WMI's Uganda Loan Program Operations
In January of 2008, WMI issued its first 20 loans in Uganda; by January 2018, WMI had issued over 40,000 loans in East Africa. In just 10 years, WMI had grown from one pilot project loan hub to serving four distinct regions of Uganda (plus Kenya and Tanzania as well). Now we issue approximately 10,000 loans per year and provide training and support to thousands of rural businesswomen.
Then: WMI's first venue in Uganda was a makeshift tent in Buyobo.
Uganda is a densely populated country - about the size of Oregon it had a population of nearly 42 million in 2021. It has one of the world's youngest populations: half of the nation is under 15. Nearly 40% of the people live at or below the poverty line (under $1.25/day). There is also dramatic income inequality throughout the society. The country hosts the largest refugee population in Africa - over 1 million displaced persons, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic on the Congo. The large population and refugee camps strain the country's natural resources.
WMI works in four distinct regions of Uganda.
Now: Olive Wolimbwa, WMI Local Director, in front of WMI HQ building in Buyobo.
Sironko, Mbale, Budaka, Bududa, Bulambuli, and Kapchorwa Districts
Established in Buyobo in 2008, WMI's oldest loan hub region is Eastern Uganda, where our headquarters is located and where we established our critically important partnership with the Buyobo Women's Association. This hub routinely provides loans and training to over 2,500 women on a rotating basis.
The PostBank Uganda branch in nearby Mbale town reached out to our leadership and developed into WMI's trusted banking partner, now serving all our Uganda locations through its network of branches.
Our headquarters staff of over 40 local women have been trained to operate this regional loan hub as well provide support to all other loan hub locations in East Africa. Our Local Director, Olive Wolimbwa, and her talented team, have visited all the other WMI loan program hubs in East Africa to provide training and supervision.
Our headquarters compound now hosts an office building, 500 seat pavilion, kitchen, garage and latrines. With our extensive local impact, WMI's operations have improved the general economic conditions in the hundreds of villages we serve in the area.
Each year hundreds of proud businesswomen here attend a ceremony to honor those who are graduating from WMI's two-year, village-level program and moving on to independent banking, self-financing, or WMI's innovative Jumbo Loan facility. These annual celebrations, attended by local dignitaries, honor the hard work and achievement of all WMI borrowers and staff in a very public way.
Children of WMI Borrowers in the Eastern Region have seen their mothers, and the mothers of their friends and schoolmates, empowered through the WMI loan program.
Children imitate what they see: the children in this region have seen their mothers proactively taking steps to build businesses and improve their households. One of the most profound impacts of the loan program is the way women use their business earnings to improve their children's future and the way children of borrowers become empowered. Click on the video and see how the children of Buyobo help their mothers with business and household duties for the benefit of the whole family.
Uganda's breadbasket - Located in the hills of Mt. Elgon, Eastern Uganda is a lush agricultural area near the Kenya border. Sironko District, headquarters for the WMI loan program in East Africa, is about 15 miles from the town of Mbale, and has a large population of about 300,000.
The volcanic soil in the area is rich so many women engage in agriculture; local crops include: coffee, beans, maize, potatoes, melons, cassava, ground nuts and sweet potatoes. This is the traditional home of the Bugisu people, known for their coffee-growing culture. We reach out to rural women in the mountainous regions where coffee is grown and have developed facilities to serve them there. Changing weather patterns mean traditional rainy and dry seasons are becoming less reliable so agriculture-oriented businesses have to stay alert and WMI is helping women connect to critical crop information.
Over time women in the area have evolved sidelines that include adding value to raw products, such as making banana pancakes or mushroom sauce. They also provide services to other farmers like leasing out farm tools. Recently, women have begun to buy land and lease it to other farmers to grow crops. Crop transport is a major issue in the region as roads are poor and ill-maintained and gasoline is extremely expensive. Few people have cars, but motorbikes are popular as are bicycles for getting around locally.
Situated on a main route from Kenya to western Uganda and South Sudan, the ladies in the loan program here take advantage of this central location to distribute their goods over long distance. Some have long-standing agreements with traders going to Kampala, South Sudan, Kenya and as far as Rwanda.
Arua and Gulu Districts
WMI started working in Northern Uganda in 2011, in an area that was devastated by the 20-year insurgency (mid 1980s - 2006) of The Lord's Resistance Army, which resulted in over one million internally displaced persons. The Acholi people of northern Uganda have endured significant hardships and still struggle to rebuild their lives. WMI provided training, follow-up support, and loan capital to launch two loan programs managed by other organizations in Northern Uganda: one in Gulu, managed by a local clinic, and the other in Attiak, managed by a private primary school.
In 2018, WMI partnered with a local women's group to launch a new loan hub in Arua, Uganda, located in the far northwestern corner of the country. This area is bordered by two of the largest refugee-generating countries in the world: The Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in Africa (over 1.5 million) and the largest camp is in Arua. 85% of the refugees are women and children. Centuries ago, the Lugbara people migrated from Sudan to this West Nile region of Uganda and there are still many cross-border ties and traditions.
The challenges of feeding, housing, educating and providing medical care to this ever-growing population are enormous. Farmland is scarce, schools are overcrowded, access to clean water is limited, medical facilities are over-whelmed, and natural resources are stressed: the entire region is impacted.
With their WMI loans, women in the area launched businesses such as selling honey, beans, fish and tailoring. The income provides a much-needed supplement as typical household income in the area is less than $300/year and typical households are large, with 5 - 12 people; plus, 75% of families also care for orphans.
