Many community projects implemented by foreign groups in Africa regularly fail. And that is partly because sometimes, foreign organisations just decide what they want to implement without consulting the local communities to know their actual needs.
But The InteRoots, a US-based initiative, is using a different approach to build the Tat Sat Community Academy (TaSCA) in Uganda's poor Kasasa community that borders Tanzania. The project includes a secondary school that merges skills-based training and formal education, an institute of indigenous cultures and performing arts and a savings and credit union that would provide financial support to students and the community.
In this interview with Prime Progress' SAINT EKPALI, InteRoots' Co-Founder and executive director, M. Scott Frank, explains InteRoots's approach and the expected impact of the TaSCA project. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PRIME PROGRESS: What is the story behind The InteRoots, and how does your community-owned approach work?
FRANK: InteRoots was founded by our chair, Ronald Kibirige, and our executive director, M. Scott Frank. Ronald and Scott's friendship was sparked in 2008 when they led a musical collaboration between students from Stanford University (US) and children of the Peace Africa Children's Ensemble, a nonprofit from Uganda. The music was an inspiration, highlighting the innate human ability to connect and communicate beyond barriers of language and history.
But the experience also provoked a larger discussion regarding the barriers between us, especially those implicit in our partnerships despite our best intentions. Over the next decade, the conversation developed, ultimately focusing on how nonprofit work could evolve to address inequity and better serve communities. In 2018, Ronald and Scott founded The InteRoots Initiative to put this conversation into action.
For change to take root, it must be cultivated by the individual or community seeking that change. InteRoots applies this philosophy through its model of non-colonial philanthropy, which at its root is an equity-based structure of collaboration built around the self-identified needs of communities.
Rather than designing, implementing, and evaluating projects from the top-down, we believe that communities can accomplish all of these steps from the roots-up. A community knows best what it needs, what it already has, and the challenges that must be overcome to bring about lasting change.
InteRoots monitors and supports the execution of projects by working as a good-faith partner. Once a community has developed a vision, institutional framework, and project timeline, InteRoots will hold the community accountable to its own terms and goals. This is often achieved through segmented funding, which is flexible but verified and disbursed by a subcommittee of InteRoots Board Members.
The InteRoots subcommittee is led by an individual from the community itself. All conversations between the community and InteRoots are carried out by a liaison selected by the community and approved by InteRoots. In this way, no InteRoots personnel are ever on the ground, creating a different sense of ownership and trust compared to other nonprofit approaches.
PRIME PROGRESS: Tell us more about the TaSCA, what inspired it, and where it currently stands.
FRANK: TaSCA started as a conversation in 2018 between community members of the Kasasa community in Uganda. This has been looking for ways to support each other, and the next generation as their lives continue to face challenges brought by geo-political realities. The Peace Africa Children's Ensemble, a community-based organisation in Uganda, had worked with certain students from the region.
Their shared experience and desire to do well for the community set the stage for a more formal conversation. The first step was convening a community council, which grew into a more formally elected Community Board. This Board, through conversation, identified the issues they hoped to confront as a community and their proposed solutions to do so.
After submitting a formal proposal to InteRoots, InteRoots provided a seed grant to support the conversation further, asking the community for a vision of change that would sustain in the long-term beyond InteRoots' partnership. From this process, the community created a comprehensive and compelling proposal based on three pillars: education, culture, and financial development.
The three institutions are interdependent: a secondary school, a community credit union (SACCO), and the Institute of Indigenous Culture and Performing Arts. The project is projected to be self-sustaining in three years, and most activities are scheduled to commence in January 2023.
PRIME PROGRESS: What impacts are you already seeing, and what are future expectations?
FRANK: Although it is too early to see comprehensive results regarding impacts, we are extremely excited at the project's success thus far. Most important is the buy-in that community members have demonstrated through participation, direct investment, and results.
Moreover, the structures of accountability and oversight developed by the community are strong and varied (all expenditures must be approved by TaSCA project leadership, the TaSCA Kasasa Community Board, and the Peace Africa Children's Ensemble). This community oversight and control has resulted in cost controls and flexible vendor contracts.
PRIME PROGRESS: Tell us about the $500,000 in unrestricted funding to Kasasa community for the project and how InteRoots monitors to prevent misappropriation. And beyond funding provided by the InteRoots, how will the TaCSA project remain sustainable?
The approximately $500,000.00 in funds provided to date has been used:
- For project planning, permitting, and execution
- 80% construction completion of a secondary school (which will house 500 students and educate up to 1000 students annually);
- construction, registration, and capitalisation of a community SACCO, which will serve the community at large through financial services and education;
- Construction of a maise mill for local farmers (including electrical upgrades and purchase of machinery);
- Cultural and community events to support and build a culture around the TaSCA project.
The project will have three main sources of income: tuition payments from students (approved by the community for affordability), interest on investments and loans from the SACCO, rentals and performances carried out with and through the Institute for Indigenous Culture and Performing Arts (ICPA). It is designed to be able to sustain outside of philanthropic frameworks.
PRIME PROGRESS: Besides supporting 500 students annually, the TaSCA plan also includes rewarding each graduating student with approximately 1-year financial stability through a Graduate Enterprise Fund to further their education, pursue an appropriate business enterprise, and access relevant skill-based training and arts education. Are there frameworks already in place to ensure this works?
FRANK: The key to this is that student tuition is funding this program. By reducing costs and making the school a nonprofit structure, a majority of tuition will be able to be set aside for students in their own account at the SACCO. In this sense, it is not only a fully funded program but also helps the SACCO expand its impact. The main issue that excited us about this program is the (well-documented) argument that one of the biggest issues facing Ugandan students when they graduate is a lack of access to resources to further their education or start an entrepreneurial endeavour after graduating from secondary school.
Providing students with a leg-up as a reward for skills put to good use in the community seems like a great investment. Of course, the community must decide if the program has the impact they desire as it rolls out.
PRIME PROGRESS: What are the major challenges currently facing the TaSCA project? And what are possible future challenges?
FRANK: The main challenges have occurred as a result of the pandemic. This includes rising prices for materials that can't be secured locally and workforce shortages. As the project moves forward, there will be challenges as the institutions and financial systems are tested.
PRIME PROGRESS: Where else has InteRoots worked? And how is InteRoots funded?
FRANK: The TaSCA project is InteRoots' only international partner (outside the US). We are funded mainly by private donations but can also accept institutional or government funding, whether for our organisation or restricted uses with particular projects. Much of our fundraising work is done on behalf of specific projects and their enumerated needs.