A few weeks ago, I traveled to Uganda to witness the work of Opportunity International. I became a donor a few years ago and recently joined the Opportunity team as Chief Philanthropy Officer, so I was keen to kick the tires on our model of providing innovative financial solutions to create sustainable livelihoods for hard-working families. I was wearing two hats: one as an insider and one as a supporter.
I left a blustering snowstorm in the states to arrive in Kampala, Uganda, where I was welcomed with bright sunshine and warm temperatures—what a treat! Even better, I had the honor of spending time with several of our farming clients who benefit from our loan and saving services, training, staff support, and digital tools.
I had the pleasure of meeting two coffee farmers, Barbara and Millie, who live in a rural area. I learned that they both lost their husbands and subsequently became the heads of their households and their coffee farms. Millie is an Opportunity client, and Barbara is her local Farmer Support Agent (FSA), working for our local partner to help others in her community improve their coffee farms.
Barbara shared how she and other FSAs deliver the latest knowledge to farmers via personal, one-on-one interactions. They leverage their interpersonal skills, their technical skills, and the power of technology to bring best practices to these rural areas.
FSAs need to have an in-depth understanding of the needs of local farmers, so they are selected based on the quality of their relationships in the community and the level of respect they have in an area. As an added bonus, Barbara is a showstopper when it comes to coffee production: she produces the biggest harvests in her community, which means she has valuable expertise to share with her neighbors.
One of my favorite things was seeing how she used everyone’s favorite tool—a cell phone—to play videos from Opportunity (for farmers, by farmers!) about best agricultural practices and skills, like pruning to help a crop thrive or planting techniques to maximize the seed. It’s so simple, and it works. She had farmers listening intently to her, talking about when they could try a new technique on their crops.
This was the Opportunity difference I’d been hearing about, right before my eyes. Farmers were getting tailored financial services that met them where they were, literally and figuratively, getting the opportunity to change their lives.
Now, back to Millie and Barbara—these ladies grew up together, so they have quite a history. I asked Millie what she liked most about Barbara’s role as an FSA in their community, and she told me it’s Barbara’s high level of responsiveness in providing quick solutions to real problems. In farming, we know timing is critical to making every season count.
Millie and Barbara both benefit from agriculture loans and training that they use to expand their land and produce more coffee. Through their partnership with Opportunity, they bought better seeds and fertilizer, and have learned how to grow coffee more efficiently.
Together, they have become stronger businesswomen, and they’ve also become community leaders. They encourage other women in life and business by meeting in groups to support one another. Millie cares for several orphaned children, and Barbara of course works as an FSA on top of running her own farm and serving her own family—primarily, she says, because she wants to encourage others to be better farmers so they can better provide for their families. What a touching story they tell of their friendship and putting their faith in action to make a big difference in their families and their community.
FSAs like Barbara are transforming the lives of women and children across Africa as we speak. This region is marked by some of the deepest poverty where people in rural areas are forced to work as smallholder farmers, many barely surviving. We need more Barbaras and Millies out there in their communities to take hold of these opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive, and to share their skills to uplift their own lives and the next generation.
It’s because of our amazing supporters that Opportunity gets the privilege of working with such ambitious, compassionate women who are changing their communities one farmer at a time. I’m so inspired by them, and by your commitment to helping women you may never even meet, in a place you may never go. You are our greatest gift. Now let’s get to work!