Learning Where the Shoe Pinches Most: How an eight-year relationship between GESI and a community partner in Uganda has come to bear fruit

September 30, 2015

By Laura Hayes, Northwestern University

When the Global Engagement Studies Institute  (GESI) launched in 2007, the city of Jinja, Uganda was chosen as the first location for Northwestern students to do international development work. Since then, the GESI study abroad program has exploded in size and popularity. Today, GESI is Northwestern’s largest single study abroad program, and close to 400 students have completed over 100 international development projects in eight (soon to be nine) different countries. Next fall, GESI will expand its global service learning academic program to the fall quarter.

The GESI program places students with international partner organizations such as FSD International to work as interns in local grassroots organizations that vary from year to year. But only one local NGO has worked with GESI teams since its 2007 inception: the Organisation for Rural Development (ORUDE) in Jinja, Uganda. The ongoing relationship between ORUDE and GESI has been an exceptional example of the type of social impact that can be achieved through mutual respect and thoughtful collaboration.

Social Change through Global Partnerships

Founded in 1997, ORUDE trains rural women in financial literacy and prepares them to obtain credit. Originally, ORUDE tried to link up farmers with outside microfinance institutions (MFIs), but they soon realized most MFIs were not helping the people who needed loans most. Much like traditional banks, these MFIs frequently do not offer credit to the poorest farmers and especially to poor women. The MFI loans had extremely high interest rates (between 25-35% each year in Jinja) and the MFI revenue was not remaining in the local economy.

When GESI students first arrived at ORUDE’s offices in the summer of 2007, the organization was at a crossroads. ORUDE wanted to develop an alternative for these rural women who were being turned away from the MFIs, and so they launched a new initiative to start their own Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations (SACCOs). These SACCOs are savings groups owned and managed by the local community. SACCO members pool their own money and make loans to each other, which ensures savings and interest stay in the community.

The transition to the local, community-owned SACCO model turned out to be more difficult than ORUDE had hoped.

“We had a problem where we were not very skillful in research,” says ORUDE’s Program Director Justine Ojambo. “We had not yet done a proper baseline survey just to know the clear needs and see how best the cooperative [SACCO] would address those needs. So [in 2007] the students from Northwestern really helped us to do that assessment and they came up with a report.”

Almost every summer since 2007, a new team of GESI students has come to Jinja to work with ORUDE in their mission to establish SACCOs and promote better financial literacy in rural communities. Every year, each GESI team does an independent asset assessment and then creates a unique community service project that addresses those needs.

Based on community needs and feedback, GESI students have helped introduce new, more lucrative crops such as ginger and coffee as well as assisted in teaching best practices for raising chickens and goats in order for farmers to build capital. Students have helped obtain and discuss bylaws for the lending groups, produced loan and accounting manuals, and created case studies and commentaries so ORUDE could continue to replicate, refine, and expand their processes throughout the year.

Putting “The Person” at the Center of International Development

Like many GESI participants, Caleigh Hernandez (WCAS ’15) found her experience in Uganda both challenging and eye-opening, but personal relationships left the biggest impression: “I learned that international development programs are incredibly difficult to get right and require more listening than talking. I have since been back to Uganda to do independent research, but also to visit my host family and check in on how our coffee, papaya, and compost project has developed. The community has taken ownership of the project and continues to modify it to fit their needs.”

The relationships that GESI students develop with their host families and the local community are one of the most important features of the program, as Ojambo can testify: “There is a saying in our local language, ‘He who puts on the shoe knows where it pinches most.’ That is very important, that the people who come to work here listen to what the local people are saying, value what they know, and add on to what they know, and this is exactly what this [Northwestern] program is all about.”

He says that one of the reasons the GESI program is such a great fit for their work is because “it gives the opportunity to bring human persons together, because when you look at most interventions that are coming from the developed countries in the North, a lot of emphasis is being put on money and infrastructures, but ‘the person,’ who is the center of all, is being left out. When you look at this new approach, and you look at the relationship between us and Northwestern University, the human person is put at the center, and that is what will close the gap between the people in the [Global] North and the South.”

