Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The grant has helped us to come together and to know each other"

Hi all, it’s Annie, one of Spark’s interns in Rwanda, with some great news on the association of Tubeho in the Southern Province!

It’s been a month since our last report on Tubeho (“Let’s Survive” in English), a group of about 100 HIV+ members who have collectively drafted a proposal with Spark to keep bees and to produce and sell honey. The association received a $13,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy for this project and has been anxiously awaiting their first installment. We are excited to report that it is finally ready!

The association meets together every Wednesday. On July 13th, I traveled to Tubeho with one of Spark’s facilitators, Rita, to check in, to talk to some community members, and to begin monitoring and evaluation of the grant. We arrived to find many members working hard to clear the plot of land where they plan to keep their hives. They told us they were eager to receive their first installment, and were doing everything possible to begin their project without the money. By our next check in on July 20th, bricks had been built and laid out in the sun to dry.

Sitting down to speak with community members, a feeling of solidarity was strong throughout the group. We “have come together as HIV positive persons, which was not the case before” said one community member. Another commented, “Now we share, we are no longer lonely.” Stigmatized for years by their larger community for their disease, members have joined together to prove they are equally capable and in charge of their own futures. “Before, [our larger community] was not accepting, but nowadays they are accepting us” said one woman. With proceeds from their honey business, Tubeho plans to educate others about the stigma of HIV.

Tomorrow, Tubeho will receive their check from the Embassy. With these funds, they will be able to purchase necessary building materials and to receive training in bee keeping. More updates to come as Tubeho begins to implement their grant!

Monday, July 25, 2011

An Introduction to the Third Wave of Microfinance

Hi! I’m Rachel Bechdolt.

While in Rwanda for a study abroad program through the School for International Training (SIT) I met Sasha Fisher, the Executive Director for Spark MicroGrants. I was intrigued and inspired by her description of Spark’s work and got a chance to work with Sasha, Spark’s facilitators, and the recipient communities for a month. During the month, I decided to research the level of empowerment felt in one of Spark’s microgrant communities. I chose to look at the level of empowerment because of the
emphasis that is put on it in aid organizations such as the World Bank (who has entire books out about how to promote empowerment in development aid), USAID, UNICEF, and many more. Considering its emphasis, especially in microfinance, looking at the levels of empowerment is an important part of the evaluation process.

One of my main attractions to the Spark method is their ability to let the communities truly create what they want for themselves with no strings attached. In my research, I explain a highly abbreviated history of development aid where I argue that international development aid has failed to develop Third World countri
es (see Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, and The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working by Robert Calderisi). The main issue I cite is the “top-down” approach where the aid donors design and implement aid projects with little to no input from the recipient communities. Instead of designing projects for their communities, Spark embraces their innovation, their knowledge, and their potential to create highly sustainable projects that the communities themselves are invested in.

The community I worked with was a large women’s association (about 1,700 members) in Southern Rwanda called Ubtwari bwo Kubaho, which roughly means “heroes in living.” Through multiple community meetings, the women of Ubtwari bwo Kubaho decided to implement a goat project with their microgrant. Utilizing the Spark philosophy of community-owned microgrants, the women brainstormed projects, voted on one, created a proposal and budget, and implemented the project on their own, with minimal guidance from the Spark staff. Spark serves mostly as a guidance counselor and a conduit to grant money that would otherwise be out of the reach of people in rural Rwanda.

The title of my piece, “The Third Wave of Microfinance: Microgrants and Empowerment,” was inspired after reading about the first and second waves of microfinance: the first in the 1970s and the second in the 1990s. I argue that the next wave has the potential to be found in microgranting in the Microgrant Revolution. Microgrants, unlike microloans, have the ability to fund public sector projects that cannot be repaid (like a water system, a school, etc). This is where microcredit cannot succeed, and it is where microgrants fill in the holes. Like the microfinance revolutions before it, the third wave of microfinance, found in microgranting, will not try to replace existing microfinance institutions. Instead, it can complement the existing structures and make up for its shortcomings. Microgranting and microcredit together can be a powerful and sustainable approach to community-led poverty alleviation.

