All posts by Philip Smith

Taking on the London Marathon to help change lives

Every year the London Marathon operates a Silver Bond scheme, which offers registered charities the chance to apply for one guaranteed entry place every five years in this iconic event. Having first applied for the Silver Bond place in 2014, This Is EPIC was delighted to finally be allocated a place for the 2019 run.

Just to enter the scheme costs £330, so Louise and Philip Smith, co-founders of This Is EPIC, were keen to give a supporter of the charity the chance to run in the London Marathon and raise much-needed funds. This Is EPIC is focused on implementing Village Savings and Loans schemes in communities in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its approach of empowering individuals to come together to access informal financial services has a positive and sustainable impact on the fight against extreme poverty.

As Louise explained: “The London Marathon is such a fantastic event and we know that many people don’t get in through the ballot. So we decided to open up the place and see who would be not just genuinely excited to run it but who would also be prepared to fundraise. The fundraising is key for us as these charity places are like gold dust – well, silver dust!” After publishing a social media post inviting applications for the place, Philip and Louise were delighted by the response they received.

Although all the applications were strong, one stood out from the rest. Jenni West, who works in the Retail team at Specsavers’ support office at La Villiaze, has already completed two marathons but is determined to beat her previous times.

Jenni said: “Both times I was going through my own personal mental health challenges and while running helped me, I missed my targets and knew I could have done better. I’d love the opportunity to do it again, smash my target and raise a load of money at the same time. It’s something that both daunts me and spurs me on.’

Jenni’s determination and true grit resonated with the charity. The link between exercise and improved mental wellbeing is well known, and is close to Philip and Louise’s hearts as they have previously teamed up with Guernsey Mind to raise funds for both charities as well as promoting this link. The motto of This Is EPIC’s fundraising vehicle EPIC Challenges is ‘Never Give Up’ and on their visits to Africa the team has been presented with handmade banners inscribed with the word ‘Topowa’, which means the same in Ugandan. EPIC Challenges organise events such as My EPIC Week to inspire people to take on challenges and strive for goals they might not think they can achieve.

It was this outlook that motivated Jenni to apply to run the marathon for This Is EPIC: “I love their message and it inspires me to do something outside of my comfort zone. For me, that’s doing this on my own – this will be my first time training completely solo which is a massive challenge for me.”

You can donate to Jenni’s marathon challenge via her Just Giving Page- https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jenniwest2019 

Uganda and Financial Inclusion

Uganda recently launched their new five-year National Financial Inclusion Strategy. The strategy seeks to reduce financial exclusion from 15 to 5 percent by 2022 by ensuring that all Ugandans have access to and use a broad range of quality and affordable financial services. This is a significant and timely strategy for This Is EPIC.

Our projects look to empower those in rural communities to help themselves by teaching them to save and loan money and start small businesses and income generating activities.

Uganda has made some impressive progress in terms of financial inclusion since the 1990s but there is still a long way to go. The new strategy identifies priority areas and then outlines the objectives as to how they will improve financial inclusion. We look at some of the highlights below and how they tie into our work at This Is EPIC.

Priority Areas: Women, Youth and Rural Populations

The strategy outlines that a focus is needed on women, rural areas and youth above 15 years old.

Rural residents in Uganda have less access to financial services than their urban counterparts, and un Uganda around 71.5% of the population live in rural areas. The costs of delivery and lower population density in rural areas makes traditional outreach of “brick and mortar” financial services much more costly and difficult to deliver.

Objective: Reduce Access Barriers to Financial Services

Statistics show that only 16 percent of Ugandans live within 1 km of a point of service for a bank. Alongside the distance barrier there are other challenges such as KYC requirements, liquidity requirements,  very high interest rates and challenges with youths opening bank accounts. Some of the key actions the strategy is looking to address to remove or reduce the barriers are:

  • Issue agent banking regulations and implement an agent banking infrastructure to bring more finance to rural areas.
  • Implement linkages between VSLAs and the formal financial sector to reduce financial exclusion among women and rural communities.
  • Introduce a legal/regulatory exemption amendment that allows youth (ages 15-17) to open savings accounts in their own right.

Objective: Build and improve the digital infrastructure

With over 70% of Ugandans living in sparsely populated rural areas traditional financial service providers do not have the incentive to build costly brick-and-mortar branches. The knock on impact of this is the rural poor facing very limited access to financial services, high transaction fees, poor customer service and loss of money through fake financial institutions. Some of the key actions the strategy is looking to bring in to improve the digital infrastructure are:

  • Require inter-operability among financial service providers and/or to the existing clearing systems.
  • Provide free digital devices to marginalised individuals and/or provide targeted support to companies/initiatives providing low cost digital services.
  • Require service providers to offer customer-friendly interfaces for products and services (e.g., USSD code menus in local languages).

