Kisoboka Africa founder’s interview with The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT)

“Working with QCT is going to help us equip 1,000 youth and women with business skills that will enable them start a business, or improve their existing businesses, and therefore improve their livelihoods.” Stephen Katende, founder of Kisoboka Africa

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am Stephen Katende, and I’m the founder and team leader of Kisoboka Africa – an organization that ensures financial inclusion and youth empowerment in rural communities of Uganda. We currently work in Lwengo and Lyantonde districts.

Having been supported mainly by women in my education, I grew up with a passion to support vulnerable women to live better lives and have the ability to access quality education for their own children. This motivated me and two others to start Kisoboka Africa, in order to support these vulnerable mothers and their families and improve their livelihoods.

I hold a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences from Makerere University Kampala and prior to starting Kisoboka Africa, I was a fellow with Building Tomorrow Uganda, which gave me an opportunity to understand challenges in communities better. I was awarded a Queen’s Young Leader award in 2018, and am also a World Bank Blog4Dev winner and a YALI RLC East Africa alumnus.

Why did you decide to work in this area?

Whilst working with communities and schools in Lwengo district as a Building Tomorrow Fellow, I observed high school dropout rates and, on interacting with parents, they cited poverty as the main cause. Hearing that this was a problem prevalent across many families in the area, and having experienced first-hand the threat of losing my education due to a lack of income in my own household, I felt empowered to bring about positive change.

This is why, together with two other Building Tomorrow fellows, I started Kisoboka Africa – to ensure that communities have access to finances and business skills to enable them to start small businesses that would in turn enable them to finance their children’s education, as well as improve their livelihoods.

What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?

Having observed high school-dropout rates in different communities around Lwengo district, I embarked on a campaign to bring these children back into education, and was delighted that more than 300 returned to school. However, after a short time, many continued once again to drop out. Together with some community members, we visited homes to find out the challenges that led to this. It was here that many parents expressed poverty as the main cause preventing their children from studying. With household incomes incredibly low, the need to prioritise family welfare rose above investing in school fees.

Sure that there must be a solution, it was then that I sat down with my two colleagues and together designed the School Community Banks program which would encourage parents, teachers and local women to form groups, develop business skills and gain access to small loans to enable them start their own businesses.

The program design also aimed to bring parents closer to schools and understand further the importance of education by facilitating weekly parent-teacher interaction, improving their engagement in their children’s schooling.

We decided to name our organisation Kisoboka, which means “it is possible”, to give hope and belief to those we set up to serve.

Kisoboka Africa empowers community members to create their own solutions to challenges they face.

What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?

Most of the communities we operate in have a dependency syndrome where they look for and rely on being given items rather than being empowered to create solutions for themselves. Community members also have a poor saving culture and so it has been a big challenge to convince them to be part of our program.

However, we do rigorous mindset-change training for community members to help them understand the importance of saving and investment, whilst also empowering them with skills to solve their own challenges rather than receiving handouts.

Most of our target communities are hard to reach which makes implementation costly and, due to limited funds, it has been a challenge to successfully reach the target beneficiaries. For the past two years we have operated without external funding, which has limited the scaling of our work to impact more communities.

We have managed to navigate the challenge by training local community members, especially teachers in partner schools, to help support the implementation of our work on the ground.

What has been your proudest moment with this work?

Seeing even just one person positively impacted always makes me proud. We have supported individuals who have now started projects that generate enough income to pay school fees and improve their livelihoods. Many have installed solar panels, built better houses, started water harvesting projects, and more.

I am very proud that our work has also started attracting partners that share our vision to empower communities. We thank QCT for partnering with us to economically empower women and youth in Lwengo district.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?

That there are always opportunities for communities to solve their own challenges. It is important to work with community members through consultation and research to find potential solutions and co-create. Parents voiced that if there was a way they could access income to finance their children’s education, it would help a lot. We realised it was important to bring them together to raise the little resources they have and save collectively for the bigger community benefit.

Since Kisoboka’s inception, we have continued to consult beneficiaries on how we can improve our programs to ensure we are working to service community needs effectively.

Kisoboka’s School Community Banks program encourages parents, teachers and local women to form groups, develop business skills and gain access to small loans to enable them start their own businesses.

What are your future goals for Kisoboka Africa?

Our main future goal is to scale our work across Uganda so that Ugandans living in underserved areas have the opportunity to be empowered and can access resources to meet their own needs including financing children’s education, having decent homes and affording healthcare.

We have plans of setting up an innovation centre in the rural Lwengo district to offer youth a safe creative space which is well-equipped to support their innovation, incubate their business ideas and support them to realise their full potential.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?

Young people constitute the majority of the population the world over, particularly here in Africa, and face very many challenges that are unique to them. As a result, they need to be involved in the designing, implementing and monitoring of policies and programs, because they understand their challenges better.

What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?

1. Seek mentorship. Do not sit, look for mentors. There are many people with relevant experiences who are willing to help you hit the ground running, can help you refine your idea and find ways to start.

2. Just start! Do not wait to have all the answers to get started. Start from where you are, try to be the best at what you are doing, and keep learning to improve your idea. If Facebook had waited to be what it is today to launch, I doubt it would ever have started.

3. Network. There is a famous African saying: “If you want to go fast move alone, if you want to go far move together”. I advise young people with great ideas to always find likeminded people with resources and skills that compliment theirs; this will help them start and go far in their project.

What does work with QCT mean to you?

Working with QCT is going to help us equip 1,000 youth and women with business skills that will enable them start a business, or improve their existing businesses, and therefore improve their livelihoods. Additionally, QCT will be providing technical support to help Kisoboka Africa develop and strengthen its systems. QCT will also provide us with a platform to champion our work, reaching a wider community including more potential partners.

Follow the work of Kisoboka Africa Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or visit their website.

Article published in May 2020 by The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust

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