On the Front Line: A conversation with our field leadership on Village Enterprise’s response to COVID-19

On May 21, we hosted On the Front Line with Village Enterprise, a webinar with our senior field leadership, Uganda Country Director Winnie Auma, Vice President of Africa Operations Taddeo Muriuki, and Chief Operating Officer Zach Hoins.  It was a very thoughtful discussion about how Village Enterprise is operating during the pandemic and innovating in real-time to support our business owners.

After the webinar concluded, we received a handful of great questions submitted by viewers. We have gone through each one and provided answers, which can be found below. Additionally, if you would like to watch a recording of the webinar you can do so here. We have also provided minute by minute timestamps of the various topics covered during the webinar which can also be found below. 

COVID-19 has upended the world, but Village Enterprise is committed to adapting and overcoming challenges we are faced with head-on.

Webinar Breakdown

  • 4:04 – Welcome from CEO and moderator, Dianne Calvi
  • 4:50 – “On the Front Line” video
  • 6:37 – Dianne: The economic forecast for the extreme poor in Africa and some highlights of Village Enterprise’s efforts so far to aid our business owners and protect our staff.
  • 9:06 – Introduction of senior field leadership, Winnie Auma, Uganda Country Director, Taddeo Muriuki, VP of Africa Operations, and Zach Hoins, COO
  • 9:46 – Winnie: The current COVID-19 situation in rural Uganda, and the outlook for the future.
  • 13:50 – Taddeo: The current COVID-19 situation in Kenya, how it differs from Uganda, and the outlook for the future.
  • 16:45 – Winnie: COVID-19’s impact on Village Enterprise’s small business owners, the challenges they face, and the opportunities they seize.
  • 22:00 – Taddeo: Effect of Kenya advancements in technology and infrastructure The effect on the implementation of Village Enterprise’s program adaptations due to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • 29:25 – Winnie: Village Enterprise’s response to the crisis and to help our business owners overcome their challenges.
  • 34:35 – Taddeo: New methods of building capacity and supporting Village Enterprise field staff
  • 40:15 – Zach: Village Enterprise’s plans to ensure our organization’s resilience through the crisis.
  • 46:50 – Winnie: The specific effect on women from the pandemic.
  • 50:30 – Taddeo: The immediate and long-term economic consequences.
  • 54:10 – Zach: COVID-19’s impact on business savings groups.
  • 56:50 – Winnie: How businesses are adapting to bridge new gaps.
  • 59:30 – Taddeo: More of Village Enterprise’s methods to support business owners in crisis, and the introduction of stimulus grants.

Viewer Questions and Answers

Is it likely that restrictions will be lifted more quickly in rural areas since people are more outside there and the virus does not spread so easily outside and the prevalence is mostly in the bigger urban areas, as you said?

Most of the COVID-19 cases in Kenya are domiciled within the major urban areas and border points. Initially, the government decided to take extra precautions and impose countrywide travel restrictions and curfew hours. We have started to see the gradual easing of restrictions in areas with low COVID-19 prevalence, but travel embargoes are still in place for Nairobi/Mombasa and border towns with Uganda.

I did not really understand the importance of mobile fund disbursement. Could you explain that again, please?

There are many reasons mobile fund disbursements are important. The most significant benefit is that it reduces overall risk. Typically disbursements involve staff members withdrawing money from the bank, counting it, packaging it into envelopes and bags, carrying the bag in a vehicle to the field, and then disbursing the money to our entrepreneurs. By adopting mobile cash transfers, we can increase accountability, traceability, and scalability of the cash transfer process. At the same time, we are able to safeguard our staff. Mobile disbursements are also much faster, which saves time and energy for everyone involved. However, there are still challenges that we are trying to address, poor network, registering and confirming new SIM cards and lines, and getting liquid cash to the last mile through a network company. The ability to do mobile cash disbursement has never been more critical as gatherings have been banned and in-person disbursements have not been feasible due to COVID-19.

Are Village Enterprise field staff able to continue the training of new business owners and start new businesses at the same rate as before the COVID crisis?

We have currently suspended our in-person operations since large gatherings are banned and transportation is very limited. Additionally, we are not starting any new businesses, but instead providing remote mentoring to existing business owners to help them adapt during the lockdown. However, our goal is to begin training new business owners in July — pending countries are reopening in mid-June as expected.

Tell us more about this ‘design challenge’. What problem are you trying to address? How does the Design Challenge work? 

