the journal Science, which gives much needed visibility to the effectiveness of the ‘graduation methodology’ – a critical approach that is effectively reducing the rate of extreme poverty. Village Enterprise was named as one of the programs that is successfully lifting people out of extreme poverty with a graduation approach! We are so pleased to be recognized as one of the organizations that is effectively lifting people out of extreme poverty and bringing a sense of hope to their lives.

            May 5, 2015

            Village Enterprise at the Global Philanthropy Summit in D.C.

            [Washington, D.C.] April 26th, 2015

            Board Chair, Debbie Hall, attended the Global Philanthropy Summit in Washington, D.C. It is rewarding to hear how the work and impact of Village Enterprise is meeting the needs and creating the changes called for by conference speakers like World Bank President Jim Kim and leaders in corporate philanthropy like Shamina Singh of MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth.

             

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            World Bank President, Jim Kim, challenged the audience to reach the remaining 1 billion people living in extreme poverty; while great progress has been made, this next billion will be harder to reach because they are in fragile states or remote, difficult-to-reach areas. He criticized the bank’s past focus on GDP growth and stated that they are are moving toward “conditional cash transfer programs” that create motivation to work. Village Enterprise is a prime example of this type of program.

             

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            Jim Yong Kim Speaks at the Global Philanthropy Summit

            Nick Khazal

             

            Working groups with leaders from MasterCard, Visa, and Women’s World Banking emphasized the need to increase “financial inclusion” and “social inclusion” — development buzzwords to extend the reach of financial services and social networks that can build hope and encouragement for the poor. While 600 million more people are using banks in 2015 (vs. 2011), the number of those who are women has not budged.

             

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            Village Enterprise meets the need for financial and social inclusion.  We create savings circles for people to save money and borrow from the accumulated savings pool. Most importantly, our business mentors, training groups, and savings circles provide those we serve with an opportunity to give voice to their needs and accomplishments, to find support for personal and family challenges, and to confidently become decision makers in their families and communities.

             

            A sense of urgency to meet the desperate needs of the poorest, and to stay focused on the efforts that deliver results, was expressed by Olara Otunnu with this Uganda proverb: “The hunter in pursuit of an elephant doesn’t stop to throw stones at birds”.

             

            For more information on the Global Philanthropy Forum please visit: http://philanthropyforum.org/conference/

              March 24, 2015

              A Day in the Life of: Program Associate Melvin Shisanya

                 It is dawn again and I can hear a distant crow signaling a new day. I wake up, take a quick shower, prepare breakfast, and head out. The sun is rising in the distant horizon sending its bright rays to the day.

              The aroma emanating from the ground is intoxicating. Children are rushing to school clutching their plastic bags as mothers run helter skelter to make sure their children and husbands are ready to tackle their daily chores.

              I take the 10 minute walk to the office a walk I have taken for almost a year since relocating to Kitale in Trans Nzoia County where we currently operate. Slowly my mind drifts away from the walk to a reverie.

              The Village Enterprise logo appears in the distance a woman gazing into the horizon with a child clutching on her dress. There is a tree in the background which typifies the African savannah grassland. It is a sign of hope, a dream of a better future captioned by our vision, world free of extreme poverty and chronic hunger. This is what we stand for and fight for because we believe.

              Working with Village Enterprise for me has been mind-boggling if not an out of earth experience. I walk into the office; it all looks very informal with no official signs and plagues hanging on the door or desks, ubuntu. It is simply hard to tell who is who in the office. We work as a team but there are laid down structures with functional team leads and a country director in each office.

              I sit at my desk, which is kind of Sheldon’s seat in the Big Bang theory a comical television series. The spot is ideal as it allows me to talk to everyone without any distractions and is a window, which allows a cool breeze all day with ambient temperatures and sunlight.

              I settle down and power on my computer and check my mail and respond to the urgent ones and add to my to-do list those that have added tasks. I open my projects and pilots, templates and presentations and reports. I also sign in into Skype, which allows us to talk with our peers and heads on anything and even have calls across countries.

