I spent two days each in Uganda and Tanzania, meeting with clients and staff to get a sense of how the landscape for microfinance and business in general is changing in Africa and FINCA’s ability to stay ahead of it. We arrived at Entebbe airport in the dead of night, and, to our chagrin, encountered a police roadblock on the outskirts of Kampala that added another two hours to our journey. The cops were checking for drunken drivers, and, in the process, netted dozens of frustrated drivers who tried to circumvent the checkpoint by driving on the wrong side of the road. They ripped the licenses off the perpetrators’ cars just in case they tried to make a run for it.
The next day we plunged into Kampala’s teeming urban market to talk to some of our clients who had lost their businesses in a fire that swept through the crowded forest of wooden stalls back in December of 2013. Fortunately, FINCA Uganda provides disaster insurance and our clients’ outstanding loans were paid off by the insurance company. Unfortunately, many of our clients have been unable to rebuild their businesses as a shopping center is being built on a piece of land adjacent to the market, and rumors are the prime land now occupied by our clients and the other vendors will be turned into a parking lot. Everywhere in Kampala you see new buildings going up, and the streets and markets teeming with micro entrepreneurs. Every other shop is also an agent for the mobile phone and money transfer companies. Hard to believe that when I first saw Kampala back in 1985, when it was recovering from years of bad governance by Amin and Obote, it was a virtual ghost town.
After Kampala, we traveled to Masaka, a three hour drive that takes you across the Equator and through a landscape filled with lush farms and pastures rendered green by the recent – and very welcome – rains. Uganda has been suffering from a severe drought which destroyed much of the agriculture last year. Masaka, once a sleepy little town in Southwestern Uganda near the Tanzania border, is today, like Kampala, bursting with commerce. At the entrance, signs great and small climb up the walls of the shops and buildings, competing for your attention. The FINCA clients we spoke to were doing well. Several had grown their businesses by a factor of four or even ten, riding the overall growth of the local economy.
Even in the remote rural areas we visited, the progress was impressive. Our clients in one village, where FINCA Uganda has worked for the past 12 years, had been to build two-room brick houses from the proceeds of their farms and businesses, also fueled with FINCA loans. But the most transformative thing we saw was the change in our clients standard of living powered by the solar energy systems they have acquired with FINCA loans. Photovoltaic cells the size of iPads provide enough energy to power two lighting units for twelve hours and recharge a mobile phone in a half hour. But the real benefit comes from the replacement of the kerosene and paraffin lamps that used to light the clients’ homes. At a cost of $50, a solar unit saves the clients $90 in kerosene or paraffin the first year. But more important, it eliminates the risk of fire which is an ever present threat from these traditional fuels. One of our party met a mother whose three year-old daughter’s face had been horribly burned when a paraffin lamp accidentally tipped over onto her dress.