Reaching out, Uganda

By: Rohini Jog, VSO Volunteer, India

My first impression is that Kampala is very green, very hilly … everything that has happened so far has left me with a happy warm fuzzy feeling …’ I loved my job in India but volunteering with VSO in Kampala opened a whole new world for me. Suddenly my job was exciting, fun and meaningful at the same time. When I came to reach Out, Uganda, I was expecting – NOTHING, besides the novel experience of living in a foreign country. So, when I looked at the project and the livelihood projects currently running within, I was impressed, coz I felt like there was some real work in progress. It seemed that the infrastructure required to run these projects was in place in terms of people, equipment and training. The VSO volunteer there preceding me had created excellent systems, reports and documentation to track sales and stock and pricing. So, what was the issue then? Why were the Roses of Mbuya consistently losing money? It seemed that management skills and marketing skills were sorely lacking. So, even though we were sitting on a great product, a great idea with a lot of market potential, the execution of the project was in trouble. So, my work was cut and dried. When I first came to Uganda, I was told by my Program Officer at VSO that I should take it easy and not try to do too much too quickly from the word ‘GO’. Realistically, it might take me up to 3 months to actually begin contributing and sharing skills with the organization. At the time, I had viewed it as ‘typical NGO’ attitude. I had no experience of working in development sector and had always viewed the NGO machinery a bit like government machinery – slack and bureaucratic!! But when I first came to Reach Out, I realized that that was not the reason why I was told to be patient, but that there really was not much choice if I had to understand the environment I was going to work in for the next 1 year. So, I literally sat it out for 3 months, just watching the proceedings, getting to know people, the work they do, how they feel about it, how does Reach Out function, what are the dynamics, professional and interpersonal. I must say it was a wonderful learning exercise.

