Reaching the poorest through household mentoring

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Reaching the poorest through household mentoring

©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

The poorest of the rural poor are always difficult to target, for both IFAD and governments. Often illiterate and isolated, they have such great needs that reaching them on a significant scale remains a challenge. In Uganda, IFAD has been working with the government to pilot a methodology that is helping to bridge that gap and change the lives and outlook of the most vulnerable households.

It's easy to slip backwards into extreme poverty in rural Uganda. When Provia Mousiimoe's first child fell sick, she and her husband were forced to sell their assets, including their shop, to pay for medical care. "By the time the mentor came to us two years ago, we were a typical poor family, unable to pay even our children's school fees."

In just two years, the lives of this family of nine from a village in Kamwenge district in western Uganda, have been transformed. They have a new brick house with a tin roof, and the small thatched mud hut they used to sleep in has become their kitchen. They eat a more varied diet and have new sanitation and washing facilities. On the same plots of land they produce more and sell more. The school fees are covered and extra income is saved.

Perhaps the biggest transformation has come about in the way the family thinks and operates. "Things are better now because we work together and make decisions jointly," says Provia. From having separate incomes and separate plots of land, she and her husband Cyprian have pooled their resources and decide together how their money should be spent or saved. They have learned to operate as a unit, and to identify challenges and plan together for the well-being of the household.

Household mentoring has proved one of the most effective ways of bringing development to the poorest households. It encourages sharing and self-help within communities. This innovative tool has been piloted in Uganda through the IFAD-funded District Livelihoods Support Programme (DLSP), which assists decentralization and community development in 13 districts across the country. Over 20,000 households have received mentoring support, with impressive results.

Mentoring: how it works

The community selects its most vulnerable members for mentoring. Mentors are nominated from the same community – village or parish – by community development officers and other local leaders. Those who agree to volunteer as mentors are trained by community development officers at district level. They make regular visits to their mentees, providing information, skills, advice and encouragement, taking on a maximum of 30 households over a three-year period. Each receives a bicycle and a monthly stipend of US$10.

"The first thing we do is introduce some simple home improvements that provide a starting point for a relationship of trust and respect," says Prossy Tumukunbe, who mentors Provia's household. "For example, we help households build a latrine, create a washing area, and a drying rack for dishes."

"Then we tackle household planning and income. We encourage family members to work and plan together and pool their income." This runs against the grain for many rural households in Uganda, where men and women earn in different ways and keep incomes separate, and men generally control the household's assets.

"Many of the mentees are resistant initially," she adds, "but over time some, like Provia and Cyprian, have found that joining forces and working towards common goals creates harmony and galvanizes family members to work harder."

"The reason this works," explains Gertrude Tuhairwa, district community development officer for Kamwenge, "is that mentors are just a little ahead on the development ladder compared to the households they mentor. They are advanced but within sight, and mentees can relate to their circumstances and work towards their standard of living."

Mentors pass on skills to the mentored households to improve their farming practices and maximize the productivity of small plots of land. The aim is to ensure households are food secure and also generate surpluses for extra income.

Once mentees commit to the process, they can be linked in to other DLSP benefits, such as receiving a small food security grant and joining functional adult literacy classes. These teach them basic literacy and numeracy as well as other home and livelihood improvement skills. The small grant – typically a goat and cassava cuttings or seeds – generates extra income for investment and savings. And in many cases, this has been enough to allow the mentees to leave behind the bottom rung of poverty.

Group culture

Mentors also encourage household members to join local common interest groups. They learn about working together, establishing priorities and planning, and generating income. Many of the groups they join are village savings groups, where they can accumulate a little capital and access small loans.

Trumera Turyashemerwa is a widow with six children and two orphaned grandchildren to support. She lives in Nyarurambi village in Kamwenge district. When her banana crop was wiped out by a hailstorm she was unable to pay her children's school fees. She planted coffee instead, but there was a long wait for the first harvest.

"The mentor advised me to plant fast-growing cassava while I waited for the first coffee harvest, so that I would have income to pay for school fees," she explains. The cassava cuttings given to her by the programme yielded well. "I made a lot of money quickly and was able to buy a second goat. I joined a savings group, which enables me to save for future household investments, and borrow money for school fees while I'm waiting to harvest the cassava."

"Over 70 per cent of mentored households have joined groups," says Judith Ruko, rural sociologist for DLSP, "and many are participating in the group and savings culture for the first time. The group experience feeds back into household management and reinforces the message of equality and collaboration. Women in particular acquire the ability to speak out and put their point of view across."

Mentoring initiates a process of social inclusion. Isolated households begin to move into more mainstream activities within the community, and to take part in community decision-making, such as water user groups or road maintenance committees.

"Once the vulnerable households have begun to participate in group culture," says Ruko, "there are a variety of supports and services, including agricultural extension to which they can be linked."

