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50 for 50: Understanding Opportunity's Refugee Initiatives

By Tineyi Mawocha

This essay is a selection from the special edition of UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. The new edition has been released in celebration of Opportunity International’s 50th Anniversary, featuring new chapters from leaders throughout Opportunity’s history. To receive a copy, simply make a donation of any size to Opportunity and we’ll send it to you.

Alex Mango Ishingwa is a contractor who lives in Nakivale, Western Uganda, along with his wife and two children.

He founded the Wakati Foundation to help fellow refugees find work. His foundation was contracted by Opportunity International to build a bank branch in his refugee settlement. Alex is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Almost 10 years ago, he escaped torture and fled hundreds of miles with his family to Uganda, traveling by boat, by truck and on foot to reach safety. He was joined by his brothers, his sister and his father, none of whom ever plan to return to the Congo.

When Alex arrived in Uganda in 2012, he could not speak a word of English. He spoke Swahili, Lingala and French and already had two university degrees in business, but these qualifications weren’t enough to overcome the language barrier. A working knowledge of English was necessary to get any job in Uganda.

Refugees come from countries across the continent, including South Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and many others. In any refugee settlement, multiple languages are spoken, but the language most people spoke at work—refugees and Ugandans alike—was English. Alex and his family had a temporary home in the refugee camp, but he wanted more stability for the long term. He was determined to find a way to work. He tried to enroll in a vocational school but was told he needed to learn English first.

Alex took any manual labor job he was given, including carrying water for other refugees and cleaning up before or after construction workers nearby. He picked up a few words and phrases at a time, and his comprehension increased enough for him to start attending English classes and eventually vocational classes in construction. About overcoming the language barrier, Alex now says with a smile, “English was easier to learn than French.”

Alex threw himself into his new line of work as a builder. He extended his energies toward helping other refugees find work in their new surroundings. In 2013, he founded the Wakati Foundation, a self-empowerment initiative to help refugees rise above their circumstances.

“Wakati” means “time” in Swahili. His foundation was established on the principle of using time wisely. Alex understood the loss that refugees were experiencing. He wanted to help others shift to the same understanding he had come to himself: “Even though we have lost our homes, we’ve been gifted with time, and we’re going to use that time well to change our own circumstances. Learn a new trade. Learn a new skill. When you have an opportunity to use whatever you were trained in before, use it.”

He encouraged refugees to find solutions right in the middle of their unfortunate circumstances. Alex referred to this as a “mindset change.” Empowered with a different mindset, refugees could take on the challenges they faced. Even if they couldn’t practice their previous professions, refugees could still find meaningful work. Doctors could start small drug shops. Business owners could learn to construct and paint new buildings. 

In the years since its founding, Wakati has not wavered from its mission to encourage self-worth, self-reliance and unity of purpose among refugees and native Ugandans. They have embarked on many different projects, most related to construction.

After years of smaller construction jobs, the Wakati Foundation was contracted through Opportunity International to build a bank branch in the refugee settlement of Nakivale. The branch of Opportunity Bank Uganda was scheduled to open in June 2021, but construction was delayed by shortages and shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the building not yet being open, we have been offering loans and savings services to refugees.

Alex did not take a loan from Opportunity Bank but instead was hired as a contractor by Opportunity International to oversee building the facility. His story is an example of Opportunity’s current practice at the local level. We saw the work Alex was doing with Wakati, which is run for refugees and by refugees and is very attuned to their specific needs. Opportunity didn’t need to start another organization.

We simply came alongside one already working on the ground. 

Alex is proactive in encouraging refugees and locals to open savings accounts with Opportunity Bank. Refugees are organized into savings and credit cooperatives. Opportunity Bank makes wholesale loans to the Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations, which in turn make smaller loans to their members to start and operate small businesses. Through this process, the bank can afford to offer banking services to some of the most impoverished and vulnerable refugees working across a broad spectrum of enterprises.

Even though the brick-and-mortar building is not open yet, Opportunity Bank is already busy providing microenterprise loans, small and medium enterprise loans, and wholesale loans to cooperatives, resulting in thousands of refugees benefiting from this initiative. At the last count, 1,500 loans have been made in the Nakivale settlement, varying from as little as $50 all the way up to $5,000.

One of the loan recipients is Esperance Kitegetse, a refugee from Burundi. Back home, her husband worked as a commercial farmer, and she sold their harvest at a market. Their produce consisted of a variety of vegetables, including cassava and potatoes. All her children attended school, two of them graduating from the university in Burundi. But her community was increasingly unstable. Esperance lost her husband through these insecurities and was forced to flee to Uganda for safety.

