Small Business / Big Change

HKS Magazine | Winter 2017 Small Business / Big Change
Alumni

Small Business / Big Change

By Michael Blanding

Photos by Riccardo Gangale

DOROTHY TUMA MC/MPA 2014 was only 10 years old in 1976 when her family was forced to flee her homeland of Uganda. The brutal dictator Idi Amin was carrying out a campaign of mass killings and disappearances of supposed enemies, including university professors like her father. “We got on a bus one night with just the clothes on our backs and my mom said, ’We are going on an adventure,’ and the next morning we were in Nairobi,” Tuma says.

For the next few years, the family moved around to the United States and the United Kingdom, following her father as he pursued his master’s and PhD in African history and religious studies (he would later run rural development programs in Uganda for almost three decades).It was her mother who held the family together. “She was always ’hustling,’ for lack of a better word,” says Tuma. “At one point she was selling wafers to churches for holy communion; at another, she ran a factory making roof tiles. She always had a business on the side.” When the family was living in the United Kingdom and her father’s scholarship ran out, her mother enrolled in secretarial school and got a job to support the family.

Years later, Tuma had her mother in mind when she started a nonprofit organization, the Women’s Center for Job Creation (WCFJC), to help women in Uganda develop their own businesses. “She got to do so many different things that I didn’t see my aunts or friends’ moms doing,” Tuma says. “It gave her several degrees of freedom in her life.”

After a decade of running the program with mixed success, Tuma came to the Kennedy School in 2013 as a Mason Fellow to retool the organization. She left with a renewed sense of purpose and a new mission that focused on training fewer women but in a more strategic way.

Tuma studied economics in Uganda before earning an MBA at the University of California, Los Angeles. For the next 10 years, she worked in “corporate America” as a brand manager for the office supply company Avery Dennison. Eventually, however, she became dissatisfied with the corporate life. “I always gave money to different organizations, but I realized I wanted to use my whole life to make a difference for people,” she says.

Worldwide, only 47.1 percent of women are formally employed, compared with 72.2 percent of men. According to the World Bank, however, women invest up to 90 percent of their income in their families’ education, health, and nutrition, while men invest only 30 to 40 percent. “If you put money in a woman’s pocket,” says Tuma, “you solve a lot of problems.”

The WCFJC began by providing microloans to women in a wide range of businesses. “When we first started, we didn’t really mind what a woman was involved in—we just wanted to help women gain economic independence,” says Tuma. One project worked with several dozen women running a henhouse to raise chickens for their eggs—but inevitably one woman would end up doing most of the work while the others rode her coattails.

Learning from that experience, the WCFJC began funding individual women. “If you could construct a hen-house, we would buy you the chicks you needed to start,” Tuma says. But the group found that unless a woman had experience with entrepreneurship, she had trouble paying back the loan. “She would look at the support as more of a grant she did not have to pay,” says Tuma.

Tuma was able to keep her nonprofit going through grants. At the same time, she worked as a consultant, advising donor agencies on how to design programs to promote enterprise development in Eastern Africa. She also represented women business associations at policy-making meetings. “It was a way to feed my very expensive habit, which was serving my country through nonprofit work,” she says. Tuma applied to the MC/MPA Mason Program as a way both to better understand the language of government in her for-profit work and to meet the challenges of the nonprofit as it helped women become economically independent.

She found what she was looking for in “The Strategic Nonprofit,” a class taught by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, then a lecturer in public policy and the author of The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity. “It helped me really think through how we can do what we want to do well and avoid mission creep,” says Tuma, “making our mission clear so it’s easy to say no to things that don’t fit.”

While at Harvard, Tuma created a new program in Uganda called Women in Business (WIB); it would continue focusing on individual women, but only those who had already demonstrated some entrepreneurial acumen in an income-generating business. While in the 10 years before Harvard the organization had worked with 1,000 women, since then it has narrowed its sights and now works with only 55. “We decided to focus on quality over quantity,” she says.

