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DEVELOPMENT-UGANDA: Little by Little, Week by Week

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

MASAKA, Southern Uganda, Mar 29 2005 (IPS) - Uganda is one of Africa’s rare success stories in the fight against AIDS, having reduced its HIV prevalence from 30 per cent in the early 1990s to six per cent today. However, the pandemic has still taken a toll on the East African country, causing almost two million children to be orphaned.

About 1.7 million of Uganda’s 2.2 million orphans have lost parents to AIDS-related diseases, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Child-headed households are now a common sight in the country, especially in rural areas, and they are far more vulnerable to poverty that those households which have the benefit of adult supervision. Figures released by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development indicate that children constitute 62 per cent of persons who live in absolute poverty in Uganda.

Concern about the plight of AIDS orphans led to the creation of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO).

This initiative, which got underway a decade ago, was spearheaded by first lady Janet Museveni. It aims to improve the lives of orphans by having local communities meet their needs. In part, this is done by offering small-scale loans to families that care for orphans.

Forty-seven-year-old Harriet Kiiza is one of those who have managed to take advantage of this microcredit scheme.

With little education and no means of generating an income, Kiiza and her six children initially lived from hand-to-mouth after the death of her husband in 1993. These days, she makes pancakes and doughnuts which are sold to shops and school canteens – all with the help of a loan from UWESO.

Kiiza has also managed to buy a plot of land. And, she takes care of no less than 12 children with the money earned from her business. Six of these children are the orphans of relatives, or of community members.

“It is here that we learnt the culture of saving money,” says Kiiza. She is now the treasurer of a group of microcredit recipients who meet every Thursday in Masaka to make loan repayments, balance their books – and deposit savings. UWESO clients are required to make regular savings contributions; and, according to the organisation’s website, they have managed to save just over 90,000 dollars to date.

Like Kiiza, some clients cook to generate an income. Others take out loans to sell charcoal, set up market stalls, farm poultry – or create other small businesses. In April 2004, the microcredit scheme was extended to provide applicants with loans for agricultural enterprises such as livestock and crop farming.

A network of volunteers stretching from villages to the national level helps manage the loan programme. This is achieved with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a United Nations agency which focuses on rural poverty in developing nations, and the Belgian Survival Fund – set up in 1983 by Belgium’s parliament.

“UWESO is for women, but we also accept 10 per cent of men to join us. However when it comes to leadership, all are women,” says Eva Nangendo, UWESO’s portfolio officer. To qualify for loans, applicants have to be caring for at least four orphans.

“When I joined the project, we were trained and told that a woman cannot just sit idle and do nothing all day. We had to work and not wait for your husband to take care of you,” says 35-year-old Juliet Nassanga Kabiito who supports six children, four of them orphans.

“At first we did not know how to run the project. Today, we do. We do our own accounting, record keeping and even banking the savings,” she adds. “Many women fear taking loans, but it’s one of the best ways to develop. If they don’t want to borrow, at least let them learn how to save.”

The loans range in size from about 30 dollars to almost 1,760 dollars. Recipients are obliged to go for what UWESO terms “pre-loan disbursement training” to equip them with commercial and management skills. The organisation claims it has issued loans worth almost 11.5 million dollars to more than 40,000 clients since 1996.

But, it’s not all a tale of tidy profits and improved self-confidence amongst the women.

“In our businesses, sometimes you make some money, but sometimes you do not,” says 40-year-old Aisha Nakalembe, chairperson of one of the groups that meet weekly to tend to finances. “If you are paying a loan, you have to be consistent – but sometimes the business is not consistent. Yet, you have to keep that record of paying well.”

Even if a business is doing nicely, UWESO clients could find their ability to repay loans and save drained by bouts of illness in the family. In a country where many children may have contracted HIV from their parents before becoming orphans – or where microcredit clients themselves are HIV-positive – the constant spectre of disease clearly poses a challenge to the sustainability of microcredit schemes.

“The greatest problem comes when the children fall sick. It’s also difficult to pay school fees,” observes Nakalembe who has eight children, four of them orphans.

With these pressures in mind, UWESO has created a school fees loan scheme that assists clients to educate the children in their care, while continuing to meet their repayment and savings obligations.

The organisation says it also encourages clients to make contributions to the global insurance giant, American Insurance Group, to ensure money owed to UWESO is repaid in the event that a microcredit recipient dies.

In a bid to highlight the capacity of small-scale loans to improve the lives of those in the world’s poorest communities, the United Nations has designated 2005 the ‘International Year of Microcredit’.

Events being organised to mark this fact include the Global Microentrepreneurship Awards, to be held in 34 countries this year. Come November, a ceremony will take place in each of these states to highlight the achievements of those who are using microcredit to make a small, but important contribution to reducing global poverty.

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