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‘This is our shop’

April 1, 2021

With mentorship and a microloan, a group of women in a Kampala neighbourhood grew their business during the COVID pandemic.

photos by Esther Mbabazi

text by Marcie Good

In the twilight at the open door of the clothing boutique, Pamella Nakanyi removed a dress from a mannequin, carefully folded it up and placed it on one of the shelves inside. She chose a stretchy floral number and deftly tugged it over the model. She shooed away a toddler who was reaching inside the sudsy mopping bucket, and moved on to reclothe the next model. 

The little girl is the daughter of Juliet Mutonyi, who told me how she, Pamella and 12 of their friends started this shop. Many of them were single mothers, and they needed an income. “We had nothing to do,” she said, and she seemed to be telling me that the women banded together because they needed a purpose. 

Juliet Mutonyi started up the Kitale Women’s Association with a group of her friends

The shop is in a small house on a hillside in a neighbourhood of Kampala, Uganda. I visited in March 2020 with Sustainable Villages leader Simon Nambafu. At the time, the Kitale Women’s Association had been operating their business for about a year. 

It started through a connection: Juliet was a neighbour of Simon. He encouraged her and her friends to come up with a business idea. They wanted to sell clothing, and they started out by taking second-hand items from the street markets directly to neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Then they began sourcing out new clothing from suppliers. Their customers would give them orders for specific items they had seen somewhere, and Juliet and her friends would search it out in the markets or at their agencies. When they had reliable income, they rented a shop. Then they had another idea — they all needed basic groceries like sugar, oil and flour so they opened a kiosk selling those items and employed a young orphan girl. 

All along they relied on Simon’s business advice and his encouragement. But at the time of my visit, they had done everything with no grant or loan. They were learning from the bottom-up. 

Over the next year, they weathered the storms of COVID. They lost income and had to close their shop. But with a $300 start-up grant from Sustainable Villages, they bought a sewing machine and focused more on the designs created and sewn from African fabrics by their own members—items with bigger margins. Through the lockdown they continued selling to their customer base. By the end of 2020, they had opened a new shop and created a new source of revenue, becoming agents for a mobile phone company. Most people in Uganda do their banking on their phone, and they can visit the shop to deposit cash on their account or withdraw cash. For the women of Kitale, the banking business is a reliable source of income and it also represents an important move into a male-dominated industry. 

Back in March 2020, Juliet told me how the women had found strength together. 

“As a group you bring in many new skills, many new ideas, and you share the work a lot,” she said. “The profits become less in terms of sharing because you are many, but you don’t become stressed to do everything by yourself. Where one fails, another one adds on, complements the other.” 

In early 2021 the Kitale Women’s Association was chosen to receive a $2,500 loan from Sustainable Villages, and they will use this to buy at least one more specialized sewing machine and expand further. 

Since they started the business, their lives have significantly changed. With steady income, they were able to improve their families’ food security, nutrition and hygiene. Some of them have moved to better homes, even bought small properties. They have new status as business owners, and can apply for loans from banks. 

The women have become an example to others, who also want to join. “Possibly they can encourage them to form their own groups and do something different,” Simon explains, “because everybody is seeing that they have made progress.”

To support women entrepreneurs in Uganda, Tanzania, DRC or Burundi, visit us here.

Caregivers Collective

August 10, 2020

A community group near the Ugandan town of Iganga looks to fulfill its social mission through agriculture

As Noah Isanga speaks to the 20 people seated in a circle in the community hall, only the child squirming in his mother’s lap makes a murmur. These people have waited all day for this meeting, and they have much work waiting at home. Their outfits—bright floral printed shirts and ruffled dresses—show their respect for this occasion and they sit motionless, listening to his message. 

Noah is sitting beside Simon Nambafu, their guest, and explaining how Simon came to be involved. “Our idea was to support the orphans,” he says. “At first we said, ‘what can you contribute, what can I contribute’ and so we came together and said, ‘let’s start a small garden, let’s start a piggery, let’s start this and that.’ And that’s when I reached out to Simon. I said ‘there’s a problem,’ and he said ‘ok ok ok. How are you going to do this?’”

