Young Farmers, New Leaders: Youth Groups Inspire Entrepreneurship in Uganda

By Heifer International

May 11, 2023

Eric Mugabe has ambitions for cementing his future as a cattle trader, and using it to build up capital, year by year, in his home area of rolling grassland in central Uganda. As the person his family turns to for help, at 24, he shoulders heavy social responsibilities for his age.

Balancing the two, work and family, is uppermost in his mind as he thinks through how he and his siblings can best share the assets their father left them, a farm and 50 dairy cattle. The middle child, he and his two brothers will each choose the breed of livestock they wish to raise on their share of the land, either the graceful, long-horned, Ankole cattle many Ugandans love, or the Friesian dairy cows Eric himself prefers.

A man standing in a field with cows.
Eric Mugabe, with some of his family's herd in Kapeke, Uganda. Photo by Zahara Abdul/Heifer International.

Eric’s father died of old age, without debt. Eric was 20, his parents long since separated, and brought up on the farm. His father, growing weak years earlier, had asked him to leave school at the age of 9 to look after his cattle.

“Heifer came into my life around the same time my dad passed away,” Eric said. Always keen to save some of the profit from the milk his father sold, when he came into contact with Benon Tugume — just two years his senior and newly recruited as a Heifer community facilitator — he joined one of the two youth development groups Benon led to function, in part, as saving circles.

The impact these groups have made on young people in this, their home area of Kapeke, Uganda, has been profound, Benon said. With 78% of its people under the age of 30, Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world and a shortage of productive, quality employment opportunities to support it. As a result, many young people face a future with limited options and little incentive to strive for more. 

A man and a woman carring a large box between them.
Members of the youth groups contribute individual savings to form a collective savings-and-loan fund. Eric and another group member, Monica Kabagire, transport their group's savings box, where the savings are securely stored, to their weekly meeting. Photo by Zahara Abdul/Heifer International.

But, through the groups, Benon has seen hope and inspiration flourish over the last five years. The peer-led group structure aims to stimulate entrepreneurship in rural communities, so young people become active agents of change in their own progress — a tenant of Heifer’s sustainable locally-led development approach.

Supporting young men and women on their journey to build agribusinesses means investing in their ability to access and manage money as well as take care of their animals and crops.

Today, money is saved, in incremental amounts, and stronger friendships formed during the weekly meetings, where the group members come together for training and discussing new business investments.

“We taught them a lot,” said Benon, adding that, along with classes on animal husbandry, financial planning and other practical skills, came advice on “life, behaviors and attitudes.”

“They started empowering us to save and lending us money, and we built.” —Monica Kabagire

Eric and another member of the same youth group, Monica Kabagire, credit Benon’s talents as a community facilitator for getting the groups in Kapeke off the ground. So many young men and women joined, in fact, that an original group of 60 had to be split into two and made a more manageable size.

Nonetheless, capturing their interest and enthusiasm, Benon said, took patience and persistence. Low turnout and poor time management were frustrations. In the end, his role conferred on him a degree of status and, with the salary he made, he bought 21 cows. In the next three years, he wants to marry, build a house and travel abroad. “Heifer gave me a start, money and fame. They gave us milking cans, soft skills, risk management and diversification lessons and so much more. Heifer blessed us so much.”

A man collecting money from another man in a group of young people.
In addition to facilitating saving and loaning, the youth groups offer young people a space to participate in training, learn new skills, discuss business ventures and build confidence. Photo by Zahara Abdul/Heifer International. 

Monica comes from a large family; her mother has eight children, of whom Monica is the eldest. After leaving high school in 2012, she moved south to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, where her network of school friends helped her find a job in a supermarket. From there, she moved to northern Uganda, where she sold cellphones and mobile money. She returned to Kapeke with 1.5 million Ugandan shillings, about $400, in savings, and opened a small shop selling sodas, salt, sugar and tea — much as her mother, who’d run a shop and farmed, had done before her.

She arrived home just at the point, in 2017, when the youth development groups began. “I really benefited from them,” she said. Out of the 30 members of her group, 20 were young women. “They started empowering us to save and lending us money, and we built.” She hopes more young girls will follow their example and go into business.

From renting a room to live in when she she first moved back, she has since become a landlady, and — realizing the potential of livestock ownership — started trading cattle. With access to formal financing — through an agreement with a local bank, facilitated by Heifer — she borrowed 4 million Ugandan shillings, about $1,085, and used the balance to buy bulls, which she fattened and sold, paying her loan back with the proceeds.

A woman standing in a doorway.
Monica tends to her shop, one of several businesses she has started with support from her youth group and access to finance facilitated by Heifer. Photo by Zahara Abdul/Heifer International.

Then, she borrowed more money and bought 10 calves, selling them. She also borrowed — and paid back — money to construct a row of three shop fronts and two living quarters, which generate rent.

“If I hadn’t gone into the groups, I would never have succeeded. But right now ... I am fine. I have my business I am proud of. I have houses.”

At 30, Monica is, in short, a cattle trader, landlady, shop owner and landowner. “I grew up without a father and my brothers were younger than me, but it [Heifer] has been a big part of my life,” she said. Her five-year plan is to buy more land and bulls, and add dairy cows.

Though she now has two children of her own, she still helps her mother pay the fees of those of her siblings who are still attending school.

Eric, the 24-year-old cattle trader, discussed his social obligations of a different kind, having built his own enterprise while he and his brothers determine how to divide their father’s farm. “This progress has helped [my family] because at home, I am responsible for everything,” he said. “It’s me they look to for whatever they need.”

When his elder brother married in January 2022, Eric paid for a generator, for lighting the party at night, and the cost of hiring a sound system. When his younger brother applied for a passport and visa to move abroad for work, Eric gave him 2 million Ugandan shillings, about $540, toward that.

His savings are such, though, that his ambitions, to continue growing his capital alongside his cattle business, with backing from Heifer and the youth group, are still on track: “I started with 1 million [Ugandan shillings] and now I have 3 million at my disposal. In three years, I should have 10 million as capital. That is what I am striving for.”

“They taught us how to save and how to spend money and the standard that is required,” he said. “I kept all that information at heart.”