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RRU grads support media that matters

July 22, 2011

Greg and Caroline Spira know how much media can matter.

That is why the Royal Roads alumni joined Villages Connected, a social enterprise devoted to empowering people to tell positive stories about their community to grow local business. The aim is to help alleviate poverty in African communities by combining media, marketing and microfinance to showcase communities' potential and support business. The first media co-op is in Fort Portal, Uganda, where the effects of the work are already being felt.

"(A co-op member) said it best: 'We know microfinance is a great tool for economic empowerment.  We know that media is a great tool for communicating issues and solutions.  But never has this been put together as a means to bring about socio-economic change.  It can be so powerful,'" says Caroline, a 2008 graduate of Royal Roads' Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching. 

Set at the foothills of the Rowenzori Mountains - the highest range in Africa - Fort Portal is surrounded by lush vegetation and fertile soil. Poverty is still widespread, with many of the co-op participates barely making $100 per month, but the marketplaces are buzzing, say the Spiras, who were there June 3 to 29.

Villages Connected recruited a passionate group of 22 residents and, alongside them, set up a media co-operative.  Co-op members received training in photography and videography so they could capture stories about solutions and strengths around them, says Greg, the volunteer director of participatory media and communications.

The group also used media to identify local small business opportunities that could lift families out of poverty. Using seed capital from Villages Connected, the media co-op set up a microfinance fund to start new businesses and expand existing ones. Villages Connected provided training and support in business assessment and fund management. 

Co-op members choose the businesses to receive the first microfinance loans and then they make media to market these businesses.  They also market business opportunities online to attract foreign direct investment from investors abroad.  To date, opportunities identified include goat rearing and piggery projects, a full-service stationary store, restaurants and a brick making project. Requests for financial support ranged from $200 to $3,000 in start-up capital for equipment and supplies.

"Overall, the businesses identified in this round were pretty small in scale, but the media co-op members have their eyes set on bigger opportunities for investment," Caroline says. "They will create more video and photo essays for these which will be published on the Villages Connected website so anyone interested in investing in them can do so."

On the Spira's last day in Fort Portal, co-op members were invited to talk to a local member of parliament about the project. Their enthusiasm and dedication to the vision of the media co-op, to the development and sharing of media and to the support of local entrepreneurship came through loud and clear, Caroline says.

"They own the co-op, they are committed to its success," she says. "That's what it's all about."

"We couldn't have asked for a nicer send-off than to see the members of the co-op share how excited about they were about the opportunities that they would create after we left," Greg adds. 

Caroline came to Royal Roads so she could work more effectively with local entrepreneurs as part of her work in economic development. Villages Connected brought her to microentrepreneurs whose needs and concerns were similar to those of people in Canada, she says.  She designed business assessment processes for the project with coaching in mind.

"(I did this) by asking questions that would both help determine the viability of the businesses - so we do our due diligence - but also allow the microentrepreneurs to learn from the process - the basis of coaching," she says. The focus was on showing people different ways to grow their business, while reinforcing that the funding from Villages Connected is more than a loan, it's a partnership, she said.

"Participating in Villages Connected gives me the opportunity to put my passions to work: microfinance and coaching," she adds. "I love working on projects from the ground up, using en entrepreneurial approach to making a difference in the world around me." 

Working in the international development field exposed Greg to the incredible changes microfinance services can bring to entrepreneurs and their families. When combined with media work, there is a great potential to hand the power of portrayal and local decision making over to the every-day people, he says.

"I have long believed that local communities can make media that matters. Amplifying their voices can help bring out silenced voices and empower community members to drive their own change forward," he says. "I really wanted to see microfinance and media that matters brought together."

For Greg, the lessons in communication he learned at Royal Roads have travelled with him. An alumnus of the MA Professional Communication program, he focused his studies on participatory communication methods to help people take ownership in the betterment of their communities.

"(My professors) engrained in me a profound respect for dialogue and processes that bring diverse people together to make decisions that make sense to them," he says. "Their guidance helped me believe that the best communication campaigns are those created by the audiences who will consume them."

It is with that always in mind that the Spira's continue their work, making media that matters. Villages Connected aims to have 15 co-ops throughout Africa by 2015. There is no end date for the project, which will grow and evolve to support communities and socio-economic change.