Objective: Empower and protect individuals with enhanced financial capability

Issues like low financial and digital literacy are becoming more significant as poor people make the leap towards digital financial services. The financial inclusion strategy outlines a review of the national financial literacy strategy and Financial Service Providers consumer protection practices. Some of the key actions the strategy is looking to bring in to empower and protect individuals are:

  • Better understand societal barriers for women’s inclusion and build capacity on property rights, importance of collateral and control over assets by working with SACCOs, MFIs and VSLAs.
  • Review past financial literacy strategy and formulate a national financial literacy strategy for 2018 – 2023.
  • Strengthen coordination of financial consumer protection across all regulators of institutions that provided financial services and policymakers.
  • Improve awareness of financial services among individuals.
  • Financial service providers and government to promote and implement financial consumer protection and capability initiatives.

Objective: Increase the availability of agricultural credit

A common struggle for micro, small and medium enterprises in Uganda is access to credit. This limits their ability to grow and create jobs. A Bank of Uganda economy report in 2016 outlines that only 10 percent of total credit is for agriculture. The strategy recognises that agriculture is a critical part of the economy. Credit needs to be made more available in the sector. Some of the key actions the strategy is looking to bring in to increase services available for agriculture are:

  • Improve the oversight of existing credit facilities such as the Agricultural Credit Facility and improve oversight and operations of warehouse receipt systems and storage facilities so that lenders have confidence to extend loans against such receipts.
  • Promote utilisation and uptake of the Agriculture Insurance facilities and services.
  • Establish lines of credit to the Agriculture sector with the aim of growing the credit market.

Why is this new financial inclusion strategy important to us at This Is EPIC? 

The Uganda Financial Inclusion Strategy is very much aligned to our work at This Is EPIC and also a new initiative, Rise Finance, which will provide digital financial services to our group members as they graduate from our community groups to more formal financial services.

We’re already focusing on rural areas, women make up over 70% of our group members and we have a number of youth savings and loans groups in Uganda. Through Rise Finance technology will be harnessed to remove barriers and increase scalability of reaching thousands more with basic financial services through the use of mobile phones and mobile money agents.

The strategy does look to address all of the key barriers to financial inclusion and makes us very hopeful that Uganda will achieve it’s target of reducing financial exclusion from 15% to 5% in the next 5 years.

Motivation

In my first blog I explained my main reasons for setting up the charity, now this post is to show a few of my motivations that help to keep me going.

Firstly, every quarter we get a detailed written report (along with extensive quantitative data), highlighting all the key things that have happened during the quarter with our projects. The report shows the number of group members, how much all the groups have saved and loaned, how many loans have been handed out and so on.

Within the report we also get three or four stories from individual group members and information about any difficulties that were faced. It fills me with so much joy to read the reports and see how well the groups are working, as well as to read the individuals’ stories about how their lives are better off since becoming part of one of the groups. Each quarterly report is a massive motivational boost.

There are two other main motivators (apart from my family). The motivators below are something that I can call upon when I feel like the challenge of helping people overcome poverty is too much to take on.

The little girl in the red dress

This little one broke my heart. If I could have brought her home I would have done. I met her when I was with the previous charity I worked for and I have carried her in my heart for many years. I met her at a school that was started up by three ladies, using their own savings to establish it and help the children. One lady had 20 orphans living with her; another 10 and the last woman had 3 orphans. They started up the school to help take these children off the streets. This little girl was one of them.

The school was so incredibly poor; they had a few basic rooms and a kitchen with some big black cooking pots in it. This little girl held my hand from the moment I got there until the moment I left. Most of the children were smiling and laughing (even if they were really very sad), but this little girl didn’t. She didn’t smile, she didn’t laugh, she just held my hand. She was sad. I think she must have been about three years old. She was wearing an old red dress with some buttons missing.

I was shown around the school and into the room where 25 of the youngest children sleep (including this little girl); there were about 15 foam mattresses on the ground and the headmistress would also sleep in there. At the time of the visit Barnabas was about nine months old, so I knew what it felt like to be a mother.

It broke my heart to think that the little girl in the red dress did not have a mummy or daddy to kiss her goodnight and tell her that they love her. It broke my heart. I have tears in my eyes thinking about her now.

If what we are doing can help mothers to be able to provide for their families then that is a massive motivator. The little girl in the red dress, she has my heart.

This little dude

This little dude stole my heart for different reasons. He was so cute and fun. He has a mother to look after him, but when I think about his face and eyes it brings me joy to think that we can help individuals like his mother to look after him.

There are a lot more children whom I have met who motivate me to want to do more for This Is EPIC.

Besides these two children, I am also motivated by:

The Mothers and Fathers

I have met some wonderful people who are so proud of what they have achieved by saving their own money and building their own sustainable incomes. They have so little yet they are so happy and content; they have big aspirations for their future. With a bit of empowerment, watch them fly!

Our Team

Our partners in Uganda and the DRC are amazing! They work tirelessly and in some circumstances they give all that they have to the project and the people.

Adrine, Joseph and the team at READ in Uganda are people that we respect, honour and count as friends. I feel blessed to be working with them.

Bercky in the DRC is the most incredible man. In his heart is a desire to do so much good in the face of many difficulties, yet even when things are hard he always has a positive, can-do attitude. We are lucky to be working with him.