Small savings, big development is the motto of Koboko United Cooperative, a savings and credit co-operative (SACCO) in northern Uganda, an area that is still recovering from the effects of civil war. One of the best SACCOs in the West Nile region, its nine employees serve 2780 members.

Established in 2003, Koboko SACCO is addressing rural poverty by offering affordable credit to co-op members like Rebecca Aorih, a young orphan and single mother of three. Without parents or a husband to help her, Rebecca was subsisting on her income from cassava farming but was at a loss as to how she could improve her circumstances. She wanted to build a house for herself and her family, but as interest rates at Ugandan banks can reach as high as 30 per cent, she was not sure how to access funds. Then a friend introduced her to Koboko SACCO, which has helped Rebecca and in many ways has been her sole support. Through a series of loans from the SACCO, Rebecca has been able to buy bricks in stages and lay them herself to build her home, which she plans to complete with electricity. With the co-op’s support she has also been able to pay school fees for her children. Private education is important to Ugandans as the public school system is notoriously overcrowded and underfunded.

Koboko SACCO offers its members dividends, transparency, education, and low or no fees. It is centrally located and closely connected to the community, both in terms of language and because the staff does field visits. As a result, it is able to offer loans based on character, and at its two-day AGM, an entire day is devoted to financial literacy for members.

Nearly 80 per cent of Ugandans are small-scale agricultural producers like Rebecca. Local SACCOs like Koboko help these rural farmers through loans for buying land, seeds, milling machines and ploughs, building houses or paying school fees.

Many farmers also belong to rural producer co-ops that offer training in crop diversification, efficient land use and alternatives to growing crops, such as fish farming. And local marketing co-ops offer these farmers valuable services like storing and bulking, which is important in a country with poor infrastructure that might otherwise prevent a buyer from travelling any distance to purchase a small crop.

Koboko SACCO is one of many co-operatives that participate in the Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative, a joint initiative of the Uganda Co-operative Alliance and the Canadian Co-operative Association. This initiative directly benefits nearly 30,000 people, of whom 40 per cent are female, by focusing on capacity-building, production and productivity increases, and increased access to financial services. This integrated approach to rural development is being successfully replicated in Rwanda, Malawi and Ghana.

CCA supports international partners like UCA through training, coaching, short-term financial support, business strengthening and governance programs. With CCA’s guidance and support, its partners in Africa, Asia and the Americas are strengthening their businesses, creating stronger networks, and working with government to create legislation that will allow co-operatives to thrive, so that these co-ops can then continue to help people like Rebecca.

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Deborah Chatterton is a Communications Consultant at Vancity and a volunteer with the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). In November and December 2012, she toured northern Uganda as part of a small team of CCA volunteers to interview Ugandans whose lives are being lifted out of poverty though membership in a rural co-operative. Read Deborah’s trip blog, Lessons from Uganda, at Read blog entries from other team members at