A force for good in Uganda

William Bratches

Aside from a trip to Canada, William Bratches had never spent much time out­side of the North­east. But over the summer he spent three months on co-​​op with a micro­fi­nance orga­ni­za­tion in rural Uganda.

“It was a whole dif­ferent world,” said Bratches, a junior his­tory major with a minor in busi­ness. “Those first few days, I just could not believe I was on the other side of the world. Uganda is a totally dif­ferent place, like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

But Bratches adjusted quickly, and began working with the Uganda Coop­er­a­tive Sav­ings and Credit Union. He con­nected with the group through the Foun­da­tion for Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment, a San Francisco-​​based non­profit focused on capacity building in the inter­na­tional community.

Bratches spent most days doing field­work. “I would hop on the back of a motor­cycle with a loan officer and we’d head out into the field, spending our days talking to people who might be able to get a loan and fol­lowing up with the people who already had,” he explained. “The first farmer I talked to lit­er­ally had nothing. Some fer­til­izer, seed and an animal could really turn his life around.”

Bratches’ expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity was financed through the Pres­i­den­tial Global Scholars Pro­gram. He received his first lesson in micro­fi­nance in a course taught by Dennis Shaugh­nessy, an exec­u­tive pro­fessor of entre­pre­neur­ship and inno­va­tion in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness and the founder of Northeastern’s Social Enter­prise Insti­tute.

“His class showed me that there’s a lot more to busi­ness than I had thought before,” Bratches said. “It can be used as a force that can do a lot of good.”

His ground-​​level look at life in the poverty-​​stricken region of eastern Africa didn’t end at the con­clu­sion of the workday. On Sat­urday morn­ings, he would till the field and herd the cattle belonging to his host family of farmers.

He said he would rec­om­mend the expe­ri­ence to anyone studying or working abroad.

“It gave me a great per­spec­tive about what it was like to be a Ugandan,” Bratches said. “At the end of the day, I’d sit down for dinner with my host family and talk about pol­i­tics and his­tory and their family, which opened my eyes even more,” he added.

The first­hand expe­ri­ence con­vinced Bratches that micro­fi­nance could be a promising solu­tion to addressing poverty in poor coun­tries like Uganda. The system is imper­fect, he said, but still holds promise.

“When it works, it can really change lives,” Bratches said. “It’s great to see fam­i­lies who got loans and who were then able to lift them­selves up from poverty to the point where they now own their own farms and are thriving.”

He char­ac­ter­ized his summer in Uganda as a self-​​revelatory expe­ri­ence. “When you’re in a com­pletely new place and there’s nothing else to fall back on, nothing familiar from your life before, you really develop your own sense of self,” Bratches explained. “Through living in Uganda I found my own center of gravity.”