Volunteering in Uganda

Uganda just doesn’t get enough credit as a travel destination. Maybe it’s overshadowed by Kenya’s safaris and economic hustle, but the moment our bus (recall our overnight bus fiasco from Nairobi here) crossed over the Nile river at 5 AM and I laid my eyes on Uganda’s luscious green rolling hills, I felt like we had finally arrived in East Africa.

Ndere Cultural Centre in Kampala

In Uganda, we were really looking forward to volunteering at Numida, a micro-finance and fintech company co-founded by Engineers Without Borders fellow and our friend, Cat Denis. As Cat put it, this would be a great chance for us to interact with local Ugandans and experience the nuances of doing business in Uganda first hand. Her words could not have been more true; for highlights from our time at Numida, keep reading on this post.

Team Numida!

On top of being ridiculously beautiful, laid back and affordable, Uganda has a strong, quintessential East African cultural vibe that left me with a lasting impression. Living in Kampala, Uganda’s capitol, we helped at Numida on the weekdays and experienced the organized chaos of the city in the evenings. On the weekends, we hit the long dusty roads to visit Uganda’s eastern and western borders to raft the Nile in Jinja and track chimpanzees in Fort Portal.

The best way to navigate over Kampala’s hills is on a boda (motorcyle taxi)
Uganda’s beautiful, luscious countryside (location: Fort Portal)

Living in Kampala

Kampala is organized into sprawling, rolling green hills that are peppered with low rise buildings. This landscape is breathtaking, but is strangely at odds with the city’s busy, dusty roads. Days start early as small businesses open up along the streets, and traffic quickly thickens with hundreds of people taking bodas (motorcycle taxis) and cars that navigate their way through the city mostly without traffic lights(!!). Most addresses are just plot numbers that don’t exist on googlemaps, and are best described by landmarks only.

Kampala’s city center
Scenic walk to work through the beautiful streets of Kampala’s Ntinda district
Small businesses are everywhere and are the backbone of Uganda’s economy. At Jos Retail Shop I am picking up a mobile phone data card and some ‘daddies’ for the office (a delicious deep fried snack)
Uganda vs. Ghana, Fifa-qualifier match. Soccer is a BIG deal in Uganda, and even though the crowds were huge and seats were first come first serve, we loved the energy of this game

Kampala’s streets bustle with activity, and life feels fulfilling here. The temperature starts off cool in the mornings and  quickly rises to a tropical heat, but air-conditioning and reliable water pressure to help relieve the heat are rare. Power and telecommunication/internet outages are not uncommon, but the great thing is that life and business goes on.

We loved that Kampala has a vibrant night life and music scene. In the Bugolobi district, we really loved DJ Silverback’s flame throwing tactics and a surprise performance by Jodi Phibi, a famous Rwandan artist, whose music I had already heard in Canada! Nisha Hariharan invited us to see Diamond Platinumz, a Tanzanian artist, perform in concert. Squished in a large crowd, there was nothing else to do but try and dance with the crowd too.

One downside to the night life in Kampala is that streetlights are sparse, which means that you have to be cautious after the sun goes down. Although we didn’t experience any of this first hand, we were told to be careful as muggings and thefts, unfortunately, are common. We chose to play it safe, always leaving our valuables like phones and cameras at home when going out to events. One night, we were even warned not to walk a short 200 meters to our home, and to take a boda instead. Overall, we learned that there’s no shortage of things to do in Kampala, and if you play it safe, it’s easy to see that this city is both beautiful and exciting!!

DJ Silverback pumping up the crowd at Monot lounge in Kampala’s Bugolobi district
DJ Silverback’s set up


Special Projects at Numida

“Our team loves working on tough systemic problems that keep people poor” — Numida.co

Small businesses in Uganda face a tough time getting access to credit, and Numida is working hard to bring an innovative, data-driven solution to the micro-finance marketplace with the aim of helping to reduce poverty for Ugandans in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Even though there are nearly half a million small to medium businesses in Uganda, most are unable to access credit for a variety of reasons. For example, some businesses are considered ‘unofficial’ (often because of the the high cost of registering their business), while others lack the means to keep detailed financial records required when getting a loan or credit score. Without access to credit, many small businesses lack the resources to grow and thrive. Numida’s business is really unique because instead of using credit scores and collateral, they use the power of financial data collected through Numida’s homegrown mobile app to give their client’s unsecured micro-loans. On Day 1, Cat provided us with a list of special projects to tackle, which Ian and I divided among ourselves. I focused on the ‘dark side’ of micro-finance (a debt collection framework) while Ian tackled financial forecasting.

Aside from these tasks, we were happy to go on a few adventures to a Ugandan government agency to get important documents certified for the company. Businesses in Uganda are required to show certified documents when transacting with other companies as proof of the legitimacy of the company – for example, when buying telephone lines for employees. We learned that simple processes, such as getting documents certified and telephone lines set up, can be really long and tedious. On the plus side, this experience really opened our eyes to the challenges of having a small business in Uganda. And on our adventures to the government agency, we accidentally stumbled into the department for civil marriages and got to see couples getting married!

One last fact about Numida has to do with their logo, which is a guinea fowl in flight.  The guinea fowl is found all over Uganda but many people mistakenly believe they are unable to fly. The flying Numida is meant to symbolize businesses taking off to their full potential!! Just like the rest of the business, Numida’s logo is meaningful, well thought-out and relevant to life in Uganda.