Special Projects - Bio-gas fuel and milk pasteurization and are two special projects in the area that WMI supported through partner NGOs and borrower initiatives to improve village life through new technologies.
One of the WMI borrowers and her husband received help from Heifer Project to build a bio-gas generation unit. It uses animal waste to power cooking and lighting and is quite ingenious. The family credits WMI with providing extra capital to expand their farm and purchase more animals.
Another borrower obtained an industrial milk pasteurizer from a bankrupt farmer's co-op. The many women in the area who received cows from Heifer Project were looking for a reliable source to buy their milk. The local women would like to increase the number of cows that they have and develop the dairy products business by adding other lines like cheese and yogurt.
Milk products are popular with the residents of Gulu and the surrounding area. Parents buy the pasteurized milk, which is sold in plastic bags, for their children.
Drumming and Dancing - Northern Uganda has a large population of orphaned children and children with just a single parent. Drumming and dancing are a cultural tradition in the area and many teenagers and young adults have taken this traditional art form to new heights. Children of WMI borrowers enjoy performing for guests.
In 2010, WMI began a loan hub in the Kabale District, which is near both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The region is affected by the surrounding political and resource-fueled conflict. As a result, Congolese and Rwandan refugees continue to seek safety in Uganda.
By collaborating with the Mpambara-Cox Foundation, which supports Kabale primary schools, and by partnering with the village-level E. Lushaya Women's Group to operate the loan program, WMI has created positive changes in household living standards, health and nutrition, as well as the local economy. WMI is helping women and families in the region maintain stable households through regular income generation.
The district has a population of 300,000 and is the traditional home of the Bakiga Batwa, Banyarwanda and Bahororo tribal clans. The common language is Rukiga, a Bantu language. The dense population has led to deforestation; the only remaining natural forest is in Bwindi National Park, home to the mountain gorillas. The deforestation has led to frequent mudslides, also common in eastern Uganda.
Dairy farming is popular here and this is also the home to the distinctive large-horned Ankola cattle that are raised for beef. Most people engage in subsistence agriculture. The main crops grown are maize, sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, cabbages, and coffee. The region has developed a specialty in growing Irish potatoes as a profitable cash crop.
In 2021, the women in the Southwestern loan hub held a region-wide celebration for International Women's Day.
It has been over 10 years since this loan hub was launched and mentored by our local staff in our headquarters in Buyobo.
The ladies here continue to manage their own loan program operations to the benefit of the entire local community. They have also developed numerous outreach programs to support their members, as there are few civic resources in the area.
Special Projects - In 2016, WMI began working with a remarkable organization, Rukundo International, which supports and designs curricula for a Girls Empowerment Program for sixth grade students at a half dozen underserved primary schools in Southwestern Uganda. The program focuses on life skills and reproductive health, which WMI supplemented with financial literacy and business-skills training. In line with WMI's mission and objectives, a student-led entrepreneurial activity has been incorporated into the program, so that the girls begin to learn sound financial practices early.
In 2014, WMI began a new partnership with the Buseesa Community Development Centre (BCDC) in western Uganda to expand the small loan program the group had started. That expansion has been a roaring success. BCDC now has over 1,000 members, a loan fund of over $100,000, and a 98% repayment rate.
BCDC does not just manage a rural loan hub for women - they also built a primary school and a clinic that provides neonatal care and delivery. BCDC's medical and educational outreach is a significant reason the loan program is a success.
Through our ongoing surveys, we have learned that rural women are vitally concerned about their family's health. They are equally concerned about their children acquiring an education that will lead to career opportunities. Knowing they have access to medical and educational options reduces stress and allows them to focus on their business operations.
The ladies in western Uganda are very savvy about their local markets, inventory pricing, transportation costs, and how inflation affects their businesses. During a visit, a business-owner will more likely than not pull out her account book to show how she is tracking income and expenses.
Businesses here are some of the most successful in the WMI loan program. Owners report earning $100 - $500/month from hair braiding salons, dress design and tailoring, small shops, and sales of maize and beans. Located on a major transportation route, there are numerous trading opportunities.
Many women in the area were refugees from the Rwanda genocide. As children and young adults, they fled violence and chaos. In western Uganda they found stability and a chance for a new life. They persevered by virtue of their own hard work and determination; WMI's outreach helps their businesses expand and thrive.
This region is part of the original home of the Kingdom of Bunyoro, one Uganda's historical monarchies. Kibale National Park in the far west hosts significant chimpanzee populations and still has tracts of swamps and wetlands. The major crop is maize. A new maize mill operated by BCDC is providing women more outlets to sell maize flour and command a higher price for their goods.
Special Projects - In 2019, BCDC undertook an outreach to start a new loan program two hours away with the women of Kyegegwa village. Many of the women there faced physical challenges due to complications from untreated diabetes and they formed a self-help group to support one another. After contacting WMI for assistance in launching a loan program, BCDC agreed to mentor them.
This has turned into an excellent partnership, with the Kyegegwa ladies adding more loan groups and launching more businesses each year. Our platform of expanding loan program operations through peer-to-peer mentoring is making access to financial services a reality for increasing numbers of rural women.
Tour Buseesa - It is remarkable what a busy place a rural village can be! If you have not had a chance to visit one, click on our 90 second video and experience a day in a visit by WMI president, Robyn Nietert, to the western Uganda loan hub.