The first time I met Fiona, one of Village Enterprise’s business mentors, she was wearing a blue dress and projected an air of sweetness mixed with timidity. We were gathered for a day-long training program at a hotel in Kitgum, Uganda. The training was a refresher course for business mentors on how to help business owners understand bulking, when farmers of a specific product group their goods together in order to make a higher profit, and markets.
The second time we met, she wore a white shirt with small black polka dots and oversized navy-blue waterproof motorbike riding pants and rain boots. This time, she exuded confidence. She was in her element: the outdoors amongst the business owners whom she mentors every day. Here, in a sub-county of Kitgum, where the wind is the most constant sound and the sight of another human being is infrequent, she guided me to a business owner’s home. As the business owner spoke about her poultry business, Fiona translated the entire interaction for me. She treated the business owner with patience, respect, and care.
Every day Fiona travels to rural villages to mentor our business owners. She ensures that they are on track and helps with any problems that may arise. In order to be a good business mentor, she explained, you must give yourself to the people who need you.
“Because the time you spend with them counts a lot and your presence with them also counts a lot,” Fiona explained. “As a business mentor,” she continued, “I have a lot of exposure. I learn a lot from them [business owners]. When you give yourself to them, as in getting to know them, in fact adapting yourself into their kind of lifestyle, you learn a lot and it makes your work easy. To be a business mentor, you first have to deny yourself. What I mean is having a passion for the people. You love them more than you love yourself.”
Business Mentors hold a special position at Village Enterprise. They are the individuals in our organization who interact most frequently with the people we strive to serve. They advise people. They witness success and failure. They see first-hand the daily changes that occur. They see it all.
Fiona has been working for Village Enterprise for one year as part of the Dynamic Program, which targets youth age 15–24. The DYNAMIC program (Driving Youth-led New Agribusiness and Microenterprise), a five-year rural market development program funded by Mastercard Foundation and run by Mercy Corps, aims to increase the employability of youth and promote agricultural market systems. Our role in this initiative is to empower youth business owners in a way that sustainably allows them to lift their families from poverty.
Fiona is an approachable young woman who easily interacts with her adolescent business owners. There is a quality of ease and merriment about her which contributes to her ability to work so well with them. In fact, she is only in her mid-twenties, which provides her close proximity and a keen understanding of how best to serve her youth business owners.
Fiona admits that she is partial to the businesses owned by young women. “They give their time to the business. They give their attention to the business.” The young men, on the other hand, tend to be interested in partaking in leisurely activities. “While ladies are committed completely to their businesses, the boys will say ‘Oh, Arsenal is playing today, so I have to go and watch.’ Or, ‘There’s an auction on that side of town so I have to go and watch and then dance at night.’ But that doesn’t happen with the ladies.”
Fiona is the mother of a young girl who she describes as very strong. “At times I am not able to be home and I come back and she revives me with her strength. She is the reason that I keep moving every day.”
Fiona sees herself as a good peer mentor. She mentions that she would love to be a women’s advocate one day. “Women in Uganda are overworked. They sparingly have time for themselves. And they underestimate their strength and ability. They underestimate their futures. They think that women are only supposed to do domestic work. At some point, men need to change too to be more supportive.”
I believe that Fiona is already a woman’s advocate because every day she helps young woman in northern Uganda reach their potential by ensuring their businesses are running smoothly. She helps her business owners thrive by supporting them and being a steady, positive, and certainly fun presence in their lives.