FSD is founded on the principle that sustainable development is the only proper form of development. It applies this principle to its work in several developing countries around the world, including Nicaragua, Bolivia, India, Kenya, and Uganda. Sustainable development means formulating and executing projects in those countries that can be handed over to the community at the termination of your internship. A guiding message at FSD is the common phrase: “if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for his life.” FSD champions this approach and only selects interns who understand and seek to follow that message.
Interested students or recent graduates may select up to three of FSD’s programs in a specific city of their affiliated countries to apply for. FSD will then review the application and if their head-office recommends it, your application will be sent to the site team for their specific review. In my case, I ranked my site preferences as: (1) Masaka, Uganda, (2) Jinja, Uganda and (3) Mombasa, Kenya. I was accepted by the site team in Jinja, the second-largest city in Uganda just 80km east of the capital. My internship began on May 28 and lasted for 12-weeks ending in August 20.
Once you have been accepted by the site team, you begin preparing for your internship. You will meet and ‘interview’ (this is more of a discussion than an interview because you have already been accepted) with the Program Director for your site, and eventually you will be notified of a host family and host organization placement. I was placed with an incredible family in Bugembe (a suburb of Jinja) and a community bank called Baitambogwe Saving & Credit Co-Operative Society (referred to in short as Baitambogwe SACCO). Note that while you are placed at a ‘site’ (in my case, Jinja), that does not necessarily mean you will live in work in that city. I lived 10 minutes outside of Jinja and worked even further east in a very rural town called Magamaga. With that said, the site team is based in Jinja and most interns are placed closest to the site team. The site team consists of a Program Director and two Program Coordinators (one from the country you are in and another from the United States, who helps especially with the culture shock). In the time I was there, the site team was incredibly supportive and became great friends. They are your lifeline in a sea of culture shock and new experiences, and they are always looking to support you any way they can.
The host organization I was placed with is a SACCO (another term for a community bank, common in East Africa). SACCOs are member-owned/based organizations formed locally in communities to pool savings together and lend to members. For this familiar with the terms microfinance and microcredit, it is essentially just that – a bank that deals on a micro-level with poor clients who would otherwise not have access to banking or credit institutions. I’ll briefly describe Baitambogwe SACCOs policies, which are widely accepted practices for most SACCOs in Uganda. Prospective members much purchase at least one share, valued at 20,000/= [“/=” is the symbol representing the currency in Uganda, the Ugandan shilling. At the time of my arrival in Uganda, the exchange rate was $1 to 2,200/= but by the time I left in August, inflation had devalued the currency so the rate was $1 to 2,600/=]. Members must also purchase a passbook (akin to a checkbook) to track their account ledger in coordination with the SACCOs own records. Once a member, opening savings accounts is free and members are strongly encouraged to begin accumulating savings. Members may also apply for loans (usually between 100,000/= and 1,000,000/=). Our SACCO employed a manager, credit officer, two loan officers and a cashier. While overseen by a Board of Governors, the SACCO is entirely member-owned, and each year members meet at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) to pass resolutions and air grievances.
Upon arriving in Uganda, myself and the seven other interns at the Jinja site spent three days at an orientation event executed by the site team. This included seminars on conducting needs assessments, preparing our projects, dealing with culture shock, and learning the local language, Luganda. After orientation, we moved in with our host families and began work the following day. My first week at the SACCO consisted mostly of trying to understand the organization and beginning my needs assessment. The needs assessment is critical to FSD’s goal of sustainable development; it entails meeting members of the community and organization and asking them what they need. This is crucial for developing a project that will actually be needed in the community (and therefore have people who are willing to support it when you leave).
Based on my needs assessment, I learned that what the SACCO needed most was a consistent marketing message. The area the SACCO is located is extremely rural and poor, even relative to Uganda. Most of the SACCOs marketing was accomplished through word-of-mouth, and there was very little knowledge on how to market to the community. I designed my project to address this need by developing a comprehensive marketing plan (complete with market research, a budget, marketing materials, an outreach strategy, and action plan). This marketing plan would contain elements that could be used by the SACCO in any future marketing ventures (notably, the marketing materials which included flip charts for community sensitization meetings). It was also important to leave them with a marketing plan that could be replicated in the future with relative ease.
A SACCO lives and dies by its members. Without members, there is no savings, there can be no loans, and there is no resulting profit. Marketing and expanding a SACCO is critical to both the community (who rely on the SACCO for loans) and the organization itself. Prior to writing the marketing plan, I revamped the SACCOs product offerings. At the time, the SACCO only had two products: a savings account (with no interest paid on savings) and a loan (for affixed period of six months at 3.5% per month). I set out to design new saving accounts and loan products to help diversify the SACCO and attract different client bases. After analyzing many new product ideas, I implemented four new saving accounts (including two which paid interest to members) and four new loans (including a starter loan to help jumpstart the poorest of the poor members of the community). With these new products in hand, I designed a nearly 30-page marketing plan (not including marketing materials like brochures, flip charts and posters). The outreach plan/strategy included many sensitization meetings in the community to introduce them to the concept of a SACCO and encourage them to join.