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It was frustrating at times to just sit and feel so useless (I came from a work culture where spending 12 hours at work or more!! was routine). And sometimes I even felt like, “this is a waste of time; I am never going to learn anything in this way!” But, as I sat and watched and listened, I also began experiencing a slow integration with the rest of the people at Reach Out. I had no doubt that I was being watched closely especially with my interaction with the ROSES, since this was a project more or less written off by everyone and the only person who seemed to have some faith in its ‘right to exist’ was the Project Coordinator. The Roses of Mbuya had lost 20 mil Ugs (approx.10, 000 USD) in the year 2004. The VSO volunteer preceding me had done an audit and strongly recommended that the project is a ‘white elephant’ and should be shut down. I tended to agree because logically anybody could see that when there is only so much money we have, it should be spent more judiciously on items like medicine, for example, and not be ‘squandered’ on paying expenses of a livelihood program that supported 15 people and had lost money for the 3rd year in a row. But, my driving force to try and make a go for it came from 3 quarters – One - the faith Dr.Margrethe Juncker, the dynamic Project Coordinator of Reach Out seemed to display in the ability of the ROSES. Two, the faith displayed by Clodagh Warde, a consultant with Reach Out from the UK on a 9 month assignment to primarily carry out organization restructuring (Reach Out had grown from 3 volunteers and 14 clients to 230 volunteers and 1900 clients in a space of 4 years and was typically facing what is popularly known as ‘pangs of growth.’ Hence, Clodagh, who had also volunteered with Reach Out earlier, was brought in to help the organization carry out an evaluation and restructuring exercise to enable smoother and cohesive functioning). Clodagh was looking after the workshop (a stop gap arrangement till I arrived) and was in the process of executing an export order to the UK for children’s clothes. Also, they had just been through a workshop with Danish Fair Trade and there seemed to be an aura of optimism due to these two facts. Thirdly, my own conscience seemed to tell me that if they had called in a VSO volunteer in order to attempt to set right whatever is wrong and had identified ‘lack of marketing skills’ as one of their key issues, then they must mean ‘business’ and this was not just a half-hearted attempt to set a ‘wrong’ ‘right’. Also, given the fact that the ROSES had actually never worked at 100% productive capacity, to me, was a big problem, even to ascertain whether the model they were working with is potentially profitable or not! How does one know the true capacity of a production unit if it has never worked at even half of its potential or projected capacity? (I am sure there are statistics to work this out, but I have always stayed away from that subject…I think stats encourages stereo typing :-)). Anyway, after a good 3 months of this sitting out, I finally began to venture out of my shell and begun building on the fragile bonds I had created with different people at Reach Out (All this is coming to me as a retrospective, I definitely did not do any or most of this by design). I started initiating a one-on-one relationship with people at Reach Out, most importantly, with the Roses themselves (the tailors) and the supervisors and managers. I began to actively follow-up with every conceivable lead that might bring in work for the workshop. (I have a background in
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business development, but since I knew nothing about the country or business I thought the most prudent line would be to follow-up on all queries being generated by default and convert these while I try and learn more about competition, potential buyers, distribution outlets etc.). Since the workshop was not making money anyway, I decided to switch focus on just generating enough work to enable 100% (or close to 100%) productivity. So, I began to make contractual agreements with different organizations, mainly other NGOs who had work for us (conference bags to nurses’ uniforms…we did it all!!). The objective was to just keep the ROSES busy and of course try to make profitable deals to the most possible extent. Slowly, but surely, it started coming together and I began to realize that my ROSES (by that time they had become ‘MY ROSES’ in my head) had some superlative advantages and positive traits that actually made this ‘success story’ possible! Just to list a few key ones – 1. Reach Out is a young dynamic organization whose management has a never-say-die attitude and the ability to stick through times of trouble and emerge winners! (Don’t know even many corporations who can say that for themselves). 2. Almost 70% of the volunteers (Reach Out has no employees, only volunteers who are offered a stipend) at Reach Out are clients (HIV+) who all truly believe that this organization has been singularly responsible for their ‘second chance’ as they call it and hence, they truly understand what is ‘positive living’. This attitude reflects in everything that takes place in this organization. So, the ‘resurrection’ of the ROSES was a part of this belief. 3. Reach Out has an enviable infrastructure and at this point is a fairly well funded organization, meaning, its risk taking ability was a bit healthier than most organizations might have in comparison. This is not taking away anything from the spirit of the organization, but is stated as a mere fact. (Am sure there are plenty of well-funded development projects with snazzy systems who cannot recognize their left from their right!) 4. The Roses of Mbuya comprises of the most fantastic group of 15 women that I am ever going to have the good fortune to work with again. They are clever, intelligent, brave, hard working, funny and most importantly, FIGHTERS! The credit of this turnaround of fortune of the ROSES goes entirely to them. A little more about the ROSES, just so that the reader understands what are some of the odds for women living with HIV in Africa – Like practically anywhere else in the world, almost all the ROSES come from extremely impoverished backgrounds and had no marketable skills till they tested HIV+ and were offered a chance to develop livelihood skills, in this case, sewing, by Reach Out’s vocational training school. Till that point they were largely dependent on their husbands or other men in the family to earn the bread while they produced children. Contracting HIV meant loss of any semblance of normal family life largely due to the death of the loved ones or being abandoned by these same loved ones due to stigma. Not only that, now they found themselves in the unenviable position of looking after themselves and the children (very often the children are not all their own, but are orphans from next of kin or even children of second or third wives of their spouses), with no livelihood skills or education whatsoever. This also illustrates why livelihood programs are such important components of an HIV/AIDS management program. The choices left to uneducated, unskilled men and women left to fend for
