Wednesday, 13 February 2013

February 24th - Erussi SACCO Day 2

Another early morning as we headed up the mountain again....  It was a market day so the road was much more busy with people walking up to sell their produce at the market.  I was struck by how difficult it was for people to simply transport their products to the market - how important infrastructure is the economy and how often we take good, well maintained roads and available, reliable transportation for granted.  It simply isn't good enough to be able to produce a good product - you need to be able to get it to market and this is completely outside of your personal control.

We moved from the 'movie theatre' to the school for the second day of training.  It was a much better facility as everyone had desks and could take notes without balancing their notebooks on their laps.  The windows provided more light and more air movement.  When discussing school generally, we learned that most members accessed the SACCOs services to obtain loans for school fees. 

We started the morning with asking everyone to give their 'elevator pitch'.  The moment I said it, I knew how ridiculous the phrase was in the context of a community without power, let alone one without two story buildings.  It was so gratifying to see how each of the participants had contextualized the 5 key benefits to make it more meaningful for their community members - it showed us that they were really considering what we were saying and I had high hopes that this would help them make their SACCO offering more meaningful to their community.

The balance of the morning was spent completing a review of the rest of the tools.  We had some good discussion; especially when it came to 'conflict of interest'.  It was interesting how these words carried different meaning for our Ugandan friends.  To them, they focused on the conflict part - they saw it as a disagreement.  We had to clarify the intended meaning through a series of examples. Given how tightknit their communities are, total absence of conflict of interest is very difficult to achieve.  They are always lending to one of their friends or family members; a lack of connection between the loans committee and the borrowers is virtually impossible and absolutely impractical.  We focused on the message that all decisions must be in the best interest of all of the members of the SACCO not just the borrower.

At tea break, a special treat was provided.  Tea was served with little balls of dough that had been deep fried - you got it:  Ugandan Tim Bits!!! 

They were still warm and so very delicious.  As I write, my mouth still begins to water at the thought of them.  Made by Sister Mary's group at the bakery, these morsels of goodness seemed to come directly from heaven.

During the break, everyone retired outside for a change of scenery. 

After the morning session, we had a chance to visit members and tour Sister Mary's operations. 

We started by hiking down to the fish pond that had been recently built by Sister Mary's group.  A short walk from the church, they had dug a big hole and filled it by diverting water from a stream.  They had built an overflow so that any excess water wouldn't breach the banks and wash them away.  The design was simple but very effective.  To harvest the fish, they would turn the overflow pipe 90 degress to drain the pond.  Sister Mary explained that during times of low water flow, they could increase the oxygen in the water by adding chicken manure.  While they were growing their first batch of fingerlings, it was obvious that the operation was well managed and would be successful. 

While walking the site, Sister Mary pointed out  a small garden beside the pond.  During a recent wedding, a florist from Nebbi expressed frustration that most flowers had to be trucked from Kampala, some 350kms away.  Ever the entrepreneur, Sister Mary had begun planting flowers that she could sell to the Nebbi florist.  She was always on the lookout for opportunities to provide her group with new products and ways to improve their well being.

When we got back to the Church, she showed me her bakery.  She had a coal fired oven and steel cake templates in the shape of hearts, circles and books.  She explained that when a couple gets married, the cake is in the shape of the bible.  Afterward, she showed us how paper beads are made and their embroidery work.

It was astounding to see all of the things that the Sister's group was involved in.  The power of cooperation was obvious as no one person could have managed all of these projects yet all will benefit from them. 

It is hard to express how inspiring this experience was!

We spend the rest of the afternoon visiting various members and touring their operations.  Each member would share how the SACCO had helped them expand their operations and profitability.  It was cool to hear how someone borrowed 150,000 USG and within three months had paid back the loan and generated a profit of 80,000 USG.  In addition to generating more profits, these members were also diversifying into other crops and products to mitigate risks associated with only having one income stream. 

This was the highlight of my trip - talking to local entrepreneurs about their businesses and how having access to financial services had a profound impact on their ability to provide for their families. 

