It was an early Wednesday morning in September when Anthony Enabu, a Field Associate for our youth program picked me up on his motorbike and we began the long, dusty ride out to Kitgum in Northern Uganda. It had recently rained, which made the dirt roads particularly challenging to navigate, yet after an hour of swerving around puddles and mud, we arrived at the home of Sunday, a Village Enterprise business owner. Sunday is a twenty-one-year-old woman who has four children and has spent the past nine months running a poultry operation along with her business partners Lucy-Joyce and Scovia.
The Village Enterprise program in Kitgum is part of the Mercy Corps DYNAMIC program (Driving Youth-led New Agribusiness and Microenterprise), a five-year rural market development program funded by Mastercard Foundation that aims to increase the employability of youth and promote agricultural market systems. Our role in this initiative is to empower youth business owners in a way that sustainably allows them to lift their families from poverty.
It is clear that the program is working – Sunday and her business partners have already saved 220,000 Ugandan schillings ($60), and they are each beginning their own independent ventures. But the thing that I found most compelling and encouraging was seeing the way this program is socially improving communities. This was not what I expected to hear when I came to visit. I anticipated that the young business owners would discuss the things they looked forward to purchasing with their earnings. Instead, I heard business owner after business owner describe the way their participation in the Village Enterprise program has changed their social life and their community at large.
This was particularly evident when I met eighteen-year-old Moses, a young man who began a poultry business nine months ago. Moses is a slight individual who has a seriousness about him, yet when the business mentor who translated our interactions cracked a joke, he instantly broke and flashed a captivating smile. Before entering the Village Enterprise program, if Moses earned any money, he would spend it on alcohol and clubbing. He adopted this practice from his parents, who also went drinking anytime they had a bit of cash. Moses explained to me that it’s hard to be a youth business owner because there are constant distractions — drinking, clubbing, and romantic relationships. Yet, Moses also admitted that he’s committed to building his business because he has noticed the positive impact it has had upon his life and his community. Because of his participation in the Village Enterprise program, his circle of friends has changed. Now they are all fellow business owners, which he explained empowers him because he is surrounded by other people who are striving for success. This change is important. It’s a change that is deep and potentially intergenerational. It’s an entire community of young people deciding to break local convention and change their futures and their children’s futures. Village Enterprise merely planted the seeds. It’s these young people who have chosen to grow their businesses and to save money because they like the feeling of success and seeing their friends flourish. This is the change I saw here in Kitgum, and it was truly invigorating to witness.
As I followed Sunday around her home, she mentioned that the program has given her a lot of strength. Before starting the poultry business, she was unable to help her husband with payments (food, hospital visits, school fees), but now she makes more money than him. Sunday said that she feels empowered because she can support her family. “The community sees how the program is changing the youth in this area. We are finding solutions to problems together,” she said.
One of these problems was the way Moses’ parents used cash to purchase alcohol, rather than saving for emergencies or making repairs to their home. Moses suggested they join a business savings group, and they did. After seeing Moses’ success with his business savings group, they were inspired to join one, and now they’re saving money too.
Moses and Sunday are just two of the many youth business owners in Kitgum, Uganda who are changing their communities through entrepreneurship and innovation. They are changing the way youth are perceived and they are rejecting the notion that they are poor. Rather, they are embracing their new identity as business owners and clearly demonstrating that entrepreneurship is their way of life. Poverty? It’s a thing of the past.
As I drove away from the small village where Sunday and Moses reside, I felt energized by their stories. It felt as though these young individuals were collectively declining a future of poverty and embracing a world where they can build a home from bricks if they want to and save money for hospital visits. A life where buying soap is easy and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is the norm.