Mobile Skills, Global Impact: Volunteering in Uganda

Photo of Michelle Tang

A woman from the community came to teach the women how to decorate cakes.

As I stepped off the plane and was met with the heat of the intense equatorial sun, I’d never thought my consulting experiences would’ve led me to partner with women in East Africa.

My projects have exposed me to different industries and areas of business. With every project, your “toolkit” grows and you're able to pull from your previous experiences to address the unique scenario you find yourself in: even volunteering 8,717 miles from home.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Uganda. My partner is in medicine, and he was going to take a class and spend time on the hospital wards in northern Uganda. Caiman was supportive of me taking time off to join him, so I set off to find myself a volunteer opportunity. There were many project options to choose, from providing childcare in an orphanage to conducting HIV outreach - but I was drawn to women's empowerment. Challenges that affect women here at home like fair wages, child care, and educational opportunities are similar in Uganda and often more extreme. 

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Me struggling to peel matoke (green banana)

Uganda is home to one of the busiest maternity wards in the world, with the average woman giving birth to six children. HIV/AIDS is also prevalent in the country, and a woman’s social status diminishes when she, and others, find out she is HIV positive. Among the women I spent time with, most of their husbands left them when they tested positive for HIV. These women were left in vulnerable positions to support their children alone, pay exorbitant school fees, and manage a household while struggling to find meaningful and consistent work. Many women's empowerment projects, like the one I worked on, focus on developing skills and knowledge to carry out income-generating activities.

I was impressed with all their talents: basket weaving, sewing, and gardening just to name a few. Every day, the group of women did something completely different!

As I got to know the women, I learned that many of them loved cooking and were interested in catering for the many social events of Ugandan culture to generate income. For example, a wedding could have at least 400 guests!

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Sitting down for our meal the traditional way

They had previously catered a couple events but didn't make much of a profit. They had to rent or borrow too many things: chafing dishes, plates, utensils, and large pots. They needed some capital to get started on their own to be able to keep their hard-earned money. I love cooking and hosting events so I understood how challenging this could be. I told the program leader, Lilian, that I wanted to help buy the women some of the materials to get started. I wouldn’t be able to get them everything they needed for 400-person events but getting started with materials for a party of 50 would help get the ball rolling.

The next day Lilian and I stuffed ourselves in one of Uganda’s 14-passenger taxis and began our trek through traffic to the capital, Kampala, to do some "window shopping". We visited different vendors to get an idea of prices for some catering equipment. A few days later, we returned to Kampala and brought back the beginnings of their catering business.

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They’re ready to cater your next event!

We held a group meeting and discussed ideas for the catering business and another income-generating activity: teaching travelers how to cook traditional Ugandan dishes and providing a short language lesson. The women in the group would benefit from practicing English and the visitors would be able to practice Luganda while learning traditional cooking practices. Win-win.

They shared some menu options for the cooking lesson and having spent a few weeks eating the local food, I provided feedback on what I was loving and would want to learn to take back to the states. We also discussed pricing and marketing for this initiative based on some feedback I received from surveying other travelers. Moreover, we developed a business plan to address how they could scale the catering business with the profits they anticipated earning.

We celebrated by having a lunch where they taught me how to cook a few of the local dishes. While I ate, I knew I made a good investment. Those women could cook and now had a start to bring their skills to market, generate income, and continue lifting themselves out of poverty.

After I left, I coordinated with a past volunteer to update their website with pictures and messaging about the catering and cooking lessons.

Reflecting on my time off, I feel like my consulting toolkit really helped me in Uganda. Although different problems were being addressed with different ‘clients,’ I was able to use the experiences I've had in consulting like working with data and budgets, drafting messaging, designing services around key users, and building partnerships, to empower women in Uganda.

If you'd like to learn more about Mutima Outreach Ministries, please check them out here.