In Canada, credit unions compete directly with banks.  Almost everyone has access to financial services....  in Uganda, there are many communities that would not have access to any financial services if the SACCO wasn't there.

I am thankful to be a part of a global cooperative financial services movement that plays such an important part in so many of our members lives!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Erussi SACCO - DAY 1

February 23rd

Our day started early.  We had planned to meet with the Erussi SACCO at 9am.  Erussi is only 24 km from our base in Nebbi but it is a long, hard 24km; even in the current dry season, it would take us about 2 hrs to get there.  The roads were in very rough shape - many sections showed signs of washout from the heavy downpours of the rainy season.

As we drove, we gained about 3000ft.  We saw many small villages along the way and the view was spectacular.  Looking east, we could see the Congo and the smoldering smoke signals revealing that they had experienced the same grassland fires as we had encountered the previous day.

When we finally arrived at the SACCO, we were about a half hour late. I began to worry that we were making a poor first impression with the SACCO staff and board of directors.  Given the route that we had taken, our delay seemed reasonable;  I started to understand how difficult it would be to remain on schedule while in Africa.   Thankfully, many of the other participants in today's session were also delayed and no one seemed bothered by the delay.

As discussed the day's agenda with Gabriel, our UCA field rep, it became obvious that we had very different expectations of our purpose and focus while at the SACCO.

CCA had received feedback from previous coaches that many of the challenges faced by SACCOs were very similar.  They included:

1. Savings Mobilization - convincing members to save money
2. Capital Management - balancing the requests from members for loans/withdrawals resources.
3.  Human Resources - succession planning, compensation, recruitment etc.
4.  Lending - how to critically assess member's ability to repay loans
5.  Governance - role of board, board elections, conflict of interest etc
6.  Strategic Planning - focusing on positioning SACCO for future success

To help coaches be more effective, CCA (with the help from some of the coaches) developed some tools for coaches to use when interviewing the SACCOs staff, management and board.  These tools provided potential questions to ask and proposed 'best practice' solutions or recommendations for coaches.  While coaches were free to discuss any topic of interest, these tools provided a foundational framework to guide the discussions.

We had understood that these tools were for CCA/UCA purposes but that understand was not shared with our Ugandan partners.  Gabriel had taken the initiative to share these tools with the SACCOs that we were going to visit.  While CCA had prepared us to use these tools to guide our coaching, the SACCOs were expecting to spend three days in training to learn how to use these tools.

One of the selection criteria for coaches was flexibility and adaptability.  Given the situation we encountered, it seemed that these would be important attributes for a successful CCA coach.

So, after Vanessa and I had a brief discussion, we decided to use the tools in a slightly different way; we would use them as a platform for interactive training where we would identify the SACCOs challenges and discuss potential solutions.  While this was a bit more labour intensive method, it struck a balance between the different expectations of CCA, UCA and the Erussi SACCO.

We convened in a room behind the SACCO that, we later learned (more on this later), was used as a movie theatre on Market Days in Erussi.  Flip chart paper was affixed to the walls; Gabriel began by setting out a detailed agenda.

He facilitated the start of the session and helped us understand the expectations of each participant.  Some of them were quite funny; someone wanted to focus on time management so that we could leave early, Gabriel indicated that phones were to be on silent or turned off (this would never happen and, ironically, Gabriel's phone was the first to ring :) ) and that there should be no 'unnecessary movements' (this had the same outcome as the silent phones policy).

I am pretty sure that most Canadians would attest to the fact that many of us are 'slaves' to our cellphones.  Ugandans are much more focused on their phones than we are.  Not only do their phones ring during (important?) meetings but they will leave the meeting to answer the call.  For us, this would be something that took some getting use to.  My immediate response was to take it personally and be somewhat insulted by it; I had to remind myself that this was a different culture and acceptable behavior is culturally defined. 

During the course of the day, I learned that many of my expectations are culturally defined.  When we would be working through the tools, we would ask the participants for their input.  Often we would face blank stares.  It took some time for our new Uganda friends to learn that we would not be providing the answers and that they needed to be engaged for the sessions to proceed; I am not sure if they were just shy or if the predominant pedagogy in Ugandan schools was less interactive but as we moved through the day, they slowly began to open up and share their thoughts.

