Helping remote communities stand on their own two feet

“I hope that they will realise the importance of planning and learning that no matter how much money you have, that you can always save a little and plan for the future, and look at your past and know that it doesn’t always dictate your future” (Christina, Big Beyond volunteer Uganda April-May 2012)

At Big Beyond’s Uganda site lies a very motivated community with little infrastructure, isolated from the hustle and bustle of urban trade. Right on the border of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to rare mountain gorillas of course, this community also live in an area with great potential for grassroots economic development and the chance to stand on their own two feet. Opportunities are partly due to tourism and allied enterprises that can become a strong platform for local products and services to thrive, but it’s really clear there are many stones unturned as the local people just haven’t had the chance to soak up new knowledge around business, finance and planning to help them make the most out of what already exists around them, whether that’s better or different cultivation, cattle, carpentary, baking, jewellery or whatever, and work on ideas that are genuinely sustainable and actually profitable.

Volunteer story: Christina – community enterprise programme 

So firstly let me tell you about another awesome Big Beyond volunteer we have recently said farewell to. Hopefully not for too long?! Her name is Christina, a USA citizen, age 36, she travelled to us from Tokyo where she lives and with her she brought enormous experience and passion, and left enormous amounts of that behind with the community to own forever. Christina has truly helped build the foundations for more organised enterprise development in this community…

“When you arrive here, I think you don’t know what to expect. I think you see some pictures on the website and you think, yeah, I’m going to be in a rural area, but I don’t think you can quite imagine the amount of vegetation here, the variety, the different types of people. And the house itself I think is very welcoming. Jenn has done a very good job of making it seem, I don’t know…I want to say a bit American because there’s flowers everywhere, but it really kind of fits into this environment. Surrounding the house, like I said is a lot of vegetation, these amazing rolling green hills and its hard to imagine that the gorillas are kind of just over beyond in the hills, and every morning I try to spot them.  Also each morning as you are sitting at the breakfast table (on the front porch), there are people that are constantly saying hello, going up and down the hill. And it’s an incredible feeling. And when you go into the little town, it looks to me, it just reminds me of an old western town with just these little shops, people hanging out outside. Nothing fancy, but there is this incredible sense of just community spirit, and you can tell that people are motivated for something to happen. I think they just need tools or resources to make their dreams come alive, and I think because there is just so much potential maybe that’s why Amy chose this place. It seems kind of random just because all of a sudden in the middle of nowhere, there’s this little town, lots of ideas and just waiting for volunteers to come.”

Christina’s well travelled, lived in South Africa for four years as a journalist covering stories on community development, completing a Masters in Public Development & Management and mentoring underprivileged girls with disabilities. She’s from the USA originally, but these days her base is Japan, where she works to help graduates set their goals and help corporates motivate employees and to make them more globally aware. On top of that, she’s in the midst of a UN micro-finance course which looks at helping people manage their finances and budgets. What an individual. Perfect for Big Beyond and the community projects as you can probably see. Happy to have such brilliant teams on the ground in Africa. So may it continue!

So Christina generously ventured to Uganda to help out and did an amazing job at that… she’s also keen to set up her own jewellery business so hoped to gain inspiration during her trip to Africa, as well as practical experience in micro-finance, putting her new skills to work.

“I had a certification in micro-finance and I wanted to use it and I also wanted to come back to Africa and be part of a programme that I felt really was trying to be part of the community as opposed to just existing in the community” 

Volunteer placement in a nutshell

Christina spent time with local finance organisations and community-based enterprises (including jewellery businesses) to understand their issues with money management. She designed a short course that encompassed personal, as well as business financial management – the level taught was basic, which was required. As participants were having difficulty calculating money coming in, money going out, money that was missing, the focus was predominantly helping with that. Much of her work was growing knowledge around “planning”. Christina quickly found out that most people hadn’t been budgeting, most were very hungry to learn about business proposals and plans because they hadn’t thought of doing them, they were interested to know what you should include, what you should think about in business management and it was confirmed again that a lot of people are just doing everything with not a lot of planning and not a lot of foresight.

“Everything was just basically an immediate need and nothing was looking at things in the future, or how to plan for things in the future, so I hope that I was able to instill that type of understanding both professionally and personally.” 

