Travel Summary: 8h 17m driving 438 km
After arriving in Entebbe at around 11 PM, we cleared immigration and met up with Sean, the executive director of Capable, who was going to be driving us around most of the trip. We stayed in the Boma Hotel near the airport and left after breakfast at around 7 AM. We circumnavigated around Kampala on the new highway and then headed North to the Victoria Nile crossing via the New Karuma Bridge, where we met up with Wilson and Dominique, two of the Ugandan Capable team leaders.
From there we drove to meet with three of the Capable groups. The first had graduated from the program last year and had since expanded from 15 to around 60 people. The second and third were groups of 30, the latter of which had only just started at the end of February this year. The format of each meeting was similar. Leaders shared their titles and what they were in charge of and then we expressed our thank-yous. We in turn thanked them for hosting us and encouraged them on the progress they were making. The third group really threw a celebration on our arrival, dancing in a procession to lead us from our cars to under the trees (and a few tarps) where we were to be seated.
After that, the leaders of the group shared. Even after only a month, they were overwhelmingly grateful for the work that Capable was doing there. So much so, that they were requesting that once they graduated (2 years later), they could stay in the program. After the meeting, they insisted we eat a meal they had cooked for us and we, albeit tenuous about the food and its impact on our stomachs, acquiesced and joined in the feast: chicken, goat liver, goat, covey (a green bitter vegetable), potatoes, ground-up sesame, milled white maize (what I call mealie pap, and more). (More than 24 hours later and we are all fine.)
The speakers presented on each of their areas of focus: Health and Sanitation, Agriculture, and Savings & Loans, etc. In the latter program, they had already saved into the community lockbox a total of 2.8 Million Uganda Shilling (UGX) – the equivalent of about 650 USD. A remarkable sum when you consider they are earning about $0.50/day/person. In other words, the bulk of the savings in the lockbox came from personal savings prior to the program, so that, as a community, they could begin saving and loaning out money to each other.
In contrast to a microloan program, where the loan comes from outside contributors, a savings and loan program is entirely funded by the group itself. The interest on a loan out of the community funds is around 3%. The key to success, however, is the group accountability, asking what the loan is used for and checking in each week on how things are going at the same time additional money is saved into the program.
Overall, I was impressed with the breadth of the focus areas Capable was teaching. I had thought their program was only agricultural but was pleasantly surprised to learn how much more they were doing. In particular, I also appreciated the emphasis that both the husband and the wife were involved. The women we spoke with specifically impressed on us how important it was that their roles and efforts were recognized. They were (deservedly) proud of the recognition and I was blessed knowing the difference that something like this was making in the community. Capable had learned in earlier years that having a couple participate made a significant difference to what was accomplished if only the husband or wife were involved, enough of a difference that it has since been a high priority ever since. While the Capable staff is 50% female/50% male, the leadership below the top level at Capable is predominantly women.
After meeting with the groups we headed the remainder of the way North to Gulu, where I was able to pick up a SIM card and some Malaria medication before dinner (Ethiopian) and bed for the night at the Palm Garden Giulu hotel.
In the morning we adjusted our plans and decided to settle for only visiting the Capable office in Gulu (rather than heading to visit the field in Kitgum) before setting off for Murchison Falls. At the office we sat and talked with Dominique and Sean and discussed Capable in more detail, following up on questions like, “what’s not working”, “how do you handle when things go wrong (trauma, alcoholism, clients that go off track, malaria and other health obstacles)”, and their counseling program. By the time we left I believe I had all my questions answered and felt like I had lots of information to bring back and discuss with others I have collaborated on regarding Capable.
Edit: Here’s some additional information that I gathered about Capable that seems best to add here.
- Capable’s success rate is around 70%. Meaning 70% of the households that enter the program successfully graduate with income levels above the extreme poverty line. Moving them, for example, from the equivalent of 0.50 USD/Day to ~3 USD per day.
- For the new program they are starting in Kitgum, Capable purchased a house for the Gulu staff to have a place to stay when traveling to Kitgum, rather than hiring staff in Kitgum the first year. The approach enables them to be sure that the staff has the appropriate levels of experience required as they launch a new “cohort” in a new area.
- I genuinely appreciate Sean’s commitment to truth-telling in the work they are doing. Most importantly, not exaggerating or over-marketing the impact or the data.
- When I requested how we could be better as donors, Sean suggested making multi-year commitments (subject of course to unforeseen events). Because he is making 2-year commitments to clients in the form of Capable’s programming, it would be great if he had two-year commitments from the donors as well.
- Capable puts effort into A/B testing to verify different approaches and navigate towards optimal impact. In fact, when I asked what he would do with a significantly larger donation, Sean suggested he would spend more time doing studies to understand what worked better and what didn’t.
- From the surface interactions we had, Capable is hiring excellent staff. The hires are made directly from the university, frequently in the form of interns initially. And, since there are not enough jobs in Uganda, even for university graduates, this appears to be an unlimited source of excellent employees with training in the specific areas Capable needs for a long time to come.
- If you are working for an NGO whose goal is to reduce poverty, it seems that, at a minimum, you should measure changes in income levels and net worth over time. Towards this effort Capable, under Sean’s leadership, is uniquely focused. For each two-year cohort, he knows what the starting income level is and what the end income is. The former is more difficult to determine because it is mostly self-reported information based on what the client claims are sources of income (my experience is that those living in poverty have little to no idea – and certainly no records – of either how much they are earning or how much they are spending. However, following the program, Capable provides an (optional) distribution channel via which crops can be sold. And, if the client leverages this, Capable has a fairly accurate idea of a household’s earnings. From last year, this would be increasing income levels from 0.05 USD to 3.40 USD. A remarkable increase IMO, and, most importantly, one that moves people out of the extreme poverty level of 1.90 USD Purchasing power parity (PPP). For me (and IntelliTect), this is a highlight of the work Capable is achieving.
It was a great way to start our trip.