In our little room, it would reach 35C by mid-morning and we all found it difficult to focus.  Our schedule was marked by a tea break at 11am and a lunch break at 1pm.  These were very important to provide a break in the day and give us time to refuel.  Lunch was brought in and we enjoyed a meal of beef, rice, matooke and cassava/millet bread.  This bread was a local staple made from millet and the local cassava root.  The bread is served in a dough-like state. 

Here is a blog on this unique  bread:  (  While our host would fill their plate with this, I couldn't get my palate to agree with it.

The training went quite well as we covered a lot of ground and seemed to make some progress on potential solutions for challenges faced in Human Resources, Lending and Savings Mobilization.

When we reviewed the latest report from Brian, the Branch Manager, to the Board of Directors, I was surprised to learn that the staff were requesting a 40% wage increase.  When we discussed this with the group, it seemed that the staff were being underpaid and there was a significant risk of losing staff to better paying jobs.  As it is, it seemed that most staff have to find outside sources of income (like having their own farm) to make ends meet.

We talked about various compensation strategies and highlighted the motivational benefits of a meaningful bonus and contrasted that with simply increasing the base salary of the staff.  The cost of living increase was discussed in terms of the purchasing power of staff's salary - that food costs will naturally rise with inflation and it is only fair that staff should always be able to buy the same amount of food with their paycheck.  I sincerely hope that the board consider these recommendations carefully as they have a strong team and the SACCO could really suffer if they don't address these challenges and lost some key staff.

During our discussions about loan delinquencies and lending, I was shocked to learn that members must physically present themselves to the branch to make their loan payment - even if they had funds in their account.  If they did not show up to make the payment, the loans officer would jump on his motorcycle and go about collecting from farmers in their fields.  This seemed to be a high risk way of dealing with loan payments since, by the end of a collection run, he could wind up with almost 6 months salary in his jeans.  We talked about the risk of robbery, fraud and embezzlement.

Our recommendation was to consider having members sign standing letters of authorization to allow the SACCO to automatically withdraw funds from their accounts as their payments are due (as is done in Canada and around much of the world, I would suspect).  They thought that their members would not go for this; to which I countered that the main reason someone may not wish to have the SACCO go into their savings account on the agreed upon payment date to take the agreed upon payment would be that they may not really be planning to repay the loan in the first place.  I stressed that decisions need to be made in the best interest of all members, not simply the one requesting the loan at the time.

During our savings mobilization session, we came up with a list of 7 key benefits to joining the SACCO.  At Gabriel's recommendation, we boiled these down to just five benefits - the reason he wanted to use five is that you have five fingers on your hand and should be able to easily remember five reasons to join the SACCO. 

1.  Safekeeping of funds -

We were surprised to learn that, in addition to the usual downsides of keeping funds in your home (robbery, lack of interest earned), that Ugandans face a significant threat of having rats, mice and beetles eat their saved money!

2.  Interest Earned on Deposits/Dividends Paid on Shares

Inflation is a significant risk.  When the crops failed in Sept 2011, the inflation rate rose to almost 28% annually!!  In addition, they face volatile pricing in their staple goods as the price rises and falls with supply - largely dictated by the length of time since the last harvest.

3.  Access to Loans

In Erussi, the only local organization to provide loans is the SACCO.  To access a loan, citizens need to become a member of the SACCO.  As in Canada, the local businesses and farmers can make much more profit if they can borrow money to invest in their production or business.

4.  One Member, One Vote

A fundamental principle of the co-operative movement, the One Member One Vote benefit of memberships provides individual members with a voice in how the SACCO is operated.

5.  Raise the Collective Prosperity of the Community

By pooling their savings and providing the SACCO with the means to grant loans to their friends and family, members contribute to the economic growth of their communities.

We stressed that each member of staff, management and board should be able to recite these reasons in their own way- they needed to formulate their pitch so that it provided meaning to their audience (members of the Erussi community). 

