Food aid, for the first time

Watching the trucks full of rice, beans, cooking oil, and corn meal roll in felt like defeat. In 18 years of
running an NGO in Uganda, we had never had to give out food. In fact, the philosophy of our
organization had been to never give handouts. Instead, when we started SYPO, our aim was to simply enable the entrepreneurship of Ugandan women—giving them a chance to build a better future for themselves and their family.

So, instead of handouts, we give loans. “Microcredits”, to be precise. Small business loans, typically $100-500, with a repayment period of a year. The women borrow in groups of five, responsible for each other’s weekly repayments. The businesses they start or expand are typically farms (including improving inputs such as fertilizers to double productivity), shops, market stalls or little restaurants selling ‘chapatis’ and local dishes in the villages. We are hardly the only microfinance institution in Africa—in fact you may have heard about the success of this model many times. But we work where others do not: in remote, rural areas, away from the cities. For most microfinance institutions, it is simply too
expensive to work in such far-away places. High transaction costs (most microcredits in Africa are paid in cash and in-person) break the business model, and force microfinance institutions to focus on urban areas. This means that the rural poor generally still have no access to financial services. Our aim was to change that. Using an innovative flat organizational model, no-nonsense operations, and, most importantly, tech solutions such as ‘mobile money’ (payments from and to simple Nokia-like phones, that most of the rural poor have), we were able to bring down operational cost by as much as 60%. All our microcredit disbursements, and almost all ~200,000 yearly repayment transactions, flow through mobile money and are automatically registered. Instead of collecting repayments, our Ugandan field team can focus on selecting the right women to support, and linking them to like-minded local entrepreneurs to optimize their business.

Consider for example Betty Nakiranda in the village Namaiba. Betty used her first microcredit to expand
her farm—leasing an extra 2 acres and renting a tractor to plant sweet potatoes. She used a second
microcredit to open a market stall in town, and a third to start a little catering business, cooking for local weddings and funerals. Betty now employs 15 people. While she no longer needs loans, she’s still active in the organization. With our birds-eye view of micro-entrepreneurship in the region, we were able to link her up to other women who want to start similar businesses, and Betty has been helping them with advice about vendors, how to keep accounting records and other financial management. While Betty has been particularly successful, she’s not actually an exception—many others in the organization have done just as well.

While we’ve had our lessons to learn (our experiments with no management at all resulted in employee theft), this innovative microfinance model has been incredibly impactful. We have disbursed 29,000 microcredits, totaling over $7 million. We did so at over 90% repayment and have been able to cover operational costs with interest paid on the microcredits. That means that while our non-profit relies on donations to grow the microcredit portfolio, those donations are recycled again and again to help more women. Our microcredits have supported tens of thousands of family members of the women entrepreneurs that we work with. In those families, we have seen children go to school more often, family members get better healthcare and report higher happiness scores. We employ a team of 13 talented, highly educated and passionate Ugandan women. We absolutely love the dynamic with the women we help. Because they pay interest on the microcredits, they hold us accountable for the product we offer—and complain when our services aren’t tailored to their needs. This is in stark contrast with the dynamic created if we provide handouts—when the women simply thank us and do not feel empowered to hold us to account.

That is why it was such a blow when we were forced to provide food aid. So how did we get here? Well, Covid happened—and Uganda went into lockdown. Overnight, all the women supported by SYPO lost the ability to earn an income with their business and were left without a safety net. Work from home does not really do well in Uganda, and severance pay, stimulus measures or unemployment benefits are virtually non-existent. For some time, we were not allowed to open our field offices—and even if we had opened our offices, the women didn’t have any money to make repayments on their microcredits. Throughout the year, we were in touch with all women every week, calling up all 3,500 women who currently have active microcredits with SYPO. The stories have been dramatic: some of them have been arrested for trying to run their business and most have been forced to use up all their savings and all their business inventory to feed their family. To make matters worse, excessive rain caused crops to rot in the farms.

And yet, although this has been a devastating two years, we feel tremendously fortunate that at least
we had the infrastructure to do something. Not just to immediately roll out food aid when we received
signals that it was necessary, but also to provide microcredits to help the impressive women
entrepreneurs we work with back on their feet. To buy new inventory and restock to shops, for
example. While we will need to write off many of the microcredits disbursed pre-Covid, we can disburse new microcredits precisely where they’re most needed—and reinvigorate a local economy that may have otherwise taken years to build back up. Already, our portfolio is almost back to normal, with most women able to make repayments and focus on their business. The need for food aid and handouts has, thankfully, passed—and we can go back to working side by side with the women we support.

The Covid crisis has shown us, more starkly than every before, the remarkable power of entrepreneurship—and the incredible resilience of the women we work with in Uganda.