Virtual tour: Ugandan club pays with microloans
By Evelyn Liri
Once a group of enterprising women in the far northwest of Uganda lifted her family out of poverty with microloans, she quickly turned to helping others. Their first step? They formed a Rotary club.
The Rotary Club of Yumbe was established in April. But even before that, when the club had provisional status, its members were hard at work. Yumbe, a town of around 50,000 people with a bustling main street lined with workshops, food stalls and markets, is located between an arm of the Nile and the borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The surrounding rural region faces challenges ranging from malaria to unsafe water. Adding to the tensions, the nearby Bidi refugee camp is home to nearly a quarter of a million people – mostly women and children – who have fled South Sudan’s civil war. And household incomes in the region amount to just over a dollar a day.
The club, which has 24 members, launched a radio call for proposals for its first community project and decided to help Aciba, a nearby village of about 600 people with houses made of mud walls and roofs of thatched, surrounded by vegetable gardens. Since 2021, club members have undertaken ambitious service projects there as a pilot for their community response plans.
Rukia Driciru, founding president of the club, who runs a shop in Yumbe, says the group’s goal is to empower women and enable them to benefit economically. To achieve this, members attempt to reduce the burden of accessing key services, including clean water, to reduce waterborne diseases, improve hygiene and sanitation, and fight malaria.
The club stands out in several respects. For one thing, all of the members are women, including some who, until recently, had financial difficulties themselves. It draws its members from an existing network of women who belong to village savings and loans associations. Collectives generally include 10 to 30 people who pool their savings and take out microloans to invest in income-generating businesses. The interest is reinvested in the community. The savings associations are supported by TCP Global, a program closely tied to the Peace Corps and Rotary communities. TCP Global provides funds to increase loan pools. In Yumbe, women used their initial loans to stabilize their businesses and ensure that their children had enough to eat and could go to school. Now able to help others, which is exactly what they do.
“Club membership is made up of grassroots women of all ages, mostly from the lower economic class,” says Driciru. “We have farmers, others run retail and wholesale shops, and others are tailors. As members of the savings group, we wanted to bring something impactful to our community, and the best way to do that is through Rotary.
In a recent project, the club purchased and distributed systems that turn 5-gallon buckets into water filters for Aciba households. “The women were so excited when they drank water from the buckets for the first time. For them, it was a dream come true,” says Driciru.
A path to prosperity
The Rotary Club of Yumbe, Uganda, offers these tips for using microfinance and other initiatives to support clubs in areas that lack access to basic services:
- Encourage Rotary clubs to form village savings and loan associations to pool community savings and offer microloans. VSLAs should be business oriented.
- Promote the idea of compulsory savings by each member of the lending group.
- Ensure proper record keeping to track member contributions.
- Suggest that individual members keep records of savings group contributions.
- Support projects from interest earned on loans.
- Encourage Rotary clubs interested in forming VSLA associations to open bank accounts as a form of security for members’ savings.
- Involve the wider community in helping Rotary projects to ensure sustainability. This leads to community ownership.
- Form a Rotary Community Corps to work with Rotary clubs. The group can involve a wider segment of the community and help guide projects.
After a demonstration, 28 female community leaders were trained to install the buckets and keep them clean. “With the buckets, women can treat the water instead of boiling it, and it kills over 99.9% of germs,” says Driciru.
Annual membership dues, which fund club activities, are collected from interest on savings group loans. To make membership more affordable, the Rotary Club of Topeka, Kansas, is covering the cost of Rotary International from the Yumbe club, according to Chris Roesel of the Rotary E-Club of WASH, D9980, a group focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. Roesel helped the Yumbe club get chartered. The club is also sponsored by the Rotary Club of Arua, a larger community in northern Uganda, whose members attend Yumbe club meetings virtually.
For its efforts in Aciba, the club has partnered with two non-governmental organizations, Roesel’s P2P Inc., which works on disease prevention, and a local operation called Care Community Education Center which empowers women and children in rural areas. . Thanks to these partnerships, the work at Aciba is paying off. The village has long been served by a single water source, a borehole that was not centrally located, forcing some people to walk more than an hour round trip to fetch water. About 87% of residents said they had access to water from unprotected sources, according to a community baseline survey, conducted in August 2021 before the Yumbe Club began work there. With the help of the club and its partners, a second borehole was made available, connecting the whole village to protected water.
The club has built more than 40 latrines and installed tippy taps, simple hands-free washing stations made with a large jug and operated by a foot pedal. Access to clean water and sanitation has significantly reduced cases of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, a problem that affected around half of children under 5 in August 2021, but only 5 % of children approximately one year later, according to a follow-up community survey. .
The club conducted malaria tests and provided antimalarial treatment to village residents by creating and enlisting the help of a Rotary Community Corps, a group of non-Rotarians who support Rotary club projects. RCC team leader Innocent Buran Ajagà says the district health office has trained Rotarians and members of the Ugandan volunteer village health teams to perform rapid diagnostic tests for malaria. “Since we received drugs for the treatment of malaria, the number of people referred to the hospital for malaria has gone from about two dozen to two or three a week,” says Salila Pirio, an agent of the village health team.
With access to basic services closer to the community, Driciru says women can engage in other income-generating activities. “In the years to come, we want to see a community of economically empowered women who are able to invest in business and buy their own land,” she says.
This story originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.