The original idea he’s talking about was four years ago, although Women Alliance and Children Affairs (WAACHA) goes back further than that. He and the board of WAACHA, which includes his wife Susan and his daughter Susan, wanted to help this group, each of whom is carrying an enormous responsibility of caring for orphan children. WAACHA found ways to help the caregivers, holding workshops on parenting strategies, providing neighbourhood watch for the children, providing psycho-social counselling for the children, distributing food, and connecting HIV positive children to health service providers. But they wanted to start farming, in order to help these foster parents in a long-term, sustainable way, and that’s why Noah called Simon. 

The two of them speak with a warm familiarity, and when Simon introduces himself to the group he jokes that “I was brought up in his hands, so I know this home and this place.” In fact they met in 2006, at a nearby university in Jinja where Simon was working in administration and Noah was a professor. Simon learned about WAACHA and helped them with their computer questions. After he moved away, he kept coming back to visit Noah and his family. 

Now, Simon is explaining Anhart’s Sustainable Villages, speaking in English as Noah translates simultaneously into Lusoga, a local tribal dialect. They have the same way of shaping their phrases with their hands, and their words of encouragement overlap and blend like voices in a fugue. 

“We work in mainly three areas,” says Simon. “We call it PIF (pay it forward) — small business, education and health. Because we know that with good health, with good education, with incomes then they can become sustainable and be independent. 

“So what do we do? At first we worked with individuals, but then we discovered with individuals we are not becoming accountable and responsible. So that’s why we said we’re going to work with CBOs. If you want to work with us, you must be registered as a CBO, you have a bank account, and then from there you sign an agreement with us. And then you write a request for funds. This business idea needs to be reviewed, that all of you as a group will benefit. Because our method of management is called bottom-up, not top-down. We don’t make rules for you. It’s you guys. You say this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to grow, and this is how we become sustainable.

“Then after some time you have improved economically, then we call it Pay it Forward. When we give you the funds, you work with it, make profit with it, you don’t need to bring it back to us. But we help you identify another CBO, then you pay it to them.”

At this moment the room breaks into applause. Noah invites them to ask questions, and they all pick up on the key points that Simon has discussed, like how should WAACHA’s projects become sustainable? Another asks what Canadians do for orphans, and they shake their heads in disapproval when I answer that many children are raised in the government’s foster care system. 

Noah translates for one woman who begins by thanking Simon for his visit. “She’s saying that we have been so poor, you can have a plan but you have no capital, that has been our challenge. We may have constructed the barn but no livestock, no chicken,” Noah explains. “We are happy when you come in with small loans we can build up ourselves. And that is a very encouraging gesture. So now that you have come we are happy because we are able to solve those problems. We are ready to work with you together.” 

The group has a stoic determination that doesn’t lift after the meeting ends and they head off in various directions. But in the weeks to come, they have milestones to celebrate. Two hundred chicks are brought to the farm. All the caregivers help weed the maize, beans and peanuts, and together they wait for the harvest. 

‘A very nice harvest’

With a pay-forward loan, a group of neighbours in rural Uganda buy chickens, plant crops and plan to buy their own field

At first glance the field is a neatly tilled stretch of soil, surrounded by a wall of sugarcane stalks and bathed in golden afternoon light. But be careful, Noah Isanga warns me as I step into a furrow. Sure enough, just four days after planting, small green sprouts are beginning to appear. 

It is a hopeful start for a group of people waiting for small miracles. Their CBO, called Women Alliance and Children Affairs (WAACHA) received a $2,500 grant in February 2020 and used it to buy 200 chickens and rent this field, which they have planted with maize, beans and peanuts. Another three-acre field a short drive away is used to grow onions and maize. The group, which includes several members of Noah’s family and 15 neighbours who are each caring for orphan children, all helped to prepare, fertilize and plant the fields.

Susan Iganga, secretary of WAACHA and Noah’s daughter, explains to me that they will give each family a portion of food from the harvest, but most will be sold and the profits saved to buy land for the group within a year or two. “We’re expecting a very nice harvest here,” she says, “but we decided for now we are not going to get money, because if we divide it up it will be over.” 

The tall thick stalks of sugarcane surrounding this field seem like a barrier, and indeed they are: most land in this area is owned by larger companies that sell the perennial crop to big sugar processors. The industry is a double-edged sword here; a factory in the nearby city of Jinja is the biggest local employer, but the dominance of the crop has minimized local food production and made small farm ownership very difficult. 

