The cost of an idea yet to be had

hands touching limes on a branch

I felt ambivalent as Isaac’s motorbike roared to life and we pulled out of Emukajo Gilbert’s orange orchard. I was torn between feeling a reverent awe at what this man had been had been able to accomplish in the six years since entering our program and a sense of loss for what might have been. That is what it means to be a learning organization. We strive each day, each cycle, each year to develop the best tools to allow families to lift themselves out poverty. Innovation is core to our organizational identity. And yet, the necessity of innovation comes with a cost. Each time we learn to do something better, we come face to face with the recognition that we failed to provide that improvement to previous program participants. It is the inescapable regret of an organization that isn’t satisfied with better, until it’s the best it can be. It is the unavoidable cost of an idea yet to be had, an innovation yet to be conceived.

Emukajo Gilbert, Village Enterprise business ownerEmukajo Gilbert entered the Village Enterprise program in 2009 before we expanded our training program to a full year, when our trainings were facilitated by volunteers, and the seed capital was half the amount that it is now. During this transformation, we also added a core component to our program: savings. In current programming, each program participant becomes a member of a Business Savings Group. Groups meet weekly, each member bringing with them a set amount of money to save. The group then uses the savings to provide loans to members. At the close of the year, the group distributes savings and interest accumulated from loans.

Whenever I meet our business owners, I ask them what they feel is the most valuable part of our program. Almost every single person responds simply, ‘savings.’ Our savings groups provide business owners with financial risk mitigation, a form of social capital and accountability, and perhaps most importantly, a framework within which they can begin to plan for the future. Saving money allows the saver to contemplate the potential of a life beyond their family’s next meal. Saving as little as the equivalent of 50 cents each week allows our business owners to build permanent homes or pay school fees for their children. Brick by brick and term by term, they are creating a future that they never could have imagined through their savings.

Emukajo Gilbert and his familiySix years ago, when Gilbert completed the trainings and his group received their grant, they decided to invest their seed capital in purchasing 100 citrus tree seedlings. Even though it would take three years for the seedlings to bear fruit, Gilbert and his group agreed that it would be a worthy investment. Sure enough, their first harvest reaped 700,000 shillings (about $300 in 2012 dollars). Since their first harvest, Gilbert’s group has begun selling their oranges to larger producers in Rwanda and Kenya. After six years, Gilbert’s original group still works together, meeting nearly every week to discuss their progress and plan for the coming week. As a group, they are collectively pooling their money to send two group member’s children to private school.

Emukajo Gilbert showing his plantsAnd yet, each year their harvest reaps less and less profit as they rely on the rains to water their orchard. Climate change has severely affected the seasonal rains in Eastern Uganda. When the rains are sparse–as they have been the past few years–the group suffers. “The challenge is water,” Gilbert says shaking his head. “We need an irrigation system, but we don’t have the capital.” Similarly, while two of Gilbert’s children have received the opportunity to go to school, another of his sons, probably 16 or 17 years old, sits and listens to his father tell his story. Gilbert explains that this son had to drop out of school because he can’t pay school fees for all of his children.

Nonetheless, Gilbert views his success as remarkable compared to his life before Village Enterprise. Gilbert used the tools provided to him to transform his life. “My children look at me with great happiness,” he tells me. “Especially those that are in private school. They are so grateful because they know they never would have had the opportunity to attend school if it were not for ViIlage Enterprise.” And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder what his orchard would look like if his group had been able to save for an irrigation system. I imagined the future that could have been for Gilbert’s son if his father had been trained to save money in order to account for school fees for all of his children.

Gilbert’s story reminded me of two things. First, we have learned that saving money requires a change in behavior, not circumstance. I asked Gilbert if he and his group have started saving money at all since starting their business. “We have plans to save, but spend most of our money already paying school fees,” he responded. And yet, in current programming, participants are required to start saving as soon as they enter the program. Before they even start their businesses, before they receive a grant, they make sacrifices every week to save whatever they can. As a result, participants see from the start that saving money is possible–that it requires a change in behavior, not income.

The second reminder was that our program is dependent on participant ownership. No idea, no program adjustment, no additional training is comparable to the power of someone invested in transforming his or her own life. If Gilbert could demonstrate remarkable success with half the seed capital, a volunteer run program, and no exposure to savings culture, imagine what a program participant who starts today could achieve in six years. It is this thought that grounds and directs our work. Rather than dwelling on what could have been, we must dwell on what could be. We must continue to learn. We must continue to get better, by striving for the best. Because each idea yet to be had, each innovation yet to come, holds inconceivable potential to transform more lives, better.

Emukajo Gilbert and his son reaching up

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