Village Enterprise has an impressive record of starting long-lived small enterprises. Indeed, 75% of our businesses continue to generate critical income for at least four years. Regardless of the outcome, the experience of starting and running a small business – the skills, experiences, and sense of hope for a better future it installs – stick with you and can be life-changing. This lesson was driven home to me during my January trip to the field.
I met Tom Okello, an early participant in the Village Enterprise program, after observing a training session for new business owners in the Teso district of Uganda. Tom learned of our visit and sought me out; he wanted to thank me for the opportunity Village Enterprise gave him and to share his story.
Tom and his team received a Village Enterprise grant in September, 1996 – nearly sixteen years ago! “We kept good records,” reports Tom, “and my group did well.” They began raising rice and ground nuts, and as they prospered, they diversified into retail, setting up a household-goods/vegetable roadside kiosk. “In a couple of years, we were even able to build a small storefront in town to house our business,” says Tom.
Their farm and retail kiosk thrived, and the members of his group used the profits to make important improvements to their homes. Tom expanded his house, replaced his thatch roof with sturdy metal, and added several out-buildings to his compound. The future looked bright.
Unfortunately, in 2003 the Lord’s Resistance Army returned to the Teso district. They destroyed the crops, stole the items in their store, and burned the building. Tom shares: “Village Enterprise had put us on our way to success… then the LRA took everything.”
Tom returned to farming and, once the LRA departed the region for good, was able to replant and eventually expand his rice and ground nuts acreage. His income similarly increased, as did his influence in his village. In 2009 Tom was elected chair of Obalanga sub-country and head of the local Teso district council, important roles in this region. He continues to maintain highly productive rice and ground nut farms.
The LRA destroyed Tom’s retail kiosk, yet they could not steal his confidence and management skills. He was able to recover from a series of devastating reversals and set himself on the road to success. “I lost my business to the LRA,” said Tom, “but they did not take the information gained from the experience I had stored in my head.” Tom concluded with this message: “My Village Enterprise business prepared me for my leadership position in the community. I am a product of Village Enterprise… the house I sleep in I owe to you.”
Tom and I thank you for your support.