A cheerful and kind-hearted woman, Irene serves as WMI’s Deputy Assistant Local Director and has had a large role in shaping WMI over the past six years. One of WMI’s pioneer borrowers, she also volunteered to help organize her group members (borrowers work in groups of 20). Later she was selected to participate in a Training to Train program where she learned how to train others. Now WMI’s head trainer, Irene has worked to educate new borrowers about business skills, managing small businesses, writing records, making a budget, and more. Through this training and resulting business success, gender relations and living conditions have improved. Irene explains, “Women are now empowered. Where there is WMI there is a change. Women are not shy like they used to be. They are happy!” Women are also able to contribute more to their households, which has improved relationships in the village. Using her hands to demonstrate that husbands and wives have come closer, Irene observes that “when you over depend on somebody you become a body. But now when you are also contributing, that relationship—you become close, you are close to each other.”
In addition to healthier relationships, Irene tells us that the members of the community are physically healthier since she began taking loans with WMI. “Buying clothing for children, feeding, everything was very difficult.” WMI has helped rural Buyobo, Uganda develop and will continue to do so. It gave Irene the tools she needed to move out of poverty and she willingly works to make the same possible for other women across Uganda.
Irene has changed her business several times since taking her first loan in 2008 and this new business has become more profitable. While she was originally selling second hand clothes, her second WMI loan enabled her to introduce shoes to her business. By the third cycle of the loan program, Irene used her profits and the loan money to switch to selling produce. Now, having graduated from the two year program, Irene can self-finance her business and is also pre-approved at WMI’s partner bank to take commercial loans as she needs them.
Irene has noticed a great improvement both in her own life and in the community since WMI began due to increased access to education. Irene’s daughter recently graduated from University and she has another daughter who is graduating in August. She also has children in primary and secondary school. “Had it not been for WMI,” Irene says, “I think I wouldn’t have any money. The little salary I get [from teaching alone] is not enough to pay for University.” This sentiment is echoed throughout Buyobo—many women use their profits to pay school fees for their children. Irene is not alone in saying “education is number one. I give it priority.”
Despite the value women place on educating their children, paying for school fees is not always easy. Most men are farmers, Irene explains, so the local economy is very dependent on coffee. Since coffee is harvested in the fall, paying school fees in January is generally not a problem for most families —however, Irene notes, “when the season is over, we go back to our poverty.” Women who have businesses they started with WMI loans tend to have more savings and a more constant source of income, and have less difficulty paying school fees for the second semester. Through its sustainable impact on education, Irene feels that “WMI has helped not only Buyobo, but Uganda as a whole. Because if I educate my child she can work anywhere in Uganda…as you educate the child you are investing in that child. With time you get the fruits!”
Irene’s daughter is now searching for a scholarship to continue school and explore the world. “We do not want them to end where we have ended. They will reach beyond!”
A recent article in New Vision, a Uganda daily newspaper, proclaimed: “Uganda’s Onion Production Too Low.” The article urges Ugandan farmers to capitalize on the current demand for onions. “Onions are on demand because of the various advantages, but our production does not even reach half of what is required.” Deep in rural northeastern Uganda, surrounded by steep mountains covered in thick vegetation rising from the fertile soil, is Buteza village.
This is where you will find The Onion Queen of Buteza – a borrower in the WMI program. She plants and harvests thousands of these purple bulbs each year, selling them to neighbors, traders and townspeople. Uganda is blessed with two growing seasons, so she harvests twice a year, once in the winter and then again in the summer. After harvesting she stores her onions and waits until the perfect time to sell. Late in the growing season, when the current crop is not yet ready and the local supply of onions from the previous harvest has dwindled, she opens her stores and sells her onions at a higher price. The Onion Queen of Buteza did not have to read the New Vision article to know that onions are a sought after crop that stores well. As a savvy rural businesswoman armed with a WMI loan, she has developed a comprehensive understanding of the fluctuations of the local market, the needs of the local consumers, and advantages of her crop.
WMI is frequently asked why we do not train women in creating handy-crafts for export to the United States. Paper wallets, hand-woven African baskets, colorful-beaded jewelry and other handy-crafts are all staples of the non-profit-supported African export market. Non-profits identify products for participants to produce for export, provide loans and training to develop the business, and then create the export chain. Although this is a common model, WMI’s program encourages women to choose their businesses based on their skills, contacts, and the dynamics of the local economy.
The Onion Queen of Buteza knows that onions are a stable crop to invest in because not only are they hearty and can be stored for long periods of time, but also because they appeal to the local consumer and are affordable. There is an immediate customer base for onions; The Onion Queen does not have travel across the ocean to find a market for her goods. While there is a huge variety in the businesses that WMI borrowers own, they all have one thing in common: they are producing goods that cater to the everyday needs of East Africans.
Cultivating local markets is an integral step in building strong economies in the developing world. The WMI loan program not only helps individual women raise the standard of living for themselves and their families, but the program also supports the rural economies that are the backbone of East Africa’s larger economy.
Next Wednesday, May 7 is Bonus Day. Contributions up to $1,000 will receive a 30% matching beginning at 9 am EST. $75,000 is available! Please make a donation to WMI to help borrowers like the Onion Queen of Beteza. Thank you!!
On a Thursday late in January, the women of Buyobo Uganda started preparing food for the annual WMI graduation ceremony. For two days they cooked, and the night before the graduation they took turns sleeping at the office to oversee the final cooking. The day started with a brass band leading the parade of hundreds of borrowers, guests, government officials, and villagers through the town. The ceremony honored all of the women who completed their two years of successfully borrowing and repaying loans from WMI. Guest speakers praised the borrowers on their success as business women and their ability to pay well for two years and transition to commercial bank loans. The entire village, along with guests from WMI’s other program across Uganda and Kenya, came out to enjoy the day. It was full of entertainment; some borrowers performed a drama, the primary school girls completed a cultural dance, and the band impressed the audience with its acrobatic stunts! And of course, to feed all the guests there were 300 pounds of rice and massive quantities of bogoyas (like plantains).
Among the attendees was a WMI program borrower named Beverly from Shikokho, Kenya. Beverly made her first trip across the border into Uganda -- traveling with five other women by bus for six hours. Beverly is a member of the Chanuka Women’s Group WMI loan program and is on her third loan cycle. She is looking forward to graduating next January. She said coming to see the Uganda ladies graduate was an inspiration and made her determined to succeed in the WMI loan program. The Chanuka program will hold its first graduation this summer so she was eager to learn as much as she could.
Beverly, a typical borrower in the WMI loan program, is 35 years old, married, with six children. She has a hair salon. With her first loan she bought supplies -- a hair dryer and hair chemicals -- and was serving women “just around.” With her second loan she moved to the market and rented a stall. She is now getting many customers. Being in a fixed location helps. Her marketing is word of mouth. With her third loan, she has also opened a small side business to sell tomatoes and vegetables to school children (we see this all the time – ladies know to diversify their products).
She said it is not difficult for her to repay her loan. She said there is enough of a market to support businesses in Shikokho, “Those who were idle here – even if they start a small business with a loan they can make money.”
Beverly said the loan group support at the village level is critical for the women, and so is the training, especially when they are first starting out. She praised the WMI loan program: “Our brain is working here and there – we are not just idle.”