With her own money, Tuma created a revolving fund of 16 million Ugandan shillings—about $4,600—and has lent it out to women in increments of $75 to $100, over time totaling as much as $400. The WiB gives loans in the form of needed equipment, rather than cash—which might tempt recipients to spend it on family needs or could be absconded with by a husband or partner.

“Even though they are businesspeople,” Tuma says, “the biggest challenge is in record-keeping and helping them understand that just because you have money in your pocket doesn’t mean it’s your money.” For a woman named Hasifa Sajjabi, who runs a catering business, WCFJC bought larger saucepans so that she could cook for larger groups, and extra burners to keep the food warm. Since then, Sajjabi’s monthly profits have risen 189 percent. Other women have received help for poultry farming, tailoring, and making paper jewelry.

In five loan cycles since starting WIB, an impressive 100 percent of the women have paid off their loans early. One, Regina Mulondo, a banana and poultry farmer whom the organization has been sponsoring from before Tuma went to HKS, was destitute after the death of her husband, and her children were chased away from school because she couldn’t pay their fees. She has now put three children through university and is beginning to pay school fees for her grandchildren.

In addition to offering loans, the WIB program provides workshops on business techniques and mentoring by successful businesswomen. “Oftentimes our clients think the problem is money, but sometimes it’s the underlying things that are preventing them from growing,” says Tuma.

Case in point: One of the biggest success stories is that of a woman named Florence Kitabye, whose religion forbids her from borrowing money and who has no loan from the group at all. When Tuma’s field officer went to scout potential entrepreneurs in the villages, she found Kitabye selling a powder of crushed avocado seeds and jackfruit as a health food. “She was sealing it in these nasty-looking plastic bags of different sizes,” says Tuma.

The group paired her with a woman who makes wine and juice out of hibiscus petals to give her advice. Kitabye developed a new package with an attractive label, barcode, and expiration date. “Now those plastic bags she used to sell for 30 cents are nice jars she can sell for $3.45,” says Tuma. The product was recently chosen by a Ugandan growers’ association to represent the country at an agricultural trade show in Italy. 

In addition to helping empower the women financially, Tuma’s group has sponsored workshops to help women with public speaking and invited local political leaders to speak as role models. One woman, Sofia Bogere, has become an advocate for ending gender-based violence. “She is able to share information on different tools that are available to deal with the issue, and cautions women on signs of abuse to look out for in their daughters,” says Tuma. Other women sponsored by the program have run for and been elected to local office. “They felt like they had something to say, now that they weren’t dependent on their husbands or begging for economic sustenance,” she says.

Tuma is currently exploring ways to generate income for the nonprofit to make it more self-sustaining. Currently, loans include a 5 percent “administrative fee”; though it’s a small amount, it helps offset travel costs for field-workers who go out to identify potential recipients and collect loan payments. Some of the women, who are learning the value of record-keeping, are graduating to the point where they can apply for a loan from a local bank.

“These women are now thinking creatively about how they want to grow their businesses and ’visioneering’ how they would like to see their lives in five years,” says Tuma. Eventually, she would like to grow her own organization to the point where she can open a rural women’s bank. “That’s where I really see the future for us, in being able to give women affordable credit and help them run their businesses profitably.”

In the meantime, Tuma can be proud of the fact that she has changed the lives of hundreds of women for the better. She’s lived up to the example set by her mother, who rose to become a member of Parliament from 2001 to 2011, serving on the finance and budget committees, and chaired the Uganda Parliamentary Forum for Children before she passed away, this past July. 

“Every morning I wake up saying, ’Why am I doing this?’” Tuma says. “It’s because of the way these women’s faces light up when they start showing you their successes. She introduces you to her children who are now university graduates, or she shows you the rental units she owns because she bought them with her profits, or she is now a local council chairwoman because she gained the confidence to run from our program. When we see these tangible changes, we know we’ve expanded their horizons beyond what they ever thought possible.”

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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