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themselves are so limited and terrifying and the issue of HIV is so closely linked to poverty, desperation and hence lack of choices, that only strong, vibrant, sustainable livelihood programs have the ability to give back some dignity to most of these people and enhance their value within their families and in public life. So, it’s no wonder that the ROSES were ‘so’ capable of rising up to the challenge of turning the fortunes of the workshop. This was small fry compared to what went go thru as part of their daily survival routine. 5. The Roses of Mbuya are highly skilled tailors who know how to deliver quality products. It is to the credit of the Roses and their workshop supervisor that in the past 1 year, we have rarely received a complaint because of quality. In fact, there has been praise showered from more than 1 quarter over our quality output. The superlative technical training given to the ROSES for almost 2 years by a visiting volunteer has definitely held them in good stead. One of the reasons, I believe it was so easy as a transition, was because the ROSES themselves, with all their good sense seemed to have realized that this was some sort of a last chance for them (…the fact that it came to that, was not their fault to begin with…just the way their HIV+ status is not their fault. In both cases, they were victims of circumstance). So, when the work began to come in, I saw a new vitality flowing through their veins and the energy in the workshop was palpable. They have been so eager to take on work and responsibility. They have shown uncommon eagerness to learn, display professionalism and shoulder responsibility. Today, I can see that they feel a sense of ownership about the ‘business’ and for me ‘this’ is one of the greatest matters of pride and joy. The year 2005 saw the Roses post a gross profit of 9 mil Ugs. (approx 5,000 USD). 1 large contract worth 37 mil Ugs (almost 20,000 USD), 1 medium sized contract and about 6 small sized contracts along with retail sales of the ROSES shop and other identified retail partners saw a turnover of more than 67 mil Ugs (approx. 35,000 USD) for the Roses of Mbuya. Another significant contribution to this revenue was from an ancillary livelihood project, operating under the ROSES umbrella. Beads of Hope, a women’s community project that produces quality paper beaded jewelry, which is being sold profitably in local and export markets. Beads of Hope was initially developed as an alternative means of livelihood for this women’s group who are largely Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the North of Uganda having escaped the ravages of the civil war carrying on there for the last two decades or more. These women used to take on the work of crushing stones in quarries thru the blazing sun with infants tied to their backs. TB is one of the largest killers for an HIV+ person and it was imperative that an alternate form of income be developed to preserve the longevity of these women’s lives who would more often than not succumb to TB due to the nature of their work. Beads of Hope is an environment friendly project that makes colorful paper beads jewelry out of glossy magazine paper. What Now? We are now in the process of finding a manager for the Roses of Mbuya who will primarily be responsible for business development and establishing the Roses as well as the other livelihood programs at Reach Out into vibrant businesses that offer the community a much needed lease of
iVolunteer Overseas
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life by creating employment opportunities. This will mean a successful transfer of skills from a VSO volunteer to a local professional. Developing a new model for the functioning of the ROSES- If consistent work is seen, then the workshop can be converted into a dissemination, collection and quality control and training unit with all tailors working from home offering flexibility to all the stake-holders and expanding the ROSES network at no incremental costs. To summarize, I would put down the success of the Roses of Mbuya to – 1. A never-say-die attitude from the leadership 2. Abundance of grit and determination from the primary stake-holders viz. the Roses themselves 3. The superior technical expertise that the ROSES possess which truly makes them one of the best in their craft 4. Ability of the organization to utilize its infrastructure and resources wisely and a great willingness to learn from mistakes made in the past. 5. Ability of the management to invite and welcome new structures and business practices without dithering or questioning intentions. Extending solidarity and support towards a new idea. 6. Imaginativeness and a firm focus found after years of struggle. 7. Creating opportunities and converting them into meaningful business relationships. 8. Introduction of a piece-rate system of payment which encourages optimum productivity and rewards the more efficient workers in a fair manner. Not only that, contractual work also allowed more tailors from the community to be integrated into the work offering income to more than just 15 people. 9. A little help from a VSO volunteer who had truly believed that the best she can do while she ‘tried’ to share skills was to have a good time trying to know life in a foreign country. It’s a challenge to step out of a lucrative career to become a global citizen, but then some one has to raise their hands to make a difference in the poorest and most vulnerable communities- says Rohini After completing her assignment, Rohini has chosen to continue working for the development sector in India & is a much sought after NGO Management Consultant.

iVolunteer Overseas
D-134, First Floor, East of Kailash New Delhi-110065

Tel.: +91 11-26217459 Email : vso@ivolunteer.in Website: www.ivoindia.org

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