By interviewing the women through individual and focus group interviews, I tried to gain an understanding of the microgranting process through their eyes. I used three objectives as an outline for my findings, which were categorized as:

1. Individual and community impact
I found that in this instance the individual impact was very limited because of the large size of the group and the smallness of the project. Any tangible short term poverty alleviation was also minimal. However that isn't to say the project was not helpful. The community impact can be seen when we look at the process of getting the microgrant and how the process affected them by instilling a sense of ownership and encouraging creativity.

2. Effectiveness in facilitating empowerment
I argue that the microgrant given to Ubtwari bwo Kubaho was effective in facilitating empowerment. During the interviews with the eight women I found that at least six of them had started their own projects since they started working with Spark in January. One of the group leaders told me that working with Spark had “unlocked” their heads, while another claimed that Spark had encouraged her “self-reliance.”

3. Microgrants and their role in the sphere of microfinance
Like I said, I believe that microgrants have the potential to be a highly effective partner to microcredit. While microcredit is focused on individual asset building, microgrants focus on public sector projects and community empowerment. Individually, they are both missing important pieces, but together they form a highly sustainable form of development aid.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Animals to Arrive in Bukomero Soon!

Hello everyone! Its Natasha a summer intern with Spark who is working with the community Bukomero.

The past few weeks have been very exciting in Bukomero with the animal handoff and personal interviews with community members that I have done. But this week will definitely be another highlight in their granting project, as they just received their follow up money.

Bukomero received $300 total of follow up money, which means that each of the groups (chicken, pig and goat) received $100 or 60,000 RWF. I told the community that they would be receiving the money two weeks ago and they quickly started to brainstorm in that meeting. The goat group instantly decided on buying more goats, where as the pig and chicken groups were thinking of starting new projects such as a bean cooperative. They were thinking of starting these new projects because through the planned animal handoffs they believed everyone would eventually receive an animal.

On Friday, we had another community meeting where they broke off into their three groups and discussed, wrote, and budgeted out their plan.

The goat group decided to buy 4 more goats each at the price of 15,000 RWF. One of these goats will be male, which will make it easier for the animals to reproduce. The Chicken group, after a lot of discussion decided to buy 2 chickens for 12 families, with two chickens costing 5,000 RWF. They decided to give chickens to those who didn’t have any and to those who received chickens the first time but had died due to illness. So they will be giving away 24 chickens to 12 families, at a cost of 5,000 RWF per family. The pig group decided to buy 8 pigs at the price of 7,500 RWF each. They are giving pigs to people who had not yet received pigs, but also to those who’s pigs died. The pig group also decided to buy a male pig because there is no male pig in Bukomero, and it can be quite costly to have a male pig from a neighboring community come to Bukomero. Emile will be receiving the male pig and he negotiated with the community to let them use the male pig for reproduction services at a cost of 1,000 RWF,which is 50% off the normal rate of 2,000 RWF.

I gave the leaders their follow up money on Monday, so they will be buying the animals this week at the local markets. One great thing about this grant is that the people are able to determine where to buy the animals and what animal to buy, so not only are you helping the family who is receiving the animal, but we are also putting more money into the local market place. Hopefully, when I go back on Tuesday I will be able to see all of the new animals!

Nyabageni Potato Harvest Celebration

The potato farming community of Nyabageni gathered Saturday in Kinigi, Rwanda at the sector office to celebrate their first successful harvest. Although it was not as plentiful as they had hoped, they still had very much to be proud of.

“They gathered here at 9am waiting for your arrival but no one complained once,” they executive secretary of the sector said.

The celebration was set to begin at 11am but started at around 2pm (“Rwandan standard time,” some joked). We began by discussing the project and any qualms individuals had with the way things were going. The community decided to elect more members to the executive committee in order to maintain better checks and balances. It was really exciting to see them come to this decision and plan a time for voting.