We put forward a challenge to the participants - we would be asking them for their 'SACCO pitch' in the morning.

All in all, it was a great day of training.  We learned some surprising things about the SACCO and were very impressed by how well they operated their SACCO without the advantage of power or computers.

We looked forward to hearing their pitch in the morning....

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Heading to the West Nile Region.....

Thanks to all that have been keeping up with my blog; too bad that I haven’t been J!!! !  I didn’t realize how difficult maintaining a blog would be.  When we were in the field, it was difficult to get a reliable internet connection.  When I had one, I couldn’t add the photos that I wanted to.  So I decided to change up the strategy, focus on what I was doing and complete my blog when I had more time.

I am now in England and expect to be able to write a little bit every day.  When I get home, I will take more time to blog about some of my more interesting experiences in greater detail.

Tuesday, January 22nd (continued)

We left Kampala on Tuesday afternoon.  Because Kampala is extremely overcrowded, a daily traffic jam occurs, snarling traffic for up to three or four hours.  Francis, our driver, tried to avoid the traffic by avoiding the main routes – as a result, we got to travel on some crazy side streets and through some pretty rough parts of town.  For me, it was sensory overload.  My eyes tried to drink it all in but there was simply too much to see.  As I indicated before, the pictures will be helpful to support my attempts to describe the sight.  There where were just so many people, shops and livestock mixed with some very modest homes.  I’ve looked through my pictures but can’t find one that can give you the perspective on this; all I can say it is was simply overwhelming.

Gabriel, our UCA field rep, was giving a lot of feedback to Francis; they would switch between English and their first language so I am not sure what they were talking about but it seemed that Gabriel was second guessing our driver’s strategy.  I piped up and told Francis that I was enjoying the scenic route.

We headed north to a town called Nebbi.  I had heard that the trip could take as long as eight hours and was surprised to learn that it was only 350km away.  It took us at least that; by the time we arrived, Gabriel had completed his grocery shopping for the week.  Each region seemed to have their own specialty and the price must have been much lower in these smaller villages.  Gabriel loaded up on jackfruit, chickens and other supplies along the way.  These stops really chewed into our attempt to ‘make good time’.  Somehow I think that this isn’t a predominant strategy when driving.  The roads definitely didn’t cooperate – there were huge potholes, delays due to road construction and big speedbumps in the middle of nowhere.  I asked about the speedbumps but no one could really explain it.

Along the way, we saw many grassland wildfires – it is currently the dry season in Uganda and wildfires are a common sight; some seemed to be threatening some of the smaller villages.  We were told that some of these may have been deliberately set to flush out wildlife, others were started by natural causes – some were very close to the road.  What struck me was the lack of coordinated effort to suppress these fires.  They were simply left to burn out.  We drove by one that was very near the road; I rolled down the window to take a video and the heat was really intense.

 By the time we got to the Leosim Hotel in Nebbi, it was after dark.  After checking into our rooms, we headed to the garden patio area for some dinner and a beer.  The garden was divided into sections by hedges – each section was hosted by a different waitress.  On the exterior of the building, there was a flatscreen television.  At the moment, the African Cup of Nations being played and was being broadcast.  There were many Ugandans in the garden watching the ‘beautiful game’.  Unfortunately, Uganda didn’t qualify for the tournament this year so most of the audience was just watching with a casual interest.
CCA runs an intern program in Uganda; two of these interns ended up in Nebbi at the same time as us – for the first couple of nights anyways.  One of the interns, John, had been there for almost 6 months while the other had been there for about two.  We chatted generally about Uganda – it was interesting to get their perspective on life in Uganda and the challenges that Ugandans face.

After the soccer game was over, the programming switched to “Beautiful but Unlucky”.  I am not sure where this soap opera originates but it is dubbed into English – I think a more apt name would be “Terribly Cheesy and Hilarious”.  If you want a laugh, here is a link to an episode on YouTube:


All in all, it was a long friggin’ drive.  The Ugandan landscape was absolutely beautiful and I was excited to meet the SACCO the next day.