Over the past month, the Impact Creation team has collaborated with Village Enterprise staff to launch a Digitization Design Challenge. This Design Challenge team is led by Meshack Mbinda, director of technology solutions, and includes seven field staff members. Celeste Brubaker, vice president of impact, serves as the Impact Creation point of contact responsible for the facilitation of the process. The team is currently involved in 120 different research tasks, from business mentor interviews, analyzing Nike ads, and speaking with representatives at One Acre Fund. They are currently in the inspiration phase of the Human-Centered Design process and will move to ideation (including lean testing) and implementation phases in the months to come. The goal of the Digitization Design Challenge is to identify how we might significantly scale our reach through digitally programming while maintaining impact. The other goal is to include as many voices as possible in this process, from business mentors to country directors.

One of the main problems we are trying to address is how to effectively communicate with our business owners during a time when we can’t go to the field. We are working on implementing a text message system that will send our business owners valuable information about health and safety, tips regarding agriculture, and other helpful advice.

The team is also currently in the ideation phase and is carrying out three lean tests, including a micro-pilot aimed at testing whether a stimulus grant is likely to be productively invested by Business Groups in the current economic environment. The goal of the Pandemic Capital Design Challenge is to identify how we might ensure our business owners have the necessary capital to effectively run their businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the US there is an increase in domestic violence, has Village Enterprise seen this in their business owners’ situations?

Although Uganda is reporting a rise in cases of domestic violence, we have not received any specific case reports from our business owners. We have a component of family support integrated into our program. Although there is one member representing a household at the business group or program, the whole household is educated on the role they play in helping the representing business owner succeed in the business. The whole household knows what the benefit is. The business benefits when everyone is living in harmony and it’s in their best interest for the business to succeed. Since the beginning of COVID, we have stayed connected with our business owners and have provided both emotional and business support which we believe is going a long way to help families stay united.

Are you worried about a larger (than usual) number of businesses going out of business? Are you considering making additional grants to existing businesses to help them weather a downturn rather than focusing on the formation of new business groups? 

In early May, Village Enterprise’s monitoring and evaluation team conducted phone interviews with over 1,000 small business owners in order to learn the most significant issues they are facing right now. The results show that the countrywide shutdowns of transportation and markets in Kenya and Uganda have severely affected our business owners, with many of them unable to sell their goods without a market. 71% of business owners in Uganda and 84% of business owners in Kenya report that their revenues have decreased either significantly or somewhat. Many businesses may not be able to overcome this crisis.

In order to mitigate this risk, the team is currently in the ideation phase and is carrying out three lean tests, including a micro-pilot aimed at testing whether a stimulus grant is likely to be productively invested by business groups in the current economic environment. The goal of the Pandemic Capital Design Challenge is to identify how we might ensure our business owners have the necessary capital to effectively run their businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A related challenge at this time in East Africa: how is the locust problem impacting our business owners? 

This is a great question. John Francis Omusolo, our business and savings lead based in Soroti, Uganda, wrote a great blog post about this matter which you can read here.

Village Enterprise has done a good job educating business owners about environmental sustainability when choosing/running their businesses. How will this crisis affect this focus?

It’s a known fact that most vulnerable communities when hit by shocks ultimately turn to the environment, especially forest resources, to supplement their incomes. COVID-19 has basically curtailed and disrupted most demand and supply chains. Uganda imposed a nationwide lockdown for over a month and during this time the business owners were engaged in garden work which was not disruptive to the environment. The biggest threat to the environment in the areas we work is charcoal burning. During this period, however, the demand for charcoal fell due to lack of transport leaving some space for the environment to rejuvenate.

Although the COVID-19 disruptions are happening, it has also presented an opportunity for Village Enterprise to speed up the pivot towards digitizing most processes including training. We will continue to test and refine a number of innovations tailored towards making sure that environmental sustainability is preserved. Such innovations will include testing new types of businesses that are not heavily reliant on the environment like poultry and pig rearing, encouraging the production of value chains that enhance soil productivity. This is and will be done through linkages with key private sector players within our areas of operation.

Does Village Enterprise see only micro-enterprise continuing to run a solution to the crisis we are facing? Are you thinking about providing anything else (masks, soap, etc)? 

Although we believe micro-enterprise will be an integral part of resilience for our business owners, it certainly won’t be the only area where intervention is necessary for success.  It is the primary area though where expertise can be integral. With that being said, we will continue to go above and beyond the health guidelines given by country governments and public health officials in our areas of operation to ensure people have masks and access to handwashing facilities.  As we see gaps, whether it be a lack of supplies or adoption of protocols, we will seek ways to close them through our program as well as linking with partners who have expertise.

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