If education, as it is always said, is the sure path to a bright future, then Mary Mukuwa, 50, and the pioneer members of Napoli Functional Adult Literacy savings group had better dreams when they started out in 2002.
The savings group was founded to improve the lives of women in Nauyo parish, Mutoto sub-county, in Mbale district. It started with only 15 illiterate women.
These had learnt basics of how to read and write from the initial adult literacy classes. The basic entrepreneurial skills they acquired in these classes were used to advance the group.
Mukuwa explains that the more the women learnt, the more the desire to improve their livelihoods became. It was not long before Mukuwa sold to the members the idea of starting a saving scheme.
"With time, we realised that merely learning how to read and write was not enough. We needed something to show for the acquired knowledge.
A member of the savings group feeds local chicken
I shared with the members the idea of starting a savings scheme which they all embraced. So, we decided to hold meetings twice a week where each member used to contribute sh5,000 per week," Mukuwa narrates.
From the start, the members cast their sights on achieving great things and worked towards that. The savings were lent out to members at a 10% interest rate, so, they could engage in small-scale businesses and other income-generating ventures.
In a bid to create a more comfortable meeting venue, the members agreed to make bricks to construct a semi-permanent building where they would hold their meetings.
Josephine Mitielo, a member of the group provided the land on which the structure was erected. The iron sheet roofed building ended the era of meeting under a big tree.
Shortly after, the members agreed to increase the weekly contributions from sh5,000 to sh10,000 per person.
The number of members rose from 15 to 42. The rise in weekly contributions and membership translated to an increase in the monetary pool. Mukuwa says it was then that the members of the savings group decided to open up a bank account with Centenary Bank in 2004.
Making their savings work With an account in place, the task at hand was how to multiply the funds to benefit the group members.
"We started by purchasing 200 broiler chicks and 1,500 layers each at sh2,500. Each member who had the facilities to rear poultry received about 30 chicks. But disease and thieves depleted most of our stock.
To add salt to the injury, the price of poultry feeds shot up and most members pulled out of the venture as it became a costly enterprise," Mukuwa says.
The nasty experience with poultry was a lesson to the members to try out alternative enterprises. Mukuwa says as such, they opted for local chicken, which are highly resistant to disease.
Some members diversified into goat rearing and vegetable growing. But the real icing on the cake came last August when members of Napoli FAL savings group went as a group to seek financial assistance from Women's Finance Trust, a lending institution.
With a sh9m loan, the members purchased in-calf heifers, which were distributed to the women with facilities to manage the animals.
Currently, some members are rearing both poultry and heifers. Mitelo, 64, said her cow has enabled her to take care of her grandchildren. "The heifer calved and I get 18 litres of milk daily.
I usually sell off 17 litres at sh1,600 per litre and keep one litre for domestic consumption. I use the money from milk sales to take care of my five grandchildren," Mitelo explains.
Each member who received a heifer is supposed to pay sh70,000 to Women's Finance Trust, per month for a period of 18 months.
"So far we have not experienced any difficulties in paying back the loan because the heifers we got are providing adequate milk. When we finish paying the loan, we will pool more money to ensure more group members get heifers.
The world is changing and today's average woman needs to address issues head-on other than solely relying on the man," Mitelo observes.
For Junic Khainza, 60, the vicechairperson of the group and another member who got a heifer, being part of the group has helped her improve crop farming.
"I use the cow dung to make composite manure to fertilise my gardens. So either way, I am benefiting from my animal, which has already calved," Khainza says.
In a slum area with a high population, Mukuwa says the group members have often experienced inadequacy of pasture to feed the heifers.
Most members, according to Mukuwa, do not have adequate land to grow pasture and end up buying it. She adds that the treatment of the heifers whenever disease attack is costly and beyond the reach of some members.
Like any progressing enterprise, the setbacks have provided an experience upon which the women hope to work on so as to improve their livelihoods.