I had the opportunity to attend the 3rd Annual African Microfinance Conference last week! Over 500 top government officials, academics, policy makers, and representatives from the private and public sector congregated at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, Kampala for the four day event. Although I learned a lot from the presentations, speeches, and panel discussions, the networking opportunities were the real strength of the conference. Amidst the numerous dining and coffee breaks I had the chance to chat with Uganda’s Minster of Microfinance and the Minister of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development (MoFPED).

The conference opened with Dr. Ezra Suruma (MoFPED), speaking on behalf of President Museveni who was delayed in Tanzania. He spoke a great deal about interest rates and preached that the media must “remove the notion that microfinance is an atom bomb against poverty.” Dr. Suruma critically reflected on the recent hype contributing to the proselytizing of microfinance, declaring that the “involvement of foreigners, if not involved carefully, will turn microfinance into the most enslaving tool in modern times.” Some of the notable presentations centered on value chain analysis, segmentation, measuring the social impact of financial services, consumer education, utilizing microfinance to help mitigate climate change, the danger of overregulation, client costs and risks, ROSCAS, SACCOS, and technical innovations for expanding outreach.

 

I could easily identify which presenters spend most of their time in the field, interacting with clients, and which individuals were more detached from the ground level, working on macro policy initiatives and developing theories behind closed doors. The innovation bottleneck issue became very apparent. Although great technological improvements can help microfinance institutions expand outreach to more rural clients, the development of proper infrastructure must precede implementation. For example, I was extremely impressed by a branchless banking presentation given by a software company that enables clients in the Philippines to send loan repayments via their mobile phones. Although their innovation reduces transportation costs and increases transaction efficiency, the technology is not transferable to Uganda. The company directors failed to realize that over 90% of Uganda’s population lives in rural areas lacking network connections and reliable electricity.  Many of the advances presented were nice on paper, but impracticable in reality.

 

Some members of the Kiva staff are in East Africa visiting their partner grassroots institutions. I met up with Chelsa, Ben, and John at the conference. We spent Saturday at the Life in Africa Center where they got to the chance to meet some of the Kiva borrowers operating businesses in the IDP camp. In the afternoon they sat in on a peace tiles workshop. Children from the local community are invited to the workshop to express their thoughts and emotions through artwork. In this session, the theme was “planning for the future.” Each child decorates a wooden tile; the individual tiles are placed together to form a mural and the end product is typically given as a gift to a designated community or organization. After a long day in the sun we grabbed dinner at a delicious Korean barbeque restaurant. Most of my meals in Uganda consist of chapatti (oily bread), roasted corn, and fried bananas so I gladly welcomed the varied cuisine!

 

I leave in four days; I cannot believe how fast the past sixty-seven have gone. This has been the most challenging, draining, rewarding, inspiring, emotionally exhausting learning experience I have had to date. I don’t regret a second of it though. I was bit by the travel bug last year and hoped that my journey to the Pearl of Africa would satisfy my desire to travel, at least for the time being. No such luck. If anything I am even more curious to visit other lands and interact with different cultures then I was before my departure. I can’t wait to go home and plan my next adventure!

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