This is a rather remarkable community. When Spark first arrived they were a community divided. Although they have had some bumps in the road they have been able to overcome a great deal. As soon as the speeches were over, community erupted in dance. They insisted Sasha, Darby and I dance with them although it was quite clear to Darby and I that this was not Sasha’s first time at a Rwandan celebration.

The day started early but by 3 we were all energized by how inspiring this group was. They began asking the hard questions about how they would move forward after Spark was gone and really began to take ownership of their future. Instead of asking how Spark might be able to continue supporting their ideas with another grant they started talking about how they might be able to support themselves.

One comment that really stuck with me and I’d like to leave with you here is the following: “more than food or money we have profited by the relationships [we have created] amongst ourselves.”

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Progress in Gisagara!

There’s much to report from Ndatemwa Village in Gisagara, as the association has grown to 87 members and has begun two separate grant proposals that they will soon present, discuss, and vote on!

Above, Isugi, one of Spark's facilitators from the National University of Rwanda, speaks with the association

Over the course of the last month, the association has met several times both with and without Spark. Collectively deciding that they would like to wait to address the issue of jiggers until after the implementation of their food security grant, the association has been busy raising ideas about what that grant will be. Many first brought up the idea of bean and sorghum farming, though others were concerned that the village’s surrounding soil may not be fertile enough for such high yields. The idea of buying crops locally and re-selling vegetables in a bigger nearby market was then raised, though after crunching numbers, it was clear that profit would be low and transportation expensive. After much discussion, the association has now narrowed their focus down to two potential projects: cassava farming and animal husbandry. On Thursday, they split into two groups, 29 in the cassava group and 58 in animal husbandry, to think through the practicality and sustainability of their projects.
With local markets in mind, the cassava group is interested in growing cassava on a communal plot of land and then selling it to a nearby factory where it will be ground into powder. Proceeds from the powder will be pooled in a communal bank account and used to buy food that the community otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The animal group was overwhelmingly in favor of goat breeding, since goats reproduce quickly, get sick less, and provide fertilizer and meat. They have yet to decide, though, if they would like to follow Bukomero and Ubutwari Bwo Kubaho’s model of passing down goats to individual households as they reproduce, or if they’d rather keep collective ownership.

Stay tuned for more updates and details!

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Let us Women be Developed"

This past Tuesday Spark visited a new women's association, Duhuguke Bagore, settled in the rolling hills of Rwanda's Northern Province. With only 13 members, this association is small in numbers but certainly not lacking in spirit.

Most of these women are widows who support 5 to 9 people in their households. Challenges they face range from health issues, HIV, Malaria, to general poverty and food insecurity. They have formed an association in hopes of purchasing health insurance, obtaining farm animals and keeping their children in school. So far, the association has created a group savings account that is used to buy animals for those who are most in need in the group, but as the price of health insurance has tippled this year Duhuguke Bagore may shift its focus from animals to health care. As a member of the association, said “The first thing is this world is to have a good and healthy life.” These women also have dreams of putting their children through secondary school, but this hope is checked by many charges and fees that place high school level education just out of reach for their dependents.

One member, Philomen, stated “We don't want to stay underdeveloped, we have started but we need assistance.” This is an inspiring group that is ready to work hard and create change in their lives. They have the smarts and drive but lack resources to counter the challenges they face.

New MicroGrants in Uganda!

In the last week of June Spark MicroGrants kicked off a partnership with Educate! an organization based in Kampala, Uganda promoting social entrepreneurship and leadership.
The Educate! program has engaged 325 Ugandan high school students in a compelling course on social entrepreneurship. After the course a number of the exceptional alumni start small community-based organizations in their home villages – but it’s hard to start a CBO with no funding! We just held a training with four of their alumni so that they can start facilitating MicroGrants for their home communities which suffer from numerous dangerous problems, including malnutrition, lack of education, poor media access, access to clean water and poverty.