              There is coffee brewing and a waft of doughnuts smell as the rest of colleagues settle at their desks check their mails and start their daily activities.

              We argue about local politics, chat about field experiences, nag about the economic conditions and talk to each other with the occasional laughter to break the silence as the day progresses. They are the stunning colleagues, workmates, friends, partners and business associates; they are the people who give me a reason to go to work another day.

              Soon it is lunch time and we take a break to eat sometimes our packed lunch or the chapati and beans stew from the local restaurant.

              The afternoon heat is intense and almost lulls you into a siesta but the constant jokes and soft music playing in the background keeps you awake and focused hurrying to finish the due deliverables, attend Skype meetings, analyze data from the field to help you generate a report and fix the computers or phones to ensure that there is seamless running of events in both the field and office.

              It’s 5 o’clock the end of another long day at the office and as I take the walk back home, I meditate on my day activities, decisions and innovations and hope that I have made a difference in someone’s life the difference I want to see in the world.

              As I retire to bed I think about the woman and the child gazing into the hopeful future and hope to see the logo again.

              Coming all the way from Kitale, Kenya, Melvin gives a glimpse into day to day life as he knows it.

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              Melvin standing in front of the Village Enterprise Office in Hoima, Uganda

              BOSs after SB disbursement in  Kaplebyong

              Entrepreneurs after a SB disbursement!

              Melvin Shisanya grew up in Kakamega County, Kenya and graduated with a degree in Technology: Telecommunications & Information Engineering from Technical University of Mombasa. Before joining Village Enterprise, Melvin worked as a technician with Solutions Generale in Kigali, Rwanda and was an intern with Chandaria Industries Limited in Nairobi, Kenya. Melvin spends his free time developing websites and programs, reading novels, listening to music and watching movies.

                January 27, 2015

                A Hare-Raising Success Story

                Screen shot 2015-01-27 at 1.43.39 PMLife in rural Trans Nzoia county–the “green basket” of Kenya and home to our new Kitale office—is peaceful; it boasts an ideal climate and excellent soil. Despite these advantages, many of its residents live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day.

                Agnes Kwamboka and her family used to be included in this number. Agnes and her husband worked as day-laborers during the planting and harvesting seasons in an effort to make ends meet. At home, they barely grew enough maize on their half acre of land to feed their family.

                As if life wasn’t already hard, Agnes’s sister passed away suddenly and left her two young sons in Agnes’ care. “You have to take care of family, and that is what I did.” Now raising four young boys, she struggled to keep the children fed and also keep up hope. Agnes first heard about Village Enterprise after visiting a relative in nearby Kakamega who had started a successful business after participating on our program, and prayed for a similar opportunity.

                In 2014, Agnes enrolled in our program and started receiving training and mentoring from Business Mentor Imelda Midzukani. Agnes loves having someone to encourage her. “I respond really well to Imelda’s training and enjoy learning all these new business concepts. She is always positive. She laughs a lot and is a great mentor and teacher.”

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                Agnes and her two partners decided to start a rabbit business. Why rabbits? “Limited competition, good demand and short reproduction cycles.” The three entrepreneurs sourced local materials and built a rabbit hut at Agnes’s home. They started their business with a male and female rabbit, which quickly produced six offspring that will be ready for sale in December.

                “December is the best time to sell the rabbits. . . it’s the ‘festive season’ when people will pay a premium.”

                In addition to her rabbit business, Agnes has used the Village Enterprise SMART (Smarter Market Analysis Risk Tool) process to identify new crops to farm on her home plot. She has reduced her maize plantings (a low-risk/very-low-profit crop) and is now harvesting kale. “I’m excited about our future. With the new skills and knowledge I’ve acquired through training, I’m able to reinvest and expand my business.”

                Before Village Enterprise, Agnes faced a life of hardship without the tools and knowledge to improve her life. With her new-found income, Agnes is able to better feed her family, pay school fees, and afford medical care.

