The GESI interns on the SustainMe team noted various reasons for pursuing the program. Among these included desires to be culturally immersed in a region often overlooked by study abroad programs; to apply the concepts of sustainable development taught in the classroom on the ground; to see the interplay of culture, community, and development work in a country other than their own; to develop their personal abilities to work amidst unique challenges within a group setting; and to gain firsthand experience related to career interests like international development, international relations, communications, and journalism. There weren’t many expectations for the program as the interns looked to maintain an open mind prior to departure about what they may experience, learn, and encounter while in Uganda. Despite this, they hoped to have their thoughts and ideas about Uganda and the greater region challenged. Additionally, the team looked to strengthen and expand their understanding of development work.

During their time in Jinja, the interns were partnered with SustainMe — a community-based organization focused on women empowerment through economic development. While the organization works within several communities in the Jinja area, the GESI interns were connected with a group of 30 women in Tongolo village. SustainMe had previously worked with the women to aid in organizing a village bank, a form of community banking that addresses the lack of access to financial services (loans, savings, etc.) in rural communities in Africa. Monitoring sessions performed by SustainMe revealed inconsistent savings and participation in the village banking program. The interns were tasked with evaluating the community via conversations, research, and engagement to identify the root of this issue along with potential solutions.

Through thorough discussions with the members of the village banking program, community leaders, and other stakeholders the interns found that many of the women were the sole providers of their households. As a result, they were responsible for covering expenses like school fees for their children, medical fees, and food. These conditions were worsened by the lack of income generating opportunities in the local area.

To alleviate these pressures, the team looked to develop a solution centered on lessening daily expenses and expanding income generation. In partnership with the stakeholders, the interns developed a plan to provide vocational training to the women through the facilitation of resources to hire community-based instructors along with investing capital and resources. Two vocational skills were picked for the training program: sewing and alternative farming. These skills would not only lessen expenses such as food and clothing, but would also open the door to further opportunities to pursue small scale entrepreneurship. Along with training sessions, the interns purchased materials like sewing machines to kick start these activities and developed training manuals for each of the skills to be used in the future by the community itself or SustainMe.

The interns chose to utilize the available capital to teach the community a skill as opposed to making direct cash payments. The possession of a skill is an eternal resource; it is something that will be shared with other members of the community and future generations even after the departure of the GESI team. Now that the women have these skills, they are able to set up businesses and save on expenses over the long-term. Additionally, as the group begins to reap the benefits of the program, it can create a ripple effect within the community that will encourage other individuals in similar situations to learn the skills for themselves.

To ensure sustainability, the women have chosen those among themselves who picked up on the skill quickly to assist in developing the skills of the others in the group. Also, because the group now has access to sewing machines and farming resources they can rely on these resources to continue making an impact for themselves. The income generated and savings accrued through these activities will be invested back into the skills to continue their expansion over time. SustainMe will also monitor the progress of the venture, performing occasional check-ins to track progress and project continuation.

Due to time constraints, the interns had to ensure their project was at a scale that would be manageable over the eight week period and that could be sustained after departure. These considerations meant basic training for two vocational skills could logistically take place. Contributions from future interns and donors can help to expand the program to include more skills, in-depth training, and implementation in other communities in the Jinja area. These contributions can also ensure that SustainMe is able to provide external support to Tongolo and similar communities. 

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