It also helps that the years long GESI-ORUDE partnership has been able to deliver tangible results for local communities in Jinja. As Ojambo says, “The process that was started by Northwestern University has come to bear fruit.” ORUDE has successfully launched SACCOs in six of their original target areas outlined in 2007. Another community-owned SACCO was just launched in November of 2014. Local farmers are now successfully harvesting and selling their GESI-selected crops of ginger, coffee, and papaya. And ORUDE continues to use the instructional guides and other resources created by past GESI teams to maintain best practices in building and maintaining SACCOs as they expand their reach.

Photo here and above provided by the Global Engagement Studies Institute
Photo here and above provided by the Global Engagement Studies Institute

The GESI-ORUDE Timeline


GESI (known as “Engage Uganda” at the time) takes its first team of students to Jinja, Uganda. GESI students evaluate ORUDE’s programming. Students conduct field interviews and serve as a think tank for ORUDE’s new strategy.

Update from ORUDE: By 2010, all 6 associations formed through this 2007 strategy evolved into full SACCOs.


Student work focuses on the sub-county of Mafubira, where ORUDE wanted to mobilize small farming groups to form a SACCO. Students document and assist in the merger of these groups into a larger sub-county SACCO known as MARUSACCO.

Update from ORUDE: MARUSACCO is now one of the most active SACCOs. The guides GESI students created were instrumental in its growth and are now a point of reference for other SACCOs.


Once again at MARUSACCO, students work to improve functionality and day-to-day operations so that it can serve as a long-lasting model for other SACCOs. Students produce a loan and accounting manual as well as coordinate banking software and management training.

Update from ORUDE: “This team did a tremendous job at MARUSACCO. Because of their input in terms of training the SACCO has improved and members’ morale increased. Members have shared dividends for two years now and are happy and proud of their SACCO.”


After successfully creating resources for long-term institutional growth at ORUDE, GESI shifts focus to other community–based partners in Jinja.


GESI returns to ORUDE to help build capital and increase financial stability for local farmers.  By working with community members and gathering their feedback, the GESI team helps introduce the highly profitable and durable ginger crop.

Update from ORUDE: The project is ongoing and still functional. Some farmers are already harvesting ginger and generating income.


Students develop a coffee, papaya, and compost project to address both short and long-term financial challenges of local farmers. Coffee matures in two years, but is long-lasting and lucrative, while papaya addresses shorter term income. Compost works as an organic fertilizer that decreases dependency on chemical fertilizer and reduces waste.

Update from ORUDE: As with the ginger project, this project is still ongoing and the crops are doing well.  Papaya is already being harvested and generating income. Coffee will be ready for harvest later in 2015.


The GESI team works with women’s groups to increase their savings and investment. Using a local resource, the team trains women group members in rearing exotic and cross breed goats.

Update from ORUDE: The new skills, knowledge and approaches introduced by the students are not only confined to the Budondo SACCO members but are open to the entire Budondo community.  Other community farmers have begun working with SACCO members to gain more agricultural knowledge.


UPDATE: The GESI Team returned this past summer to work with the community of Baaba Yatuwa. The community expressed a challenge of building enough capital to access loans and investment opportunities in MARUSACCO, so the GESI team decided to first equip community members with skills and entrepreneurial knowledge to open the doors for new business ventures. Agricultural training introduced new vegetables that could be intercropped and planted in any season. The Baaba Yatuwa pilot community learned how to make compost, liquid fertilizer, organic pesticides, and nursery beds at weekly agricultural trainings.

The GESI team created an entrepreneurial curriculum that addressed basic economic principles, advertising, and marketing which was presented at a five-hour workshop. They created brochures on how to make nursery beds and compost as well as a manual that summarized the workshop lessons. The team also created a sustainable agricultural loan fund for the pilot community that has very low interest rates and can only be used for agricultural-related business activities.

Laura Hayes is a communication coordinator at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University.


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