Numida’s office pet and logo – the Guinea fowl!
Daily office lunches were made of local foods – gnut sauce with a myriad of starches such as pumpkin and Ugandan matoke

Here are a few lessons and tips I learned from Numida:

  • Daily stand ups – This is very similar to the concept of a daily huddle with an extra innovation – everyone stands up. This makes sure that everyone’s daily updates are succinct and meaningful 🙂
  • Local experience matters – When creating a framework for data collection process, online research was only marginally helpful. What worked best for me was talking to two credit officers (local Ugandans) who had come from other micro-finance firms and had a wealth of knowledge that I used for inspiration!
  • When in doubt, keep on drafting – In small companies, things change fast and there’s just never enough time to get all the input you need. I found that creating drafts/mock-ups (even if it was way off at first!) was a good way to get immediate feedback on a deliverable, and then revise it as necessary.


Rafting the Nile (and living to tell the tale!)

Flowing all the way from Uganda to Egypt, the Nile River always seemed so mystical to me. I always thought of the Nile as a dreamy place in a history lesson, and never thought that I would one day be close enough to raft through it’s crazy rapids! I am not a fan of being in the water, but loved rafting the Nile. It was both calm and absolutely terrifying. I am a nervous swimmer, so cruising on the surface of the Nile and then being thrown violently beneath it’s surface – but living to tell the tale – was both my biggest nightmare and sweetest victory come true!

We signed up for a full-day rafting session with Nile River Explorers, a super energetic company and crew that does an excellent job of explaining the dangers of rafting the Nile, while somehow making you feel somewhat safe at the same time. They picked us in Kampala, and drove us 1.5 hours away to Jinja, which is a great place to raft the Nile for 2 reason: 1) it’s said to be the source of the Nile River, and 2) they have some pretty serious Grade 5 (‘expert’) rapids. Grade 5 is the second highest rating for rapids, and basically means that the rapids are super violent and fast.

In our short briefing, we learned that we would be going over 8 different rapids. We had a quick training session on what to do if we got stuck under the raft after flipping over (which is apparently very common), and were warned not to hold on too tightly to the raft if we capsized – a common error that leads to broken arms and legs. From the briefing, I got the impression that it wasn’t a matter of IF we would flip over, but more about when and how many times. But we were told to not worry – there would be kayakers following us in the water that would do their ‘very best’ to try and save us all when we needed it. Feeling both stupid and brave, off we went. The crew took some awesome pictures of our craziest moments during the day:

A short ‘training’ exercise
The first rapid of the day has an unexpected drop!
First rapid of the day. Is this just getting warmed up?
Sensing we were about to flip over, our guide (last person in the back) can be seen jumping out of the raft first. Smart man.
The last rapid of the day called the ‘Nile Special’. We wiped out almost immediately haha.

Thankfully, we ended the day with only a few bruises, and were rewarded afterwards by staying overnight in this simple but scenic camp overlooking the Nile River. After an exhausting day, it was definitely nicer to be looking at the water, rather than being inside of it!

View of the Nile from the Nile River Explorers’ base camp, where we stayed overnight
View of the Nile from our tent
Breakfast at the ‘basecamp’

Chimps and Crater Lakes

Fort Portal is located near the border of Western Uganda, about 50 km away from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s so close to the DRC that you can see the great Rwenzori Mountain range separating the two countries. While Fort Portal itself is a small town, the surrounding areas and National Parks are beautifully rural. We journeyed here by car, and stayed in a simple eco-lodge outside of Fort Portal so that we could visit the surrounding areas’ crater lakes, villages and of course, go chimp tracking in Kibale National Park.

Chimp tracking turned out to be way more intense than we thought it would be! The guides are experienced in searching for clues to locate the chimps, but since the chimps can literally be anywhere in the forest, we were told to be vigilant and not to get our hopes up. 1/10 groups goes home without spotting any chimps.

Our chimp tracking guide, Silver, who was super passionate about chimps. The gun at his side is only to warn off dangerous forest elephants in case we crossed paths with them.
Chimp footprints: a clue that they were nearby!

Luckily we were paired with the a guide named Silver who was one of the first people to pioneer chimp tracking in the 90’s in Kibale. Even with Silver’s experience, it took us nearly 2 hours in a state of mud-caked shoes and sweat to locate the first signs of chimps. At first, they were high up in the trees, and we could barely see them. Then, suddenly, we heard Silver HOLLER at us to move fast. He had spotted a male chimp climb down from a tree far off in the distance, and told us to quickly follow. He knew that male chimps will lead you to the rest of the chimp family, and this would be our best chance to see chimps on the ground. He was right!! We were lucky to captures some footage and photos of an adult chimp (the ‘alpha male’) and an adolescent.

We ended up spending another 2 hours running/walking along with the chimps. Apparently, they are naturalized to hman beings and don’t mind being followed. But, I was told that no one has ever touched them, not even the guides – a great reminder that we were still in the wild. It was cool to be a guest in their world for a few hours and to see that chimps, just like humans, are playful and live in organized communities too.

Here are a few more pictures we took of the beautiful crater lakes and villages in the Kasenda-Ndali area near Fort Portal, and the people we met along the way!

Beautiful view of a crater lake from the Ndali Lodge

These kids tagged along with us for a few hours. They were eager to chat with us and were very proud of their natural landscape and local food.

Photocredits: theianchow







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