In some cases mentees are encouraged to form cluster groups to reinforce the work done with individual households. "The Marere mentees cluster group in Kamwenge district were in a hopeless state to begin with, and men and women alike were drinking to excess," says Tuhairwa. "We urged them to form a group, and they have really transformed themselves."

"Meeting as a group has enabled us to ask for more advice, support and clarifications from our mentor," say the Marere cluster group members. "We are motivated to work hard and find the UGS1,000   [US$0.36] savings contribution every month. We all share the same circumstances and we're all looking towards a future after mentoring."

Changing mindsets is everything

"We can make investments, build roads and provide clean water," says Tuhairwa, "but when mindsets change, and people begin to think for themselves, this creates enormous impact. Just mentoring alone – without any inputs – makes all the difference."

"The state that we find people in is often hopeless," says Tumukunbe. "Their attitude is: we are poor and will stay poor. The men are drinking, the women struggling to take care of the children, who are often not going to school. It is wonderful to watch them changing."

The empowerment that mentoring fosters is not just economic. Margret Bazairwe has AIDS, and has already lost her husband and one of her four children to the disease. When the mentor came to her, she was too weak to cultivate much of her one and a half acre plot. "My mentor kept encouraging me. I gained strength." With the two goats she received from the programme and advice in improving cultivation, she has generated enough savings to buy a small shop in Nyamashegwa parish in Kamwenge where she sells vegetables.

"I rent land to cultivate more crops. I work on the land during the morning and in the afternoon I work in my shop. When I earn more, I hire labourers to help me." Now she heads a group of ten who are HIV+ and encourages them in turn to improve their lives as she has done.

Transforming communities from the inside out

"With mentoring we have seen significant results in a short amount of time – just one to two years," says Lawrence Kasinga, programme coordinator for DLSP. "People have acquired self-esteem and are becoming self-sufficient. They are participating in group culture and engage in production and leadership roles in the community."

Communities are changing as a result of mentoring. In Kamwenge district, for example, there has been a marked improvement in school enrolment, and a documented rise in awareness of HIV/AIDS and sexual health over recent years.

The experience in Uganda has shown that mentoring takes on a momentum of its own, and benefits spread beyond the immediate beneficiaries. "Before mentoring began, women in the community did not clean their compounds and there were no latrines," says Sarah Ndikurwange who mentors in Mayuge district. The mentors and mentored households have set an example and raised the standard."

The mentors, who are encouraged to lead by example, and to inspire and motivate the households they mentor, also benefit from the learning and skills they pass on. There are success stories here too; mentor households have been able to improve homes and make other small business investments. Many mentors have become community leaders, providing support even to those not designated mentees.

"From the point of view of district administration, mentors become a channel for disseminating information and reaching the same poor target group with other programmes," says Tuhairwa.

One of the main challenges the programme has encountered is meeting the overwhelming demand for mentoring within the districts that have been targeted. Occasionally resentment flares up in communities when some but not all are singled out for help.

But in almost every case, mentored households are sharing their learning and new skills with neighbours, relatives and friends, who have witnessed their transformation and want the same for themselves.

Joseph Talibita from Mayuge district in eastern Uganda is so convinced of the benefits of mentoring that he has become a self-styled mentor, supporting his fellow mentees and others in the community who show an interest in learning from him.

"A great change has taken place," he says. From living in entrenched poverty, unable to pay school fees for his 15 children, he has now become a small-scale entrepreneur and is one of the first in his community to invest in a small cocoa plantation. "I'm working towards buying a truck to take the food I produce to market. I'd also like to invest in dairy cattle," he says.

Scaling up through IFAD and beyond

It is said that when households thrive, the nation thrives. Household mentoring has created stronger, more resilient, forward-thinking households, making it more difficult to slide back into hopelessness as a result of a single setback, such as a sick child or a hailstorm.

The rapid and striking results of mentoring have led to a commitment, both on the part of IFAD and the Government of Uganda, to replicate this methodology across other districts and sub-counties and through other programmes and service delivery.
A government strategic investment plan emphasises the need to sustain and spread this practice at district level. A mentoring handbook has been developed for community development officers. Household mentoring has already been adopted by the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) who have incorporated it in their training, with the assistance of DLSP.

"This tool adds so much that normal extension groups can't provide," says Tuhairwa. "We want to cascade this into other sub-counties and integrate it into other existing programmes. We are committed to continuing with this tool and finding the funding to do so."

The IFAD-funded Vegetable Oil Development Project – Phase 2 is now in the process of training trainers who will incorporate the methodology to its beneficiaries. Household mentoring will also form the basis of the new IFAD-supported Project for the Restoration of Livelihoods in the Northern Region, which will be launched in mid-2015.

"As a Country Programme Manager I have struggled to find mechanisms through which we can reach out to the really poor households and allow them to benefit from the activities and investments that IFAD is financing," says Alessandro Marini, IFAD Country Programme Manager for Uganda. "Household mentoring is enabling us to do this. I am committed to increasing the use of mentoring and making it the main tool for targeting and social inclusion in our future country programme activities in Uganda.