According to the United Nations University, up to half a billion people globally could fall into poverty as a direct result of the economic impacts of COVID-19. And in countries like Uganda, which has had some of the strictest lockdown measures worldwide, citizens are already feeling the effects. With this context in mind, FINCA’s BrightLife program acted quickly to adapt its business structure to continue operating and providing its customers with what they need despite the country’s restrictions.
As the third and final blog in this series providing updates from across FINCA’s network, this blog explores how FINCA’s BrightLife program has adapted its operations in response to COVID-19 to provide the communities it serves with what they need. You can read our first blog on our microfinance network response here, and our second focusing on our social enterprise network here.
Read on to learn about our BrightLife network update:
A Grim Reality for Uganda and FINCA’s BrightLife Program
In an effort to thwart the spread of COVID-19, Uganda’s government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. From late March until early June, all non-essential businesses were closed, public transportation and private passenger vehicles were stopped, and Ugandans were mandated to stay at home unless in the case of an emergency. Since then the government has allowed some non-essential business and transportation to reopen but a strictly enforced 7:00pm curfew remains.
As a social enterprise providing clean energy products to some of Uganda’s poorest communities, the long-term lockdown and continuing curfew has presented enormous challenges to FINCA International’s BrightLife program. At the beginning of the lockdown, BrightLife was forced to close as a non-essential business. Consequentially, BrightLife had to furlough many employees and sales agents, as they could no longer sell solar home systems. More importantly, with the vast majority of BrightLife customers unable to work or otherwise earn money, many could not afford to make even the low weekly payments for their solar home systems.
A Helping Hand for Customers in Need
Normally when a customer misses multiple payments, BrightLife suspends their ability to use the solar home system. However, given that a solar home system provides customers with in-home lighting, a built-in radio, and a phone charging port, shutting off people’s systems completely during a pandemic was not an option for BrightLife.
To help those who could not cover their weekly payments, BrightLife—with the help of FINCA’s generous supporters—covered the cost of over 4,000 customers’ payments for a full month. As a result, our clients and their families could still use their solar home systems to see in their homes at night, listen to important health information and updates on their built-in radios, and charge their phones to stay in touch during this crucial time.
All of the customers that received a free month were elated. In the video below, listen to just a few customers express their gratitude to BrightLife for receiving solar lighting when they needed it most.
Adapting Operations to the Current Climate
Though BrightLife has partially resumed operations, it is still limited by the continued curfew and transport restrictions. Typically, the best time for BrightLife agents to visit clients is 6:00 – 9:00 pm. But since BrightLife agents need to be at their home by 7:00pm, their ability to make sales and follow up with customers has been drastically reduced. Meanwhile, with transportation options still reduced and the curfew causing enormous traffic jams each afternoon, the workday in Uganda has been reduced to only a few hours each morning.
Realizing these issues early on, BrightLife began developing an app for sales agents to help them streamline their in-person sales and after sales service. Agents began testing the app in June, and by July, all sales will go through the app. Not only will the app save time by streamlining the sales process, but it also provides extra in-app training, and allows agents to see which of their customers have upcoming or missed payments so agents can effectively follow up with them.
A Long Road Ahead
No one in Uganda has gone untouched by the effects of the coronavirus lockdowns. And while BrightLife has seen a decline in repayments, it is optimistic for the future. The majority of customers BrightLife has spoken to have expressed their eagerness to continue making their payments once they are able to resume working. Agents have also been eager to learn about and implement the newly created app to make their sales more efficient and effective.
BrightLife offers access to a life-changing products for people who would not normally be able to afford them. It is a critical service in the fight against poverty in Uganda, and BrightLife plans to continue working hard to help those who need it, pandemic or not.