That beyond is indeed very big!! This is a great start and happy to see the community so motivated by this new concept. It is new, believe me.

Setting strong foundations for community-led finance and real business PLANS!         

Christina was actually only with us for a couple of weeks but during her time made a huge impact through her assigned tasks. She researched, designed and ran a range of sessions for community bank reps and also existing community-based organiations. 22 local people enthusiastically attended. Those people can expand into an even bigger impact going forward. We have already heard of business plans in the making and advice being asked off her attendees so it’s really positive.

For a bit of background, in the village there’s a community bank that’s been around for a while but not very active. Set up by a bunch of local people with the ambition to enable community members to deposit small sums of money in return for the facility of small loans. However their little knowledge around finance in general has been a big barrier – pretty essential for any bank perhaps you’d agree!? But at least it was a step in the right direction and brilliant to give it a go anyway.

Christina spent time understanding and evaluating the banks’ strategy. She looked at their baseline knowledge so far and figured out how to train from there. It’s really important, and strictly our philosophy at Big Beyond, that all knowledge sharing reflects the real localised needs of this community. Standard blanket approaches and assumptions aren’t the way to go here.

Christina gathered info from both casual chats and more formal interviews to understand how Ugandan’s view this topic and this informed the design of her approach and enabled her to react to first-hand and fresh discoveries. She met some community enterprises which were made up of groups and others individuals. They told her their eagerness to learn about setting budgets and how to plan ahead using these these skills to set their project goals.

She considered ways for the bank to become more efficient and contributed some ideas. It was found that they are making a loss at the moment. Interest rates aren’t effective against the rate of inflation and default rates are at a strange level. I won’t go into the details. So for this to become an effective and sustainable source of local financial capital they need to readjust a few things and build their knowledge.

The goal is also potentially for the bank not only to become a lending facility but a sounding board for new community businesses and ideas. They really want to be able to confidently assess business plans and proposals for loans so eager to learn all about that. As some of their potential or exising customers, in addition to working with the community bank, Christina was also assigned a few tasks with CBOs (community based organisations). It was agreed by her and some locals advisors that she should start at a really basic level and concentrate more on money management in general rather than going in-depth about savings and loans. She was amazed the basics weren’t even known yet.

“I have to say that Enock, the landscaper and beyond, has been really encouraging and every time he sees me working at the kitchen table, he tells me he’s happy to see me busy because he knows I’m helping the community so that is very motivating” 

During a stroll in the village one day Christina stumbled across another small ‘lending circle’ – she found a group of around 16 people having their monthly meeting. They asked her some questions and she invited one of the reps to attend her upcoming session. She was seriously blown away with how appreciative they actually were for her advice and suddenly remembered “webare kusima” (thank you too) and everyone laughed, so happy with her little Rukiga language. When she got back to the house she told Jenn “that was one of the most amazing experiences I have had here” because she truly felt their appreciativeness of the small advice she gave and her little attempt at their language. One of those moments Africa has a habit of doing to make you smile.

From trying to understand the specific needs of the community she was working with, Christina said she was motivated to try and be really creative about what she was doing, especially because the English level could be quite low. The participants loved it and wanted to learn more so they asked her to add additional sessions which she did. Well done Christina : )

“I’ve had to really think about how I’m going to teach something that could be really complicated in a way that is applicable to the most amount of people.” 

Some of the things she included in her various sessions to give you an idea:

  • Making a group CV… a bit of a warm up with the with goal of seeing all the great qualities they have when working together with a group and combining all the unique skills people can contribute to make a strong team. Education, professions, hobbies, etc. They saw why it’s important to understand the background of those with whom you’re forming a business with. Often forgotten.  
  • Setting goals… the importance of goals. The need to be realistic, think of timelines, what’s measurable, and be specific. “I want to buy an exotic cow”… “I want to buy one exotic cow from Kisoro”… “I will save 100,000 shillings per month for 1 year to purchase the cow, feed for initial 6 months and material to build a pen”…. “I will purchase the cow in April 2013”. 
  • Financial management and personal finance… how financial management at home can lead to stronger businesses and better life choices. What’s a budget? Who keeps it? How can it work?  