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                  January 13, 2015

                  Grants vs. Loans

                  A frequently asked question is, “Why does Village Enterprise give grants and not loans?”

                  Our mission is to end extreme poverty through the creation of sustainable businesses. We serve people living on $1.25 per day or less in rural Kenya and Uganda. We believe that by generating income, people are able to address the deficits in nutrition, health, education, housing and so on that constitute the roots of poverty.

                  After 27 years in the poverty alleviation sector—including forays in both microfinance and unconditional cash transfers— we have honed a multi-faceted, integrated and highly cost-effective method that works best in rural East Africa where few, if any, banks exist.

                  Here are three reasons Village Enterprise provides grants rather than loans:

                  • We work with people who don’t already have a business. A $150 micro-grant serves as a spark to light the fire of entrepreneurship and awaken the capacities of potential entrepreneurs who are willing to invest time and energy into improving their lives. Loan repayments must typically start immediately and don’t provide the critical “breathing space” to nurture a new business to success.

                  • The rural ultra-poor seldom have the knowledge to use a loan effectively. The heart of the Village Enterprise model is our nine-month training program that imparts business and financial information and provides mentoring to often illiterate but hardworking participants. We believe in the proverbial “teaching to fish” method rather than just providing money to buy fish.

                  • A small seed grant gives business owners an immediate kick-start in improving their family’s standard of living. Profits generated from their new enterprise can be used to address critical family needs (food, medicine and school fees) and build capital and savings for their fledgling business rather than to repay high-interest loans.

                  Completing the picture, Business Savings Groups (BSGs) act as a safety net and provide access to growth capital (and serve as our exit strategy). Borrowing and lending to and from one another through self-governed and self-funded BSGs protects our new business owners from the shocks of illness or natural disaster that can otherwise lead to debt and despair. BSGs give participants a way to pay for unanticipated essentials like medicine or funeral expenses without using (or putting at risk) productive business assets such as seeds, tools, and livestock. The BSG also provides access to capital when a business opportunity presents itself.

                  Our results speak for themselves. On average, people begin the program living on the equivalent of $1.18 a day and graduate one year later with resources equal to $2.07 a day, an increase of 75%. This impact is long-lasting: 75% of our businesses are still operating four years later and over 30% of our recipients start a second or third business. Eunice and BOVillage Enterprise give the rural ultra-poor an opportunity to secure a rung on the economic ladder in their communities. Later on, a loan from their BSG (or from a micro-finance institution) can make good business sense, once an individual has a reliable income stream and business experience.

                    January 6, 2015

                    Developing Local Leaders: Winnie Auma

                    Winnie Newsletter Headshot Village Enterprise’s commitment to empowering our in-country staff and promoting from within is recognized throughout the East African NGO community and was highlighted in the spring 2013 Stanford Social Innovation Review. Ugandan country director Winnie Auma could be the poster child for the effectiveness of this model.

                    Since joining Village Enterprise as a business mentor in 2011, Winnie has been promoted four times. A passionate young woman with a dazzling smile and charismatic personality, Winnie grew up in the Ugandan community where she first mentored our entrepreneurs. Her knowledge of local ways, her intelligence and her commitment to give back make her an exceptionally effective leader and eloquent speaker on behalf of her VE team.

                    Winnie’s success was far from assured. The last born of 15 children, she was sent to live in a mission when she was just seven years old. When Winnie was ten, her older brother took custody of her and made sure that she was able to attend school. Tragically, Winnie’s brother passed way when she was still a teenager. Her brother’s close friend (“Auntie”) saw greatness in Winnie and helped her stay focused on her studies.

                    Upon completion of secondary school, Winnie earned a full scholarship from the prestigious Female Scholarship Initiative of the Carnegie Foundation. After she received her BA in Education from Makerere University in Kampala in 2008, she worked at Alliance High School as a teacher and then at Erimu College as an administrator.

                    Reflecting on her work with Village Enterprise, Winnie comments: “We are writing a new chapter in the lives of those we serve. You can see and feel the improvements we make… there is nothing more exciting than helping make change happen.”

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