Noah Isanga talks to Simon Nambafu in front of the chicken coop.

Simon Nambafu has known Noah Isanga for a long time, and has offered the group advice and encouragement on their business activities. Some time ago he helped them buy 15 chickens; last year he visited them and found they had grown the flock to 150. They also recently replaced a team of oxen with a tractor, paying for it from their own funds. Simon saw their potential and recommended them for a pay-forward loan. They plan to buy a different, fast-growing breed of chickens that will be ready for market in two months rather than the usual four.  

While this group has been operating social and business initiatives for many years, they have struggled to find a consistent and sustainable revenue model. Simon is happy with their recent progress but he wants them to encourage members to grow their own enterprises instead of acting as one big group. “They have good leadership and good accountability,” he says. “It’s a group I’m looking at as being able to produce other CBOs in the area based on their model because Noah has a very good network.”

Update

In August 2020, WAACHA celebrated a successful harvest. See pictures below!

Free trades

July 14, 2020

A vocational school in Northern Uganda built by Anhart partner Simon Nambafu equips young people with skills and a set of tools upon graduation

Photography by Esther Mbabazi

Students at Soroti Youth Skills Centre were sent home during Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown, but the instructors in carpentry and metal fabrication continued to produce windows, doors and furniture for customers. Students are selected based on their financial need, and receive free vocational and business training and counselling. With new classrooms in the works, Soroti is slowly building up to 50 students. “What we fight for every day is to make sure we touch the community,” says general manager Vicent Musamali. “If the person has a skill, the life of that person will improve.” 

The Soroti Youth Skills Centre also operates as a business, selling furniture and metal works such as gates and window frames.

Anhart supports Soroti through its partnership with Simon Nambafu, who leads business and community development in the Sustainable Villages program. He worked with a Swiss organization that provided funding and volunteer instructors to build the school, which opened in 2017. Several graduates who set up their own metal fabricating business have been supported with Anhart’s start-up grants. 

Simon has been in contact with a group of South Sudanese refugees that live near the city of Arua in northwest Uganda. He plans to build a vocational school in this settlement offering tailoring, metal fabrication and cooking. This project will be considered for future funding.

‘Where one fails, another one adds on’

May 28, 2020

A group of women builds a clothing enterprise in Kampala by sharing their skills and their resources

In the twilight at the open door of the clothing boutique, Pamella Nakanyi removes a dress from a mannequin, carefully folds it up and places it on one of the shelves inside. She chooses a stretchy floral number and deftly tugs it over the model. She shoes away a toddler who is reaching inside the sudsy bucket she just used to mop the floor, and moves on to reclothe the next model. 

The little girl is the daughter of Juliet Mutonyi, who is telling me how she, Pamella and 18 of their friends started this shop about a year and a half ago. Many of them were single mothers, and they needed an income. “We had nothing to do,” she tells me, and she seems to be saying that the women banded together because they needed a purpose. 

The shop is in a small house on a hillside in a neighbourhood of Kampala. Juliet knew Simon Nambafu, who is now translating her Luganda for me because she insists she can’t speak English. Simon, who mentors entrepreneurs through Anhart’s Sustainable Villages program, encouraged the group of women to come up with a business idea. Most clothing available at street markets in Uganda is second-hand, so they wanted to sell new clothes. They found several suppliers and started out by taking fashions directly to neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Their customers would give them orders for specific items they had seen somewhere, and Juliet and her friends would search it out in the markets or at their agencies. 

As their business grew they were able to rent this space for a permanent shop. They received a $300 start-up grant from Anhart last year and were able to buy a cell phone. As they expand, they want to focus more on the African tie-dyed fabrics they carry from a local maker and on clothing designed and made by members of the group. These items have higher margins. About half of them have sewing skills, but their production is limited because they only have one sewing machine, which they bought with their early profits. They want to buy at least one more, and a specialized serger for finishing seams. 

“As a group you bring in many new skills, many new ideas, and you share the work a lot,” she says, explaining how they have grown faster as a group. “The profits become less in terms of sharing because you are many, but you don’t become stressed to do everything by yourself. Where one fails, another one adds on, complements the other.” 

