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Program Manager in the Field: 3 Defining Insights from my Trip to Uganda

By Kyle Fiechter

How can a non-profit work with social enterprises to reduce poverty? When I visited Opportunity’s operations in Uganda in November, this question loomed in my mind—I was curious to discover the best ways Opportunity International could continue to work with our implementing partner, Opportunity Bank Uganda, Ltd. (OBUL), to design sustainable solutions for underserved communities. As program manager for the region, I was eager to see our partnership in action on the ground.

From left to right: Kyle Fiechter, Program Manager, Opportunity International US, Alice, Program Manager, Opportunity International Africa, and Ibrahim, Opportunity Bank Uganda, Ltd.
From left to right: Kyle Fiechter, Program Manager, Opportunity International US, Alice, Program Manager, Opportunity International Africa, and Ibrahim, Opportunity Bank Uganda, Ltd.

During the next nine days, I would go on a whirlwind tour of our operations—a mission to gather information on our projects, build relationships with my colleagues, look for ways to improve how we work together, and meet some of the clients we work for day in and day out. I met more than 100 people across OBUL, Opportunity, community members, local thought leaders, and other partners on the ground like the Office of the Prime Minister and the World Food Programme. Through each interaction, I objectively studied how our goals and outcomes were aligned. Knowing that OBUL’s success is linked to their bottom line and ours is linked to positive outcomes for our clients, I was curious to observe projects that successfully met both of our standards.

Lesson One: They are listening to the need

As a team, Opportunity and OBUL staff identified the need to further support the local disabled population. Using focus groups that included people with disabilities, the team discussed how to equip OBUL branches to accommodate accessibility needs and make differently-abled people feel welcome. ­

But the team felt one more step was necessary to make people with disabilities truly feel welcome: update OBUL’s signs and branding to highlight the accessibility changes. Despite the scale and cost of such an update, OBUL agreed this was critical—and now, from the head office in Kampala to the refugee settlement in Nakivale, OBUL’s signs welcome people with disabilities to their branches.

It was clear to me that the close interaction between Opportunity and OBUL executive leadership was vital for a project of this undertaking. The close collaboration, field-level brainstorming, and OBUL staffs’ internal motivation to serve unreached people drove significant change for a frequently overlooked population.

Lesson Two: They are designing sustainable solutions

Sustainability is top-of-mind for anyone in development. We know that if a group doesn’t continue to benefit after the initial funding is complete, then we have not done our job well. To understand the best way we can sustainably run projects with our partners, I looked into an Opportunity program supporting vocational education financing.

Vocational education provides youth with skills needed to fill jobs or start businesses in high-growth sectors. However, graduates typically lack collateral and cash-flow to access capital. Because of our close ties to the community, we knew there was considerable demand for loans from vocational education institutions that would like to improve their offerings and students and parents who would benefit from that education.

With the need determined, Opportunity’s EduFinance team began working closely with OBUL to develop technical and vocational education loan products (TVET) that would allow OBUL to sustainably lend to vocational education institutions, students, and graduates. By narrowing the scope of the project, we were able to provide OBUL with funding to manage risk in the early stages, test training and mentorship methods, and evaluate outcomes. The benefit was twofold: young entrepreneurs and vocational institutions could access the capital and training they need to start and run their businesses, and OBUL was able to take the interest they made off the loans and reinvest it to serve even more students as they work to establish their businesses. It’s invigorating to see a win-win solution that has become self-perpetuating, meaning that clients will go on to benefit time and time again.

Lesson Three: Together we are focusing on the right problems

Women in Uganda face systemic disadvantages in starting, growing, and scaling their businesses. Those disadvantages include lack of access to finance, misperceptions about creditworthiness, lower rates of business education, and cultural biases. Helping women overcome these challenges is vital for enabling economic recovery and growth in the country. That’s precisely what the Unstoppable Women Initiative, funded by UPS Foundation and Opportunity, aims to do.

Through this project, Opportunity and OBUL guarantee loans to women even when they don’t meet standard collateral requirements, reduce interest rates to make loans more affordable, and provide business and financial literacy training. We know that financing women-owned businesses is one of Africa’s greatest challenges but also an opportunity for economic growth; I was curious to understand ways this works out in practice. I asked multiple people at OBUL how effective this project is at removing barriers for women on the ground. The answer was overwhelmingly positive, with one branch manager describing this as “the best project in Uganda” at allowing women-owned businesses to grow and thrive.

This means that every $100 gift by a member of the Opportunity community invested in this project becomes $700 for women-owned businesses. That is astounding. Since these women wouldn’t be able to access capital otherwise, Opportunity’s donors are creating a meaningful difference for women in Africa on a very real and very impactful level. And with the power of our Opportunity community behind us, we aim to impact 1.4 million lives over the next three years with this project alone.

Rebuilding stronger

When my trip began, OBUL executives had reiterated to me their commitment to providing solutions to reach those in remote areas to break the cycle of poverty. 

As I closed out my trip, I was pleased to conclude that OBUL is well-respected in the community and truly meets real needs. I paid a final visit to OBUL’s CEO Owen Amanya, during which we reflected on the tremendous challenges people in Uganda have faced through the pandemic, including curfews that crippled the economy and school closures that have left children out of school for two years. Field-driven, sustainable solutions, and the power of the Opportunity community, are crucial to catalyzing the businesses that will help drive Uganda’s recovery. In January, we received good news: Uganda lifted significant lockdowns and opened schools for the first time in two years. We’re ready to get to work.

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