Road Tripping Uganda

I’m not thrilled at the thought of catching a public bus during rush-hour, and Mbale is over five hours away by car. I can tell by Mahad’s wide eyes that my request for a taxi seems like insanity.

I snap pics while Mahad haggles for our lift.

I’m no princess, but mandatory work trips deserve a certain level of comfort. The taxi ride’s going to cost $90 USD, not bad for a 6 hour ride (and back, for the driver).

The trip turns out productive. With my laptop tethered to my iPhone’s data, I’m able to troubleshoot some bugs for Jamal. By 10pm, we land in Mbale, and by 10:45pm, we’ve found a reasonable hotel for 40,000UGX ($13 USD) a night.

In the morning, we hire a driver and head off to the villages. Straw huts dot the countryside along the road.

I’m traveling to remote areas around Uganda to investigate the savings processes of small groups called VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations). These groups of ~30 individuals save between forty cents and ten dollars (1,000 to 50,000 UGX) per member, per week. By pooling money, they can give each other loans for seeds, tools, pumps, or other commodities they otherwise wouldn’t have the capital to purchase.

The first group I encounter yodels loudly towards me as I exit the taxi. Mahad leans over, “Don’t worry, this is how they greet visitors.” A moment of shock passes and I shake hands with each of the 10 members of this small VSLA.

The meeting is a back-and-forth through a translator.

How many in your group? How much cash do you collect each week? How far is the nearest bank? How often do you make that trip? Would you be open to using your cell phone to transmit money to the bank, rather than transport it manually?

On the way out, I pull out one of my cheap balls. This is my favourite travel trick. Everyone likes playing catch.

Another meeting follows, this time with a more established group of 60 women, under the glow of an orange tarp. Mahad, my colleague at Ensibuuko, translates for me.

It’s time to depart for Soroti, in the north. We ask for the Mbale bus stop, and are pointed towards a little line of cars.

Two moms sit in the back seats each with a child, and Mahad joins them to make five. The bus driver points me to the 6 inches remaining on the back bench, and I respond with a raised eyebrow. I opt for the trunk of the station wagon, propped up against a tire.

The next morning, we head to our last meeting. While waiting for the members to arrive, I buy some Chapati (like naan bread) from a local girl. She motions to me and chats with my translator, who busts up laughing and dances around with a massive white smile on his face.

She’s showers me with compliments, one of the few white folks she’s seen not on TV.

“She says God created you different from other white people and she wants you to come back Sunday when she’s not working.” Haha!

Thanks, God.

The last meeting goes much like the rest. A pleasant back-and-forth with me up on stage. The locals look at me like I can solve all their problems.

I pledge to do my best, then we hit the road.

The bus ride back to Kampala turns out to be a nightmare. The noon bus is an hour late, and makes frequent stops to swap passengers. The 35 degree heat and plastic seats guarantee constant back sweat. I daydream of my expensive taxi ride, intermittently jarred back to reality by potholes.

The scenery lining the road don’t get old. At eleven timezones from Vancouver, I could barely be farther from home. And I couldn’t feel much further.

Eight hours later, we’re finally back in Kampala. I’m surprised my legs still work. I won’t be travelling like that again, not for that long.

The solution for the VSLAs is decided, in my opinion, by their existing technology. Groups based in Kampala may have access to a smartphone, but it’s no guarantee. Remote groups all have access to a feature phone (think Nokia), though maybe only one or two in the group.

The platform must be the basic cell phone, unless the banks are willing to outfit each of the 18,000 VSLAs with higher tech. So that’s the MVP to support all the groups.

So-called USSD apps are ubiquitous in Uganda. These apps are the mobile phone equivalent of the numbered menu phone systems so prevalent back home: “To speak with sales, press one. To speak with returns, press two. Two speak with an operator, press zero.”

Is it possible to encapsulate the entire group savings process in sort of rudimentary text-to-select menu based system? Will the groups be willing to abandon their notebooks in favour of a basic app?

It’s an interesting problem to solve, and for a front-end-loving website developer, it’s a departure from my usual forte in designing interfaces.

This project is interesting because it has real-world implications beyond the world of Tinder, Yelp, and Google Analytics.

An app will save these individuals money on taxis and time in transit. It’ll lower their exposure to theft, and hopefully give them the means to build capacity in the toughest of conditions.