  • Business plans and proposals… this was extra popular 
  • Discussions, presentations,30 second business pitches… Who’s the best business person? What’s the best way to take care of customers? 
  • Micro-finance… what it is, its challenges and who uses it? How to analyse a portfolio and assess business proposals  
  • Christina explained the history of Microfinance to the bank. “Grameen Bank history started by Mohammed Yunis in 1970’s for farmers. He tried to borrow money from banks for his community, but they said poor people would not pay back loans. He used his own money to prove that they could. Once they did, by giving them an opportunity to pay everyday, plus save, he proved that poor people can pay back debt and save. It was the start of modern-day microfinance.”

    The challenges that need addressing?

    Growing populations and degraded soil quality means the land is no longer enough to support everyone, well not with the same methods – and local people need to earn an income. And like most places in the world, they strive for better livelihoods all round. These wonderful people are hungry for small ideas, little bits of knowledge and lots of motivation to enable them to find gaps in the market, understand tourists, learn how to differentiate products, how to plan, price and promote, how they may turn a raw fruit for example into something more profitable. Income generation and diversification is also vital to reduce pressures on Bwindi forest from a reliance on natural resource use and agricultural encroachment.

    The Big Beyond team are working hand-in-hand with low income entrepreneurs to figure out the next steps. Thank you so much to Christina for kick starting a really exciting initiative for this remote and ambitious community and helping to begin a sustainable foundation for the building of local profitable enterprises.

    The birth of a local “Business Clinic” 

    Welcome Peter and Jenny who have arrived on site and are in the process of establishing a new local “Business Clinic” linked to Christina’s work. Some of our upcoming volunteers will be advising individuals or groups about creating business plans, marketing strategy, product development, packaging, promotion or distribution. They’ll be bringing knowledge they’ve been priviledged to have access to through previous work or academia, and also general exposure to other parts of the world to this village. There will be brainstorms and mentoring, research out in the villages or in tourist lodges, one-to-one and group meetings and the development of an overall strategy for a long term and invaluable project for people that truly deserve a leg up.

    Business, finance and marketing gurus are really needed in Uganda (and Malawi) so email to find out ho you might be able to get involved….

    This project is not about financial handouts. This is way beyond that. Many people in Africa don’t actually want handouts, they want opportunities and self respect. It is about building the local capacity for positive development that is not only felt by current and future generations, but driven by the community themselves. Volunteer involvement will help strengthen the capacity of a neglected rural community through knowledge sharing, ideas and enthusiasm.

    A little bit of knowledge goes a very long way in some parts of Africa. This is one of them.

    So… please apply to volunteer with us if you think you’ve got what it takes!! or email

    Some of Christina’s Highlights…   

    “The boda boda ride [motorbike]. I loved the boda boda ride in the morning and the people popping out like a video game. The kids. People who I met once remembering my name and always greeting me. The classes and all though the people only had low levels of English that they persevered and they still asked questions. Some people just really kind of got it and when they were able to present their information to the class, it was really gratifying. Also just spending time with Jenn was really great at the house. At this point, I’ve been travelling for a month, but just being able to unwind and just hang out was really cool. Yeah lots of things…The staff.The girls, Melab and Jolly were so nice and caring and just amazing. I have no other words for them. And even Benson boiling water and just being really happy, is great.  And I loved the fact that we were living in the community. I loved the fact that I wasn’t isolated from the community, just living in this house. I love the fact that I can just greet people in the morning and see them going about their daily activities, that taught me a lot.”

    Watch this video

    Christina explained that living in such a remote area really opened her eyes to the realities of life here. She loved playing with the kids and interacting with the locals and just putting everything she could into the project. She told us the whole experience was so great for her to step back from her life, gain a different perspective and become grounded after living in Tokyo where she felt she was getting caught up in so many materialistic things and always concerned about fashion and things and said it was refreshing to come here and just wake up and be ready to go, where nobody treats you differently, make-up or not, and you don’t care either.

    Advice for future volunteers: 

  • Women should bring more skirts because that is what most people are wearing and you’ll feel more comfortable. 
  • Try little bits of the local language and people really appreciate it
  • “There are always people stopping by the house, chatting. The days start off very early, 7 or before. And you never know who you are going to meet that day, who is going to stop by, the questions you are going to be asked, what type of food they are going to bring over, and so it is really hard to predict what your day is going to be like.”