Skip to main content

Virtual visit: Uganda club paying it forward with microloans


Once a group of enterprising women in the far northwest of Uganda had lifted their families out of poverty using microloans, they quickly turned their attention to helping others. Their first step? They formed a Rotary club. 

The Rotary Club of Yumbe was chartered in April. But even before that, while the club had provisional status, its members were hard at work. Yumbe, a town of about 50,000 people with a busy main street lined with workshops, food stalls, and markets, is located between a branch of the Nile and the borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The surrounding rural region faces challenges ranging from malaria to unsafe drinking water. Adding to the strains, the nearby Bidi refugee settlement is home to nearly a quarter of a million people — most of them women and children — who fled civil war in South Sudan. And household incomes in the region amount to a little over a dollar a day. 

The club, which has 24 members, put out a call by radio for proposals for its first community project and decided to help in Achiba, a nearby village of about 600 people with homes made of mud walls and thatched roofs, surrounded by vegetable gardens. Since 2021, club members have undertaken ambitious service projects there as a pilot for their community intervention plans. 

Rukia Driciru, the club’s charter president, who runs a boutique shop in Yumbe, says the group’s aim is to empower women and enable them to benefit economically. To achieve that, members are trying to lower the burden involved in accessing key services, including safe drinking water, to reduce waterborne disease, improve hygiene and sanitation, and fight malaria.

Members of the Rotary Club of Yumbe (from left): Emily Candiru, Rukia Driciru, Christine Oyajiru, and Sumbua Zabibu at a handwashing station their club installed.

Photography by Esther Ruth Mbabazi

The club is distinctive in several ways. For one, all members are women, including some who until recently were struggling financially themselves. It draws its membership from an existing network of women who belong to local village savings and loan association groups. The collectives usually include 10-30 people who pool savings and take out microloans to invest in income-generating enterprises. The interest is invested back into the community. The savings associations are supported by TCP Global, a program with close ties to the Peace Corps and Rotary communities. TCP Global supplies funding to increase the loan pools. In Yumbe, the women used their initial loans to stabilize their businesses and ensure their children had enough to eat and could go to school. Now in a position to help others, that’s exactly what they’re doing. 

“The club’s membership is made up of women of all ages from the grassroots level, mostly from the lower economic standing,” Driciru says. “We have farmers, others run retail and wholesale shops, and others are tailors. As members of the savings group, we wanted to contribute something impactful to our community, and the best way we would do it is through Rotary.” 

In one recent project, the club bought and distributed systems that turn 5-gallon buckets into water filters for households in Achiba. “The women were so excited when they drank water from the buckets for the first time. To them, it was a dream come true,” Driciru says.

A path to prosperity 

The Rotary Club of Yumbe, Uganda, offers this advice for using microfinancing and other initiatives to support clubs in areas lacking access to basic services: 

  • Encourage Rotary clubs to form village savings and loan associations to pool community savings and offer microloans. VSLAs should be business-focused. 
  • Promote the idea of required saving by every member of the loan group. 
  • Ensure proper record keeping to track members’ contributions. 
  • Suggest that individual members maintain ledgers of contributions to the savings group.
  • Support projects from the interest collected from loans. 
  • Encourage Rotary clubs interested in establishing VSLAs to open bank accounts as a form of security for members’ savings. 
  • Involve the broader community to assist with Rotary projects to ensure sustainability. This leads to community ownership. 
  • Form a Rotary Community Corps to work with Rotary clubs. The group can involve a broader segment of the community and help guide projects.

After a demonstration, 28 women who are leaders in the community were trained to install the buckets and keep them clean. “With the buckets, the women can treat the water instead of boiling it, and it kills more than 99.9 percent of the germs,” Driciru says. 

Annual membership dues, which fund the club’s activities, are collected from interest on loans from the savings groups. To make membership more affordable, the Rotary Club of Topeka, Kansas, covers the Yumbe club’s Rotary International fee, according to Chris Roesel of the Rotary E-Club of WASH, D9980, a group focused on water, sanitation, and hygiene. Roesel helped the Yumbe club to become chartered. The club is also sponsored by the Rotary Club of Arua, a larger community in northern Uganda, whose members attend the Yumbe club’s meetings virtually.  

For its efforts in Achiba, the club teamed with two nongovernmental organizations, Roesel’s P2P Inc., which works on disease prevention, and a local operation called Care Community Education Centre that empowers rural women and children. Through those partnerships, the work in Achiba is paying off. The village was for a long time served by just one water source, a borehole that was not centrally located, meaning some people had to walk more than an hour roundtrip to collect water. About 87 percent of residents reported accessing water from unprotected sources, according to a community baseline survey, conducted in August 2021 before the Yumbe club started its work there. With the help of the club and its partners, a second borehole was made available, connecting the entire village to protected water.

The club constructed more than 40 latrines and installed tippy taps, simple hands-free hand washing stations made with a large jug and operated by a foot pedal. Access to clean water and sanitation has dramatically reduced cases of waterborne ailments such as diarrhea, a problem that affected about half of children under age 5 in August 2021 but just 5 percent of children about a year later, according to a follow-up community survey. 

The club has tested for malaria and administered antimalarial treatment to village residents by setting up and enlisting the help of a Rotary Community Corps, a group of non-Rotarians who support Rotary club projects. RCC team leader Innocent Buran Ajagà says the district health office trained Rotarians and members of Uganda’s volunteer Village Health Teams to carry out rapid malaria diagnostic tests. “Since we received medicines for malaria treatment, the number of people referred to hospital for malaria has reduced from about two dozen to two or three a week,” says Salila Pirio, a Village Health Team worker.   

With access to basic services closer to the community, Driciru says women can engage in other income-earning activities. “In the coming years, we want to see a community of economically empowered women who are able to invest in business and purchase their own land,” she says. 

This story originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.