In the informal neighborhoods within Kampala, Uganda, a group of men and women are tapping into alternative livelihood options to deal with the impacts of Covid-19. Sarah Nandudu reports

This is the forty-fourth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Kampala is the capital and the largest city of Uganda. The city has grown at a remarkable rate over the last several decades leading to the prevalence of informal activities. That level of growth is staggering and results in greatly increasing the informal areas where most the vulnerable people reside.

Slum Dwellers International facilitates the economic empowerment of urban poor communities through direct support to local affiliates, such as the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) and their support NGO  ACTogether Uganda. NSDFU is a network of community savings groups that practice daily savings, while using their collective strength to improve the lives of urbanites.

Benon is a young energetic man who resides in Rubaga division of Kampala and owns a small business of selling second hand shoes and clothes in the downtown market locally known as “Owino”. Starting up a business helped Benon raise money for his studies, work and daily transport funds to the University.

Grounded by the principles of saving and working together with NSDFU, Benon joined the federation in Rubaga. “Saving 100 shillings (0.028 USD) a day in a group was affordable, and okwegatta gemanyi (coming together to be strong), were the ground principles that forced me to encourage my friends to form a group of 20 people called “youth with a hope”” he shares.

Benon’s group started growing and they could sit regularly to discuss the future of their group. But due to some internal conflict, Benon had to leave that group but he managed to join another group called “Twajja kola group.” Through this group, he was chosen by Rubaga federation to go and have training in documentation on behalf of Rubaga Region from NSDFU.

“I have gone through a lot of training and I thank my region for trusting me to always represent them. Amidst the ups and downs, I have served the federation for 5 years now and have gained a lot of knowledge and acquired savings that helped me to start off a business that I still operate today” he adds.

Selling home grown food

“When the pandemic first manifested its wrath at the beginning of 2020, it seemed to be miles away. Things started falling apart when the government started its prevention measures; at first many of us thought that it was just a break away from our daily routine and we all knew we would resume work in a few weeks but this worsened when weeks turned into months and we finished all our savings” says Benon.

“One morning, I woke up early before my normal routine given the sleepless nights I had. I looked at my family whose food basket had nothing left for that day, my account and savings were all down. On looking at what was left of me, was just empty pockets, this time around I had to pull up my socks and from that moment I started preparing to go out and start some work” he adds.

Benon went to the city centre in search of work and found many of his colleagues had started selling their home grown fruits and vegetables, which were branded by the government as essential businesses that should keep trading.

Seeing them, Benon decided to join them and help them to sell. By the end of the day he made some money  for the next day by helping his friends. “Despite the fact that my workplace hasn’t been open yet, I am receiving orders from food markets. Therefore, COVID-19 may have distorted my life, work, and plans but on other hand it has given me more opportunities to explore,” he shares.

Selling liquid soaps and briquettes

Like Benon, Mirembe Esther is another person who resides in an informal neighbourhood of Kampala called Namungona. She is also a member of the savings group and is the chairperson of “Namungona women empowerment initiative (NAWEI)”. Int the region, she is in charge of health and hygiene. She is a hawker who sells second hand baby clothes that she gets from Owino Market. She also occasionally makes liquid soap, briquettes and does hand crafts and tailoring.

Ester’s life was already challenging as she has a big extended family which entirely depends on her income. The pandemic made it even worse. “During the lockdown when public transport and movements were restricted, my business came to a standstill, I had projected lots of plans and profits but the movement restrictions frustrated my work, making my business cumbersome” she shares.

“However, this challenging period has positively checked on our fixed mindset that we have endured for long. The lock-down has compelled us to shift from a mindset that one business is enough for livelihood and compelled to explore many opportunities as much as possible” she further adds.

Ester has therefore managed to concentrate more on the production of liquid soap and briquettes not only for herself but also for the rest of group members. When everyone was waiting for the government food supply, Ester used her savings to start her new business.

“Leading a group constituting 20 members, with 18 female and 2 male is something I have enjoyed for the last eight years, we share and support each other as a big family and as a group we are self-motivated; challenges are shared as a family plus nurturing our individual skills on a monthly basis.”

“This again explains the role of saving, had it not been the case, my life would be on the line. The same savings have greatly enabled me to stock more food for my family, now it is the testimony I am preaching not only to my fellow group members but also to the rest of the federation members. They should deliberately reinforce their saving culture for any uncertainties in life” she adds.

Ester and her fellow federation members have held meetings as a group and tried to share their experience. “Out of this sharing we have come up with many proposals to execute; we have strongly been advised to double our savings and this is something I look up to, post Covid-19” she concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The federation process draws people together and empowers them. If it hadn’t been for the federation, Covid could have been a much bigger challenge to Esther and to Benon. Instead, their savings supported them when they were in crisis. Their savings enabled them to diversify their business. I believe that if we continue to empower more youth and women, give them skills that enable them to start more livelihood projects, we can empower more  people and impact more lives through this work.


About the Interviewer

Sarah Nandudu is the national coordinator of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda. She is the Vice Chairperson of the movement and monitors the consolidation of plans and budgets from communities as well as the implementation of all Federation programmes across Uganda.

About the Interviewees

Mirembe Esther who resides in an informal neighbourhood Kampala called Namungona, is a member of the savings group and is the chairperson of “Namungona women empowerment initiative (NAWEI)”. At the region, she is in charge of health and hygiene. She is a hawker who sales second hand baby clothes that she gets from Owino Market.

Benon is a young energetic man who resides in Rubaga division of Kampala and owns a small business of selling second hand shoes and clothes in the downtown market locally known as “Owino.

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