Of the eight interns at the Jinja site this summer, I was the longest-serving intern at 12 weeks. This gave me a chance to also fill in where needed at my organization outside of my main project of developing the marketing plan while working on other projects. Listed below are some of the other activities I engaged in:
1. Designing a website for the SACCO (available at: baitambogwesacco.yolasite.com)
2. Implementing a Code of Ethics which all management, staff, future interns/volunteers, and Board of Governors must sign
3. Assisted in developing an investment pitch/package for the a new asset acquisition
4. Conducted field visits in support of an agriculture campaign focused on introducing farmers to the passion fruit crop (this has sparked a new-found interest in agriculture in me)
5. Negotiated a leasing agreement and rental rate with Buluba Hospital in a neighboring parish for the opening of the first satellite branch of the SACCO (also assisted in supervising construction and opening of that branch)
Working in at such a small organization can be frustrating, but it is also very rewarding in that I was given significant autonomy and freedom to design my project and execute it on my own. My manager, Moses, was supportive and is very passionate about his work at the SACCO. When he became manager in 2006, the SACCO had 70 members; today, the SACCO has 600. I learned from him and my colleagues about life and savings culture in Uganda, especially this impoverished region. In addition to the skills gained from my main project, I have a much greater understanding of the hardships people face in developing countries, because the people I worked with every day were living those hardships! To put it in perspective, what most students make at a part-time job in the USA earning minimum wage in one month is what my manager made as his salary in one year. And he was considerably better than others in the community because he had a job that was relatively well-paid! I can’t even begin to list the tremendous insights this has given me and supplemented my project experience this summer.
Working at Baitambogwe SACCO has given me incredible insight into what life and business is like in a third-world country, it has been rewarding in knowing my project will help the SACCO continue to grow with new-found focus, and I have met amazing people who have eternally touched my life.
This past summer I knew I wanted to try something different, and so long as it involved traveling, I was interested! I wanted the experience of living and working in a developing country, and I think this will serve me very well on my resume when applying to jobs in my home country. Companies want to see that you can work outside your comfort zone, especially in this era of globalization. It doesn’t get much more further from most peoples comfort zone than a third-world country on the equator. :)
Every day in Uganda was full of surprises. In one of my first weeks at the SACCO, I was working on fixing our loan tracking spreadsheet in Excel. The Secretary of our Board of Governors arrived and eventually came around and asked me if I “needed protection?” Thinking something was lost in translation, I replied, “protection from what?” He proceeded to pull out boxes of condoms from the bag he was carrying, and explained they would protect me form AIDS. Hilarity ensued, and of course I was taken aback by this 60+ year old man offering me condoms. He then proceeded to pass them out to members who came to the teller window. This was as close to a typical day at Baitambogwe SACCO as I had this summer. While this kind of dynamic work and daily life is something I enjoyed, you have to be able to laugh at yourself and the ridiculousness that sometimes surrounds you. If you can’t do that, you’re going to be frustrated day in and day out. Even so, it can be difficult to filter out the distractions from co-workers, and at times deflect the very personal questions they will ask you (for example, it is culturally acceptable to ask about peoples religious preferences and personal relationships in the workplace).
Uganda presents many challenges to students who might be used to their lifestyle in the United States. Load-shedding by the government leads to rolling blackouts (at one point, my home in Bugembe went two weeks without electricity), you must be careful not to drink the water (there have been recent cholera and typhoid outbreaks), and get used to taking malaria medication because malaria is endemic in the region (three interns were treated for malaria during our summer). Corruption and bribery is common even with the police, and at my SACCO I witnessed unethical practices by several members of the Board (which served as a catalyst for me to introduce a Code of Ethics).
Perhaps the most challenging cultural aspect of living in Uganda is that you are a muzungu (literally: white person). Although Uganda was colonized by the British, very few British immigrated, so the population is not used to seeing white people. In major cities like the capital, Kampala, and Jinja, you will see other muzungus, but that will not prevent people from openly staring at you. In more rural areas like Bugembe and Magamaga (where I lived and worked, respectively), muzungus are treated like celebrities. Everywhere you go people shout “Muzungu, muzungu!” and wave. Almost everyone who does this is doing so out of friendly curiosity, they are not used to seeing someone who looks like you and it is exciting to see you near them. This is not meant as a racist call, it’s simply because they want to get your attention and they don’t know your name (they don’t know your name yet, you will be approached many times by people looking to chat!). Again, this makes it all the more important to be able to “roll-with-the-punches” and while at times it can be tiring to constantly answer questions and be stared at wherever you go, it is still a great experience.
Living with a host family helps with the stress of culture shock. My host family became just like my real family, and they were invaluable during my time there. Even the most hardened people will succumb to the stress and culture shock at times, and your host family (who immediately treat you as one of their own) help you get through it.
All in all, the FSD internship is an unbelievable, at times frenetic and fascinating experience. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to exit their comfort zone and build a new one in a completely foreign land. In addition to gaining hands-on experience in marketing and related activities, I have the experience to now show future employers that I can succeed in a new and wild environment. As I write this, I have about one more week remaining in Uganda, and I know my departure will be bittersweet. It will be nice to return home and see my family and friends, to take a hot-water shower, to have reliable electricity. But I will miss the endless kids shouting “muzungu!” and the family and friends I have made here. Now in my third month here, I feel capable of saying: siri muzungu (in Luganda, meaning “I am not a white person”). I encourage anyone else wishing to step out of their skin to seek an internship with FSD and engage in this kind of rewarding work.