She sat in the scorching sun off a Kampala street, roasting maize with the hope to sell a few cobs by sunset, proceeds from which would guarantee her and her family a decent meal-perhaps the only one for the day. But the most memorable image of this woman was when she wiped tears off her face, decorated with beads of perspiration, during that heart wrenching interview with the BBC Television; her plight almost immediately becoming the postcard image of the vagaries of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harriet Agasiru, a primary school teacher, narrated her story, a story not so different from the tale of many Ugandans previously occupied in dignified and salaried jobs whose lives were reduced to the quest for a daily meal.
“The government announced a lockdown for two weeks. I thought that we would be closed for a short while, but the two weeks grew into a month, and they kept extending it. With no salary, I lived off my savings until they dwindled down to a UGX 20,000 note,” Narrated Agasiru, adding, “I looked at that note wondering how to utilize it best and extend its presence when my friend suggested that we buy a stock of mangoes to sell on the streets and make at least UGX 5000 a day for survival.”
What followed is a story of resilience and hope, a true testament of the never dying human spirit, a drive to surmount any odds for survival.
“We bought mangoes and began selling them on the streets. We did make some money to live on until the agents of KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) chased hawkers and vendors off the streets and even took everything we had. I was distressed,” Agasiru said.
With the mangoes gone and her capital reduced to mere pocket change, Agasiru tried a switch to selling roasted maize, but this was not as lucrative-the demand was low and the rigors of preparing it even harder. But it was in that situation that mother luck shone her way. ABBC crew was on the prowl looking for interviews as part of the story series on the impact of COVID-19. She agreed to an interview request from Allan Aturinda of the BBC. The story was aired days later, and it is not until then that Agasiru came face to face with the benevolence of humanity.
Susan Hirego, CEO and founder of Rego Foundation watched the story featuring Agasiru and almost impulsively was moved to take action. She reached out to Agasiru.
“I was moved and felt there was a way to help,” she said. And so Agasiru was invited over to Rego Foundation offices and taken around.
“At Rego Foundation I found that they help women and girls like me. I knew my life would change for the best,” Said Agasiru, adding “She (Susan) told me to go and look for 12 other teachers and I came back with them. These were my colleagues who struggled like me. Some of them were single parents going through what I was going through.”
This group was taken through trainings on how to make different products like crafts that have an almost immediate uptake on the market stalls.
“I used to see people wearing craft sandals and I never imagined that they were something I could learn how to make. I know lots of people who have made these sandals and even opened up branches elsewhere. I think I can do this too,” such was Agasiru’s determination to make the best of her newfound space and craft.
“I see 5 million, 10 million 100 million women bringing income to their households through their skills,” Said Susan Hirego, speaking about the incredible potential that lies within women when their ecosystems collaborate to bring their dreams to life. This is an optimistic declaration and yet it seems out of place in a country grappling with a pandemic while striving to keep its economy afloat.
In March 2020, the Ugandan government effected a total lockdown in an effort to flatten the Covid19 curve. How long this was to last remained unknown; what started out as two weeks stretched into three months and by this time, many Ugandans, especially the ilk of Agasiru – low income earners- the bite of the pandemic only got deeper and more devastating.
With a goal to end gender-based inequality through promoting financial independence, Rego Foundation has and continues to uplift women such as Agasiru from the abyss of poverty. “Just like Agasiru, many women who walk through these doors with livelihoods stunted by financial constraints, exit with new capabilities, discovered and harnessed talents and live happily ever after,” said Susan Hirego.
Rego foundation offers training in various vocations that include in soap making, jewelry, and shoe making. These hands-on skills are complimented with training in financial literacy to give them the foundational business management skills for the sustainability of their nascent businesses. Rego Foundation also follows through on its members by enrolling them into the Foundation’s Saving group, by opening for them savings accounts where they are required to make periodic deposits off the profits of their businesses. That is how best to track progress, the Foundation asserts.
Besides Agasiru, Harriet, Rego Foundation has been able to take 734 women through trainings and as a result create 190 dignified and fulfilling jobs. Reaching these numbers and creating this impact has been made possible through collaboration with The Innovation Village a-(describe Innovation village in one phrase adding that ‘) works in partnership with Mastercard Foundation.. Rego Foundation started at The Innovation Village co-workspace with only three staff and 20 volunteers who were on and off.
Currently, the Rego Foundation is among the many startups under The Innovation village’s Next Wave Program, supported by Mastercard Foundation. Through this collaboration they have been able to expand their programs at Rego Foundation.
Susan narrates, “We now have two programs; ‘She Boss’ which does general skilling for all marginalized women and ‘She Boss Scholars’ which equips teachers with hands on skills that they can then take to their students. This has happened because The Innovation Village believed in our dream.”
The story and transformation of lives like Agasiru’s continue to be a testament to the role of collaboration ecosystem players coming together to support individuals and communities.