The group also started up another initiative, a grocery kiosk carrying basic items that they all needed—soap, sugar, oil. “These families, they are the ones that become the customers,” Simon explains. “Instead of their money sitting still, it’s ploughed back into that. And they have created employment for one teenage orphan girl who has no mom or dad. She is working in the store.” 

The women have become an example to others, who also want to join. “Possibly they can encourage them to form their own groups and do something different,” Simon explains, “because everybody is seeing that they have made progress.” 

He steps out of the store to take a call, and Juliet switches to near-perfect English. We had dropped into the shop on short notice because our travel plans had changed due to the coronavirus threat, and she tells me she was sorry they hadn’t known earlier about my visit. All 20 of the women would have been here, she says. Next time we will all be here. We will cook for you, a traditional bamboo dish, and do African dancing. Next time, she keeps saying. Next time. 

Sustainable Villages provides small-business grants to community-based organizations like Kitala Women’s Association in East Africa. To support small business, maternity clinics and schools, visit here.

‘The soil of an anthill makes great bricks’

May 4, 2020

Simon Nambafu, an entrepreneur who runs Anhart’s Sustainable Villages Initiative, is building his experimental farm in central Uganda to address poverty and hunger

It’s been just over a month since Simon Nambafu last visited his farm, in a rural area 75 km north of Kampala, and he is shocked by what he finds. We’ve just walked over a stretch of rough terrain scattered with weeds, banana trees, and coffee plants, and arrived at a clearing. There is a two-storey tall tower of bricks. 

“Where we are standing, it was a huge anthill,” he explains. “You wouldn’t even bring a truck here.”

The tower is the work of one of his employees, Abudalah Mukiibi, who dug out soil from the anthill and moulded bricks. He fired the bricks in kilns and piled them on top, applying mud to the outside to trap in the heat and raise the temperature. Simon is impressed by the deep red colour of the bricks, the quality (anthill soil has fine particles and makes great bricks) and the overwhelming quantity. 

It’s more than enough for the guest house and chicken barn that Simon plans to build. For his first projects — an office and produce store at the property’s entrance, he purchased bricks. It was Abudalah that suggested they make their own. “When we began, I just wanted, say 1,000 bricks,” Simon says, recalling their conversation. “He says ‘No! Why so little?’” The tower has 20,000 bricks. He does a quick calculation of how much money Abudalah has saved him: more than $5,000.

Simon checks out the new home of ENP Uganda: an office and a store for selling the farm’s eggs.

The brickmaking project is in the creative spirit of the farm, called ENP Uganda (Enterprising Non-Profit). This is one of four such operations—the others in Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo—in Anhart’s Sustainable Villages Initiative. The program gives grants to community-based organizations, similar to local non-profits, to build small businesses, maternity clinics and schools. While the program operates with donations, it is designed to grow through local business development. ENP Uganda will generate profits to support the initiatives of grassroots organizations that work to alleviate hunger and poverty.

In 2018, Simon purchased this four-acre property along with a 30-acre field in partnership with Anhart. At the time it was a wilderness of creeping weeds and overgrown trees. His team has cleared the ground several times in preparation for soya beans and maize, and cultivated coffee plants, banana and pine trees. Soya beans are grown on the other field to feed the chickens, which have already generated enough revenue to buy 30 goats. A swampy area on the property is designated for a fish pond.

The farm is on track to start giving grants to local groups next year. Simon, who also built a school for girls in Tanzania and runs a safari and tourism enterprise, mentors leaders in the SVI program, and they visit his farm to learn agricultural and business skills.

As we drive on the bumpy rural road to the main highway to Kampala, Simon is thinking of the brickmaker. You can put all kinds of resources into a business, but ultimately it is the human ones that matter. “He is creative, he is committed, he works without supervision,” says Simon. “I am thinking of making him permanent.”


“With coffee it is like this. If you don’t prune it they become big wild trees. When we came in here, some were wild trees and not even producing coffee. So we brought in a professional and he said ‘ok remove that one, prune that one,’ and we did that and planted new ones. These are short, maturing, but at the same time high yield.”

Sustainable Villages Initiative is a program of Anhart Community Housing Society, which is a Canadian registered charity. To support social entrepreneurs building small business, maternity clinics and schools, please click here.