Social enterprise, Mbale-style

Veronica Mungoma is a social entrepreneur, but I don’t think she knows it. Veronica isn’t one for buzzwords. She’s probably never heard of Skoll, or TED, or even Ashoka. Veronica is just woman who finds ways to improve her community.

MAPLE connected with Veronica last year through her role as founder and chair of the Mbale United Women’s Association. More recently, she has founded the Sukuya United Talents Association (SUTA).* The 15 or so members are all from Sukuya, though most live in or near Mbale town now. The members include business entrepreneurs, teachers, a hotel manager and a local council member. They are all intelligent, caring and successful, though one would never call them upper class.

As I mentioned in a previous post, SUTA has a dual mission. The first part is to promote better livelihoods among the members. They do this primarily through group savings, which are loaned out to members at an interest of 10% per month. This is an important function for individuals who lack access to formal bank accounts. They are also discussing joint income-generating ventures, like buying chicks to raise and then sell. The second part of the mission is charitable. SUTA plans to help those in their community in need, using part of the generated income plus donations they raise.

I have had the opportunity to attend recent SUTA meetings. These are held every other Sunday at a member’s home, or in the front yard, as their houses are usually too small to fit so many guests. They open with a prayer, then move through the set agenda, which includes a treasurer’s report, reading of the previous minutes, discussion of various items, collection of savings, and borrowing. They end with dinner and tea, and another prayer. The meetings are well-run and the minutes are thorough. Being late comes with a fee of 500 Ush (about a quarter) — a practice that I think many American organizations could benefit from. The four hours of meeting (from 3pm to about 7pm) is hardly efficient by American standards, but the time together fosters community among the members.

I have also been able to meet with Veronica individually. She proudly showed me the business that she runs from her home, making and packaging flours from maize, rice, soya, and mukene, a nutrient filled minnow. She sells in bulk to local supermarkets.

It’s hard to convey Veronica’s personality in writing. Blogging best practice would suggest that I include a picture of her, but a snapshot is only so useful for understanding someone; besides, taking people’s pictures makes me feel like a tourist. She would speak passionately and at length about the importance of self-reliance, knowledge, and skills for improving one’s own livelihood. She worries that too many of her peers don’t share these values. If she wanted to make sure that I was following along, she would say, “Have you seen?” — a wonderful phrase that I think I might borrow in the future. In the meetings, she struck a balance between controlling the conversation and throwing questions out to the group. If group members switched to full Lugisu (their normal habit was to use a mix, which I’ll call “Englisu”, so I could basically follow along), she would lean over and give me a translated summary. She demonstrates vision, and the other group members seem to recognize it.

When I talk to Veronica and the members of SUTA, who have been so gracious in welcoming me to their homes, I think about all the buzz around social entreprise/entrepreneurship/innovation/whatever. It’s become the hip new thing among newly-minted MBAs and wealthy tech entrepreneurs. A whole industry and epistemic community has emerged around it, with student groupsconferences, foundations, journals, and even a video game (I’m just waiting on the sit-com and the reality show). It’s become a movement with aspirations of global impact. An awful lot of money, ink and time is spent promoting it.

Despite all the activity, I have to confess that I’m not sure what it’s all about. That people should do things to improve their communities? Be smart about it? Be aware of the incentives at play and use market mechanisms when appropriate? Start new organizations? Try different strategies when the old ones aren’t working? These are certainly all important. But how are they new? How did this come to constitute a movement? It seems to me that people have always done these things. It’s certainly what Veronica Mungoma does.

* The organization was previously Opportunity Sukuya United Talents Association (OSUTA), but dropped the first word recently for brevity’s sake. Another correction from the previous post: I called the group a savings and credit cooperative, or SACCO. It is not. I’ve since learned that being a SACCO is some particular status in Uganda, with a government program that provides funding.