Bringing Home the Bacon
Written By Uel Coulter
There is a well-worn saying, oft-quoted by charities: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In other words, you can help someone temporarily by simply handing them something, but if you want to give them a sustainable future, you need to give them the means to do so. And that is Microfinance in a nutshell - giving people a chance to build their own future.
On a road running out of Gulu in northern Uganda we found a small collection of ramshackle buildings and huts lining the road. Behind, we could see the characteristic thatched roofs of hundreds of mud houses. The beginnings of a town, emerging from years of devastating Civil War, with people trying to re-build the lives they once enjoyed in peace. This is the Awer Displacement Camp.
The roadside buildings were shops, businesses, stalls. Their proud owners smiled widely as they showed us their produce, and explained how they had grown their businesses with the help of Abaana's microfinance programme. Robert, the Abaana Project Manager explains how each entrepreneur is paying back their loans, and how they identify new areas of growth and the loans required to make it happen. It's a common business model across the world. The main difference here though, is that the loan amounts might only be the equivalent of 50pounds, rather than 50,000,000.
We try to identify ways in which we can help these microfinance businesses while we're here. We decide, in consultation with the business owners, to provide each one with a chalk-board sign stand so they can advertise their stock at the roadside. It seems such a paltry, insignificant thing, yet it will help them. It is clearly apparent that the main way we can make a difference, is to help them help themselves. These people don't want handouts. They want to be given the chance to get to a point where they don't need anyone's help.
I get talking to Godfrey, one of our translators. He is an articulate, intelligent guy with an honours degree in Business and IT and an extensive knowledge of The FA Premiership. When I naively ask him what his job is, he replies with a shrug of resignation: "It would appear I do gardening". You see, education is certainly massively important in giving people like Godfrey more options in life. But, there are few jobs available, and widespread nepotism means people employ family members rather than the best qualified people.
Godfrey would like to open an internet cafe in Awer. There is certainly a great demand for something like that, as there is no competition. When I ask him how much he thinks it would take to set one up here, he has clearly done his sums already. "About 10 million Ugandan Shillings" he replies. I quickly do the maths: 3,000pounds to set up a fully operational, sustainable business. It's not an insignificant amount, even to us visitors, but, if I was starting a business and believed in it as passionately as Godfrey, I'd stick it all on one of my credit cards. He, however doesn't have that option, and even that amount is beyond the limits of the microfinance programme.
A couple of days later we have the privilege of handing over pigs and goats to some other locals who have been accepted onto the programme. They are each allocated a pair (male and female) of either pigs or goats and all they have to provide in return is another pair once their animals produce some offspring. Simple. The amazing thing is that it was a group of primary school children in Bangor, N. Ireland that paid for these animals. Children in the N. Ireland, providing livelihoods for adults in Uganda. There's something simultaneously beautiful and wrong with that picture.
As we watch the locals wander home with their new livestock in tow, it strikes me that this whole concept is a bit of a misnomer. We call it Microfinance because the values involved are so insignificant relative to our western wealth. Yet to the people who receive them, they are their ticket to a better life. There is nothing small or micro about that.