“Why do you like BRAC?” The short, translated answer that came after a pretty long and enthusiastic discussion in the local Kakua Language among the 16 women of different ages but all in bright-colored dresses was not a surprising one. “No one would give us the capital we need for our businesses but BRAC.” I was visiting a newly formed microfinance group of BRAC Uganda’s Koboko Branch in Northern Uganda. BRAC Uganda Microfinance Ltd. had started its journey in 2006, but this group that I was visiting was in operation for only a few months. The women in the group had very small businesses of their own – some grew vegetables, some sold eggs and biscuits, some were in brewing business. This was the first time they had taken any loans from a microfinance institution and they were, understandably, both excited and anxious.
BRAC on the other hand, have been doing this quite successfully for a long time. Starting as a small post-war rehabilitation operation in the newly born Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC grew to be one of the largest NGOs in the world. BRAC now operates in 12 different countries across Asia and Africa; taking its years of experience from Bangladesh in implementing successful models in various development programs such as health, education, microfinance, and community empowerment into other developing countries. Before Fletcher, I have been working in BRAC’s microfinance program in Bangladesh. This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to work with BRAC’s microfinance team in Uganda.
Uganda is BRAC’s largest and fastest growing operation in Africa. With 147 branches all over Uganda and more than 180,000 borrowers served, BRAC Uganda’s microfinance program is one of the biggest in the country. While it is still expanding its operation in more and more remote regions, BRAC Uganda’s microfinance program is matured and confident enough to try out new products and services to meet the various needs of its clients. There is an ongoing pilot project that uses mobile money to collect loan installment from small enterprise loan borrowers, over the summer the microfinance team designed and started implementing a Credit Life Insurance product, and there is talk of starting a VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association) Group Loan pilot project and an Agricultural Loan product soon. I was mainly involved in developing and implementing the Credit Life Insurance Product – fine tuning the product specification and designing the capacity building module for frontline staff. This product offered an opportunity of managing portfolio risk for BRAC as well as providing social protection to its clients through a Life Insurance product that is linked to the loans they borrowed. I also helped out with primary analysis of VSLA Group Loan pilot project that seeks to minimize cost of reaching the poorest and hard to reach populations by providing loans to entire voluntary, self-managing, community-based savings and loan groups for out-lending to individual group members. Whether these pilots become successful or not, it is always nice to find an organization that is not afraid to try out new things and constantly strives to learn how best to serve its client base.
Because the introduction of a major new product, such as the mandatory credit life insurance, requires comprehensive training and capacity building activities for all front-end managers and staff, I had the fun opportunity of visiting different BRAC offices for training activities, travelling all over Uganda – from Gulu (North) to Kabale (South) and Fort Portal (West) to Iganga (East)! It was amazing to experience the difference in weather, geology, culture, languages and lifestyle in different parts of Uganda. I also spent a few days in Kenya and Rwanda before leaving the region. Among the three countries, Uganda definitely feels less touristy (despite all the natural gems scattered across the country), more chaotic and economically poorer. This is just my feeling, but the people in Uganda also seemed more relaxed, laid back, and a little less obsequious to the light skinned foreigners.
While I enjoyed the current political stability during my time in Uganda, I was in Arua, a place close to the Uganda-South Sudan border in the North, when the fighting between the rival armed groups broke out in Juba, South Sudan. A number of our BRAC colleagues in South Sudan were able to escape from the violence and fled to Arua, the nearest BRAC regional office in Uganda to the South Sudan border, where we were staying. It was a very tense couple of days as we did not know what will happen to the rest of our colleagues who were trapped in Juba unable to escape. Thankfully our colleagues were unharmed and BRAC was able to evacuate its staff from Juba as soon as the cease fire were in place on July 11th.
All in all, this was a summer full of new experiences and amazing memories. Now that I have left Uganda as my summer internship ended, I feel a strange longing for the messy city of Kampala that reminded me of home (Dhaka, Bangladesh), a weird need to have another crazy boda-boda (motorcycle) ride up and down the hilly roads, and most of all, I miss the people with smile in their faces and dance in their feet. In my heart, I know I’ll be back again.