What We Learned From Our First Year In Northern Uganda
Just over a year ago, 38 Educate! Mentors taught their first Skills Course in over 90 schools across Northern Uganda. We had been preparing for months. Northern Uganda is a unique and challenging region – it is the most impoverished in Uganda, and has high poverty and youth unemployment rates, low economic development, and very limited access to basic services. Launching in Northern Uganda meant delivering our program to youth who need it most, so we had to make sure we did it right. Our goal was to maintain the same quality of our program as we scaled into more challenging conditions, so we did our homework, hired the best, and launched operations in February of 2016. Now, with a year under our belt and nearly 4,000 Scholars graduating from the region this spring, we’ve learned a few valuable lessons that have strengthened our operations and impact.
Managing Our Program Across Big Distances
Unlike the Central and Eastern regions of Uganda, the North is vast, with greater distances between schools and unreliable infrastructure. Mentors in the region must spend much more time to traveling to schools than their counterparts in other regions of the country, leaving less time for them to juggle other responsibilities. Youth Leaders, who rely on cellular networks to transmit monitoring data from the field to our database, found they were unable to report on time because of the unreliable network.
To address the challenges caused by the remote and rural landscape, we made the following programmatic adjustments:
- We grouped schools by area so that staff can plan visits to more than one school at a time and stay in each school grouping area for several days.
- We based our Northern Region Program Coordinator in the field instead of at our Kampala office like the other Coordinators. This helped the Coordinator to monitor the program more directly and resulted in high performance from our staff and schools. Since this was so successful, we decided to shift our Eastern Region Program Coordinator into the field as well. This lesson learned has the potential to improve our program across the country.
Overcoming Unique Regional Differences
As the school year started, we learned about challenges from our Mentors that were unique to delivering the program in Northern Uganda. Specifically, mentors reported:
Lower literacy levels in Northern Uganda, which made it harder to explain concepts to their Scholars. To address this challenges, we asked Mentors to break down words and definitions in the lessons to make them more accessible, and to have Scholars read materials and case studies in class instead of at home to improve their comprehension of the concepts.
Student attendance had dipped below our target, largely due to obligations at home which prevented girls from attending Skills Courses. Mentors now work with school administrations to identify optimal lesson times during the school day that allow all students to attend regularly.
Due to the challenges specific to this region, in addition to regular meetings, we also planned special trainings for our Mentors in the North to talk with them about the challenges they were facing, and motivate them in overcoming them.
Adapting for Scale
We’ve learned important lessons from adapting our program to fit the impoverished, rural context in Northern Uganda. We’re proud to share that our monitoring statistics remained consistent with other regions, demonstrating we were successful in implementing a program of equal quality, despite the challenges of operating in Uganda’s most impoverished area. These lessons will be a valuable part of our future scaling strategy in Uganda, as we gear up for another big expansion into Western and Southern Uganda next year – a crucial step towards our goal for full scale - to be in 1,000 schools across six regions in Uganda.