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Getting to the Source: Meeting Ugandan Farmers and the Nile River

By Alexandra Arch

The events of the day center on getting to the source. Not only did we trace the chain of coffee production back to the very farmer who planted the seed, but we also arrived at the source of the famed Nile River.

Moving out of the city of Kampala, Uganda and into the rural area of Kalagi, about 90 minutes away, we trade traffic for slow-going country roads. Our bus plods down rich red dirt roads, weaving through unruly greenery, tamed in areas by farmers who planted patches of coffee or maize, the most common crops in Uganda. Papyrus plants line the roads, deeply carved by recent rainstorms, and we pass small brick huts guarded by a flock of chickens or a goat. We are headed to a Trust Group meeting of farmers, the Kerangura Ogutateganya (translated: “Strive to Achieve”) weekly meeting.

In the rural areas, Opportunity International lends to a majority of women who are not only known in their community for being financially savvy, but are also responsible for farming. Agrifinance has been a major topic of discussion at Opportunity International, as the organization continues to develop a loan product geared towards supporting farmers, the backbone of the Ugandan economy. And this mission is supported by a significant grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Uganda has ample rain and fertile soil for farming the beans necessary to sate the worldwide caffeine fix.

Financing the risky, and often heartbreaking, farming industry is incredibly complicated and involves supporting the many players in the farming chain. Funding small-scale farms can be especially tricky, trading off low yields for big jobs. But looking at the proud faces of the people who have attended this 10 a.m. Trust Group meeting, there is no doubt that agrifinance is a gamble worth taking.

Although rain is imminent, the group graciously arranges chairs, couches and mats to accommodate the larger group today. The farm owner, a venerable man with a graying goatee and long lines of life engraved on his face, is prominently seated at the head of the circle. The group members greet us visitors warmly, offering us fruits, nuts and drinks, and then they begin to tell us their stories, translated through their loan officer Cathy.

Traveling a mud road in the countryside of Kalagi, Uganda.

Traveling a mud road in the countryside of Kalagi, Uganda.

As it turns out, most of the clients utilize Opportunity International loans to fund additional business ventures, in order to help make ends meet. Yonah has a retail shop and produces charcoal. Francis raises pigs and Ismael runs a small medical clinic. They call Cathy, a compassionate, tough-as-nails woman, “teacher.” She travels weekly to the village by boda boda for these meetings, rain or shine . The trip is sometimes arduous, but she is committed to her job, which often requires more than financial advising. (Today, we are able walk in her shoes after our bus was halted by the muddy roads–it took most of the men in the village to push it out.)

Many members of the Trust Group have small plots of land where they grow coffee, and buyers either come to the village or the growers sell it to a coffee collective. All the growers say that they are waiting to get additional financing from Opportunity to gain better access to fertilizer that will improve yields, and thus, incomes.

Today, it is difficult for me not to write about every person we meet, because they are usually eager to share their poignant stories, hardships and successes. The countryside and its people are compelling, and the experience of sharing a few hours with them is unforgettable.

When the afternoon is over, we roll into our night’s lodging, perched in the lush hillsides overlooking the Nile River. The vast river determinedly presses downstream against the bows of fishing boats ferrying across it, hoping for a bountiful last catch of the day. I am looking forward to dipping a toe in this awe-inspiring river tomorrow…

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts from Alexandra Arch. Read more on Opportunity’s blog about her arrival in Kampala, Uganda, her first visit with a Ugandan Trust Group, and her experience meeting Ugandan schoolchildren as well as entrepreneurs.

Alexandra Arch sends us her reflections and insights from her Insight Trip in Uganda. Arch is a freelance writer based out of Bend, Ore. An avid outdoor enthusiast, she also is trying her hand at operating a farm and raising animals. The author is particularly looking forward to shopping in the African markets and floating on the Nile.

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