Co-operatives have long been an effective way for impoverished and struggling communities to come together to lift themselves up and achieve greater prosperity. In pre-Second World War Canada, credit unions exploded in popularity because they provided vital access to credit that many Canadians simply couldn't get at traditional financial institutions. Credit unions sprang up across the country, providing members with small loans and a safe place to save their money.
Today that same co-operative model is being put to use in countries throughout the developing world. Uganda is just one such example.
For the past eight years, the Ugandan Co-operative Alliance -- with support from the Canadian Co-operative Association -- has been encouraging and assisting with the co-operative movement in Uganda through the Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative (IFAPI).
Launched in 2005, the IFAPI project's purpose is to link farmer co-operatives, marketing co-operatives and savings and credit co-operatives to establish an integrated approach to rural development.
But in Uganda, where years of civil war and conflict cost hundreds of thousands their lives and displaced many more, co-operatives face the additional challenge of re-establishing trust in regions where the local populations have suffered unimaginable trauma.
Since 2009, Julius Turyahebwa has been one of those responsible for the implementation of IFAPI. Julius is an agribusiness professional who specializes in rural livelihoods development and has expertise in agribusiness enterprise development, market access, co-operative development, participatory approaches to rural development and gender-sensitive programming.
In 2007 and 2008, he successfully implemented the livelihoods component of a food security project with Save the Children in Uganda. As the project coordinator for IFAPI, he has worked with 22 partner SACCOs (credit unions) and 12 Area Cooperative Enterprises ACEs (marketing co-operatives) in rural Uganda.
Julius recently visited Canada as part of a speaking tour through Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and shared some of his insights on the challenges and successes the UCA has had in post-conflict Uganda.
He said the challenge facing many co-operatives in Uganda is finding qualified people to come forward and take leadership roles. It's not that there's a lack of qualified people, he explained, but that many who are qualified are reluctant to step forward.
"People are drawn back a little bit," he said.
Julius explained that prior to the civil war most rural regions in Uganda were governed by local chiefs. When the war forced entire communities into refugee camps, that local leadership structure was broken and many communities are still struggling to fill the void.
"People are not quick to take leadership roles," he said. "That makes them vulnerable."
"Trust is not the issue. The challenge is around confidence," he added. "That leaves room for someone to take advantage of the situation."
To address that challenge, the UCA provides assistance in developing confidence and leadership skills in members of the co-ops involved in the IFAPI project. That includes training in gender equality, conflict resolution and peace building.
Julius said the UCA has put a particular focus on encouraging women to take on leadership roles.
"Most of them fear the unknown," he said, adding that through IFAPI the UCA promotes gender inclusion and encourages women to take board training. "We believe it's a very, very key thing. We are really focused on that."
This model has proven to be very successful in building sustainable livelihoods in some of the most neglected areas of Uganda, namely six districts of northern Uganda. Since the beginning of the IFAPI project 15,330 women and 21,973 men have participated in livelihood- and business-enhancing skills training, activities and services through co-operatives.
"People who have suffered in the war have a desire to come together to deal with their issues," Julius said. "They are looking for hope. The co-ops are seen as a source of hope and belonging."
By Jim Harris, a communicator for Credit Union Central of Manitoba. In late 2012 Jim spent two weeks in Uganda, where he took part in a study mission to learn more about the Uganda Co-operative Alliance's Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative, a project supported by the Canadian Co-operative Association.