When Esperance and her children arrived in Uganda, they stayed in the Reception Center in Nakivale. The conditions were difficult. Esperance and her children slept on the ground and were prohibited from leaving the center. The Kitegetse family would remain asylum seekers, unable to work, until they were granted refugee status. 

So, when Esperance did receive refugee status, she was grateful. She was given a stall in the market in Nakivale by the officials who ran the refugee settlement, and she went to work, relying on the skills she learned back in Burundi. Esperance became a member of a group of 40 vendors working in the market. At the end of each week, every member would contribute 3,000 Ugandan shillings, approximately $1, into a collection given to each of the members in turn. That member would use the extra funds to make improvements on their stall, to buy more equipment or to buy more products.

When Opportunity started looking for ways to be involved in the Nakivale settlement, we found Esperance and the other vendors already organized, saving and lending amongst themselves. Of the Nakivale market vendors, 60 percent had joined similar savings groups of varying sizes. These were people who already understood the advantages of saving together, yet it took courage for them to test the services we offered, including savings accounts. Many vendors were hesitant—what if our bank took their money? It was an unfamiliar situation for us as well. Most banks had no operations in refugee settlements, which are usually in rural areas, difficult to access, and the residents frequently have no official identification or address.

Opportunity sent a few trainers to Nakivale to help refugees understand and utilize the services we were offering. Of the 40 vendors in Esperance’s savings group, 11 asked for loans from Opportunity Bank, including Esperance.

She took a loan of $150 at a rate of 2 percent interest per month, which is a fraction of what the informal moneylenders charge. Opportunity Bank has the lowest rates available in the settlement, compared to other financial institutions and moneylenders that charge between 3 and 20 percent interest per month. Over the six-month term, the loan would help her pay school fees, improve her house and boost the inventory in her stall at the market.

Esperance’s business grows every day. Her stall is full of products, and she makes a full payment each month. She’s looking forward to asking for a larger loan the next cycle in order to buy a stall in another market for her cousin to manage. She’d like to upgrade the plastic sheeting on the roof of her house with corrugated iron and plaster the inside of her walls with concrete.

Opportunity International’s involvement has made a huge difference for loan clients like Esperance in Nakivale. We also provide financial services in two more of Uganda’s 11 refugee settlements, though there is no construction at the other two sites yet.

Uganda ranks third globally for the number of refugees hosted, more than any other country in Africa. Refugees are made to feel welcome. They have the chance to flourish and give back to the country. Seventy percent of them say that they don’t want to go back home. They want to build a new life for themselves and their families right where they are.

Refugees want to stay in Uganda because of the many policies that grant them dignity. Refugees are allocated a small plot of land to build a home and another plot to plant crops. There is no differentiation between “refugee” and “host communities”—whatever conditions prevail for Ugandans also apply to refugees. When Uganda has funding to tar rural roads, the settlements will be classified like any other rural area. The fact that refugees live there will not make a difference.

At Opportunity Bank, like other businesses in refugee settlements, one person from the community is employed for every three refugees employed. This official government policy is deliberate, designed to provide good service to everyone in the greater community. One of the Ugandans working in the settlement is Agnes Mukandekezi, who relocated to Nakivale from Kampala to manage our new banking operations with refugees. When I have personally seen Agnes at work, I am reminded of Colossians 3:23: “And whatever you do, do it heartily as to the Lord and not men.” Agnes gets along with everyone in the settlement. It is an honor and a privilege to have someone like her on our team.

As the managing director of Opportunity’s work in Africa, it has been a privilege to be part of this innovation for refugees. I can attest to the fact that the settlements are an asset to Uganda where I live, and not a burden. Other African countries should be looking at Uganda and learning from what we’re doing here. I get excited about what I do with refugee communities because I believe that the answer to Africa’s problems is on our own soil. I’ve watched footage of fellow Africans drowning while trying to escape this continent, and I want to tell others that they don’t have to leave to have a better life. You don’t have to go overseas. We have so much land, and we have so many human resources—potential that can be realized through our refugee communities.

For 50 years, Opportunity International has blazed a trail for families living in poverty. These stories remind us that people—mothers and fathers, farmers and teachers, children and parents, entrepreneurs and families—are at the heart of everything we do.

As we share the stories of our clients, the voiceless people of the world, we hope and pray that they leave you feeling inspired. 

We hope and pray that the powerful stories of these changemakers, shared in their own words, will remind you that regular people just like us can help bring about great change in the lives of those living in poverty.

We hope and pray that the compelling stories of waymakers throughout our 50-year history, the supporters who made all of this happen, will inspire you to become a waymaker yourself. 

Most of all, we hope, pray and work tirelessly toward a world without extreme poverty. A world where every person goes to bed with a full stomach and rises the next morning to dignified work.

Will you join us?

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