As I turn the corner at the bottom of a hilly dirt road, I see a white tent on the right-hand side. It stands tall and sturdy and is ready to welcome members of the community. I imagine a wedding party with hundreds of guests dancing and celebrating the newlywed couple — there would be music playing and people circulating in and out of the tent. As I approach it, I see plastic chairs arranged in rows under the tent. A few people sit waiting. As I walk in, I take a seat amongst the dozen people who own the tent and we begin to converse.
I travel all over Uganda and Kenya meeting with our business owners. I ask them about their progress and challenges, and we discuss the impact Village Enterprise has had upon their lives; their kids are in school, families are eating three meals a day, and they now have time to think about more than where to find money for food. I often hear about the way the program creates stronger communities, namely because the three-person businesses require people to work together and share their varying skills. But, I had never seen a business group of thirty people (!) working on a group project until I met two outside of Kitale, Kenya that were: Hunter’s Business Savings Group and Liondo Business Savings Group.
The Village Enterprise Graduation program is recognized as successful because it addresses the needs of people living in extreme poverty. One way we do this is by creating a culture of saving. Village Enterprise works with our participants to form self-managed Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) that we call Business Savings Groups (BSGs). Saving as a group is vital, because once Village Enterprise completes our 1-year program, the savings groups remain. BSGs continue to meet at their regular time and pool savings for future business expenditures as well as for loans to other BSG group members for medical care, school fees, etc.. In case of an emergency, the group is there, prepared to help anyone in a dire position so that unplanned expenses do not plunge them back into extreme poverty.
In January 2018, the aforementioned business saving groups decided to begin putting away money in order to purchase tents and chairs. They knew that their neighbors were traveling great distances to rent tents for weddings, funerals, and other functions, so they wanted to provide a local service. The local market was there and they knew this tent business would be a profitable venture. The BSG members saw this as a great way to make some extra money, in addition to running their original businesses started with Village Enterprise.
The group knew it would take a while to accumulate the large sum of money required to make the purchase. Hunter’s Business Savings Group needed to save $925 to purchase a large tent and Liondo Business Savings Group needed to save $650 for a small tent and chairs. In February 2018, the sixty group members began contributing 100ksh ($1.00) each week, which totaled $30 per group per week.
By September 2018, the Hunter’s and Liondo Business BSGs had saved enough money to purchase the tents and chairs. They now rent the big tent for $30 per event and the smaller one for $20. They plan on expanding this unique business by creating a catering service to go along with the venue.
What is the benefit of having a group business? “It brings us together. If someone wants to quit the BSG, this will bring her back because she has interest,” the chairman of the Hunter’s Business Savings Group mentioned. It has also motivated people in the community who aren’t already in a BSG to join one because they see the benefit of working together. These BSGs have helped eliminate tribalism between members of the groups; it’s bonded them together and created less divide.
In addition, the members of Hunter’s Business Savings Group and Liondo Business Savings Group feel as though they have built up their names and are more respected because of this project. People in the community now see them as an inspiration rather than the low, poor people they were before Village Enterprise.
As I sit under the large white tent, it’s hard to believe that something seemingly so simple could change a community so drastically. But it has and listening to the business owners discuss their dedication to the project is truly exciting. It made me wonder what would happen if more BSGs around Kenya and Uganda came together and started similar projects. This type of creative endeavor starts from someone realizing that there is something missing in their community and takes the initiative to find a solution. This is one reason why the Village Enterprise program is so impactful. By providing the extremely poor with a way to escape the cycle of poverty, the participants are able to think about more than where their next meal will come from or how to pay school fees. They have the capacity to start noteworthy projects, such as this tent business. And that tent business will carry on for many, many years and continue to positively impact the community for a great deal of time.