Jennifer, Agnes, Kenneth and Deo. Educate! alumni and new MicroGrant facilitators

The recent high school graduates, Agnes, Kenneth, Deo and Jennifer come from four sides of Uganda. Agnes (in the back of the photo) is from Dokoro district, bordering Gulu in northern Uganda. She has already started a mushroom growing project to generate income and increased nutrition in her area. She’s worked with a number of community members to get them involved in the mushroom project but she says it is often a struggle to get people to work well. Kenneth, (middle, front of the photo) from Mbale in the eastern region, has started his own CBO called the Millennium Development Umbrella to help his region meet the Millennium Development Goals. Jennifer (front, left) is from the southern district of Bushenyi. She has started working with women on craft based income generating projects and is going to be working with others in Bushenyi to facilitate a MicroGrant for the larger community. Deo (front, right) lives in Hoima, in the western region of Uganda. Deo has started a number of projects in his area despite his young age. He’s helped start an orphanage, animal rearing project, tree planting campaign and a music and arts program – his mom helps compose the music! He’s already held the preliminary meetings for the MicroGrant process and has mentioned that people have discussed problems including access to communication systems. They are in the midst of developing their proposals.

Agnes, Kenneth and Jennifer have also started to organize their communities around discussing the MicroGrant process and possible project ideas.

We’re excited to see these four get off the ground!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An update from Bukomero!

Hello everyone! Its Natasha, a Spark intern, with an exciting update from Bukomero!

On Saturday, I traveled down to Bukomero to conduct some one on one interviews and a community meeting. Since Bukomero has implemented their grant, I am working this summer to do some evaluation of the grant and the Spark process. In order to do this we have held large community meetings and some interviews. On Saturday I met with 5 different people, and then during the meeting I told the community that they were receiving follow up money, which was really exciting!!

After arriving in Bukomero around 10AM, I started to complete the interviews with Dama, the facilitator. In the interviews I ask questions related to the health of their animals, if they have seen an increase in their income or agricultural production from the animals, and what they think about the grant and Spark process. Each interview takes between 15-20 minutes, and so far we have been getting really great information!

On Saturday, I met with Mujawayeza, who has a truly amazing story. She received 3 chickens, and they have so far produced 7 chicks. Unfortunately 3 chicks have died (one actually got taken during our community meeting by a larger bird, it was quite an ordeal!). But two weeks ago she gave away two baby chicks to another family, which was great because she was able to pass along the grant. For me, the most amazing part of her story is that by selling eggs she has been able to double her monthly income. Before the grant she was making 500 RWF a month, a little less than a dollar, but now is making 1,000 RWF a month, which she said is because she is now able to sell eggs.

“After getting animals I opened bank account, when I get money I save, and when I have problems I can get money”-Mujawayeza

With the money from selling eggs Mujawayeza has been able to buy soap and pay for her children’s transportation to school, which she wasn’t able to pay for before receiving her animal from Spark. She has also been able to use some of the manure from the chickens in her fields to grow more vegetables. Mujawayeza has done a great job keeping her animals healthy and happy and is a real inspiration!!

Mujawayeza, on the left, handing away her animal.

Along with finding out how the animals are doing, I have also been asking people about the Spark process and if they liked working as a community to collectively develop the grant. When I ask them if they enjoy working with their community, they all respond Cyane! Cyane!, which means very much. Gatauazi Vincent is the leader of the pig group, and when I asked if the community worked together before the grant he told me:

“No, this micro-grant put us together.”-Vincent

Vincent and his family

This was very exciting to hear because one of the goals of the Spark process is to have the community come together and work as a group towards their own development. Another goal of the Spark process is to teach communities how to design and implement projects on their own, which Uwitonze spoke with me about. When I asked her if she thought the people of Bukomero could implement a project on their own without the help of an NGO she said:

“You have shown us the way, now we can do it.”- Uwitonze

Saturday was a great day spent in Bukomero not only because the interviews went so well, but because the three groups started brainstorming on what to do with their follow up money. While they have some ideas, which are centered on buying more animals, they are still working out the details. During our next meeting on Friday, I think they will finalize their plans!