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Behind the Scenes with the Agriculture Finance Team

By Debbie Scibek

Debbie Scibek, Program Manager, with local farmers.

Debbie Scibek, Program Manager, with local farmers.

Agriculture Finance for Dummies: a book that doesn’t exist but I wish did when I began managing Opportunity’s agriculture program. After spending five years in the Middle East and less than a year in West Africa, I had a bit of a learning curve. Little did I know, I was about to be in exceptionally capable hands. To start, I learned the team’s experience in agriculture was a significant number of years more than I had been alive. Each of the five team members lives in Africa, being either from there or having lived there most of their lives. About a month into my new role, I had the opportunity to fly to Uganda to meet the team in person—and that’s where the real learning began.

I spent two days traveling to the Mbale region, where I was able to see the agriculture team at work. Opportunity Bank of Uganda’s agriculture Program Manager, Emma Lubwama, the Mbale branch manager, John Achecho, and Opportunity’s Regional Agriculture Adviser, Tim Strong, seemed at ease as we spent our Saturday traveling along dirt roads to meet with four groups of Arabica coffee farmers. They patiently spoke to the groups, explaining how Opportunity’s bank works with Ugandans and the requirements for receiving loan products. Neither Emma nor John seemed to mind spending 20+ hours over the weekend (which was in the middle of their annual leave) to support these rural farmers, and it was easy to see how much the farmers respected and admired them. In particular, John, who had seemed quiet upon first meeting him, shined as he spoke to the groups, providing great insight and answers to any questions that came up. Once it got dark and after six hours of traveling from village to village on the bumpy dirt roads, John, Emma and Tim finally started to show signs of hunger—I don’t even think they were tired yet. To say Opportunity’s agriculture team goes above and beyond is an understatement.

A group of local Arabica coffee farmers from the Mbale region of Uganda.

A group of local Arabica coffee farmers from the Mbale region of Uganda.

While I was in Uganda, I also spent time listening to the operations team discuss strategies for each country and the region as a whole, thinking through how to innovate their services to better serve smallholder farmers. I took notes as fast as my fingers allowed and learned more than I could have ever anticipated. The Head of Agriculture Finance, John Magnay, has lived in Uganda for about 40 years and has a wealth of knowledge in agriculture as well as connections across the continent—I’m pretty sure he knows people in every single country. There is also Nick Railston-Brown, agriculture’s Head of Operations, who spent 20 years in Ghana and knows both the region and all things agriculture. Nick spent the beginning of 2017 on the road, traveling to every country where Agriculture Finance is offered to evaluate and strengthen the program. Adrian Ghaui, our tech-savvy team member who focuses on developing digital solutions for our farmers, is somehow finding time to complete his MBA while being the brain  behind a number of the innovation development the team is undertaking.

Tim visiting with a local farmer.

Tim visiting with a local farmer.

When Tim isn’t turning the back seat of a safari vehicle into his own personal office, he is at home in Malawi with his wife, hanging out at their house where they have too many animals to count or working on another language to the five or so he already speaks fluently. And finally, Tamsin Scurfield, a financial analyst who is (theoretically) part-time with the agriculture team, has an incredible grasp of mobile money and branchless banking and is working to improve crop insurance for our clients. As far as my Agriculture Finance for Dummies learnings from my time with them, they taught me how managing cash is one of the largest issues for our rural clients and how smallholder farmers perform at not even 40 percent of their harvest potential. This is why the agriculture team is working on innovative solutions, like a massive digitization of data, to better serve them.

I couldn’t have been more impressed with the team, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for these brilliant minds and the smallholder farmers they serve across Africa.

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