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Savings and Loan Schemes transforming lives of rural women around Echuya Forest

A case study of Mrs. Seseriya Nyiradekeye, Rubanda District
Echuya Forest Reserve is located in two Districts, Rubanda and Kisoro in southwestern Uganda. NatureUganda with support from Danish Ornithological Society (DOF), the BirdLife partner in Denmark, implements a project; People Partner with Nature (PPN); to conserve the forest and improve livelihoods of the people living around the forest reserve. Supporting Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) is one activity that was supported by the project. Access to credit was identified as a key constraint deterring the rural poor from taking advantage of economic opportunities to increase their level of output, hence move out of vulnerability. In all villages, women belong to these VSLAs and those who cannot afford to belong to these associations are considered the poorest. Poverty implications are widespread especially for women, leaving many without basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment.

In 2012, Mrs Seseriya Nyiradekeye was encouraged to join the VSLAs in her village, which was the male dominated, Kashasha Kweyombeka Biika Oguze group. The group was then composed of 21 members with only 2 women. It had been supported by NatureUganda through a DOF funded project on “Improved livelihoods through sustainable management of forest resources in and around Echuya Forest, Uganda” with a revolving fund of UGX 2,000,000 (USD$ 666.67). In 2017, the group was given a booster fund under the PPN I project which availed more seed money for the group. The fund provides small loans to members in support of their small enterprises and is paid back with a small interest. Having met all the membership requirements, she was considered for this loan of Uganda shillings 300,000 (US$100) which she used to buy three sacks of Irish Potatoes seed (a sack is 100kgs), which she planted on her land. She subsequently harvested 26 sacks of which 21 were sold, 2 were used domestically and 3 kept as seed of next season.

In addition, NatureUganda had trained and supported the communities in soil and water conservation techniques. This included construction of trenches across gardens to stop soil erosion and stabilizing the banks and terraces with Grevillea and Calliandra tree species and Setaria grass. Whereas the planted trees and grass are used to hold soils and reduce erosion and runoff, they are also used as fodder for domestic animals. Seseriya says “With availability of fodder in my garden, I was inspired to start a zero grazing project. I used part of the money from sale of potatoes to pay back the loan and I purchased a cow with a calf with the remaining funds. Currently, I use the fodder trees and grass in my garden to feed the animals and the cow dung is used as organic fertilizer”. From the zero grazing project, Seseriya collects eight litres of milk per day, of which six are sold and two are consumed at home. She got another loan under the PPN I and boosted her Zero grazing and potato businesses which are the main source of her income.

With her two projects, Seseriya a single mother, takes care of her four grandchildren and she is also able to take them to school. In her words, Seseriaya said “I can pay school fees for my grandchildren, I can buy scholastic materials for school and they feed well”.

With farm integration of agroforestry, crop growing and zero grazing, Seseriya’s household is able to get food, income and fuelwood as alternatives to harvesting forest based resources. She has improved soil fertility as a result of applying animal manure from the zero grazing project, reduced soil erosion and soil quality from the nitrogen fixing trees planted to stabilise trench bunks and improved nutrition and sustainable income and food security from her crops. Previously the family depended on supplies of materials from the forest (Echuya Forest), but to-date, the family is sustained by the food and income from their garden. They now know that the forest will continue providing them with clean water for domestic use and protecting them from severe floods.

Generally, this seed money and related trainings provided to the VSLAs have strengthened women’s capacity to easily get loans for multiple uses including sustenance and diversification of viable enterprises. The groups supported by this project have become demonstration gardens for other community members who have now started adopting the practices for their livelihood benefits. Seseriya adds that with more community members understanding and appreciating the impact of seed money on livelihood improvement and the linkage to sustainable forest management, they have found a win-win solution to protecting Echuya forest and its landscape.

According to the assessment report on the impact of the PPN project on women empowerment around Echuya forest and Kasyoha Kitomi Forest conducted by an external consultant at the end of the first phase of the project, men were found to have developed an intrinsic hidden positive attitude and appreciation for women empowerment. This is evidenced by the fact that men encouraged their women to get loans from VSLAs for supporting family development because women are more trusted on the use and recovery of the loans than men. The story of Seseriya is a story of many women groups around Echuya Forest. Men too have their stories to tell especially as related to bamboo domestication, apiary and tree growing. With increased benefits and sustainable household income and food security, PPN programme is building resilient communities for the future.