MAPLE’s student interns return from Uganda with far more than expected.
When University of Oregon senior Emily Smallwood reflects on her experience of traveling to Uganda, it’s not the poverty or the cultural shock that stands out; it’s the people.
“One of my favorite memories is of a meal shared with one of our closest local friends. After being there about a month, Veronica, the president of the women’s savings group that Microdevelopment for the Alleviation of Poverty through Learning and Entrepreneurship (MAPLE) was working with, insisted that she make dinner for the whole team,” says Smallwood. “I went over early to help prepare the meal with her, and as I sat there attempting to peel a mango, it struck me how generous this woman was who has so little compared to me and the other Americans working there.”
In 2008, Smallwood was part of MAPLE, a small microfinance student interest group that wanted to apply what they were learning to the real world. MAPLE, which was operating within the University of Oregon’s International Business and Economics Club (IBEC), applied for and received a grant from the Meyer Fund for a Sustainable Environment. The grant enabled them to send University of Oregon students to Lira, Uganda in the summer of 2008 to establish a microfinance group.
“Microfinance was our original intention,” says MAPLE’s current president, Brad Hoffa, who lived in Mbale, Uganda from September 2009 through February 2010. “What we found when we got there was Uganda was saturated with microfinance organizations.” As of April 2009, there were 117 microfinance institutions operating in Uganda, according to The Association of Microfinance Institutions of Uganda.
“We realized that people needed more than just microfinance; they need education and mentorship, market analysis, bookkeeping, and normal kinds of skill building as well,” says University of Oregon business instructor Ron Severson. Severson is also an adviser to IBEC and sits on the board of directors for MAPLE.
Unlike microfinance groups, MAPLE does not provide loans to impoverished individuals. MAPLE is more interested in educating through cultural awareness. Students who travelled to Uganda in the past focused on learning the local community’s traditions and cultural business structure, then mentored accordingly to avoid forcing their cultural influences on the people.
MAPLE works with student interns who come from all over the world, including Concordia University in Canada, Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, and Makerere University in Uganda. Students who travel for MAPLE are expected to reach out to locals and find out what they need, whether it is business services, advice, or training.
“We tend to want to go into communities, do need assessments, talk with them, build relations and find out what works [with their traditions],” says Severson.
MAPLE’s ability to reach out to communities in many different forms wouldn’t be possible without its student interns.
“The way we separate ourselves from other organizations is that we are there, we are on the ground,” says Hoffa. “There is absolutely no middle man.”
Getting students acculturated is very important to MAPLE’s approach to helping locals, which is why interns are asked to live in Uganda for at least six months. “It’s culturally different enough that it’s hard to go there for six weeks and really make an impact,” says Severson. “No matter how much we prepare students, I don’t really know how people will react until they get there.”
Overall, Severson believes students have adjusted well to living in a different culture than what they are familiar with. “But it’s not easy,” he says, “We’re still trying to get hot water.”
But as much as the project is about educating and helping Ugandans, the students did a great deal of learning from the locals.
Locals like Veronica, who helped and learned from MAPLE student interns, had one of the biggest impacts on the group. “Veronica, more commonly known as ‘Mommy’, and her family welcomed me and the MAPLE team graciously into their home and community,” says Smallwood.
Veronica also left a lasting impression on Severson and Hoffa. “She didn’t understand us at all, but it didn’t matter because she knew that we wanted the world to be a better place and so did she,” says Hoffa.
The story of Veronica’s self-governing savings and loans group is an example of MAPLE’s impact on Ugandans. This group consists of individuals who pull their money together and agree on rules and interest rates for those who are interested in borrowing from them. “It’s a credit union concept, but it’s at a very grassroots level,” Severson says.
Veronica applied the knowledge she learned from MAPLE’s students when she decided to create another self-governing savings and loans group that she hoped would be more successful than her first attempt.
“She developed a group that’s called SUTA, which means to lift up in Lugisu,” Severson adds. Lugisu is the local language where Veronica lives. After, Hoffa and other MAPLE interns spent time mentoring Veronica and members of her group. When he compared the group’s record book from before and after he met them, he found that with a few exceptions, each woman was increasing her savings by about 3000 percent.
“They are developing more successful businesses and that helps them do things like keep their kids in school, pay school fees, have access to medicine, and all sorts of other things,” says Severson.
MAPLE understands that Ugandans need more than just business advice, so the group created Reaching Out to Spread Equality (ROSE), which is an outreach program for young Ugandan women. “[The ROSE program mentors] on issues related to health, sexual health, and nutrition, but the main thing would be creating a sense of support within the group,” says Severson.
Now, two years later, MAPLE operates in Lira and Mbale, Uganda. In 2009, the interest group became a non-profit organization separate from the University of Oregon and changed its name to MAPLE Microdevelopment.
“I think we get a lot of students here [at the University of Oregon] who want to make an impact and who are very serious about their studies,” Severson says. “They also want to apply those in some way that has some benefit.”
MAPLE has grown remarkably from its inception as a small student interest group, but its primary focus to help impoverished individuals all over the world has remained the same.
“After all,” Smallwood explains, “We are just all people of a single human race.”