Ugandan-born Moses Zadock Onyango has worked as a microfinance coordinator in Uganda for 13 years. He talks about the genesis of Kiva's work in Africa and what he considers to be the most important legacy to communities receiving small-business loans.
Q:Clark Boyd: Explain what your role entails.
A:Moses Zadock Onyango: My duty is to move around and train our partners on how to use the Kiva Web site correctly. We are dealing with people's money, and we must make sure we are accurate in all that we are doing. Secondly, we help to recover loan money that was directly loaned to the people through the Kiva office. The third thing that I'm doing is visiting loan beneficiaries and organizing training for them. We train them on bookkeeping; we train them on how to choose a business.
People don't have adequate knowledge on how to run small-scale businesses, and we don't want them to fail. They learn how much they've got offhand in a day, in a week, in a month; what is the profit; what is the capital. And they learn how to expand their money.
Q:How did the original Kiva loans come to be given out in this area?
A:Kiva's co-founder, Jessica Flannery, came here to do a case study for an organization based in San Francisco called Village Enterprise Fund. Village Enterprise Fund gives out only grants. So seven people in Uganda had already received grants from Village Enterprise Fund. And they made very good use of the financing they were given, but they were not able to reach all their goals. They needed a loan to give them a push. That's how we came to identify these seven for the first Kiva loan money.
Q:What sort of early businesses were these?
A:Out of the seven, Elizabeth [Omalla] was doing fish mongering. Jeffrey was doing produce, selling maize corn, millet, groundnuts... Apollo [Olweny] was buying and selling goats. Justin was buying bulls he drives to the market and selling them. Rose [Athieno] was also doing a produce business. Christine [Awora] was doing a restaurant business -- meaning she prepares food, and people come to her hotel for meals. The seventh was Eunice [Oyuk], who was doing a used-clothes business. And all their businesses kind of blossomed. One good thing that I've seen with their businesses is that they have also created a market for the farmers around. Farmers here now, they don't need to run around looking for a market for their produce.
Q:Tell me about how you first met Jessica and how your involvement with Kiva got started.
A:I've worked with Village Enterprise Fund as a field volunteer coordinator for 13 years in Tororo, which happens to be the best performer in using the grants from the Village Enterprise Fund. The [country] director of Village Enterprise Fund felt that Jessica should go to a region where the fund was performing very well. So he recommended [that] Jessica come to Tororo. And she fell in love so much with the work I'm doing. She wanted to know much more abut how these people, the fund beneficiaries, can be helped. They all said that if they were to get some loan money they would have gone beyond this point with their businesses. This is how she also conceived the vision of Kiva. She told me, "Let me go back to San Francisco, and later I will communicate to you. I want to go and discuss all these ideas with my husband, Matt, and we'll see what comes next." So after two months she came back, and we met in Nairobi, Kenya, in a Meridian Hotel. We had to put all our ideas together as co-founders of Kiva. And the ball was rolled back to me to come and organize the best of the best seven people for a start, because those were going to be our experimental group, to see if they could succeed. And we agreed that if they were to succeed, then Kiva would succeed. If they were to fail, then Kiva would fail. So I organized the seven. And Matt was working on building the Internet software. And immediately, when the businesses were logged on the site, they got funding of $3,100. They wired the money to me. I brought the money to the village. I gave the money out to them, and the businesses started immediately.
Q:How does the Ugandan government feel about all of the microfinance that's going on in the country. Are they supportive?
A:Well, I think that's a very wonderful question, my brother. You see, the Uganda government applied for grants. They got the money, and they sent the money to every district all over Uganda. It was called a "kick start." But there was corruption and bad planning in the districts. Money was sent by government officials, but very little was sent to the community. And the little money that was sent into the community, it didn't reach the real people. It reached all the relatives of the big guys. The government lost millions. Now the government of Uganda is encouraging microfinance institutions that can reach the unreached with loan money. The government of Uganda is supporting this idea 100 percent. They tried and failed, so they now want somebody who can do the job.
Q:Along the roads here and in the small towns, the number of stores and people doing or trying to do business is huge. There is a very strong entrepreneurial spirit here.
A:When we talk about entrepreneurs, it means that we must have the ideology of pushing people from one standard of living to the next one. To do that, we must understand the type of people that we are working with. We must know their weaknesses, and we must know how we can move them along. Other lenders say, "If you cannot talk business, if you cannot talk profit, if you cannot talk refund, then distance yourself from me." But Kiva has a listening ear. No microfinance institutions here want your stories; they just want to see your successes. But, you see, Kiva goes for the stories. This is the sprit of entrepreneurship.
Q:How do you keep the momentum going?
A:We should sign up more microfinance institutions in Uganda to do the job for us. Right now, we have only two organizations. We have the Women's Initiative to Eradicate Poverty. We have Life in Africa in Kampala. And they cannot handle the great need that approaches them every day. I know that at least 50 people in one day knock at their doors asking for assistance. This is so overwhelming for them. So if I can, as the African director, identify more potential organizations that can work for Kiva, this will be good for us in Africa.
Q:What are some small tangible changes these loans have made in the community?
A:Whenever I come to visit my parents, you'll see lines of old people, middle-aged people coming to speak to me. "Moses! Maybe if you can help me with 50 shillings so that I can buy paraffin." "Moses, we don't have salt for the last month." "Moses, I've never tasted sugar for the last three months."
You know we have poor people who don't think about their tomorrow. But we have poor active people -- those who are willing to do something. For those guys, their lives have changed. Like the seven we met yesterday. This little loan can do something. I don't know what it means to our friends in the Western world, but I really know the $200, $300 that we give to these people has completely changed their lives. Firstly, the poorest of the poor are now the poor. They can feed their families. They have bought their beddings, and they have animals now they're taking care of; some of them are even milking their cows. And the family is benefiting out of the milk. Secondly, there's the increase of family income. The loan money has helped the people of our community to increase their income. Some of them are already saving their money. They now think of tomorrow. Thirdly, and the greatest way the community has benefited from Kiva loans, is education. Our loan beneficiaries have made a point of taking their children back to school. The children are doing very well. Yesterday, you were interviewing some of them. They are children who hadn't gone to school but have already reached high school age. That is the greatest thing I can see that Kiva has done.
This interview between Clark Boyd and Moses Zadock Onyango took place in Kampala in September 2006. It has been edited for clarity.