A learning route is serious business. After 9 days on the road for the Learning Route on gender and rural microfinance in Uganda, I can assure you that this is not a piece of cake. The morning call or gentle knock on your doors comes as early as 5.45 on many days, breakfast is from 6.00-6.45. The bus leaves at 7.00 and if we not, we have a first meeting from 7.00 – 9.00 to analyze the case study from the day before. This is an early start after a short night, since the day before we often reach the hotel only at 9.00 or later for dinner. Altogether I have spent more than 30 hours on the Routero bus, not the latest model as you imagine, but it took us safely to distant villages in the North, East and West of Kampala. Plenty of time for dozing, looking out of the windows, listening to the Procasur leaders, singing the favorite Routero song “Jambo, Jambo sana, habari gani, mzuir sana”, discussing whereabouts and wherefroms, and wondering what will be around the next corner. Those lucky enough to come late, get a seat in the back row and a jump at every bump, a roller coaster for free. Procasur organizers keep our spirits high with constant supply of water, chocolate and sweets. No major problems on the road except for a delay on the way to Kyarumba, about 30 km form the border to DRC. The engine makes a strange sound and we are lucky enough to find a garage in the middle of nowhere that can fix the problem. To our surprise, the place is only 300 meters from the equator, so the whole group has plenty of time to take a stroll and pose.
A learning route has a well-defined and often tested methodology, which PROCASUR refined over the years. Participants learn from each other as much as they learn from the selected case studies in the field. At the beginning of the route, they tell each other about their background and challenges in an ”experiences fair”. This is followed by a day of thematic introduction to microfinance and gender equality in Uganda, with leading experts and academics as guest speakers, including a presentation of the IFAD country programme. Each Routero comes with an issue or a question to the route that they need to resolve or want to learn more about. Four case studies are at the core of the learning route. They have been selected by the organizing team as specific models to address gender issues in the microfinance sector. We learn about FINCA Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) and visited a group in Kiboga, Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Microfinance Ltd. in Kyarumba; UWESO SMS Ldt in Mbarara; CARE VSLAs and Iganga’s District Farmers Association in Iganga.
The case studies are first introduced in great detail by the partners before the field visits. Once the bus reaches the village, the host groups are already waiting. All to often we arrive with some delay. The women in Bukonzo Joint are less forgiving than others and the leader welcomes us and says “You are very late, time is money. Our rule is that everybody who is late has to pay 2000 Sh each ( 80 Cents US). Thank you for your contribution” and goes ahead to collect the fines.
All groups welcome us with music, song, dance and theatre. The cultural part is followed by a presentation of activities and visit to local businesses, homesteads and subgroups. Long discussions with group members about their situation, savings and loans and the businesses they started. Lunch is prepared by the host group and taken jointly. The visit closes with a wrap-up meeting for all involved, exchange of little gifts and certificates. Then we are back in the bus for the long journey back. Lots of smiles, hand waving and curious looks by many bystanders, huge crowds of children following the bus on the dusty road.
Two or three Routeros are assigned as secretaries to each case study and present their analysis the next day. These are the discussions I like best. They can compete with any QE or QA. What are the key discussion areas, good practices and innovations, challenges and conclusions? Opinions fly high. What is women’s economic empowerment? Are MFI exploiting women? What about the men, are they left behind, how to reach them and change them? Four case studies, four long discussions to draw conclusions and comparisons.
The finale of the learning route is the innovation fair on the last day. Each participant prepares an innovation plan for a project they want to implement in the next 6-9 months back home. Inspired by what they have learned on the route, Routeros prepare an innovative programme in response to the question that made them join the learning route. Each plan is scrutinized carefully and debated at great length.
A learning route has a snowball effect. Every Routero comes with a question for which they are searching answers. The outcome of the route, the innovation plan, is stimulated by the experiences on the route. Each individual innovation plan reflects what has been learnt on the route. For many, the experience of the learning route is a eye opener to see something new. A year ago, I participated in a learning route on “Innovations for Rural Development and Poverty Elimination in Latin America and the Caribbean” in Peru. My goal was to better understand the methodology and find out how it could be applied for gender training. Once on the ground, I knew very soon that this would be ideal for a gender training, in particular if we focussed on a specific topic such as rural microfinance or value chain development. One year later, my innovation plan has come true and we are not only organizing one, but three learning routes due to high demand. This big response from microfinance practitioners confirmed me further in my innovation plan and validates the learning route methodology. Let’s see, where the snowball is rolling to – I can see many new tools tested and introduced on gender and microfinance by the more than 50 participants in the three routes.